Web Style Guide: Basic Design Principles for Creating Web Sites

By Matt Mickiewicz

Web Style Guide CoverThe Web Style Guide, written by Patrick J. Lynch and Sarah Horton promotes itself as the essential guide for web site designers. For the most part, the book succeeds as it strives to cover the non-technical issues involved in website production.

Although I’ve personally read dozens of books about HTML, Cascading Style Sheets, Dynamic HTML and JavaScript, none of these books discussed the application of these technologies in any significant way. While being able to write complicated tables in your sleep is an ability that is worth developing, being able to apply all the technology we have today in a meaningful way is something completely different. This is where The Web Style Guide comes in.

The book is cleanly organized into eight distinct sections, each one covering the ins and outs of applying technology and processes to achieve your (company’s) goals. The first section of the book deals with process–basically what you’ll need to know and decide on before you can embark on your site development venture. Here the authors ask straight out questions that force you to really get to the bottom of what it is that you want to achieve with your Internet presence. A step-by-step guide which walks you through site planning, information architecture, design, tracking and maintenance rounds off the process section of the book.

Part two of the book delves into interface design. Your web site’s interface is what your visitors will be interacting with, and it should be given a lot of thought. The authors briefly discuss web page design vs. conventional document design before going into tips centered around making each web page freestanding, providing clear navigational aids, and graceful degradation.

The site design section of the book discusses organizing information, structures, site design themes and site elements. The advice in this chapter, which includes ideas such as chunking text, is very practical, if a bit oversimplified. The attempt by the authors to break all sites into themes like teaching and reference did not go over well with me. The focus of the book then narrows down to designing individual pages.

The central idea in the next chapter, which focuses on page design, is that each individual page in a website should seek to convey clarity, order and trustworthiness. The authors’ solution to achieving this through visual hierarchy, consistency, page length, and design grids is a good attempt at breaking down the individual elements that, when put together, create a page that’s clear and conveys credibility. The later part of the chapter discusses the role that tables play in page layout. Line length, margins, columns, and gutters are all discussed in addition to alignment. Frames are also touched on briefly. Rather than telling you how to use tables and frames to make your site attractive, the authors teaches you how to put these elements to use in making your website usable. The next chapter focuses in on the most important element on each page: text.

Twenty-six pages of the one-hundred-sixty-page book are devoted to Typography on the web. This is a subject that I’ve never seen in any web design book, and that I quite frankly was rather ignorant about until reading this book. Topics like aligning text, fonts, legibility, capitalization, white space, how to emphasize text and cross-platform issues are covered in detail that I’ve seen nowhere else. The application of style sheets for purposes of typography is covered, although the information was rather outdated because the book was written in late-1998.

Following the chapter on typography, the book zeroes in on editorial policies. Again, this is a topic that I haven’t seen in any other book. The next section, Web Graphics, deviates from the tone of the rest of the book. Rather than receiving information on the intelligent use of graphics on the Internet, I was met with a discussion on the web safe palette, compression, dithering, formats and image maps; information that could be found in dozens of other books. Unfortunately, the next chapter on Multimedia isn’t much better with instructions on multimedia processing, formats, CODEC’s, compression and delivery.

As the title states, this is book that covers basic principles of good web design. The guidelines in the book should be taken suggestions, rather than as hard and fast rules that are never to be broken. This book’s tone is rather dry, which is disappointing considering the potential for personal expression and involvement in the subject matter. The authors are Yale educators; as a result, most of the examples in the book come straight from the Yale website, rather than from different types of sites (news, entertainment, etc.) from around the web. Nevertheless, the book’s many enlightening ideas and theories on organization, typography, and design processes make this book a worthwhile read.

Rating: 3/5

"Web Style Guide: Basic Design Principles for Creating Web Sites" is available from for $11.96.

Matt Mickiewicz
Meet the author
Matt is the co-founder of SitePoint, 99designs and Flippa. He lives in Vancouver, Canada.

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