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The Smashing Book 51

Michael J. Ross writes "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." Read below for Michael's review.
The Smashing Book
author Various authors
pages 311
publisher Smashing Media GmbH
rating 6/10
reviewer Michael J. Ross
summary A visually rich compilation of advice from Web design experts
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.

The content of the book is generally good, with some chapters offering far more value than others — which naturally varies according to what type of information the reader is most interested in. The formatting of the text could be improved in future editions. The CSS, JavaScript, and PHP code is double-spaced, which is unnecessary and actually makes it less readable, not more. Each chapter contains at least a few pullouts, which are of no value, because the text is already broken up visually with color images, headings and subheadings (of a different color than the regular text), and the occasional code snippet.

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.)

There are additional errata not listed on that links page: "a #content-block" should read "a content block" (pages 38 and 39); "a JavaScript that" should read "JavaScript code that" (page 49); the three quotation marks (there should be four) near the end of the first paragraph on page 60, should be removed or fixed; the last sentence in the second paragraph on page 64, needs a verb; "users['] ability" (page 73); "using [it] when" (page 80); "see [the] screenshot" (page 86); "cave at" (page 89); page 91 has two footnote 11 superscripts, and the first one's URL is missing; "grab [the] user's" (page 115); "track on" should read "track of" (page 116); "
" 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 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 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.

Michael J. Ross is a freelance website developer and writer.

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The Smashing Book

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  • Too much? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ircmaxell ( 1117387 ) on Wednesday February 24, 2010 @02:55PM (#31262718) Homepage
    To me, at least from your brief review, it sounds like the book tries to do too much. I mean performance, site design (conversion rates, branding, etc) and interface design (the actual flow and feel of the site) all in one book? Each topic could have a library written on it by itself (and --coincidentally-- has)...

    In today's age, I much prefer in-depth books that go deep into a single subject to books that try to broach many. The reason for that is simple. I can learn a little about a lot of things online for free. To get a really in-depth on a particular subject help to truly understand the subject, not just "learn" it... JMHO...
    • I like both.

      I like the generalized book that gets me up to speed on a new subject (web design), and yet if I wanted more detail I could buy a second or third book on those chapters. It's like how you take a Physics 101 class first, and then if you want to know more about Thermodynamics or Relativity or Statics/Dynamics, you take those classes later.


      How come I can't find this book on amazon? I want to buy it.

      • From the review itself:

        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.

    • I understand your point, but I think the book does a great job of covering the essential of modern web design in a compact and detailed overview. There is no general talk about the topic; because the concept of the book was suggested by our readers, we created it as they wanted to have it. Of course, the Smashing Book can not replace classic books that deal with typography or user interface design, but it gives a good overview of how websites are built today. And that's exactly what we were aiming for.
  • A selection of best practices. To call php+css+html a best practices is bizarres, its a popular choice, but doesn't mean that other programming languages of choices aren't better. Clearly HTML is required for any web page, css is option but it has more power over layout. PhP is one of many equally efficient scripting languages for the back end. Personnally i find jsp much more powerful. No mention of Ajax, does the smashing book (silly name), do any of that.


    Web Design [] Feed @ Feed Distiller []

  • I hope the page of contents is a list of the 21 top pages of the book.
  • Thank you (Score:3, Informative)

    by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Wednesday February 24, 2010 @03:30PM (#31263220) Homepage Journal

    I hadn't heard of this site before, so I checked it out. Very good site, it's now bookmarked.

    • It's one of my favorites too, but it is sort of the antithesis of Slashdot from both content and layout perspectives. Smashing is sort of the OSX to the command prompt that is Slashdot.

    • by jc42 ( 318812 )

      I hadn't heard of this site before, so I checked it out. Very good site, it's now bookmarked.

      Which site do you mean? I first guessed that you meant, so I looked at it - and was duly horrified. Maybe they like it, but there's no way I'd want any site I built to look or act like that. Especially since it seems to violate the growing requirement that it work sensibly on a handheld/smartphone. I tried it from my G1 and my wife's iPhone, and it was unreadable on either (in Japanese or English

      • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

        I looked at a sample article, and it was well written and informative. The site isn't, it's [] It is a bit unfortunate that it won't work well in IE6. I wouldn't care about IE6 except my employer uses it. I personally don't care if a site is ugly, I only want the content (slashdot is kinda ugly itself, especially the idlized sections). But the two articles I looked at (one at the link and another one yesterday about buttons) were well written and informative, even though t

  • Simply Put (Score:3, Informative)

    by theArtificial ( 613980 ) on Wednesday February 24, 2010 @03:50PM (#31263514)
    This site is simply amazing. If you're a novice designer or a guru this site has something for you. I have it set to my home page and frequently encounter new techniques as well as time savers. There are plenty of sites online that you can find similar material however the consistant quality and variety of the articles (and awesome comments) make it a valuable destination for insight, freebies (such as new fonts, brushes, icons), techniques, and discussion. On Smashing Magazine you can find some awesome insight from talented individuals much like some of the comments on Slashdot.
  • I can confirm that postage to the UK is fine, Deutsche Post is one of the best postal systems in Europe, mine got to the UK in two days and was signed for, I'm not sure it's available outside of their website
    • No, the book is not available in book stores. We wanted the book to be available exclusively on Smashing Magazine and it was our decision to not have it in book stores which is why we also do not have an ISBN nu
  • Of Course (Score:5, Interesting)

    by kenp2002 ( 545495 ) on Wednesday February 24, 2010 @04:01PM (#31263672) Homepage Journal

    "The greatest environmental crime in history is the publication of redundant design guides on pages better spent on trashy romance novels." - KCP

    Seriously another broad, vague, self indulgent "How to design XYZ better". Useless crap. Here is why:

    Given any field of study and a set of topics in said field we endevor to publish a book containing any given subset of those topics. By the very virtue of a finite length book we must temper the content of the selected topics to ensure we cover all our selected topics. No matter the weight given to each topic the fundamental truth is, for every given page spent on one topic, there is one less page spent on any of the other topics. In this regard the more topics we cover, the less adaquately we cover all those topics. Throwing more pages at more topics because of this, does nothing more then make the book heavy rather then useful. To be terse in writing and narrow in focus not only provides a text that is, per page, more relevant, insightful, and useful; but makes the book far more easily shoplifted, discretely carried, and less likely to be used as decoration or door stop.

    The best design guide I was ever privvy to was a usenet post:

    "For every word typed there is a chance you will say something stupid. Type Less."

    "There are 3 colors you should use in design, stuff you should read, stuff to get their attention, and shit lawyers want hidden."

    "Use any three colors you want in design for those three, so long as one of them is black and another is white."

    "If you can't read your own code, think more, type less."

    "Work on 3 different projects at once. If you are cutting and pasting and reusing code a lot between them, you're coding things the right way."

    "You are not writing an Idiot's Guide to Programming so don't comment your code like you are."

    "Always assume your data entry people are blind, deaf, dumb, and have typing terrets. Validate input always."

    "It Works != It's Done || Well Written is wrong.
    (It Works != It's Done) || (It Works != Well Written) is right. Triple check your operator precident, logical or otherwise"

    "No matter what, unless it was done yesterday, it's late."

    "The Business Line will expect N+1 tests before signing off on the code where N is how many times you've tested."

    "Shit happens, bring paper."

    "Your Gung Fu is good, but it will never defeat someone 1/2 skilled but 1/4th the cost. Good Better Best, Never Let it Rest, Until the Good is Better and the Better is Best."

    "You ass is always on the line so work like it."

    "Lime is not a color, it's a crime.."

    "Blinking has never done anyone any good except for brothels and strip clubs. You are coding neither."

    "If all your work is done start doing someone elses. Last I checked businesses don't hand out awards for failed projects to members that "At least got his part of the fuck up done...""

    • "Work on 3 different projects at once. If you are cutting and pasting and reusing code a lot between them, you're coding things the right way."

      Ow! NO YOU'RE NOT!

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        Actually, you should design 1 website, and repeatedly sell it to each customer you have, wrapping each iteration in a slightly new skin. It doesn't matter what your customer actually wants. When you unveil your "masterpiece", just explain how you modified some of their requirements "to improve the user experience". When the client objects, start throwing rafts of technical babble at him, and wait for him to succumb. ~

        In all seriousness, though, it's nice when stuff you've already written comes in hand
      • Yes you are, code resuability is essential. While you might not be able to link via dlls and shared libraries if code can be reused then you have written robust, reuseable code.

    • Well that guy didn't follow his own advice "think more type less" terrets != Tourettes but that was probably intentional right? What is your suggestion for a better source of the topics this book covers complined into a single volume? This book is not marketed as an authoritative source on all of the topics. Some of these pseudo rules are laughable, so I might as well add "I before E except after CSS3".
      • by lennier ( 44736 )

        terrets != Tourettes but that was probably intentional right?

        I read it as "typing ferrets".

        It could be true!

        and if it's not, I got a business model to patent.

      • A book on typesetting
        A book on color selection and color theory
        A book on (Insert Arbitrary Topic Here).

        I'd rather see comprehensive information on a single topic that watered down information on a variety of topics.

        • Apples and oranges. You're looking in the wrong place and I didn't ask what you'd rather see but a single volume that covers these topics in depth. Thanks for the reply though.
    • While your post makes some good points about designing the back end of a website, it doesn't really address what the Smashing Book is actually about.

      The book (I've read it) is a guide for freelance web designers/developers trying to design complete websites with a focus on outstanding graphic design. That's why they cover things like typography, color, usability, conversions and branding - clearly something your usenet poster isn't concerned with.

      If you're looking for an "All in One Web/Graphic Design

      • Your post should be +5, not the one you are responding too.

        Seriously, that guy rips the very existence of design guides, then provides his own (poor) summary of most well known design principles--parsimony, black text/white background/(red) call out color..etc.

        Then he injects ridiculous amounts of bias in his coding examples which are not relevant to the discussion at hand. It's like another command prompt geek coming to a Mac forum and yelling at people who build UIs for a living (cough, happenseverydayto

  • by G'Quann ( 237134 ) on Wednesday February 24, 2010 @04:06PM (#31263714) Homepage


    Smashing Media Customer support here. :) First of all, thanks a lot for the extensive review!

    Although it is true that some shipments have gotten into trouble on their long way from Freiburg into the whole world, I want to add that there is not a single user who never received his or her book. Although there have been some missing shipments, we made sure that everyone got their book in the end - just like this reviewer did. The worst that can happen is a delay if your shipment really gets into trouble.

    I also want to add that the vast majority of shipments arrives smoothly without problems. We did have some issues during the release phase, which fell together with christmas time which caused postal delays all over the world. Bad timing. :( But as you can see from the current comments on our site, things go smoothly now.

    Again: Thanks to everyone who supported us along the way! :)


    P.S.: Sorry for using my private Slashdot account, but I guess it still has more credibility than anonymous coward. :)

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by sethadam1 ( 530629 )

      My Christmas order took about 40 days. That sucked. You should really make it clearer on the website that the order will ship from Europe.

      • by G'Quann ( 237134 )

        Yes, we noticed that some people indeed missed that we are a company based in Germany. Sorry that you got the wrong impression.

        We placed several additional reminders of this back in December, including one in the checkout process. You probably ordered before that. It is much clearer now.

        By the way, we now also offer a airmail shipping option to the US which should go much faster. But unlike the groundmail option (to the US) we can't offer that one for free, unfortunately.

        I also just notice that I made a lit

  • Great book, but ... (Score:2, Informative)

    by ubrgeek ( 679399 )
    I picked up the book a month-or-so ago and have been poking through it (didn't have a problem with delivery. I'm in the US and it arrived quickly). The content is (generally) well-written, useful and attractive, but yeah, the font is too small. More annoying is the binding the reviewer referenced; you can certainly open the book beyond 90 degrees. It's easy: Read it for a while and the stiff binding will snap and it will open for you. It's something folks have commented on in the various forums for the site
  • the professional designer. I myself had one of my previous website designs featured somewhere around a year or so ago, which was certainly flattering, but ultimately, I really felt that SM has fairly low-quality content, hacked together into massive link lists quite often. Beyond that, a large portion of the work that is posted is HIGHLY sub-par - take, for instance, the monthly desktop wallpaper features.. Seriously, it's like some of these people just learned photoshop (and yet, the community seems to love every single one of em', and if ANYBODY voices a sincere criticism of the work, they're an asshole).

    Not to say it's completely without value, but there are a number of other options available for anybody interested in web/graphic design that are of a much higher quality. Would I pay for a SM book? Hell no. I hardly glance at the website anymore.

  • by SmallFurryCreature ( 593017 ) on Wednesday February 24, 2010 @06:05PM (#31265400) Journal

    Validate their home page. This one has 33 errors.

    They might or might not have good advice, but clearly standards are not one of them.

    Frankly after taking a look it seems to be one of countless sites that gather all sorts of topics that have something to do with web-development. If this one is supposed to be extra-special, then I am not seeing it.

    • If this one is supposed to be extra-special, then I am not seeing it.

      That's because you are judging the quality of the website by the number of errors on their home page instead of the quality of the content.

      • by mcmonkey ( 96054 )

        That's because you are judging the quality of the website by the number of errors on their home page instead of the quality of the content.

        It's a site on web design. The number of errors on their home page is the content.

  • considering that this is a wee bit of a non-story, we can rest assured that any sections on manipulating social marketing will be good.
  • Who? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by rbanzai ( 596355 ) on Wednesday February 24, 2010 @07:24PM (#31266396)

    I honestly have never heard of "Smashing Magazine." Perhaps the professional web designers can attest to whether they're as important to the field as their PR paints them.

    • Smashing Magazine is the first link in our bookmarks (Instructional design firm). It's more of an inspirational site than a technical site. We go there for the tips/tricks/freestuff--not for any in-depth professional reference material. It's more like a peer's portfolio, less like an instruction manual.

  • Michael, thank you very much for the very detailed and comprehensive review. Your points are brilliant and we will make sure to improve the quality of the book in the future. Also, please notice that it was our decision to make the Smashing Book available exclusively on Smashing Magazine's website which is why the book is not available in book stores and doesn't have an ISBN number.

    Apart from that, as you can read in the post we published in January []:

    "Many things have been happening with and around The Smash

Things equal to nothing else are equal to each other.