Why Web Design Books Suck and How to Fix Them

by on 1st June 2011 with 8 Comments

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Do you have a list of things that you know you should learn but just haven’t been able to pick up? Have you tried to read through a book or two with no success?

Today we’re going to discuss why you can’t get through those boring web design books, how they should be different and what to look for to leverage the way you actually learn.

Are You Broken?

We’ve all been there before. You want to learn something new so you do what any educated person would do: head off to the book store. We work in an industry that’s growing and evolving faster than any of us can keep with up so these trips are a necessity to any web designer that doesn’t want to be obsolete in a few years.

The pressure that we feel from this environment gives us a sense of panicky urgency. We need to learn to survive. If I could only code WordPress themes, learn Ruby on Rails, or figure out what HTML5 apps really are, then I would be much more employable!

We browse the small collection of nerd books that are inevitably shoved into a corner, make our purchases and drive home feeling a deep sense of accomplishment. I’m on my way now. Give me a week and I’ll master this new skill, I know because the book jacket says so!

“You pour yourself a drink, crack open the book and awake two hours later with your face stuck to the pages”

When you get home, there’s no time like the present to begin your educational journey. You pour yourself a drink, crack open the book and awake two hours later with your face stuck to the pages. After a week or two of similar episodes, you’ve read 100 pages and don’t feel like you’ve learned a single thing.

What happened? Why can some people learn new skills so easily while you struggle to finish a single book? Are you broken?

Textbooks ≠ Engaging

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Think back to your days in college, pouring over textbooks before finals. You learned a lot in those days, but can even the best students among us really say that they enjoyed reading their textbooks?

The truth is, you learned because you had a test coming up, not because you enjoyed the material, otherwise you’d still be reading those books. Even then, that boring book was backed by hours and hours of class time that was spent pouring over the important information. There were presentation slides, discussions, quizzes and projects all aimed at one thing: getting you to actually learn and absorb all that lame crap that was in the book.

Textbooks are written by academics for academics. One thing that I find interesting is that when a web designer writes a book, he/she often puts on the same cloak of academia and attempts to write under these guidelines, thereby neglecting the intended audience in favor of fitting the accepted mold (admittedly, publishers are likely more to blame than authors).

“Instead of blaming the readers, why don’t we consider how to make the learning experience a little better?”

This format, when the pressures of classes and tests are taken away, often results in stacks of unread books that readers had every intention of making it through, but simply weren’t successful. Instead of blaming the readers, why don’t we consider how to make the learning experience a little better?

Books vs. Blogs: A Different Learning Model

It’s easy to make vague claims about how design books are boring to make myself feel better about not enjoying them, but where’s the solid explanation of what’s wrong and suggestions for how to fix it?

To answer this question, I’m of course going to stand on a very biased platform and say that design blogs know something that book publishers don’t about how web designers and even developers often prefer to learn.

Discouraging: The Book Way

What’s the worst part about learning web development? All that stuff at the beginning right? Web development 101: here’s what an HTML tag is, here’s the guy who invented them, here’s where he grew up, here’s why using tags is better than not using tags, blah blah bah. Then, once you learn all there is to learn about tags in general, it’s time to walk through each tag in depth to see what it’s all about.

“The academic way to learn something is to lay down a solid foundation of dry theory on every aspect individually before you’re allowed to try to put it all together.”

After twenty pages of this you’re ready to scoop your eyes out with a spoon just so you never have to see another HTML tag again. Why is web design taught like this? Because the academic way to learn something is to lay down a solid foundation of dry theory on every aspect individually before you’re allowed to try to put it all together. Otherwise, you’re brain would explode or you would just carelessly learn to code without knowing the difference between <b> and <strong>.

The problem with a learning model that so heavily leans towards theory is that no one can get through it. You pick up a book on HTML and read 3/4 or even all of it before you’re ever actually empowered with the skills and knowledge you need to bust out a web page all on your own. This is a flat out discouraging way to learn.

Encouraging: The Blog Way

For many people, including myself, one of the best ways to learn to code basic websites turns out to be frequenting web design blogs where tutorials are published. What’s the difference? Why does it seem easier to learn in this environment?

The obvious answer is that web design blogs break up content into manageable chunks. You’re not nearly as overwhelmed by a single post as an entire book. But in reality, books are split up fairly nicely as well so that doesn’t seem to be the full picture.

One interesting thing about writing a blog post is that, for the most part, each post is treated as an individual identity meant to appeal to as many people as possible in a fairly small amount of space. These constraints have led to a learning model that, for many, is much more friendly than the approach most books take.

Seeing the Big Picture

As I said before, web design books tend to make you sift through so much of the boring stuff that many people don’t even make it to the good stuff at the end. Even if you do, there’s usually not a whole lot even there to redeem the book.

Web design blogs on the other hand are famous for a specific brand of posts that were beyond instrumental in my education: Converting a PSD to HTML and CSS. In a single, brief post (sometimes two if they teach you to build the PSD), these awesome tutorials go through the layout, coding and styling of a basic web page.

Even if I’ve never touched a text editor in my life, I can follow these tutorials and have a live web page up and running in a single afternoon! This is probably less than the time it would take you to get through that HTML tags section from the hypothetical book above.

“Right off the bat you get to build something real and get a feel for what web design and development are really all about.”

In contrast to the other method, this is a very encouraging way to learn. Right off the bat you get to build something real and get a feel for what web design and development are really all about. There are some important lessons here about learning in general.

Jumping In All At Once

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The difference between the two methods of teaching is clear. Books tend to ease you very slowly into web development, imagining that having you build a website right from the beginning would be an overwhelming and damaging experience. Only after you have an extremely thorough and solid foundation of theory should you actually attempt to build a complete web page.

PSD to HTML blog posts take the opposite route. Here there is no wading, you’re thrown into the pool all at once to see if you can swim. You’re taught as you go what certain things are for and how they work. You are assumed to be reasonably intelligent and therefore allowed to derive a good deal from context and to reach conclusions through doing.

Will running through a single PSD to HTML post thoroughly teach you to be a web developer? Absolutely not. Will there still be huge critical gaps in your knowledge? You bet! However, you’ve seen what it’s all about and had the immensely encouraging experience of seeing something complicated that you built come to life.

“You’ll start to learn enough to know what you don’t know”

The more of these posts you go through, the more you learn, each author is different and has unique insight. Once you’ve gone through a bunch of these, you’ll start to learn enough to know what you don’t know and can then start digging into meatier posts about the complexities of the trade.

Just Like Learning a Song

This idea applies in several areas of learning. Imagine that you’re learning to play guitar and you have two teachers to choose from. One is going to make you memorize every note on the neck, every chord/voicing/variant, and every possible progression before you learn to play a single song.

The other teacher will start the class by teaching you the five chords and simple strum that make up “The House of the Rising Sun”. If you’re like me, you’re going to choose teacher number two. Sure, the first teacher might actually produce students who are better musicians, but ten years from now the second teacher will have three times as many students who still play guitar simply because that first song gave them enough encouragement to not give up.

“They kill your drive to learn with information overload.”

Web design books too often take the route of the first teacher. They kill your drive to learn with information overload and wait far too long to bring you the reward of actually feeling like you can build something.

To be fair, some books do in fact take the approach of the second teacher, walking you through the education process in a series of fulfilling projects. If you’re in the market for a good way to learn something when other methods have failed, find a book like that and see if it’s not much easier to get through.

Conclusion

This post has two simple messages, each with a specific audience. For authors and publishers, consider creating books that actually take advantage of the way your audience learns rather than following an academic schema that discourages a large portion of your readers. Let them dive into big projects right away, make some conclusions and even some mistakes, then fill in the gaps in knowledge as they progress.

For those of you trying to pick up a new skill, whether it’s basic CSS or advanced PHP, try to find a teaching source that fits the way you learn. If you learn better by reading chapters and chapters of theory before attempting anything, great, you have plenty of books to choose from.

However, if this doesn’t work for you, look for something that throws you in the deep end right away. Identifying and leveraging your own learning tendencies is a life-changing experience!

Photo Credits: bgottsab, danflo and LifeSupercharger.

Comments & Discussion

8 Comments

  • ed

    long post but great article.
    check last paragraph before conclusion, i think it’s some = tome.

  • LauchaBot

    As always, really usefull post :)
    Cheers ~

  • CJ

    You nailed it 100%
    Would be nice if you suggested some good blogs or the “some books” that subscribe to the approach of the second teacher.

    Thanks for the post~

  • http://www.functionline.com Tamixes

    Great post, nothing like a dry text book to kill your desire to learn.
    Online content (blogs/tuts) is the new ‘living book’ alternative for digital natives.

  • Vidal Quevedo

    Call me old school, but at least with books you have a sense of carefully structured content, which is something you hardly find on blogs.

    Given how scattered web development info can be on the web, I actually welcome books as “concentrated knowledge.” I don’t mind looking up information online when I need something right away (e.g. a how to guide to something), but it’s just refreshing to be able to let someone tell you about something in an ordered fashion (not to mention off the screen, which actually helps your eyes and gives them a rest).

    I think both learning methods can be combined. A tech/web dev book isn’t usually a novel you can read linearly (especially when it requires you to be on your machine to execute things right away). I can certainly see how you’d fall asleep if you are just trying to run and imagine in your head what the result of your code would look like after you run it.

    I favor web dev books on paper. Much better structure.

  • http://dotcomcowgirl.com DotcomCowgirl

    Try the Head First books published by O’Reilly. They offer a much different kind of learning experience than other computer books and are really fun books to start your learning with – search amazon.com for: Head First HTML with CSS & XHTML; Head First WordPress; Head First PHP & MySQL, Head First Javascript, Head Rush Ajax, etc.

  • http://www.gotmedia.org/ Steph

    I agree with CJ. Do you have any books in mind?

    I can’t say I read many books on coding, but for coding purposes, videos REALLY help. Lynda.com and YouTube is fantastic for that.

    Thanks for the article, there was a lot of nodding at the things you were saying.

  • http://www.fipe.co.uk fipe

    “The truth is, you learned because you had a test coming up, not because you enjoyed the material”

    I have to disagree with that. I actually enjoyed learning stuff back when i was in school. Granted it wasn’t in the 1st year or anything but in my later years when i was a bit older, i did enjoy reading and learning stuff. It was truly awesome.

    Books can seem like the long way of learning stuff but it pays off in the end. I’ve used video tutorials & blog posts to learn and found them very useful.

    I’d say the difference is that if you are trying to accomplish a single task (creating a flash animation for example) then blogs & videos are the way to go.

    If however you want to learn a new language (e.g javascript) then books are the way forward. It also helps if you have a means of testing out the new stuff you’re reading about. So if you’re reading about HTML then have a means of creating a basic HTML page after reading a few chapters or something.

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