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Builder's Helpers

If you're creating a Web site, these books ought to be on your shelf

By Tom Mace

Building a Web site is easy. Building a truly great Web site--one where structure, content, and visual presentation mesh perfectly--is a challenge of the highest order.

There are plenty of excellent books that can help you over the conceptual and technical hurdles. I've pulled together nine titles that I've found particularly helpful and grouped them into four subject areas: Web design, HTML, Web scripting, and (for lack of a better phrase) Net culture.

Every reader will bring a different set of skills and interests to the problem of site creation. What all these books have in common is that they can take you from a modest starting point to a high level of competence. Even if you are already a pro, many of these are classics that deserve a place on your shelf.

Web Design

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Edward Tufte's Envisioning Information isn't a Web book or a designer's how-to guide. Rather, it's a broad exploration of how we grasp two-dimensional visual information and how that information can be delivered more powerfully. Tufte illustrates and explicates his points with a wealth of fascinating examples that run the gamut from Renaissance manuscripts to software interfaces. Like Tufte's best-known work, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, this volume will help you see visual problems and solutions in a fresh and productive new light. Anyone concerned with creating designs that carry meaning should read it.

A substantial revision of one of the classics on building graphics for the Web, Lynda Weinman's Designing Web Graphics 2 is an eminently practical volume that will get you up to speed on the technologies needed to do the job. coverTopics covered include HTML typography, browser and platform compatibility, palette optimization, image-map creation, multimedia, and HTML templates. This book assumes that your design and computer skills are in place already but that you're just starting to tackle the Web, which is exactly where many professionals find themselves. Weinman understands that the parsimonious color palettes, low bandwidth, and a host of technicalities may make the Web seem constraining. One of the book's biggest strengths is that it presents these limitations as liberating challenges.

Another valuable book by Lynda Weinman is Deconstructing Web Graphics. coverThis impressive tutorial takes you behind the graphic-art elements used on 11 successful commercial Web sites. Each chapter focuses on a new site, a new set of graphic challenges, and the techniques used to solve them. Weinman never loses the big picture: it's always clear why a particular technique is being used within the larger context of the site's mission. Yet the step-by-step tutorials are precise, detailed, and easy to follow. By the time you've worked through to the end of the book--and this is a volume you'll want to prop up next to your monitor--you'll have been exposed to a huge repertoire of practical techniques for HTML, Photoshop, Illustrator, JavaScript, and other core Web tools.

One of the most popular books in Amazon.com's catalog, David Siegel's Creating Killer Web Sites: The Art of Third-Generation Site Design champions the idea of the "third-generation" site, where pure design goals drive the conception and creation of your pages. cover For the author, compromises that arise from technological limitations are unacceptable. Siegel's method, in simplest terms, is first to create the design independent of any Web technology, then apply a huge array of techniques and tricks to make it work on the Web. The book takes you through a series of practical projects and offers a rich array of HTML and Adobe Photoshop techniques. Just as important are the tips on site psychology: How do you draw visitors in, help them navigate, and make sure they come back for more? Creating Killer Web Sites stresses design values to the exclusion of almost every other consideration, but it's highly valuable, both as a mind expander and a Photoshop resource.

HTML

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Laura Lemay's Teach Yourself Web Publishing with HTML 3.2 in 14 Days is an intimidatingly massive tome, but it's an excellent starting point for anyone serious about learning HTML. It assumes little previous knowledge, yet takes you on to master a large number of HTML features including typography, frames, tables, and forms. Just as important, it gives you a solid introduction to related topics that will quickly confront almost everyone who develops a site: HTML authoring tools, Web graphics, multimedia, page design, JavaScript, CGI programming, plug-ins, security, even Web server management. You may not be directly concerned with all these issues, but it's important to understand the role they play in the overall site. If one single book can give you an overview of the entire scope of site creation, this is it.

HTML Sourcebook: A Complete Guide to HTML 3.2 and HTML Extensions, by Ian S. Graham, is also highly worthwhile. First and foremost, Graham's book is a compendious and up-to-date HTML language reference. While you may not find it hard to master the basics of HTML, you'll want an accurate and detailed resource such as this when working on more complex elements. HTML Sourcebook isn't meant to be a beginners' how-to guide, but it will probably wind up being the HTML book you reach for most often.

Web Scripting

Gordon McComb's JavaScript Sourcebook: Creative Interactive Javascript Programs for the World Wide Web is that rarity: an introductory book that will also take you very deeply into the subject. cover The reader needs to begin with a working knowledge of HTML but little else. By the time you reach the end, you'll be a proficient user of this quasi-object-oriented language and have a good arsenal of tricks and workarounds. About half the book is devoted to a careful exposition of the language and underlying programming concepts. The second half presents a real toolbox of practical techniques. Advanced topics include using JavaScript with frames, forms, CGI programs, and plug-ins; and as a way to generate animations. You can certainly put up a good Web site without knowing a scripting language. But the ability to add programs to your Web pages will vastly increase your options. Scripts let you do everything from add sound and animations, to process user input. JavaScript, developed by Netscape, is by far the most widely used scripting language and is supported by both Microsoft and Netscape browsers. It's not hard to learn, but even if you don't plan to use it, you should at least become aware of its possibilities.

Net Culture

Find out where it all began. Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet, cover by Matthew Lyon and Katie Hafner, covers the people and research programs that, beginning in the late sixties, produced the ARPANet, a revolutionary distributed network that was to become the direct ancestor of the Internet. It was on this project that pioneering engineers hammered out groundbreaking new technologies such as e-mail and perfected core protocols such as Telnet, FTP, and TCP/IP. Interesting in its own right, this history also reminds us how radical and new the Internet really is.

Finally, you shouldn't miss Clicking In: Hot Links to a Digital Culture, edited by Lynn Hershman Leeson. cover A collection of 30 essays, interviews, and free-form monologues on a host of wired subjects, Clicking In reflects both the scope and unevenness of the Internet, while offering similar pleasures of serendipitous discovery as you leaf through the offerings. The essays range from a straightforward primer on computer viruses to medical discussions of brain/computer interfaces, abstruse musings on the paradoxes of virtual reality, and reflections on life in a world where the things of greatest value have no physical existence. It's an unabashedly intellectual book with a brittle digerati edge, but one that will also inform and stimulate.

Tom Mace is a senior editor at Amazon.com Books.



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