Web Sites That Work by Roger Black with Sean Elder

Estimate time to read this page: 3 – 5 minutes

Edition Reviewed: Paperback
Recommendation: Look for it at your favorite used book store.

This book is an golden oldie, and this review is a bit of a love letter. Be prepared for it to get a little maudlin. This book is also one of my most-lended books. It’s a great primer for unexperienced web designers and uninitiated clients. That said, read on.

It’s important to remember that this book was written not only a long time ago (Published March, 1997…so you know it was written sometime in 1996) but also very early into the history of the World Wide Web. Most people were barely aware of the web’s existence in 1996. Small businesses still put sites on Geocities. Background images were a new thing. CSS didn’t even exist. Every single paragraph of text you put on a site had to be styled. Every. Single. One. People had 640*480px monitors for crying out loud.

It’s important to remember the context in which this book was written so that you can take some of the particular pieces of information with a grain of salt. The examples looked outdated by the time the book was published. The technology was changing rapidly as the book was coming out. No one was teaching web design in design schools. It just didn’t exist. There was no real standard for good.

I read Web Sites That Work at a point in my schooling when I was a little lost. I had expected to go to design school and learn how to design effective things based on objective standards, and had learned the hard way that there wasn’t a lot of that in the design world. I was taught to listen to my intuition and hope for the best, including hoping that my teachers would agree with my intuition and grade me well for it. I found myself second-guessing that intuition because of the judgement of my peers and instructors. Both good and bad. I found them able to intuitively choose a color palette, and I wanted to have a reason, a method, for doing so. They were able to instinctively choose a typeface, and I wanted criteria. They were able to just dream this stuff up, and I need to be able to step through it. I needed to be able to work toward something I could prove was good, not just because I said so.

Roger’s book wasn’t where I expected to find what I needed, and I think that’s why I have always been thankful for it. I thought I was ordering a book about designing web sites (something I was already doing, although there were no classes for it at my school), and what I got a a book about designing anything, with some unique considerations for the web.

The best content in the book comes in the form of two lists: Rules That Work (a basic design primer, which for me, was a revelation) and What Not To Do On The Web. They’re both simple ten-item lists of dos and don’ts to keep you thinking about the decisions you make when you’re designing. They tend to be a little hyperbolical (‘The first color is white, the second color is black, the third color is red’ is one of my favorites). They tend to be a little reductive (‘Make everything as big as possible’ is another good one). They tend to be right.

So, while I agree with a lot of the criticism that the book isn’t really chocked full of useful technical information, and that it mostly reads as a marketing piece for the Interactive Bureau, and that Roger comes off a little blustery, it’s still a great book if you’re able to understand what he’s really trying to tell you instead of getting hung up on the words used to do so. And, since you can routinely find it on the shelves of Half Price Books for a couple of bucks, I hardily endorse it.

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