Tag Archives: book

BOOK REVIEW: Design By Nature Teaches The Designs Around Us

Design by Nature cover

Most designers today create their work on a computer, but the best designs seem to have a timeless quality that appears again and again. These timeless designs often have roots in nature. Our notions of space, color and juxtaposition are informed by the world we live in and what we see around us since birth. However, designers staring at a screen all day often forget this natural inspiration.

Maggie Macnab has written a revealing book, Design By Nature: Using Universal Forms and Principles in Design, that outlines the natural principles at work around us helps us apply them to design problems in our daily work. I really appreciate a book like this in the workplace because I’ve always found nature to be a rich source of inspiration in many different ways. Maggie takes very basic concepts—pattern, shape, color, juxtaposition, symbolism and many more—and illustrates them at work in our natural world and also in our human-made, designed world. It’s very intriguing and “rings true” with what I feel in my own work.

Design By Nature is well-written and is structured appropriately—I never felt lost or thought I needed to jump ahead to get a critical concept. There are also some small “Putting It Into Practice” exercises sprinkled throughout the book that aren’t too difficult or require technical skills but make you think about your process and get in touch with the designs inherent in nature.

I also enjoyed the guest designer sections that focused on a designer’s work. A lot of them are written by the designer and talk about their process, past clients and projects, and their thoughts on design. I wish they focused more on the “design by nature” theme because many of them read like typical manifestos on design. The best ones focus on a particular project.

I also want to point out something which bothered me while reading Design By Nature: Maggie uses a lot of her own work and her students’ work to support her principles and ideas in the book. That is okay but I would prefer to see a diverse range of designs used to support the book’s teachings, and from a variety of artists and designers. The range of work in Design By Nature is sometimes just too inclusive of the author’s own inner circle.

Despite this, I really enjoyed Design By Nature and I would recommend it for many graphic artists and designers, especially those with a fine arts or an environmental arts background. Their work is probably already based nature even if they don’t realize it, and understanding the natural process of design is vital to successful creations.

Design by Nature: Using Universal Forms and Principles in Design
Maggie Macnab
Published by New Riders
US $44.99
Rating: 9/10
Buy from Amazon.com

BOOK REVIEW: 344 Questions Is A Massive Self-Help Quest

344 Questions cover

There’s a small but interesting intersection in the publishing world where self-help, creativity and design meet to produce books designed to help creative people achieve more. The Artist’s Way is one such popular line of books. Another one I particularly like is It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be. Such books are often full of self-help goodness but also sometimes a bit zanier than your usual self-help offerings.

Stefan Bucher’s 344 Questions: The Creative Person’s Do-It-Yourself Guide to Insight, Survival and Artistic Fulfillment cranks the zaniness up a notch. The book is written for people looking for a catalyst for improving their creativity, and offers questions that lead you to new insights about yourself and what makes you most creative. These are the kinds of exercises that any creative person should do now and then. Not many people actually look for self-help like this until they are feeling defeated and their creativity or business is flagging, so a book like this is always timely.

The book doesn’t have any answers, just questions in elaborate hand-drawn diagrams with lots of arrows and word bubbles. This makes the book unique. The reader has to supply the answers, and there’s many blank spaces to write in this book. Stefan expects the reader to madly mark up this book with thoughts, ambitions, questions and other notes to spark insight and ideas. It’s the kind of non-linear thinking that creative people presumably enjoy, though more analytical types of people might find it meandering.

The book’s title is 344 Questions but there are actually over 1,800 questions, which gets to my main gripe against the book: it’s overwhelming and fragmented. Consider this stream of questions:

  • How do you get through tough times?
  • Can we focus on the immediate essentials?
  • What foods make you happy?
  • What TV shows distract you?
  • What music perks you up?
  • Do you have an emergency supply of all this stuff?
  • Do you have friends who will listen to you?
  • What are their phone numbers?
  • Do you have friends you’ll listen to?
  • What are their phone numbers?
  • On a scale of one to ten, how bad is [your current difficulty]?

This is all on just a half-page. This page will seem magical if it provides you an epiphany (maybe you’ll realize you don’t trust your friends enough to listen to what they say) but if not it can be tiring. “Who cares if a professional commitment is a sacred oath?” It takes a particular individual, perhaps one in search of answers and willing to provide them with a little coaching, to appreciate this book. I recommend it for such people, and for the others I would recommend something more like The Artist’s Way, which delivers a more methodical framework for building creativity in the your work.

344 Questions: The Creative Person’s Do-It-Yourself Guide to Insight, Survival and Artistic Fulfillment
Stefan G. Bucher
Published by New Riders
US $14.99
Rating: 8/10
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BOOK REVIEW: Scott Berkun’s Mindfire

I’m a fan of Scott Berkun’s books—you can read my reviews of both Confessions of a Public Speaker and The Myths of Innovation—but Mindfire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds is the first that I discovered by word of mouth rather than a press release from O’Reilly, Scott’s regular publisher. This is because Mindfire is Scott’s first self-published book, which he did because “I want to publish books in the future that no publisher in its right mind would release” and so he is learning to do it himself. I can only imagine what kind of topics Scott plans to write about!

Mindfire is a compilation of short essays from Scott’s previous online work, including his blog at ScottBerkun.com. Avid readers of Scott’s website will recognize a lot of the material. The book itself looks good: I like the cover design and the interior is clean though maybe a little large on the type size. The content is also well-written, engaging and thought-provoking. Scott covers a wide range of topics, from motivation and time management (“The Cult of Busy” is a great opening chapter) to workplace dynamics and evolving your thinking and your products in the face of change. Scott structures Mindfire around his three ultimate takeaways: motivation (“gasoline”), leveraging catalysts (“sparks”) and building long-term success (“fire”).

I enjoyed Mindfire a lot and would recommend it for many readers, but the book falls a little short when compared to his other books I’ve read. Here’s my reasons:

  • No matter how much structure Scott wraps around the book, Mindfire is still a collection of self-contained essays and they don’t share a central theme. Some artforms can get away with this (“Greatest Hits” albums are often popular) but others don’t. The television “clip show” is a prime example. Scott does the best he can but Mindfire just isn’t as cohesive as I’d like it to be.
  • One thing I enjoyed in Confessions and Myths of Innovation was Scott’s knack with using anecdotes to illustrate his points. Those anecdotes were always fun to read and enlightening. Mindfire needs the same anecdotal evidence but it’s usually nowhere to be found. I think this is because these essays were designed to be short bursts of insight perfect for blog posts.
  • The “short burst” format is sometimes too short for me. I thought the best entries in Mindfire were the long ones because they had the most detail and fully-formed concepts. In contrast, a chapter like “Book Smarts vs. Street Smarts” is not much longer than a page and concludes well before it should. I’m not against short segments in books, but only if everything is said that needs to be said. Mindfire left me wanting more sometimes.
  • Books composed of online material always have to compete against their online counterpart—in this case, Scott’s blog. I always ask if the book brings something unique to the reader besides a cover and pages, and I don’t think Mindfire does that. Scott planned to include new essays in Mindfire but eventually gave up on the idea.

Mindfire is a very fine book and would be very useful for anyone working in a creative industry—designers and developers would be ideal—or anyone in business who wants to light a fire underneath themselves. The book isn’t perfect but it’s very good and the price can’t be beat.

Mindfire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds
Scott Berkun
US $14.95
Rating: 9/10
Buy from Amazon.com

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 Enters Public Beta


The alternate splash screen for Lightroom 4 with its “Sprocket” codename.

Last week, Adobe announced Photoshop Lightroom 4 and released the photo management software as a public beta available on Adobe Labs. Lightroom has enjoyed a public beta for each of its four iterations and it’s one reason the product has been popular among photographers. “Giving early customer access to new versions of Lightroom has helped our team deliver an outstanding battle-tested product that really stands up to the demands of photographers worldwide,” said Winston Hendrickson, vice president of Digital Imaging Products for Adobe.

The new features in Lightroom 4 are ready to be tried and tested, including:

  • A Map Module that includes location tagging controls and a standard map that places photos in the locations they were shot
  • Video format support for trimming and extracting frames from video clips, applying adjustments to clips and sharing video to Facebook and Flickr
  • Simplified basic adjustment controls
  • Soft proofing features in the Develop module
  • More local adjustment controls such as Noise Reduction and Moiré
  • Templates and tools for creating photo books in the new Book module
  • An email engine within Lightroom for sending mail directly from the application

I saw a quick demo and what I found most interesting were the new Map and Book modules. The Map module provides a really striking visual representation of the photographer’s journey around the world, though it’s probably a bit depressing for the user who doesn’t jet around the world very often. The bookmaking features are intriguing to me, and the Book module exports to PDF or publication at Blurb.com, an online publisher.

There are also many smaller features, including “fast load data” in DNG files for faster load times in Lightroom 4. You can also have a lossy (less than top quality) comp for fast loading. Another nice addition is soft proofing and gamut warnings for screen and print profiles. I’ll be curious to try these but I know it’s traditionally hard to get precise color management exactly right. One more note for holdouts on Windows XP: Lightroom will require Windows Vista and newer with version 4.

Adobe’s press release on the Lightroom 4 announcement is here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Book of Ruby

Book of Ruby cover

The Book of Ruby by Huw Collingbourne covers the Ruby programming language, which is popular as part of the Ruby on Rails framework for building websites and web applications. I thought it was a good primer on Ruby for the average beginner but there are some things that keep it from really standing out against all the other Ruby books on the market.

My first difficulty with the book is the explanation on installing Ruby at the very beginning. I had a hard time understanding what to download and how to install Ruby on my Mac, and I ended up having to do a lot of digging on the Ruby website to figure it out. I think Huw should have covered this a lot more thoroughly, particularly for Ruby beginners.

Once I installed Ruby, I found the rest of The Book of Ruby to be interesting and educational. Huw’s writing style and tone is clear and to the point, which actually sets it apart from other No Starch books like Learn You A Haskell For Great Good!, which has a humorous tone and goofy cartoons in it. In contrast, The Book of Ruby is concise and even a little dry sometimes. I don’t mind this style, and I particularly appreciate Huw’s clean explanation of his code. I did notice that the coding style used through The Book of Ruby isn’t particularly consistent, and it does make some code hard to understand sometimes. That doesn’t bother me, but I know other Ruby developers find a consistent style to be very important for reading Ruby code.

One thing I really find to be missing from The Book of Ruby is hands-on coding projects. I learn more from complex examples and project tutorials, and this book doesn’t really have those. The Book of Ruby‘s strength is in explaining concepts and being a good reference but there aren’t really any projects to work on and I wish there were more ways to tinker with Ruby code. I also think there should be much more devoted to Ruby on Rails than just one chapter, even though technically Ruby is a separate language. Ruby on Rails is a major driving force in Ruby development and I think the book would be more complete with more pages devoted to it.

Programmers who don’t know Ruby might find The Book of Ruby useful as a resource for learning concepts and the scope of the Ruby language. I think there are better resources in print and online for actual hands-on Ruby experience, but The Book of Ruby can help build a good foundation for Ruby development.

The Book of Ruby
Huw Collingbourne
No Starch Press
US $39.95
Rating: 7/10
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BOOK REVIEW: Learn You A Haskell For Great Good!

Learn You A Haskell cover

Learn You A Haskell For Great Good! might be the only programming book with a title in Engrish, and it definitely has a unique tone among all the other programming books out there. Learn You A Haskell was written by a 23-year-old Slovenian and covers the Haskell programming language, which is somewhat different from other web programming languages due to its status as a purely functional and a “lazy” functional language. I’ve not worked with language like this before so I started reading Learn You A Haskell as a true beginner.

Author Miran Lipovaca did an excellent job explaining Haskell’s concepts clearly and logically. The chapters and concepts explored built upon one another—what I learned in the previous chapter helped me understand material in the next chapter. Miran’s writing style is witty and peppered with jokes and funny turns of phrase, which I liked at first but got a little tired of as the book progressed. Miran also likes to doodle and Learn You A Haskell has a bunch of random cartoons throughout the book. I do like having more illustrations in programming books such as these, but they are pretty rough and you’ll like them or you won’t.

Fortunately, the quality of Miran’s cartoons doesn’t affect the quality of the book’s programming materials. The code in Learn You A Haskell is solid and functional, and it explains many Haskell concepts very clearly. I am really pleased to see some advanced elements of Haskell explored here, including type classes, input/output (I/O), functors and monads. They are usually hard to comprehend, but Learn You A Haskell dissects them and explains them in good detail. I think Miran could have expanded these advanced sections, but this is a book for beginners.

One thing I would have liked to have seen more of is tutorials and demos. There’s a lot of code in Learn You A Haskell, but they don’t always coalesce into a larger project or tutorial. Some chapters in particular, such as Chapter 9 on I/O, would have really shined if it dug deep into a large project, but Miran didn’t really push it far enough. I’m not too disappointed by this, but it is an opportunity for improvement.

Programmers of any language who want to try something interesting might want to pick up Learn You A Haskell For Great Good! It makes for a quick read even though it’s almost 400 pages, and the Haskell language itself is interesting. I give kudos to Miran for making what could have been an opaque and difficult subject actually quite interesting and fun.

Learn You A Haskell For Great Good!
Miran Lipovaca
No Starch Press
US $44.95
Rating: 9/10
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BOOK REVIEW: Digital Alchemy

Most technical photography books—the ones that are more about producing images than about creative expression—deal with pixels and the digital photography medium. These books discuss Photoshop techniques, speedlight setup, working with lenses or any number of other hardware or software topics. It’s pretty rare to read one that discusses denatured alcohol, emulsions and other hands-on techniques that bring back memories of the darkroom.

Digital Alchemy by Bonny Pierce Lhotka is just such a book, and I really enjoyed reviewing it. Digital Alchemy is more about digital printmaking than digital photography, but producing the initial transfer images involves photography, Photoshop and whatever digital tools are needed to realize the artist’s vision. Bonny produces her own print transfer products (such as the SuperSauce medium that is used often in the book) and has done extensive testing and experimentation to formulate the techniques in this book. Her pedigree is a strong foundation for the book.

A lot of the book is made of printmaking tutorials. Most require creating an inkjet print on transfer film, applying a transfer medium and then the actual transferring of the image to one of a variety of surfaces—including metal, wood, stone and even metal leaf (including aluminum foil!). Bonny has created techniques for all of these projects and Digital Alchemy really feels like a cookbook—follow the instructions, play with the techniques, and in the end you’ll have a finished product in your hands. This combination of printmaking craftsmanship and digital creation is very satisfying and fun.

I don’t always view DVDs that come with books because they usually contain images and photos from the book’s tutorials. In Digital Alchemy‘s case, however, the DVD contains an hour of well-produced video tutorials showing Bonny in action on a few different projects. I thought they were clear and well-done, and nicely complemented the book. I have seen worse video tutorials being sold by themselves for a lot more money. Here, you get the video and a book for a fair price.

Digital Alchemy is not for everyone: if working in a darkroom sounds messy and unappealing, then you probably aren’t one to apply smelly solutions to film and materials you get out of the home improvement store. However, photographers who started in film photography or even started out as painters and printmakers will absolutely love it. I highly recommend it.

Digital Alchemy
Bonny Pierce Lhotka
Published by New Riders
US $49.99
Rating: 10/10
Buy at Amazon.com

BOOK REVIEW: Andy Hertzfeld’s Revolution in the Valley

Revolutions cover

Not long before Steve Jobs died in October, O’Reilly published a second printing of Andy Hertzfeld’s Revolution in the Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How The Mac Was Made. This book was first published back in 2004, and before that most of the material was (and still is) available at folklore.org, which Andy still maintains. I’ve always loved the stories at folklore.org and this book continues to be an engrossing and very vivid retelling of the events that made many of us computer users.

For those who don’t know, Andy Hertzfeld was a member of the original Macintosh team and designed the Mac’s system software. Users like me who really got to know the Mac in the early 1990s with System 7 will remember the Control Panel, Scrapbook and other built-in applications. Hertzfeld wrote many of those. In Revolution, Andy’s writing style seems effortless: descriptions are vivid, dialogue and the “storyline” seems intense all of the time, and there’s a real plot throughout the book as the initial Mac team is brought together, hangs together as they build this “insanely great” new personal computer, and eventually moves on one by one. It’s a moving story and Andy tells it very well. (I should also note several other Mac team members like Steve Capps and Bruce Horn contribute some great stories.)

I couldn’t put Revolution down for a couple weeks: the stories and characters are so engrossing that I was reading through the book even though I’ve read many of the stories already on folklore.org. I think the story of the Macintosh’s development is so rare—when a great group of characters and geniuses come together to build such an important device for our generation, the stories that come out are bound to be phenomenal. Of course, one of the greatest characters in the book is Steve Jobs himself, who comes across as a driven, egocentric genius but without the business acumen he gained after being booted out of Apple.

Unfortunately, there’s not much new material in the book that isn’t already on folklore.org. The best new takeaways are Andy’s written notes, which really illustrate the day-to-day work behind the Mac, but I wanted even more images. I’m also not a big fan of the book’s cover, which looked dated even in 2004 and even more so now in 2011.

Fans of the Macintosh, Apple, or the PC industry in general should have a copy of this book, even if they have folklore.org bookmarked on their browser. The stories have an inescapable, timeless quality that both geeks and regular people can enjoy. If you ever used a Mac from the mid-1990s or earlier, Revolution might mean even more to you.

Revolution in the Valley
Andy Hertzfeld
Published by O’Reilly
US $24.99
Rating: 9/10
Buy at Amazon

BOOK REVIEW: The Book of CSS3

Book of CSS3

HTML5 is probably the most desirable acronym to have in a web designer’s portfolio today, but I think the third iteration of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS3) has greater impact on a designer’s bottom line and clients’ satisfaction. This is because CSS3 can finally deliver the slick user interfaces that used to be only possible with Photoshop and a lot of hacking for Internet Explorer. Browsers are advanced enough today to apply CSS3 and make websites everywhere look extra sharp.

The Book of CSS3 by Peter Gasston covers the full gamut of CSS3 rules and features, and I think it’s a useful book for CSS coders of all skill levels. I use a lot of CSS3 to control backgrounds and box elements, but there are entire sections of the CSS3 spec that I never really appreciated until I read this book. Gradients, color, opacity, transitions and animations are all prime examples. Another is media queries, which Adobe has made easier to implement with recent versions of Dreamweaver.

The book is clear, well-written and documented with good examples. There are a good deal of images to illustrate CSS3 in action, but unfortunately the book is in black and white which sometimes makes the images less useful. A more useful part of the book is the browser chart at the end of each section and in Appendix A, detailing which browsers support the demonstrated CSS3 features. Unfortunately, Internet Explorer still lags behind other browsers and doesn’t support a lot of CSS3 features (though I think this will change with the next version of IE). There are a few CSS3 features that are so experimental that most if not all browsers fail to execute them, including flexible box and template layout structures.

CSS3 will most likely change in the near future. Technology is evolving at a more rapid pace; the Firefox browser, for example, will be updated on a faster schedule and we’ll see more versions (and more CSS3 support) quicker. But I think the basic capabilities of CSS3 are set and web designers need to look at CSS3 now if they want to be progressive and offer clients the best technology today. The Book of CSS3 is a good place to learn the full range of CSS3 features.

The Book of CSS3
Peter Gasston
Published by No Starch Press
US $34.95
Rating: 9/10

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BOOK REVIEW: Eloquent JavaScript Simplifies Scripting For The Web

Marijn Haverbeke’s Eloquent JavaScript: A Modern Introduction to Programming is really about the fundamentals of coding clean JavaScript for websites. In any professional’s career, “fundamentals” are taught early on but can be forgotten or pushed aside in favor of getting projects out the door when deadlines are tight or in favor of new training that do things differently. In any case, fundamentals are usually the foundation of good programming and it’s beneficial to revisit them from time to time.

Eloquent JavaScript does a good job of detailing the fundamentals and explaining concepts like the stack and the environment. This attention to detail is what sets the book apart from other JavaScript books. However, Eloquent JavaScript is a comprehensive JavaScript guide so many features and techniques aren’t discussed. Another downside is the lack of tutorials or step-by-step examples: since the focus is on basic concepts, Marijn only needs basic snippets of code to illustrate his examples. There are a few larger projects used to demonstrate things over the course of a chapter or two, but they’re not really laid out as tutorials.

There are other aspects of JavaScript that aren’t discussed in Eloquent JavaScript, the most glaring of which might be libraries like jQuery. jQuery, Dojo and other JavaScript libraries are commonly used to make coding JavaScript easier, but Eloquent JavaScript mentions them on one page in passing. Again, there are many books out there that cover jQuery—and far more resources and code examples online—but this book is all about understanding JavaScript and knowing how to write elegant code from scratch.

Eloquent JavaScript is a very specialized book for programming purists and web developers who want to write the best code possible. Many developers are happy writing code that simply works, and this book may not be for them—a larger resource like O’Reilly’s JavaScript: The Definitive Guide or a book on jQuery might be a better fit for them. But if you want to grasp all the basic concepts behind JavaScript and write more eloquent code, try Eloquent JavaScript.

Eloquent JavaScript: A Modern Introduction to Programming
Marijn Haverbeke
Published by No Starch Press
US $29.95
Rating: 8/10

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