Book review: Design Concepts with Code: An Approach for Developers <i>by Stanko Blatnik and Kelly Carey</i>

A bit of a departure from our usual fare, Design Concepts with Code is an artistically focused book which talks about the problem of designing the look and feel of websites (or web applications). It’s free software friendly in that it focuses on code and standards rather than specific design applications.

Design Concepts with Code

One message that came through very strongly was that if you rely too closely on the tools, they will stunt your creativity

The contents

Based on the title, I had assumed this book would focus more on the design issues associated with the code behind a website: a kind of counterpoint to the Zope philosophy of “separating presentation from business logic”, along the lines of a “form follows function” argument. This is, however, not at all discussed in the book. The title is referring to the fact that the diagrammatic examples are provided as hand-edited SVG code, rather than created within some existing web design application. I found this bizarre, given that there are a plethora of applications—including at least one free software choice—which can edit SVG in a much more intuitive way (this was true even in 2003, when the book was originally published). My impression is that the book is primarily of interest to developers of static websites, which are becoming less and less relevant on today’s web.

On the other hand, it is terrific that this isn’t just another training manual for “how to use Brand X web design tool suite”. Instead, it actually tries to tackle the fundamental design elements and principles that go into a website design, with three examples projects interleaved with the introduction of these basic concepts.

One message that came through very strongly was that if you rely too closely on the tools, they will stunt your creativity. More than once, the book stresses that it is better to make a sketch, without thinking about how you are going to achieve it, then challenge yourself to make it happen (possibly having to learn a lot of new techniques in the process). In other words, you don’t want to be limited—consciously or unconsciously—by what you currently know how to implement in HTML.

Who’s this book for?

I was never quite sure who the authors had in mind when they wrote this book, nor whether the target audience included me. Given the focus on SVG code to illustrate the examples, one would assume a very tech-savvy audience. Yet, resorting to cut paper and pencil sketches instead of using a generic SVG editor (anything from Adobe Illustrator to SodiPodi would be fine, this still wouldn’t tie the reader to a particular application)—seemed bizarrely technophobic. On the other hand, the book is too simplistic artistically to be focused on graphic design artists (as an artist, constantly feeling the need to push design boundaries, I found the constant “single interpretation” mode of analyzing examples to be pedantic, repetitive, and occasionally grating).

This flaw is not fatal, but it was the book’s biggest fault in my opinion.

Relevance to free software

The book makes no special accommodation for free software, but doesn’t ignore it, either. The focus on specific SVG code for graphical examples, rather than the tools used to create them, however, means that the book has no particular bias. It’s as easy to implement these design concepts with free software applications as with any other. So in that sense, it’s very friendly to free software.

On the other hand, you do have to mentally substitute “Gimp” for “Photoshop” as you read. I don’t think the authors actually mention Gimp at all, but I’m so used to this that I hardly notice the inconvenience anymore.

I was never quite sure who the authors had in mind when they wrote this book


Good coverage of basic design issues: importantly, this includes behavior as well as appearance (in my experience, a major fault of people coming from an arts background trying to design for the web, is that they make sites that look beautiful, but don’t work well). There is a unique focus on code and basic style questions as opposed to application-centric books which are just training manuals for particular pieces of software. The book also encourages greater design creativity and “breaking the box” of standard boring web designs. If you are new to graphic arts, this book may give you a new perspective on websites.


The target audience is unclear: much of the material may either bore you or go right over your head, depending on your background. Some things will probably infuriate you. The occasional piece of very repetitive and pedantic writing style may melt your brain (look out for the touchy-feely multiple choice questions with the answers spelled out afterwards).

Title Design Concepts with Code: An Approach for Developers
Author Kelly Carey and Stanko Blatnik
Publisher Apress
ISBN 1590591119
Year 2003
Pages 361
CD included No
FS Oriented 5
Over all score 6

In short


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.