Hardboiled Web Design
Author Andy Clarke packs a lot of information and quite a bit of swagger into Hardboiled Web Design. He encourages us to strip our HTML down to lean, semantic HTML5, to test the boundaries of what is possible with CSS3, and to challenge conventional web design wisdom.
While the first six chapters of this book are spent justifying its own existence (explaining why web designers need a new approach, that websites don’t need to look the same in every browser, and what exactly the author means by “hardboiled”) I can save you some time. The hardboiled approach to web design can be, er, boiled down to 3 main components:
- lightweight, semantic HTML5 which incorporates WAI-ARIA roles
- advanced selectors and other new modules in CSS3
modernizr.jsto tailor websites to browsers’ capabilities.
In addition, the author proposes we present designs to clients using working web pages, rather than static mockups (Chapter 7).
HTML5, WAI-ARIA roles, CSS3
Mr. Clarke introduces hardboiled building blocks in Chapters 8-10. He presents many of the new elements of HTML5 (though not quite as charmingly as Jeremy Keith), and also includes information on microformats (though not as thoroughly as Emily Lewis) and WAI-ARIA roles. All of this is included in the book to lay a solid foundation for Parts 3 and 4 (a little under half the book) on CSS3 techniques.
The author hits on all the most significant modules in CSS3, from web font embedding to multiple background images to animations. CSS3 is covered in more depth here than in A List Apart’s brief book CSS3 for Web Designers, including things like
border-image and the
nth-of-type pseudo-element selector (cool!).
These clear and thorough chapters on HTML5 and CSS3 are reason enough to buy this book, but I take issue with parts of the overall approach Mr. Clarke is advocating.
Progressive enhancement is for wusses
Beyond explaining these individual components, Mr. Clarke puts forth his own methodology for web design: the “hardboiled” approach. He presents the concept as a departure from currently accepted best practices, and essentially concludes that “progressive enhancement” is for wusses and only philistines would let their sites “gracefully degrade”.
Andy Clarke declares that by using CSS3 techniques simply to enhance or add niceties to a site for the most capable browsers, web designers are limiting themselves unnecessarily. He suggests that we design for the most capable browsers first, and then consider how lesser ones will render our design. But crucially, rather than simply letting designs degrade naturally in lesser browsers (so-called “graceful degradation”), web designers should tailor the design for them as well, with the help of
modernizr.js. Let’s use an example from the book to analyze this approach.
Let’s assume, though, that the extra “whizziness” at least does no harm. Unless you have the luxury of designing exclusively for web designers, can a business case be made for taking the extra time and effort to create a design that only Safari users can see? Mr. Clarke himself states on page 71: “When I asked why people visited my websites I learned that most came for content”. Isn’t that, then, where more resources should be invested?
Lastly, while one of the main tenets of the hardboiled approach is not to let sites “gracefully degrade” at the mercy of lesser browsers, in this store page example I think the design is more degraded than if it had been limited to a less whiz-bang layout in the first place. Chapter 5 of this book is titled “Browsers don’t limit creativity”. Mr. Clarke is absolutely right: working within constraints, even those imposed by lousy browsers, is not the cause of bad design. The fact is, you could have a beautiful and effective website without a single rounded corner, drop shadow, or gradient.
We need people to push website design forward, to see what can be done with the new tools offered by CSS3 and what methods we can use to adapt websites to ever-changing browsing environments; Andy Clarke in Hardboiled Web Design certainly does that. Whether or not you agree with his “hardboiled” methodology, the book is a good one-stop resource for information on HTML5 markup, ARIA roles, and CSS3 and will make you rethink and examine conventional web design wisdom.
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