Book Review: The “A Book Apart” Series

For much of my career in web design and development, I’d never enjoyed learning programming skills from a book. Despite an English degree and lifelong affinity for reading, I couldn’t retain anything from tech books for very long. Why bother, when Google was right there? However, in the past several years I’ve done a complete 180 and embraced book-learning all over again thanks to “A Book Apart,” the series of “brief books for people who make websites.” Published by Jeffrey Zeldman, Jason Santa Maria, and Mandy Brown of the influential web development site A List Apart, this ten-volume (and growing) series is available in both print and digital formats.

These books have become the best, most consistent resources I’ve relied upon as a creative professional. As the site says, “the goal of every title in our catalog is to shed clear light on a tricky subject, and do it fast, so you can get back to work.” In certain circles, each new volume’s publication is as hotly anticipated as any blockbuster film or video game release, and with good reason—these pithy, practical books about web technologies and best practices are as insightful and inspiring as they are beautiful.

The individual titles are a good mix of technical/tactical skills and strategic thinking, and combined they offer a rather comprehensive approach to the entire process of website development. I’ve only ever bought the print versions, but if you purchase them digitally you’ll get a zip file with a PDF, ePub, and Mobi copy of the book, all DRM free. Some digital versions even have built-in videos! The titles are:


It’s easy to jump in at any part of the sequence you choose; the series’ main strength is its balance between accessibility and expertise, and I’m continually impressed by how much information is crammed into each slim volume (the longest one is only 166 pages). The HTML and CSS3 books are a good place to start and get up to speed, skills-wise. The responsive design volume is most essential; it’s even written by the person who actually coined the phrase!

Both content strategy volumes outline how to best present your site’s information in any context. “Mobile First” will, if you let it, turn your entire design and development workflow on its head (for the better!) and “Design for Emotion” covers cultivation of the many so-called intangibles that make some sites more compelling than others. Finally, they’re all fantastic, but for my money, “Design is a Job” is the absolute best; it’s a full-on primer and reality check for anyone intent on breaking into (or surviving) this business.

The authors’ easy confidence is infections—I once got to attend the companion conference “An Event Apart” featuring speakers Mike Monteiro, Erin Kissane, Karen McGrane, Ethan Marcotte, and Luke Wroblewski—and I came home profoundly inspired to deploy my newfound knowledge. That may sound laughably superlative, but in my experience it’s true. Whether you’re a seasoned web pro, a green newbie hungry to get in the game, or any other stripe of creative professional looking to gain some new technical skills in ways that don’t insult your intelligence, this is the series for you.

By Keir DuBois
Published June 5, 2014
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