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Web Design On A Shoestring

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In: Reviews > Book Reviews

By James McNally

Published on November 21, 2003

image of Web Design On A Shoestring book cover First things first. In the interest of full disclosure, I contributed something called a market review of this book to the publishers, New Riders, this past summer. Due to my being such an august presence in Web book review circles (!), they wanted my opinion as to whether the book would be a success. This review, therefore, is based largely on what I told them.

Boy, has the Web design landscape sure changed in the past couple of years. This is something you’ll notice from the tone of my past few reviews, but it never ceases to amaze me how much things have been shaken up in such a short span of time. While businesses of all sizes have certainly been sold on the absolute necessity of having a presence on the Web, we’ve been less successful as a profession in getting them to approve the budgets we require to do the best possible job. Carrie Bickner has been there, and she’s here to help.

Carrie is a librarian by trade, and although her fancy new media title is Assistant Director for Digital Information and System Design for the New York Public Library, I expect that they still pay her a public librarian’s wage. And in her work for them, including massive projects like the NYPL Digital Gallery, I expect that her budgets are, shall we say, a little anemic. One of my favourite things about this book is the way she uses the consistent metaphor of “spinning straw into gold.” Having to do a lot with a little can seem like an insurmountable challenge, but this book not only tells us how to do it, it shows us a whole range of projects that have been successfully completed “on a shoestring.”

Economy Factors

In the current economy, more and more companies are bringing their Web work back in-house, often assigning it to an individual or small team rather than paying an agency. Also, with almost every commercial (and non-commercial) organization needing a Web presence, smaller businesses are often reluctant to spend large sums of money, but they do now realize that they need to be on the Web. These sites are often designed by individuals, either within the company or working as sole proprietors. It’s almost like the early days of the desktop publishing revolution, except that in this case, we’ve been through one cycle of boom and bust already. That also informs a lot of the business world’s thinking. Corporations are much more concerned with getting better value for money from Web design professionals today.

I’ve recently reviewed two other books that share a similar approach to the different jobs of the solo (or small team) Web designer: Christina Wodtke’s Blueprints For the Web, which is sort of a one-person approach to information architecture, and Ani Phyo’s recently published Return On Design. Wodtke’s book is similar in approach but pretty different in content, focusing much more narrowly (and deeply) on IA. Phyo’s book seems more directly aimed at the stakeholder (ie. the business professional who is responsible for hiring or delegating someone to design a site). It shares a lot of content with Wodtke’s book, as well. Where Carrie Bickner’s book distinguishes itself is in its emphasis on the nuts and bolts. Neither of the other two books delve into the issues surrounding CSS, XHTML or Web standards, which is why Shoestring might be a better fit for someone looking for a book to demonstrate how to actually build pages, and not just sites.

Chapters

Here’s a chapter listing, which will show you just how practical the book is:

  1. The Secrets to a Successful Shoestring Project
  2. The Pound Wise Project Plan
  3. Usability on the Cheap
  4. Why Good Copy Counts
  5. The Design: Looking Good with Less
  6. Content Management on a Tight Budget
  7. Save Time and Money with Web Standards
  8. Bang-for-your-Buck Hosting and Domains

As you can see, just because you don’t have a huge budget doesn’t mean you have to leave out anything. Small sites still need usability testing, efficient copy, and creative design.

CMS, Domains, and Hosts

I found two chapters particularly welcome. No other book I’ve seen has taken on the potentially thorny subjects of content management systems (CMS), domain registrars and hosting companies. Why thorny? Well, first of all because these areas are among the most changeable and hard to pin down. And perhaps more importantly, most authors don’t want to name names when it comes to pointing out bad products or rip-off hosting companies, of which there are far too many. Carrie doesn’t actually name bad hosting companies (probably due to the fears of the publisher’s legal department), but she does provide good advice for avoiding some of the most egregious scams, and she endorses some products and companies with which she’s had personal experience.

Web Standards

Another worthy chapter is devoted to Web standards. It’s perhaps a much easier sell to promote Web standards to the solo designer than to corporate Web teams, but it’s a pitch that needs to be made nonetheless. The benefits to the shoestring operation are immediate: faster coding (due to fewer lines of code required), lower maintenance costs (in both time and money), user-agent agnosticism (the same page will render on screen, in print, and on PDAs with no tweaks required), and built-in accessibility (something that is now required by law, in many cases). And the good news is that promoting Web standards at the grassroots level this way may cause a “trickle up” effect when these designers eventually do work for larger clients.

One area where the book could have been stronger is in establishing which content management systems actually support Web standards. In my own limited experience, most content management systems use proprietary tags which do not produce valid XHTML. Related to this point, since there is so much change in this area, as well as in the number of Web hosting services and domain registrars, Carrie could have placed more emphasis on the fact that there is a Web site associated with the book, and that it would be regularly updated with new information. Adding this type of content to the existing excerpts and reviews could add real value.

Conclusion

I see two types of people reading this book. One would be the solo Web designer, creating sites for smaller businesses and usually working with the tiniest of budgets. The other would be someone working in-house at a company, perhaps as a communications specialist or marketing assistant, and maybe being called upon for the first time to create a Web presence for her company. Again, the resources allocated are probably minimal.

Carrie has an engaging and friendly voice and I think she delves into subjects that other authors have until now ignored. Who knew that after mastering XHTML and CSS that I’d have to wade knee-deep into the murky business practices of domain registrars and hosting companies? And what if my company wants me to work with an off-the-shelf content management solution? This book can help me. And I’m always happy to lend my endorsement to any author who’s unafraid to advocate for Web standards.

Perhaps best of all, the book is not too much of a typical Web “reference” book, by which I mean that it’s thinner than the average phone book. Designers on a “shoestring” are often as strapped for time as they are for money, and this book can easily be digested in an hour or two. And that’s definitely an example of spinning straw into gold.

Web Design On A Shoestring
Carrie Bickner
New Riders, 2003, 215pp.
US $24.99
CDN $27.99
£19.50

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James McNally is a Toronto based freelance writer and web designer. He is desperately clawing his way back into a new media career. His personal weblog is at http://www.consolationchamps.com/

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