The Smashing Book
By Michael Ross
This book review was published by Slashdot, 2010-02-24.
Of all the online resources devoted to assisting Web designers and developers, Smashing Magazine is one of the most highly regarded, primarily because of the depth and consistent quality of the articles that appear on its website. This apparently motivated many of its readers to encourage the magazine's editors to develop and release a book on Web design, which the company did in 2009, appropriately titled The Smashing Book.
The publication company, Smashing Media GmbH, chose to exclusively handle all aspects of the book's production, including its distribution — a unique approach that distinguishes The Smashing Book from the other technical books that most Web professionals are accustomed to reading. Because of the widely disparate results by the publisher in each aspect of this book's production — content, presentation, and distribution — it would be best to evaluate each aspect individually.
The bulk of the book's content is organized into ten chapters, each written by a different author or group of authors, and each covering some of the key areas of website design, especially for commercial sites: user interfaces, CSS-based layouts, typography, usability, color usage, performance optimization, sales conversions, and site branding. In addition, there are two chapters featuring interviews with design experts, and a summary of the company's history. The two main editors at Smashing Magazine — Sven Lennartz and Vitaly Friedman — provide a brief preface. At the other end of the book, one finds a page devoted to the thirteen authors — a page that cleverly and concisely conveys some personal information about each person, from a statistical perspective. This is followed by an index that does not even fill a single page, possibly because it is set in a font size that is just small enough to make the entries somewhat difficult to read. Even more annoying is that every entry is presented in all lowercase, making it more difficult to locate proper names.
The book's first chapter is titled "User Interface Design in Modern Web Applications", and it discusses the basic characteristics and building blocks of an effective user interface. Its pithy advice on optimizing forms is particularly valuable. The only portion of the material that is unclear is the reference to "Ballpark" in the caption of the second figure on page 15. The second chapter, "The Art and Science of CSS-Layouts", first compares the advantages and disadvantages of fixed versus flexible layouts, and then explains how to create fluid grid layouts and adaptive fluid layouts — two topics rarely discussed in Web design books. Lastly, elastic and hybrid layouts are considered. Chapter 3 is titled "Web Typography: Rules, Guidelines and Common Mistakes" (but the Table of Contents has it wrong). Its authors present the basics of Web typography, its historical context, basic terminology, font size units, white space, typographic grids, size hierarchy, scales, paragraph styling, CSS fonts, text replacement techniques, and more. It is a particularly wide-ranging and information-packed chapter, marred only by the authors equating the Golden Ratio with the Fibonacci Sequence (page 80); they are related, but not synonymous. The next chapter, "Usability Principles for Modern Websites" explains the basics of how to optimize sites for the behavior of the typical Internet user. Despite its ridiculously hyperbolic title, "The Ultimate Guide to Fantastic Color Usage in Web Design, Usability and Experience" does present some examples of effective color use.
Roughly halfway through the book, it shifts focus from design considerations to the performance of a site — both technical and commercial. In "Performance Optimization for Websites", many of the techniques advised are unusable for most websites, since their Web hosting services do not allow SSH access and modification of the Apache, PHP, or MySQL settings. Also, the reader does not need to be told repeatedly that faster page loading leads to a better user experience — especially at least eight times. The next chapter, titled "Design to Sell — Increasing Conversion Rates" explains key concepts of online selling, as well as the applicability of sales knowledge gleaned long before there was an Internet. Aside from misstating how to calculate a conversion rate, the selling methods presented are excellent, and illustrated with real-world examples. A key component of online marketing is one's brand, the topic of the eighth chapter, "How to Turn a Site into a Remarkable Brand", which also makes heavy use of illustrative examples. The last two chapters are rather unique. The first one, "Learning from Experts — Interviews and Insights", consists of Q&A with half a dozen Web designers, and encompasses some terrific insights from industry veterans. The final chapter, "Behind the Curtains: The Smashing Magazine Story", presents a (sometimes tedious) history of the publication and its defining principles.
Many of the references in the book can be found at A Smashing List of Links, which could be made less frustrating by ordering the chapters' sections to match the order of the chapters in the book. At the bottom of the homepage, one will find a list of the authors, linked to their websites, as well as a list of errata. Strangely, the first erratum refers to errors in the book's introduction, even though the book does not have an introduction. Those errors are in the Table of Contents. That's not the only erratum in the errata: The erratum for page 38 is stated twice. The erratum for page 40 claims that the Clearleft slogan takes one line at a width of 1280 pixels, when actually it is split into two lines, as stated in the text and demonstrated in the screenshot in the book. At the bottom of the links page, it reads "an 404-page". Also, the errata would be much more helpful to the reader if they were sorted by page number. (All of these mistakes exist at the time of the writing of this review, and may have been corrected by the time you read this.)
" should read "…" (pages 117 and 118); "[do] not always" (page 137, section 11); "of interest[s]" (page 143); "an disorganized" (page 145); "shopping basket" is missing a closing quotation mark (page 146); "based [on] words" (page 147); "pound sign sign" (page 157); "CoLd" (page 171); "a indicator" (page 195); "in [the] future" (pages 203, 307, and 309); "might [be] a" (page 212); "one give[s]" (page 222); the phrase "at a website promotes" on page 239, is completely extraneous; "flash" (page 258); and "planing" (page 276).
As for the production of the book, there are certainly some positive and negative qualities. The entire book is glossy, full-color, and quite attractive. But there are disadvantages to such glossy pages, including the glare on the pages from one's light source; plus, the book is rather heavy relative to its diminutive size, because the pages are quite thick. Even though the book consists of over 300 pages, they are small in size (14 by 21 cm), and thus contain less material than that found in the average computer book. Also, the short length of each line has induced the typesetters to jam the words closer together, making it nearly impossible to read each line at a fast pace. Incidentally, the copy that I received had an outside spine that at first appeared to be damaged by razor cuts, which instead turned out to be thin threads of glue (which were not difficult to remove).
The book is packaged so as to provide a lot more protection than one finds from the well-known online booksellers. The book is encased in shrink wrap plastic, and housed inside a tight-fitting cardboard box (which turned out to be rather difficult to open without tearing it apart). Yet my primary complaint is a combination of several problems: The small and heavy pages are obvious candidates for metal ring binding, which would allow the reader to open the book completely with ease. But instead, the publisher chose to use a glue binding that is very tight, which makes it difficult to open the book beyond 90 degrees, and impossible to get it to lay flat (which would be quite handy when trying to implement the book's ideas in one's own code, and thus needing to use the keyboard and pointing device). Even worse, the gutter is even narrower than the outer margin, for every page, and thus much of the text disappears into the gap. This compels the reader to pull the book open further, which quickly damages the spine, and eventually causes the pages to become detached, as evidenced in descriptions and even pictures posted by unhappy buyers. As for myself, in reading the book from cover to cover, it is now the only book in my library held together with a rubber band.
Smashing Media GmbH sells the book directly from its website, for $29.90 or €23.90 per copy. The company elected to self-publish the book, and without an ISBN number. Consequently, none of the major online booksellers in the United States make the book available. Prospective buyers anywhere in the world must order the book from the publisher, and wait for it to be shipped from Freiburg, Germany. This poses a serious problem, aside from the delay. Notably, an untold number of orders are never received by the buyers — reflected in the endless complaints on a page announcing the book's release. The shipping problems would have been avoided for US and UK buyers had the publisher listed the book with Amazon.com and/or Barnes & Noble. Offering the book in electronic format would have completely avoided all of these shipping problems, but that is not an option now nor one planned for the future.
If my experience is anything to go on, then your purchase order could turn into a fiasco. One full month after I was told that the book would be shipped to me, it still had not arrived. So the editor-in-chief kindly asked the customer support department to contact me, but they didn't. They told him that the book had been shipped, but when I asked repeatedly for the tracking number, it was not provided. I later figured out why: Typically no tracking number is used, so neither you nor the publisher will likely know where the book is in the shipping process! It should have been obvious as to the problems that this would have caused, especially for overseas shipments. All of this is independent of the initial multi-month delay that plagued the release of the book, apparently due to production problems. Initially slated for a September 2009 release, the company began taking pre-orders, but the book did not begin shipping until December.
European residents should have no difficulties receiving the book from the publisher, and will receive their copies sent by Deutsche Post — assuming the copies are not lost in the mail. However, buyers in the United States, the UK, or anywhere else, will probably get much better results by asking local booksellers whether they can special-order a copy, or by checking online auction websites.
In terms of its content, The Smashing Book #1 is an elegant and valuable compilation of select best practices in Web design and site optimization. In terms of production and delivery, the many problems experienced by buyers and readers can provide lessons that would benefit future efforts by the publisher.
Copyright © 2010 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.