With the holidays fast approaching, Craig Grannell quizzes the web industry’s finest about the essential books you should be giving to that special designer or developer in your life, or devouring yourself while stuffed full of mince pies
Books made from dead trees, eh? Things from the past! Haven’t you heard we’ve got that spangly new internet thing now? But when you’ve been glued to a screen all day, it can be great to sit back in a comfy chair, armed with a beverage of your choice and a fantastic book that can educate and illuminate. Additionally, the finest examples provide advice and insight in a manner that few single-shot website articles can compete with. (Handily, for those who get the shakes when away from a screen for more than two minutes, many industry books are now also available in digital – hurrah!)
We asked leading designers, developers and web industry folk to reveal their favourite books. The resulting selection is a collection of the very best insight into cutting-edge design and development techniques, inspirational texts, and beautiful volumes to admire. SPOILER ALERT: Responsive web design features quite prominently.
1. Adaptive Web Design
Gustafson’s book helps you understand the history, mechanisms and practical application of progressive enhancement. Jeffrey Zeldman, Happy Cog founder, heartily recommends the book: “Coined by Steven Champeon of the Web Standards Project in the early 2000s, ‘progressive enhancement’ is the key idea behind standards-based web design. Both a method and a philosophy, it yields experiences that are accessible to all. Through mastery of progressive enhancement, we stop designing for browsers and start designing for people. No one has done a better, clearer, or more thorough job of illuminating progressive enhancement in all its richness than Aaron Gustafson … nor is anyone likely to.”
2. A Practical Guide to Designing for the Web
Boulton’s well-known in the web community for his work with layout, and this no-nonsense guide teaches techniques for designing sites using the principles of strong graphic design. Balancing practical tips and inspirational insight, he explores typography, colour and layout from a web design perspective.
“This is a great introductory book that covers design fundamentals, rather than code, tools and techniques,” says developer and author Oliver Studholme.
3. Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure
By Tim Harford
The premise behind this book is that everything we know about solving problems is wrong, and we should instead learn to rapidly experiment and adapt. Although not directly related to the web industry, Adapt’s general themes are beneficial to all, thinks social software consultant and writer Suw Charman-Anderson: “Harford provides examples of how trial and error can be a more effective way to solve complex problems, and how trials can be structured to produce the best results. Illustrated with examples such as the development of the Spitfire, and the financial crisis, Harford explores what environments encourage innovation and how that innovation can then be adopted and expanded.”
4. American Graphic Designer 1918-81
By Adrian Shaughnessy
This 448-page volume celebrates the legendary Herb Lubalin, one of the foremost graphic designers of the 20th century, who formed a trio of US graphic design greats along with Saul Bass and Paul Rand. “It’s a fantastic book that every designer should own, regardless of the medium they work in,” says graphic designer Tom Muller, adding: “Aside from Lubalin’s stunning design work, this monograph offers great insight into what graphic design can be. Even if you work purely in digital, there’s a treasure trove of ideas on innovative and elegant design here.”
5. Content Strategy for Mobile
By Karen McGrane
Two lines of thinking that this book attempts to eradicate are that you get to decide what platform or device your customers use and that mobile means ‘smartphones’. The reality, says McGrane, is mobile is a proliferation of devices, platforms and screen sizes, and content strategy needs to be addressed and adapted accordingly. Mobile strategist Jason Grigsby recommended the book on his blog, stating it did a great job “showing you how to change the way you think about content and your content management system” for mobile, and outlining why such changes are important.
6. Content Strategy for the Web
By Kristina Halvorson
One of the things so regularly drummed into web designers and developers is that content is king. Get that right and everything else should more easily fall into line, but mess up your content and you’ve no hope. Halvorson’s book provides the means to understand your content and its value, along with learning better processes and techniques. Bluegg studio manager Robert Mills says: “This book is the perfect primer for anyone getting involved in projects where content is finally being taken seriously. It also acts as a good refresher for those that are more experienced. The light-hearted tone makes it an enjoyable read and easy to digest the practical and insightful information which is in abundance.”
7. CSS3 for Web Designers
By Dan Cederholm
Cederholm’s book aims to show how CSS3 is a “universe of creative possibilities”, providing insight into web fonts, advanced selectors and the many visual enhancements the technology can bring to web pages.
Eric Meyer, An Event Apart partner and co-founder, says: “With Dan you know you’re getting great visual design with a fun theme, wrapped around great technical information. This book delivers big time.” Meyer also recommends Jeremy Keith’s HTML5 for Web Designers as a companion volume, saying it will “get you up to speed with HTML5 in no time”.
8. Designing for the Digital Age
By Kim Goodwin
Not so much a web-design tome as a handbook for dealing with an entire industry, Designing for the Digital Age explores how to succeed through a multi-disciplinary approach. Freelance user experience consultant Leisa Reichelt considers it an essential read: “It’s not exactly ‘holiday’ as in ‘take to the beach’ reading, but if you’ve got some time off at home, it’s worth getting stuck into this design bible.”
9. Design is a Job
By Mike Monteiro
Design isn’t all about visuals, aesthetics, usability and crafting something beautiful. It’s also about all the things that surround that, enabling you to build a business. Monteiro’s aim in this volume is to help you do that part of your job better, learning how to deal with clients and contracts.
“After Mike’s brilliant ‘Fuck You. Pay Me’ talk at Creative Mornings, it was a no-brainer to buy his book on the topics of contracts, selling design and dealing with clients – this is a must read,” says creative director Mark Collins.
10. DOM Scripting
By Jeremy Keith
11. Double Your Freelancing Rate in 14 Days
By Brennan Dunn
$49 (book, worksheets and interviews)
“If you’re a freelancer or consultant, one of the hardest things is pricing. You’ve got to learn it’s all about the value you provide to a client, not what you need to make a living. You’re not an employee anymore. I made the same mistake when I was freelancing,” says author and developer Thomas Fuchs. He wishes he’d had Brennan’s book to hand back then, because it “makes excellent points and you can apply the actionable advice in it immediately”, adding to your revenue. (Special offer for .net readers: enter NETMAG as the coupon code and you’ll get a $10 discount.)
12. Don’t Make Me Think!
By Steve Krug
Krug’s tight, focused book, subtitled ‘A common-sense approach to web usability’, remains as relevant today as when it first appeared, back in 2000. “Anyone who designs, codes, writes, owns, or directs websites should read and memorise this book,” argues Zeldman. “Whereas earlier usability books are scolding, parental, and anti-creative in tone, Steve makes the case for web usability compelling, friendly, and fun. I naively saw usability as the enemy of design until I read this book. It will work equal wonders for the marketers, developers, project managers, and content folks on your team … or for anyone who wants their website to delight its users.”
13. Getting Things Done
By David Allen
“One of the greatest problems faced by web design freelancers is stress. Running your own business and dealing with demanding clients leaves many freelancers lying in bed worrying and feeling completely overwhelmed,” thinks Paul Boag, co-founder of Headscape.
“Allen’s book proposes a way of organising one’s life to strike the balance between work and home. Although not for everybody, it certainly made an enormous difference for me, enabling me to feel in control of my ever-growing workload.”
14. Good Strategy, Bad Strategy
By Richard Rumelt
Rumelt’s book on management and strategy aims to differentiate itself from its rivals by not stretching an essay-like argument to hundreds of pages. Instead, says the author, it “presents views on a range of issues that are fundamental, but which have not been given much daylight”. This gelled with Reichelt: “It’s not exactly a web book, but I wish more web-industry people would read it so that we could spend more time making better things”.
15. Graphic Design for Non-Profit Organizations
By Peter Laundy and Massimo Vignelli, in partnership with AIGA
This book was published back in 1980, but still provides plenty of relevant advice regarding its subject matter – and more. Muller is a big fan: “Like the book’s title says, it offers advice on best practices for structural design applied to non-profit organisations, but the information on grids, font usage, type hierarchy, layout and presentation are applicable to all, especially when it comes to designing well-structured digital design.”
16. Grid Systems in Graphic Design
By Josef Muller-Brockmann
Web layout is becoming increasingly complex, and although it’s moving away from print-oriented fixed canvases, print-like grids and a strong sense of typography are required now more than ever. “Grid Systems is my number one go-to book for practical advice on typographic hierarchy and grid systems beyond the web,” says web designer and front-end developer Dan Eden. “Every page is chock-a-block with examples and reasoning for decisions made, and while the book presents a strong focus on print design, you’ll find huge crossovers into the digital realm.”
17. Handcrafted CSS: More Bulletproof Web Design
By Dan Cederholm and Ethan Marcotte
“If my own Designing With Web Standards was catnip to web designers, Handcrafted CSS is heroin,” jokes Zeldman. “Master sophisticated CSS layout methods powered by a philosophy of ‘progressive enrichment’. Create fluid designs that support today’s plethora of connected devices, and learn techniques that create a living, textural look and feel without killing your user’s bandwidth. Dare to innovate fearlessly and gain tips on persuading your clients to accept your innovations!”
18. HTML5 & CSS3 For The Real World
By Estelle Weyl, Louis Lazaris and Alexis Goldstein
One of a number of books concentrating on the core of new web technologies, HTML5 & CSS3 is all about creating dynamic websites with new toys. Instead of fluff and hype, it concentrates on fun, effective techniques that you can start using immediately. According to Studholme: “This book manages the impressive task of covering a massive amount of content without being a tome. It’s full of useful insights and real-world advice.”
19. Implementing Responsive Design
By Tim Kadlec
According to Grigsby, Kadlec’s book essentially “picks up where Ethan Marcotte’s 'Responsive Web Design' leaves off, and provides practical tools for designers”. Like Marcotte’s title, Implementing Responsive Design deals with creating sites that work with today’s volatile landscape regarding viewports and devices. Kadlec believes RWD isn’t just another technique, but “the beginning of the maturation of a medium and a fundamental shift in the way we think about the web,” and this line of thinking forms the foundation of his teaching on layout, workflow and content.
20. Insites: The Book
By Keir Whitaker
Eschewing code and even typical design tips, Insites is nonetheless a volume that lives and breathes the web industry, owing to it featuring in-depth and deeply personal conversations with the biggest names in the web community. User interface designer Sarah Parmenter is one such name, and says: “If you’ve ever wondered how some of your favourite designers and developers got involved in the web industry – the twists, turns, failures and successes that made them who they are today – all wrapped up in a personable, dip-in-and-out read that’ll have you hooked from the start, Insites: The Book is for you.”
21. Introducing HTML5
By Bruce Lawson and Remy Sharp
Lawson and Sharp’s Introducing HTML5, now in its second edition, helps you get acquainted with the possibilities of HTML5; it also explores the good and the bad within the spec, along with discussing aspects not yet fully implemented in browsers. “It is the most down-to-earth, just-the-facts book about HTML5,” reckons Mozilla developer evangelist Christian Heilmann. “If you use the demos, they work. No dazzle. And the book works both as a teaching aid and a reference guide when something slips your mind.”
By Cody Lindley
$15 (PDF edition)
By Stoyan Stefanov
By Masaaki Imai
Product designer and developer Faruk Ateş recognises that Kaizen “may seem like a strange recommendation for web designers and developers,” given that it focuses on management and operation in the context of Japan’s return to industrial success in the decades after World War II. But he explains: “The Kaizen principles encompass many of the pillars we design and build our modern product on: constant iteration, customer-centric focus, continuous improvement. It is a completely different look at industry than what we’re used to seeing in our field, but it contains numerous valuable ideas that are readily applicable for us.”
25. Mobile First
By Luke Wroblewski
A strategic guide to mobile web design, which asks and answers why you should go mobile first, and how to achieve such goals. “Read in tandem with Responsive Web Design and you’ll know the shape of web design for the next five years,” says web designer, author of Hardboiled Web Design, and speaker Andy Clarke.
Gustafson agrees: “When you want solid research and statistics on any web-related topic, Luke is your guy. His recent treatise on mobile is packed with incredibly valuable – and sometimes surprising – information that will help you better understand the mobile landscape and better sell its promise to your clients.”
26. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness
By Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein
“Nudge is not strictly a web design book. However, I believe it should be essential reading for any web designer,” says Boag: “The premise of the book is that psychology can be used to ‘nudge’ people into making certain choices. While the book focuses on how this could be used to encourage things like more organ donation or saving for a pension, the lessons learned can also be applied to designing a website.”
27. Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design
By Khoi Vinh
Khoi Vinh was one of the pioneers of working with typographic grids online, showcasing his talents at NYTimes.com and on his popular blog, Subtraction. His book delivers plenty of insight into the power of grids online. “It single handedly introduced me to the world of grids in web design,” enthuses Eden. “Khoi presents ideas and practical knowledge that can be applied to a vast array of design projects, while not getting bogged down in code. It’s ideal for anyone looking to expand their theoretical knowledge of design with a specific aim on the web.”
28. Responsive Web Design
By Ethan Marcotte
Marcotte’s book assists you in catering for mobile browsers, tablets, netbooks and also massive widescreen displays, creating sites that anticipate and respond to your users’ needs. The book details techniques and principles behind fluid grids, flexible images and media queries. “Just like web standards, responsive design isn’t something you should sit on the fence about, until being asked by a client. Instead, good designers and developers should be thinking responsively about every new project that comes their way,” explains Andy Budd, Clearleft managing director. “So if you haven’t jumped on the responsive-design freight train yet, do so now, with this book to guide you, before you get left behind.”
29. Retinafy Me
By Thomas Fuchs
Hi-res displays are causing all sorts of headaches for designers, and that’s only going to get worse as hardware manufacturers follow Apple’s lead. Fuchs told .net he wrote Retinafy Me after discovering useful information on high-res was “spread out in a gazillion blog posts and forum entries, or hidden deep in Apple’s or Google’s documentation”.
His writing is focused and informative, and 37signals designer Jason Zimdars matter-of-factly says: “If you are considering making your site or app Retina-ready, it would be silly not to own this book.”
30. Rework: Change the Way You Work Forever
By Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
It’s safe to say 37signals is not a typical company, but its success shows there can be a better way to work, without meetings, spending your entire life savings, or working insane hours. Rework provides a glimpse inside the minds of the company’s co-founders, and UI designer Maykel Loomans finds it invaluable: “The book’s a staple when anyone asks me about designing, developing or wanting to create just about anything software-related. The power of Rework lies in how clear-cut all the statements are. It’s not a book that contains information that should be taken at face value, but it does give a lot of empowerment and it’s a breeze to get through.”
31. Rocket Surgery Made Easy
By Steve Krug
Although Krug is better known for Don’t Make Me Think (listed earlier), Boag considers Rocket Surgery Made Easy more useful for the majority of web designers: “Where the original book focused on the importance of usability testing, the second one talks about the practicalities of setting up regular test sessions. Most of us are already aware of the importance of usability testing and yet find it hard to make it happen. This book will show you how.”
32. Scalable and Modular Architecture for CSS
By Jonathan Snook
From $15 (Canadian)
Get it now
In this book, which started life as a website, Snook outlines the methodology behind SMACSS (pronounced ‘smacks’), a means to examine your design process and fit rigid frameworks into a flexible thought process, thereby resulting in a consistent approach to site development when using CSS.
“Jon has created a free, organic, online book with discussion, and it has great thoughts on architecting maintainable CSS for larger sites,” says developer Stephanie Sullivan Rewis. Now, for people who prefer their web insight on paper or in ebook form, there are those alternative options too.
33. Seductive Interaction Design
By Stephen P Anderson
Most designers at some point will have crafted something amazing and beautiful, but found that no one cares. This book delves into the reasoning behind why people stick around, with an approach to designing sites and interactions based on the stages of seduction. “I love this book because it explains how to design websites to help invoke behaviour, with lots of emphasis on the psychology behind them as well,” says Parmenter.
34. Steal like an artist
By Austin Kleon
Loomans says that, much like Rework, Kleon’s book is about process: “The book is centred around the lessons that the author learned during his career as a designer. There are many lessons here that are so stupidly obvious, but when they’re written down they bring a lot of empowerment to the reader.” The book began life as a list, and then a slide presentation, before becoming a lively, engaging and entertaining book for improving your creative life.
35. Steve Jobs
By Walter Isaacson
Steve Jobs was a private man, and so while many authors have delved inside his thought process, they’ve done so via assumption, guesswork and through third-parties. Isaacson’s book is different, drawn from three years of exclusive interviews with the Apple founder.
Clarke recommends it because “as web professionals, we need to remember to keep doing the work we love and never settle”.
36. Stunning CSS3
By Zoe Gillenwater
Far too many CSS books are little more than elaborate reference guides, but Gillenwater takes a different approach, helping you learn the power of CSS3 through practical, eye-catching examples. “I don’t think this book has got the promotion and attention it deserves,” says Rewis. “It is sincerely one of the most practical, informative and lovely CSS3 books out there, due to Zoe using a project-based approach throughout to illustrate the concepts.”
37. The Designful Company
By Marty Neumeier
Another alternative and highly useful take on management, The Designful Company argues that while most managers rely on a two-step process to make decisions – ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’ – today’s innovation-driven marketplace requires a middle step, ‘making’, where “assumptions are questioned, futures are imagined and prototypes are tested”.
According to Budd, it’s a book folks at Clearleft constantly refer to: “And combined with his other books, Zag and The Brand Gap, it provides plenty of quotes and animation when having tough design conversations with clients.”
38. The Elements of Content Strategy
By Erin Kissane
If you’re wondering where the idea of ‘content strategy’ arrived from, what it means and why it matters, you should begrabbing yourself a copy of Kissane’s book right now. “I thoroughly enjoyed reading it,” enthuses Snook. “And its succinctness should not be mistaken for lack of content – this is a dense read that’s chock full of great content, as one might expect from a book on content strategy!”
39. The Elements of Typographic Style
By Robert Bringhurst
Designer Laura Kalbag states online typography has “finally got to the point where we can have real control over the way our text is displayed,” and that means designers need to be more aware of the possibilities. “The Elements of Typographic Style goes into incredible depth and detail, making it indispensable for anyone wanting to make their web typography both legible and beautiful,” she says. Studholme agrees: “As my boss Oliver Reichenstein says, web design is 95 per cent typography, and this is t/ typography book!”
40. The Elements of User Experience
By Jesse James Garrett
Plenty of web design books age quickly, but that’s not always true, according to Kalbag: “I can’t believe that The Elements of User Experience is 10 years old when so many of its guiding principles still hold true. It’s the first book I read when I was learning about user experience and it completely shaped the way I think about design projects.” The updated edition goes beyond the desktop, showcasing Garrett’s insights into the mobile web and applications.
41. The Happiness Project
By Gretchen Rubin
Are you happy? Rubin one rainy afternoon realised she could be happier and embarked on her project, setting resolutions and figuring out what worked for her. The result is a thoughtful, practical and humorous story that could inspire you to your own paths to happiness. Parmenter elaborates on why it’s an important inclusion in our list: “It reminded me that there’s more to life than sitting in front of a Mac. Work/life balance is incredibly important in what we do, and this book can be read as a quick pick-me-up at any time.”
42. The Hidden Agenda: A Proven Way to Win Business & Create a Following
By Kevin Allen
Digital technology strategist James Gardner recommends Allen’s book for those needing to improve their business skills: “He’s the man behind the MasterCard Priceless campaign, and in this book he takes you through his techniques for understanding how to create the perfect pitch – one that appeals to the hidden agenda within the client (or potential client). You might not take every element on board, but it makes you think again about the way you present and engage with customers.”
43. The Nature of Code
By Dan Shiffman
‘Name your own price’
The Nature of Code is centred around Processing and looks at programming strategies and techniques behind computer simulations of natural systems. Creative coder Seb Lee-Delisle is a big fan: “It’s a fantastic self-published Kickstarter project that provides a comprehensive look at creative coding techniques.” The book’s also available using a ‘name your price’ model, and if you’re unsure, the entire thing’s online, for free.
44. The Shape of Design
By Frank Chimero
Chimero’s book is about making you think, as should be evident from its chapter headings, which include ‘form and magic’, ‘stories and voices’ and ‘delight and accommodation’. The aim is to “produce a field guide for the emerging skillset” and enable everyone to “dream big, apply the lessons to our processes, then go get our hands dirty to shape this world”. According to Eden, it’s one of the few books he reads again and again: “The author speaks in a relatable and passionate way about our process as designers, in a series of truly inspirational stories that are sure to get the creative juices flowing.”
45. The Truth About HTML5
By Luke Stevens
As designer and developer Sebastian Green points out, the title of this book shows this is a rather different take on HTML5: “It highlights the myths currently in circulation about the spec and also gives some information about the procedures behind creating it.” Green says the book details how people are using new tags but also shows they may have interpreted the spec incorrectly and headed in the wrong direction. It also explores a groundbreaking semantics initiative, what happens when Flash dies, and how HTML5 alters fundamental components of the web.
46. Thinking, Fast and Slow
By Daniel Kahneman
Another book exploring thought processes, Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is concerned with how we make decisions: why we’re more likely to believe something that’s in a bold typeface; why we assume someone who’s good-looking will be more competent; and so on. Green says: “As competition on the web increases, we are all looking for ways to create better sites. Going down the psychology route is the next step, and this book provides insight into how we are influenced, and how we interpret and respond to questions.”
47. The Victorian Internet
By Tom Standage
According to Meyer, this book is a “compact, fascinating examination of how the internet parallels the telegraph system very closely, and how the world was even more technologically disrupted and future-shocked by the telegraph than we could ever aspire to be”. Standage himself is proud of the book’s longevity, noting on his website that he got to “make fun of the internet, by showing that even such a quintessentially modern technology actually has roots going back a long way – in this case, to a bunch of electrified monks in 1746”.
48. Universal principles of design
By William Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler
An ambitious book that aims to provide something of an overview of design across a variety of disciplines, Universal Principles of Design is an essential purchase for anyone involved in the creative side of the web, thinks Studholme: “The book gives names to essential design principles you probably instinctively know, prompting you to consciously consider them. With one concept per page spread, these descriptions are great to dip into.”
49. Weaving the Web
By Tim Berners-Lee
From £1.50 second-hand
This book is an account of how the web came to be, direct from the source. Berners-Lee crafts an engaging story, also detailing the creation of the World Wide Web Consortium. The book is long out of print, but readily available second-hand.
Open web evangelist, designer and author Molly Holzschlag says: “This is a key work by the inventor of the World Wide Web, and a core, essential read for anyone working in the industry.”
50. Web Form Design
By Luke Wroblewski
Web forms are commonplace, to say the least. They also happen to make or break the most crucial online interactions – checkout, registration, and tasks requiring data entry – rightly argues this book’s blurb. But the fact remains that lots of online forms are dreadful, hampering usability.
“Bad web forms hurt us all. Luke shows why and how to fix them,” says Meyer on why you should buy this book.
Many thanks to all our contributors for selecting their very favourite books for this article: Faruk Ateş, Paul Boag, Andy Budd, Suw Charman-Anderson, Andy Clarke, Mark Collins, Dan Eden, Thomas Fuchs, James Gardner, Sebastian Green, Jason Grigsby, Christian Heilmann, Molly Holzschlag, Laura Kalbag, Seb Lee-Delisle, Maykel Loomans, Eric Meyer, Robert Mills, Tom Muller, Sarah Parmenter, Leisa Reichelt, Remy Sharp, Jonathan Snook, Oliver Studholme, Stephanie Sullivan Rewis, Jeffrey Zeldman and Jason Zimdars.
We hope you've been inspired to check some of them out. Let us know what you think of any such books in the comments, and also of any volumes you think should make our list next time we update it.