Books on Building Your Website

April 30, 2003

A common cause of disputes over web-site construction contracts is that the author originally quoted far too low a price. A professional web site can rarely cost less than several thousand pounds; tens or even hundreds of thousands are not uncommon. For firms without such cash, DIY is a scary option. Another alternative is EMIY; buy a nucleus design, then enlarge and maintain it yourself. Here are books that reduce the terror; both reference works and guides to essential software tools.

Behind the pretty display that appears on a user’s screen, a conversation is taking place. This dialogue, between the web server and the browser, follows a set of rules called HTTP. To merely maintain existing pages of text or picture, you do not need to understand it. However if you want to identify your users, save them trouble (or track their habits) by issuing cookies, speed up document delivery by caching popular texts or handle multiple languages or digital certificates, then Gourley & Totty’s HTTP The Definitive Guide is essential reading. It is definitely a techie’s book but, although the content is challenging, the style is concise and lucid and the explanations readable.

If you can hack HTML code and you already understand the general principles of HTTP, you will need a desk-drawer book. This will remind you whether text-indent takes a percentage or a length value or the syntax for creating web pages “on the fly” using a CGI script. There is nothing better than Spainhour & Eckstein’s Webmaster in a Nutshell. It covers HTML, Style sheets, XML, the scripting languages (CGI, Perl, JavaScript and PHP) as well as how to configure and improve the performance of an Apache web server. Like all O’Reilly books, it is compact, detailed, densely indexed and devoid of padding; written by professionals for professionals.

The thrill of web design is that, unlike most computer projects, it is true art as well as challenging technology. Before you write a line of HTML or even talk to a designer, read Van Duyne, Landay & Hong’s The Design of Sites in easy stages while relaxing in the bath. It says nothing about how code works and everything about how to create websites that work and excite those who visit them. Its incessant theme is that customers count; every topic is approached in terms of “how you empathise with customers, understanding their needs, the tools and technologies they use, and their social and organisational context”. After some general introductories, come, not chapters but “pattern groups”, each of which could be the topic of a separate meeting for your design team: creating a navigation framework, making navigation easy, building trust, helping customers complete tasks, making site searches fast and relevant and so on. There are icons that link back to the pattern group topics, so that the principles of good site design are also demonstrated in the book’s layout. It is easy to read, attractively produced like the web pages it advocates, full of diagrams and pithy sayings like “Customers often miss navigation elements and content if they have to scroll down to see them” or “Provide multiple ways to navigate to the best products on your site” or my favourite: “Give new visitors the option of creating an account at the end of a process, rather than forcing them to create one at the beginning”.


This is one of those product names, like Hoover or the Mole wrench, that has entered common language. Because it originated (and remains) the tool of choice for graphic designers, it may appear over-complex for creating web images. Weinmann & Lourekas’s Photoshop for Windows & Macintosh is for beginners, follows the software, menu by menu and tool by tool, with detailed sequences and masses of illustrations. More experienced users may find this tutorial approach frustrating. Does it really need five pictures to explain that “flip vertically, then horizontally”, produces a different result from “rotate thro’ 180 degrees”? It is better as a tutorial than as a reference book. For instance, when trying to disassemble a button (bequeathed me by a designer now in the Southern hemisphere) I kept on being told to use the layers’ palette. However nothing in the index pointed to an explanation of how to make that appear on screen. Now if I had only read page 10 . . .! Sometimes the pedantic approach is most welcome. For example this is the only book covered here that explains when to use Photoshop and when to use its sister application ImageReady. (Answer: you create images most easily in Photoshop, then use ImageReady to optimise them for web use, to keep file sizes compact or make animations run smoothly). By sticking with monochrome, with only 32 central pages in colour, the price is kept very moderate, but the chapters on colour usage inevitably suffer from such austerity.

Adobe Press’s own publication costs nearly twice as much, but neither Klee nor Kandinsky ever used colour with more impact. I find that a fifth of all web pages are unreadable, due to unsuitable colours, so welcome the lessons taught in Michael Baumgardt’s Adobe Photoshop 7 Web Design with GoLive 6. Even the index is legible despite a misty background and edge-on the book looks like succulent layer cake. Adobe is famous as the producer of software for artists, and this book is written for all who care about the quality of each image, its precise tint, rendering, position, framing and lighting. Some users may find the passionate artiness irritating; others will delight in learning how to blend colours, soften the edges of shapes, touch-up damaged photos or play innumerable tricks with text. There is no hand-holding how-to-do-it here. It assumes the reader can already drive the software, but wants to do better. For example, after techniques for producing typical components have been explained, they are assembled together as a complete web site using GoLive. Yet Baumgardt never explains what GoLive is, whether it comes with PhotoShop, is made by Adobe or is included in the price.

ImageReady, another Adobe tool, is included when you buy standard PhotoShop. Greg Simsic’s www.photoshop.imageready goes into great detail about how to work between the two packages, yet never quite clarifies why there are two instead of one. There is a persistent clumsiness about the text, a repeated failure to express the vital point despite lots of words. For example, it discusses which graphic format to use in a web page, whether GIF or JPEG or PNG, but loses the thread part way through. So the caption “WHO JPEG’D MY JPEG?” heads an inset box beginning “You shouldn’t resave a JPEG as a JPEG”. The reader next expects to be told what this strange advice means and why it applies. Instead, the text deviates into reverse advice about GIF images. To give another example, what does a reader learn from “All palettes have a palette menu that has various features, some of which are not found elsewhere”. That sentence could apply to every menu, on every piece of software ever written! Likewise, the layout and graphics illustrate everything a web designer should avoid: large areas of blank space, and incomprehensible chapter headings, with aimless geometric shapes and no page numbers. I wondered if the typesetter was drunk until I worked out that chapter listings were simply right-justified. But why? And why the crossings out, across whole pages? Do they mean “ignore this text” or does it represent a pyramid, viewed from above? The heading to the worst example delivers its own indictment: “Photoshop and ImageReady are only technical tools . . . All the design work is still up to you”. Take him down!


J Tarin Towers’ Macromedia Dreamweaver for Windows & Macintosh is another beginners’ guide that plods its way through every menu, pane and keystroke. It is massive, over 700 pages, which indicates what a complex program Dreamweaver is and the “assets” it can handle. The book deals with them all, including the ones wise lawyers omit from their websites, such as Flash, Shockwave and movies, as well as those they need to include, like forms and rollovers (link or button changes when the mouse pointer passes over it). Some, like jump menus, are suitable but require JavaScript which not all browsers support. The book covers this but also meticulously advises providing alternative means of navigation. There are long and detailed chapters on automating and customising Dreamweaver and on using its tools for updating and managing both your local test-bench and your remote site. The author deliberately keeps sections short and sentences crisp and avoids verbosity, so you get a lot of information for a modest price.

Holzschlag & Kettell have no such virtue or focus in Special Edition Using Macromedia Dreamweaver MX. Instead they write things like “Generally speaking, it’s helpful to know what your design is going to look like before ever jumping into laying out your pages in Dreamweaver MX”. There are pages and pages of blank paper and insipid pink graphics. After a brief mention that you can create small animations with GIF files, they never explain how to do it, yet devote pages to creating animations with other software, such as Flash (which is not part of Dreamweaver) and Adobe LiveMotion (no explanation what this is, how you get it or whether it is better or worse than Dreamweaver). There is a CD, but it is mostly advertising and contributes little understanding of the subject.

Green, Chilcott & Flick’s Building Web Sites with Macromedia Studio MX is another waffly text. Some of it is useful; the discussion of whether to use JPEG or GIF images, for example, provides all the insight that Simsic fails to deliver. But when will publishers understand that you cannot discuss colour issues and still print the entire book in monochrome? True, colour illustrations are provided on a web site, but this requires extensive, tedious downloading. Anyway, a book of this kind should be self-sufficient, so you can read it on the train, in the bath or in bed! If Dreamweaver MX is complex, the entire Studio suite, which includes four additional products, is five times more so. Yet the book never explains their different functions, nor how they inter-relate.

Wallace, Raggett & Aufgang’s Extreme Programming for Web Projects has a seductive title but, on its own, will be of no use in developing your web site. It is part of a twelve-part series on extreme programming and it assumes concepts only explained in the other eleven. It is full of verbal padding, the cartoons are tedious and you get a very slim book for the money. There is some wisdom, if you can isolate it, but it is more about managing software projects than about building web sites.


Spainhour is essential for your desk drawer; don’t bother with Gourley until you get faced with web internals. Buy and read van Duyne to open your mind to all manner of new ideas for your site. Then ban from your team any author or programmer who has not read it! Weinmann and Towers are excellent beginners’ guides, but if you are half competent with software you will work most things out for yourself without them. Baumgardt is exciting to read, or even flick through, and will sensitise you to the visual impact of your site. For advanced use of Dreamweaver, much better books are needed; until they arrive, Green is the least worst!

The Books

  • HTTP The Definitive Guide by Gourley & Totty, published by O’Reilly at £31.95.
  • Webmaster in a Nutshell by Spainhour & Eckstein, published by O’Reilly at £24.95.
  • The Design of Sites by Van Duyne, Landay & Hong, published by Addison Wesley at £41.99.
  • Photoshop for Windows & Macintosh by Weinmann & Lourekas, published by Peachpit Press at £18.99.
  • Adobe Photoshop 7 Web Design with GoLive 6 by Michael Baumgardt, published by Adobe Press at £33.99.
  • www.photoshop.imageready by Greg Simsic, published by QUE at £32.99.
  • Macromedia Dreamweaver for Windows & Macintosh by J Tarin Towers, published by Peachpit Press at £18.99.
  • Special Edition Using Macromedia Dreamweaver MX by Holzschlag & Kettell, published by QUE at £35.87.
  • Building Web Sites with Macromedia Studio MX by Green, Chilcott & Flick, published by New Riders at £38.99.
  • Extreme Programming for Web Projects by Wallace, Raggett & Aufgang, published by Addison Wesley at £22.99.