Tag Archives: review

Cederholm’s “Handcrafted CSS” Is An Enjoyable Read


I never did get a chance to review Dan Cederholm‘s Bulletproof Web Design, but I know the reputation it has in the web design community. That’s why I was excited to grab a copy of his newest book, Handcrafted CSS: More Bulletproof Web Design. Handcrafted CSS is a very good book: well-designed, full of both hands-on projects and commentary, and also well-written.

New techniques require new books

Handcrafted CSS is really a book about a handful of new CSS techniques that weren’t feasible when Bulletproof Web Design was written. A new batch of modern browsers and some designer ingenuity have given Dan new cutting-edge techniques to write about, including new methods for creating rounded corners, parallax scrolling, improved floats and more. Ethan Marcotte also writes a chapter on his own contribution, a fluid grid-based layout.

Some of these techniques are browser-specific: modern browsers like Firefox and Safari make several of Dan’s techniques possible, but old version of Internet Explorer ignore the code because the browser is just plain lousy. Dan advocates progressive enhancement, adding the improvements for those who can enjoy them and allowing the site to degrade—but still work—for everyone else. Handcrafted CSS even has a chapter on this topic (“Do Websites Need to Look Exactly the Same in Every Browser?”). A few years ago, most of my clients would have answered “yes” to this question; today, my clients seem to understand that Internet Explorer doesn’t allow them the web’s full potential.

Leaves you wanting more

Handcrafted CSS lacks a larger perspective that I hoped would be included. For example, in Chapter 2 Dan explores two vendor-specific extensions: -webkit-border-radius and -moz-border-radius. These extensions allow CSS to apply and control rounded corners in Mozilla and Safari browsers. Chapter 2 is a wonderful read and makes the popular “rounded corner” design easy to execute, but it left me wanting to read more about vendor-specific extensions. Handcrafted CSS is focused on specific projects and techniques to the detriment of the broader theory and techniques, and I think some of “the big picture” could have been included without making the book much larger or expensive. It would have also made the book more accessible to beginners, though a book on advanced CSS techniques is not a bad thing for advanced users. This all is a minor complaint though, because the material is so good.

The cutting edge

I would recommend Handcrafted CSS for any experienced web designer working with CSS today. Like Dan says in the book, the cutting edge continues to move forward and new techniques must be learned to stay current and maintain true craftsmanship. I really like the “craftsmanship” angle that Dan sticks to throughout the book, and the DVD (available separately or together) and companion website (used in all chapters and exercises) make this a very hands-on book as well as a good read without them.

I also think that beginner and intermediate designers will benefit from Handcrafted CSS, though this is not a book from which to learn CSS. It’s written to expand your knowledge of the cutting edge and employ new CSS techniques that weren’t practical just a few years ago. I’m already looking forward to Dan’s next book, which will surely be needed just a few years from now.

Handcrafted CSS: More Bulletproof Web Design
Dan Cederholm with Ethan Marcotte
Published by New Riders
Rating: 9/10

Tutorial: Use Stitcher Unlimited 2009 To Build Interactive Panoramas

Photoshop has been able to produce good panoramas for years with the Photomerge plug-in, and it’s a popular tool for some photographers who use Photoshop to build sweeping vistas from multiple shots. Other users find Photomerge very handy for combining images for use in QuickTime VR (QTVR) projects such as 360-degree online tours and other immersive interactive media.


I have always used Photoshop and a $49 program called CubicConverter to build QTVR: I combine images in Photoshop and then output the movie file with CubicConverter. However, Autodesk offers an application called Stitcher Unlimited 2009 that handles both functions extremely well. There are some pros and cons to using Stitcher versus Photomerge, but I like the fact that it’s a complete solution for VR professionals.

Create your panorama

In this tutorial we’ll learn how to import images into Stitcher, stitch them together in a panorama, fix any bad stitching or mismatched exposures, and export to QTVR. The five images in this tutorial are of St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin.

I stitched these five photos of St. Stephen’s Green.

1. Import your images into Stitcher.

The easiest way to do this is to drag the image files onto the Stitcher interface, but there are also menu and icon commands that do the same thing. I recommend that you make the exposures consistent outside of Stitcher. During the import process Stitcher will detect the lens type and focal length, which you can accept or revise.

2. Use the Stitch Shots command to automatically begin the stitching.

Stitcher does a good job stitching shots together on the fly, every bit as good as Photoshop’s Photomerge feature. You’ll have greater success if your shots have a healthy amount of overlap: in my example, the first and last shots have very little overlap with the image next to them and Stitcher did not attempt to stitch them together.

Photos that are successfully stitched are marked with green in the Thumbnail View strip below the main window. Stitcher uses green, yellow and red to mark successful and problem images. The stitched images show up in their panoramic glory in the main window, and the three tools to move around are in the View menu—pan, zoom and roll. The menu bar doesn’t show it, but there are vital keyboard shortcuts for the Pan (Alt/Opt-drag) and Zoom (Cmd/Ctrl-drag) tools. These shortcuts make moving a lot easier and the menu commands are comparatively slow.

The Stitch Shots command is the easiest way to combine photos with Stitcher, as long as they don’t have exposure differences or too little overlap. Click the image for a larger view.

3. Manually stitch any missed images.

I dragged my two missing images from Thumbnail View to the main window. The left image stitches nicely just by dragging the image so it overlaps the image next to it. Stitcher fades the two images together to make a seamless transition, though in my case a man in the left image ended up losing some opacity due to blending with the second image’s background. Unfortunately, Stitcher does not have any retouching tools like Photoshop does, though you can stencil out part of an image and retouch it in Photoshop or another application.

See the man in the background who is 50% transparent? He’s right on the seam between two photos. These photos aren’t stitched, but Stitcher is smart enough to blend images when they overlap.

The right image is a good candidate for Stitcher’s Manual Stitch command—images that overlap and have common landmarks do well with Manual Stitch. Select the right image and the one to be stitched to it and choose the Manual Stitch icon or menu item. An interface appears that allows you to pin common points on both images. In my example, the statue in the background and one of the railing posts were good common points. Once the pins are in place, click Stitch and Stitcher brings them together. Note that manually stitched images are marked with yellow while non-stitched images (like my left image) are marked with red.

4. Equalize images

There are two methods for equalizing images: use the Equalize All Images command or, if you have 32-bit High Dynamic Range (HDR) images, use the HDR exposure controls in the HDR menu. In my example, the fourth and fifth images have some overexposure compared to the three on the left. However, Equalize All Images doesn’t seem to work with unstitched or manually stitched images and it of course can’t fix incorrect colors like the sky in my fourth photo. The sensitivity of Equalize All Images is also buried in Stitcher’s preferences, making it a chore to tweak it for the best results.

The transition between the rightmost image and the one next to it. I left the exposure difference in the final product; Photoshop is the best choice to fix this problem.

Photomerge seems to do a better job of automatically equalizing images, though it doesn’t have the specialized HDR features that Stitcher offers. Photomerge produced a fully equalized panorama with the St. Stephen’s Green photos, and even figured out how to stitch the right image so I didn’t have to do it manually.

5. Render the final QTVR output

Stitcher provides many options when producing the final output.

The real value of Stitcher is in the various formats it can produce: JPEG, QuickTime movies or QTVR, Pure Player Java or HTML and KML. The KML file is suitable for use with Google Earth. To publish a QTVR, select “Cylindrical QTVR” or “Spherical QTVR” from the Type menu and change the various settings as needed. The Render dialog box has four panels full of options for quality, output and scripting so it’s a complicated process but also very robust, and there’s a panel for saving and recalling settings so the process runs smoothly.


The coolest thing about Stitcher Unlimited 2009 is its range of features: there are several I did not write about, including hotspots, stencils, alignment and working with fisheye images and full spherical panoramas. I was impressed by the wide features that Stitcher offers to creators of panoramas and QTVR, and I think there is potential for more interactive images and multimedia with these tools.

BOOK REVIEW: Even Faster Web Sites


It’s rare for a book to catch me off-guard with unique techniques, but Even Faster Web Sites seems to have done it. The book is written about the topic of website performance and optimization, which grants users a faster, leaner browser experience and less hassle with slow-loading pages and images. I had always known about image optimization tools in Photoshop and coding techniques that help make pages smaller and faster but Even Faster Web Sites surprised me with tactics and techniques that are a level above.

First, a strong pedigree

The book’s stable of authors is enough to make web designers take notice. The main author is Steve Souders, who works on web performance at Google and created the Firebug extension YSlow. Some chapters are written by other authors including:

This is a large group of authors from some of the most recognizable companies in the web technology industry. The books such authors put out often stand out, such as Web Form Design by Luke Wroblewski. The writing is solid and the grasp of the web technology is really top-notch.

Magic behind the curtain

I was surprised at how much Even Faster Web Sites revealed to even an experienced web designer like myself. The chapter on image optimization offers several techniques such as PNG crushing and optimized sprites that only experienced web designers will already know about. I think some parts of the book are less helpful for designers than developers and programmers, but all designers working with HTML, CSS and JavaScript are programmers by definition and those chapters might be dense but are definitely helpful.

One of the most impressive aspects of Even Faster Web Sites is the testing and research produced by the authors. Some books get away with stating rules and best practices, but this one provides evidence to support what it recommends. The charts and tables convinced me that I have some room to improve my own website-building practices for my clients, and I’m excited to provide even better service thanks to this book.

Even Better Web Sites is an outstanding book, and a rare book that’s a good read for designers and developers of every skill level. The only designers who don’t need this book are those who know everything about web design already. Some of the techniques explained in this book seem to border on magic. I recommend you pick up a copy and learn how your websites can move even faster.

Even Faster Web Sites
Steve Souders
Published by O’Reilly
Rating: 10/10

BOOK REVIEW: From Design Into Print

Cover image
Cover image

I’ve seen Sandee Cohen’s writing many times over the years in InDesign Magazine and heard her speak at The InDesign Conference a few years ago, but From Design Into Print is the first book of hers I’ve reviewed. It’s a good book with Sandee’s usual wit and comprehensive knowledge of the industry, and it’s well-written and well-designed.

Great for newcomers

I was struck by how useful From Design Into Print would have been for me in 1999, when I started my career at a local newspaper. The company gave me a copy of Newspaper Ads That Make Sales Jump: A How-to Guide but From Design Into Print would have been much more pertinent to my everyday work preparing images and layouts for printing. There are also projects and quizzes at the end of every chapter, but I found the projects so broad and intensive that they didn’t hold my interest. One project asks the reader to pick up a magazine and study the dot patterns in printed images, but why not just print some pattern close-ups right there and explain their qualities? Fortunately, project topics are usually explored elsewhere in the book.


One difference between From Design Into Print and a similar production guide from ten years ago is the inclusion of chapters on image sources (digital photography, stock photos and clip art) and some new technologies (PDF, Acrobat and other applications). This book shouldn’t be considered just a book on printing: it encompasses the full production workflow, which I think it vital since designers are called to do much more today than in the past. The only things I think could have been expanded were the sections on PDF/X specifications, which can demystify the whole PDF export process, and color correction, which is vital to print production but is not really discussed in From Design Into Print.

A few mistakes

The information and techniques in From Design Into Print is pretty much free of errors, but there were enough spelling mistakes to make me notice. Ironically, three of them are on page 261 in the paragraphs about errata and fixing spelling mistakes after printing. Sandee tells me one is intentional (read the passage and you’ll know why). I’m not too bothered by harmless typos but there are also a couple product names that are misspelled, and that is more serious. The worst is Apple Aperture, misspelled “Apperture” twice in the same section.

Despite these flubs, From Design Into Print is an excellent book overall—one I would give to any designer new in the field. The tools for print production are available to everyone today but there’s still craft and skill involved in printing the dots and vectors that make up the printed page. From Design Into Print teaches the craft very well.

From Design Into Print: Preparing Graphics and Text for Professional Printing
Sandee Cohen
Published by Peachpit Press
Rating: 8/10

Reviewing An Old Favorite: Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think

Don't Make Me Think
Don't Make Me Think

Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think left a big impact on me when I first read it several years ago. I knew the basics of writing and designing for web usability but Don’t Make Me Think crystallized the subject in a way that appealed to both web designers and users who didn’t know HTML but did know a bad website when they saw one.

The second edition, which was published in 2006, offers a few new chapters on accessibility and user “goodwill” but leaves out some of the chapters on user testing (though they can be found online at www.sensible.com/secondedition). I re-read the book recently and was surprised by the experience: Don’t Make Me Think is still a great book, still a classic, but it is beginning to look dated.

Many of the examples shown are either ancient (see Yahoo!, circa 1999, on page 27) or no longer exist (Productopia.com, which is studied in detail on page 118–121). This is bound to happen to any book, but Don’t Make Me Think is four years old in its current edition and the first edition was published way back in 2000. Web design has changed so much since then and it’s time for Steve to revise Don’t Make Me Think to acknowledge the changing landscape.

Don’t Make Me Think also makes assumptions about average users that I think could be revisited. I think Steve is still mostly correct in describing users’ behaviors as comparable to firemen making snap decisions, but some more specific behaviors and assumptions deserve another look. One is the notion that users don’t expect to reach a homepage by clicking on the logo at the top of a page. Another is the assumption that pull-down menus are bad for usability: I personally agree with this one but they are often effective for quick access when users don’t need to scan a long navigation. I’d be very interested in seeing a third edition of this book that takes another look at users’ “default” behaviors.

Rocket Surgery Made Easy
Rocket Surgery Made Easy

Don’t Make Me Think is still a valuable book for any web designer, and years later I still find myself using Steve’s ideas to describe web usability to clients. I hear Steve plans to have a new book out before year’s end, Rocket Surgery Made Easy. It’s listed as a “do-it-yourself guide to finding and fixing usability problems,” and might incorporate some of the user testing chapters pulled from Don’t Make Me Think. Perhaps it will address some of the new possibilities and pitfalls in web usability that have developed in the last decade.

REVIEW: Serif PhotoPlus X3 Adds New Features, Still No CMYK


Last year I published a lengthy review of Serif’s suite of desktop publishing, art and photo software. Serif is based in the UK and this suite was its initial foray into the American market. I found the suite to be intriguing, with some polished gems (PagePlus X3 Publisher Professional was a good product) and others that had promise but could be improved. The first of these products to be improved was DrawPlus, which was upgraded to X3 and reviewed earlier this spring.

PhotoPlus has now graduated to X3, and it boasts several improvements. In my previous review of X2 I lamented the total lack of CMYK image support and compared PhotoPlus X2 to Photoshop Elements rather than Photoshop. PhotoPlus X2 did not have the necessary professional-caliber tools but was a fair product for photo hobbyists and amateurs. PhotoPlus X3 makes some welcome additions for pro users as well as some for amateurs, but one thing still bothers me….

No CMYK support

PhotoPlus X3 has exactly the same weak CMYK support as its predecessor. CMYK images are automatically converted to RGB, and the application doesn’t seem to handle the black channel effectively because the resulting RGB image doesn’t much depth in the shadows. RGB and grayscale are the only two available color modes. Lab isn’t an option either. However, a look at the image modes will show one of the major additions to PhotoPlus X3: support for 16-bit images. 16-bit images can carry more data in each channel so the resulting image can capture a greater tonal range and make High Dynamic Range (HDR) images possible. The downside is that these images naturally have more data and thus more file size, plus some industry leaders argue that the extra bits don’t result in any noticeable differences to the eye. It’s also not quite as advanced as Photoshop, which supports 32-bit images.

Serif was smart to include an HDR Merge function with X3, now that it can support the necessary images. HDR Merge works pretty well but I am used to Photoshop’s Merge to HDR feature which only has a few simple controls; PhotoPlus X3’s HDR Merge offers six sliders. Some users might like the added control but I prefer to fine tune HDR images with Photoshop’s other tools. Nevertheless, HDR Merge is a welcome addition to PhotoPlus.

Raw Studio is raw indeed

I know of only one point-and-shoot camera that writes Camera Raw files; they usually shoot JPEG alone. This explains why PhotoPlus has not supported raw files—until X3 arrived. Now it boasts Raw Studio, a module for processing raw images. The price of cameras keeps dropping and the camera manufacturers have many more SLR models available now, so a lot more prosumer cameras (and raw images) are out in the world. Photoshop and Photoshop Elements both have their own Adobe Camera Raw modules for handling raw images.

Raw Studio is underpowered compared to Camera Raw. There’s not many sliders, other than a few for exposure, black point, noise reduction and chromatic aberration. The White Balance menu does not have most Camera Raw options, such as cloudy or tungsten white point. I also seemed to pick up color noise in the shadows of my test image (a DNG shot with a black background). Camera Raw and Lightroom produced excellent blacks with the same image. Still, I am impressed Raw Studio was even able to read a DNG file (Windows had no idea what to do with it) and with some tweaking of the controls I was able to get decent results. It’s ironic that I complained about the excessive controls in HDR Merge and minimal controls in Raw Studio, but I use a lot of sliders when working with raw images. It’s surprising how often I use Camera Raw’s minor controls like Fill Light and Clarity. But the most important control for any raw photo is Exposure—exposure control is one of the killer features of raw photos—and Raw Studio has that covered. For those who haven’t shot raw before, this is a big step forward.

Noise reduction?

PhotoPlus X3 sports a new Noise Reduction feature, found in the Raw Studio and also in the Effects menu and QuickFix Studio. I tested the feature with my noisy DNG file but the results were average. Before I even began, I was frustrated by not getting any results in the QuickFix Studio. The Noise Reduction effect was also grayed out in the menu. I eventually realized Noise Reduction does not work on 16-bit images. After I converted down to 8-bit RGB I tried Noise Reduction and the algorithm seemed to blur the color while retaining the details. The resulting image had poor color (almost like sepia tone) and the black/white noise remained.

If you need to use Noise Reduction and are shooting raw images, I recommend using the Noise Reduction control in Raw Studio. It seems to knock out both color and black/white noise, though I’m not quite satisfied with its results either—it blurs important image details as well as noise, and my images often ended up with the soft blur you see in glamour shots.

Print multiple photos much easier

Serif has replaced the Print dialog box with the Print Studio, which gives much greater printing control and enables printing of contact sheets and photo packages. Photoshop used to print these as well but the features were jettisoned with CS4; Lightroom prints both and does a wonderful job. The Print Studio doesn’t have the flexibility Lightroom does when printing photo packages but the contact sheet capabilities are excellent. The photo package (called Print Layout) capabilities are also quite good and easy to use with many presets available immediately. Some users may wonder how to reach the Print Studio since it doesn’t have its own button, but once they learn how easy it is to reach they’ll start using it immediately.

Other improvements

Serif’s has a few other improvements in PhotoPlus X3:

  • The How To panel has a new “Black and White Studio” to make grayscale conversion easier for novices. It walks users through a series of options for producing good black and white images, and it’s handy for new users but experienced users will not need this tool.
  • As with DrawPlus X3, PhotoPlus X3 supports Microsoft’s HD Photo file format.
  • The QuickFix Studio has several new adjustments besides Noise Reduction: Hue/Saturation/Lightness, Exposure and Black And White Film are all new features and work well. It also has a histogram that makes things easier for Photoshop users and others who know how to read histograms. I suspect a lot of PhotoPlus users will sooner use the image itself as feedback.
  • There are five new effects: Film Grain, Kaleidoscope, Page Curl, Plasma and Shear. They all make nice effects and are easy to use, and Shear and Page Curl are particularly useful. Plasma is basically Photoshop’s Render Clouds filter, and is good for producing textures. Film Grain works well for high-resolution images but it was hard to get a small enough grain on web-resolution images.
  • 3D effects now support mapping of reflections, bumps, patterns and other attributes for 3D image creation. This is not true 3D like Photoshop is supporting nowadays, but manipulation of light sources and maps to make 2D images look 3D. The 3D layer effect process seems kind of complicated but it can produce some fun results.


If Photoshop Elements did not have Camera Raw, I would have considered PhotoPlus X3 to be a compelling substitute. However, Camera Raw is in that product and Raw Studio needs some maturation before it’s comparable. Serif made all the right additions—Raw Studio, 16-bit and HDR support, noise reduction, contact sheets and photo packages—however, users spoiled by Photoshop and Photoshop Elements might be disappointed in their execution. I would recommend Photoshop Elements over PhotoPlus X3, though if you’re already a Serif customer and like using their products then you will enjoy PhotoPlus X3.

PhotoPlus X3
Rating: 7/10

BOOK REVIEW: Three Books On After Effects CS4

I usually review books separately, but today I’m reviewing three books that cover Adobe After Effects, the video compositing software that’s popular for both special effects and web animations. It’s very rare to find a book that’s suitable for novices and experts alike, and for a complicated application like After Effects it’s best to learn with a variety of training sources. Here we look at three, all from Adobe Press:

Classroom in a Book


The “Classroom in a Book” series is project-oriented and suitable for novices and intermediate users. I found this to be true in ActionScript 3.0 for Adobe Flash CS4 Professional Classroom in a Book and it also applies to Adobe After Effects CS4 Classroom in a Book. Knowing the fundamentals of working in After Effects CS4 is helpful, though the book covers some of the basics in its first pages.

I was surprised to see some advanced topics covered in Classroom in a Book, such as 3D, motion stabilization, Mocha, particle systems and Timewarp. This is only a sample of advanced After Effects topics, but that is enough to challenge some readers and entice them to some more advanced books. One of the strengths of Classroom in a Book is its broad appeal to readers with a variety of skill levels.

Classroom in a Book is well-designed and the projects are interesting: a couple use illustrations from professional illustrator Gordon Studer, giving the projects a professional feel not always offered in training projects. If you are just getting into After Effects, or have been using it for awhile and want to fill in the gaps in your training, Classroom in a Book is a good selection.

Visual Effects and Compositing Studio Techniques


This book has been around for years and is updated whenever a new version of After Effects is released—the current author, Mark Christiansen, has written the last four editions. Studio Techniques is a more advanced book that focuses on visual effects and compositing techniques, so it is more specialized than Classroom in a Book and applicable for some industries (video, TV, special effects) than others (web design, multimedia). You could go through your entire After Effects career and never need to know color keying or morphing, though these techniques certainly make for more interesting results and for some industries they are essential.

Just like Classroom in a Book, Studio Techniques is well-designed. The included CD-ROM has two extra chapters on scripting and JavaScript, both of which are valuable for advanced users. There are some example projects on the CD, which are walked through in the book, but it’s important to know that this book is not really project-based like Classroom in a Book. The projects are there for illustration but a lot of the knowledge is to be gained simply by reading. Some scripts and trial software complete the CD, but there’s no index for the scripts so you have to read the book to know what they do.

Despite some of these little quibbles, Studio Techniques is a great book that has filled an important niche for years. Mark’s writing style is very good and the content is excellent. Pick it up if you want to get into visual effects with After Effects or expand your general After Effects skills.

After Effects for Flash


Studio Techniques serves a niche, and a large niche at that. After Effects for Flash/Flash for After Effects serves a smaller niche, the intersection of After Effects video with Flash animation and ActionScript. But it’s an important niche, and even more important now that Adobe sells both products and has made integration a key factor of CS4. I’m very excited to see this book in the marketplace, and it’s written by Richard Harrington and Marcus Geduld who are both familiar to readers of Layers Magazine.

After Effects for Flash was written for both After Effects and Flash users, and the authors naturally could not guess what skill levels their readers would have with both applications, so the first 90 pages comprise a general introduction to both applications. This is fine but it also means a quarter of the book is beginner’s material. However, the rest of the book makes up for it with some very nice projects for intermediate and advanced users. After Effects for Flash focuses more on projects than Studio Techniques does. The projects provide a mix of Flash and After Effects projects, but overall they seem to skew more toward After Effects projects that produce content or improve upon SWF or FLV output. This makes the book ideal for multimedia artists and web designers.


All three books are well done and have a place in the After Effects user’s bookshelf. Each one serves a specific audience and covers aspects of After Effects and Flash, so I leave it up to the reader to decide what books he/she needs. After Effects for Flash is a special case because it has such a specialized focus that it seems to be applicable to all skill levels but only to those working with an integrated After Effects/Flash workflow.

Adobe After Effects CS4 Classroom in a Book
Adobe Press
Rating: 9/10

Adobe After Effects CS4 Visual Effects and Compositing Studio Techniques
Adobe Press
Rating: 9/10

After Effects for Flash/Flash for After Effects
Adobe Press
Rating: 9/10

BOOK REVIEW: ActionScript 3.0 Classroom In A Book


Remember “Training From The Source”? This was the name of Macromedia‘s official line of training books for Dreamweaver, Flash and other design applications. When ActionScript 2.0 was released I bought the book Flash MX 2004 ActionScript Training From The Source to learn that new version of the Flash programming language. I carried that large book through many airports and conferences, chipping away at its pages over the course of a few years.

By the time I was finished with that book, ActionScript had moved forward again to version 3.0, Macromedia was no more (having been acquired by Adobe) and “Training From The Source” was folded into Adobe’s own “Classroom In A Book” series. I thought it fitting to review the series recently with a look at ActionScript 3.0 for Adobe Flash CS4 Professional Classroom In A Book.

Small, compact, solid

Compared to the Training From The Source book, which was a large book in both page count and size, Classroom In A Book is smaller in both respects. I actually appreciate the smaller size because it increases portability. The book design is sharp, with a matte finish cover that is easier to handle and a clear layout design that aids learning. I was surprised the author, Chris Florio, had a laid-back, informal writing style—one would expect a workbook like this to have a no-nonsense tone—but I could appreciate a bit of levity after working on the exercises for hours at a time.

A different approach to ActionScript training

Classroom In A Book has roughly half the pages of its Training From The Source predecessor, so either ActionScript 3.0 is less complex than version 2.0 or the book doesn’t cover everything. It’s actually a combination of three things:

  • ActionScript 3.0 really is less complex than ActionScript 2.0, though it’s more verbose; the distinction is comparable to HTML and the more strict XHTML. Syntax is streamlined and coding skills apply to everything in a more uniform way.
  • Classroom In A Book doesn’t cover everything. Some topics such as CSS aren’t covered at all, while others (like classes) aren’t covered in their entirety. That might be a good thing, since ActionScript has always been a large language with many classes and elements. It seems this book is designed to teach essential ActionScript skills and leave minutiae to other resources.
  • Classroom In A Book is project-oriented, while Training From The Source was skill-oriented. Both books have projects to work on (and ship with a CD-ROM full of good project materials) but Training From The Source focused on skills such as handling text fields, XML, conditional logic, debugging and so on. Classroom In A Book thinks more in terms of building preloaders, loading content, creating quizzes and working with XML and video. Both approaches are good and Classroom In A Book teaches a great deal if one completes the exercises, but it’s not necessarily a compendium of ActionScript knowledge like Training From The Source was. It complements other sources such as the ActionScript 3.0 reference files, accessible directly from Flash.


ActionScript 3.0 for Adobe Flash CS4 Professional Classroom In A Book is worth buying, and particularly helpful for new Flash users who don’t know ActionScript or experienced Flash users who have not yet upgraded their skills to include ActionScript 3.0. The language really has made a sea change from ActionScript 2.0 and learning it requires training. Classroom In A Book is a good place to start.

ActionScript 3.0 for Adobe Flash CS4 Professional Classroom In A Book
Published by Adobe Press
Rating: 9/10

BOOK REVIEW: Search Engine Optimization for Flash


Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Flash was the red-hot new technology for the Web. Designers were building user-unfriendly splash screens and sometimes building complete websites all in Flash. Eventually a counter-movement developed that steered designers back toward semantic HTML markup, web standards and other lean, user-friendly web design methods.

One of the claims made against 100% Flash websites was that they are not indexed by search engines, since they cannot read text set in Flash. This never made sense to me because my own website at jeremyschultz.com is 100% Flash and it is indexed very well—some of the work in my client portfolio actually scores higher than my clients’ websites or names. One can only conclude that Flash can co-exist with a well-optimized website, and Todd Perkins‘ book Search Engine Optimization for Flash explains why.

Working with Flash

SEO for Flash had a lot of great information I didn’t know about—for example, Adobe has given Google and Yahoo! a special version of Flash Player that allows those search engines to index Flash text and links with no problem. Flash applications and movies can be optimized for search engines just like a regular HTML page—it’s just done differently, and it gets more complicated with JavaScript, AJAX and dynamic content are thrown into the equation. SEO for Flash details all the techniques needed to maximize search engine optimization for a variety of Flash projects. It goes even farther by including a chapter on optimizing Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) built with Flex, an application development program that uses the same ActionScript as Flash. This was an unexpected inclusion.

What brings the book together is the final chapter on optimizing a Flash website. Over 40 pages were devoted to this chapter and it tackles real-world examples, so it may be the most useful segment of the whole book. Some books make the mistake of teaching guidelines and techniques without applying them—which then requires the reader to practice and figure out how it’s done. SEO for Flash gives the reader more insight into this critical step of the process, such as focusing optimization efforts on searchable text, deep links and shared data sources.

Where’s the files?

I really love this book—it debunks several myths, does a great job teaching its readers and focuses on a neglected segment of web design. However, there is one glaring flaw: there are several exercises throughout the book that refer to Flash, HTML and XML files. Unfortunately, these files are quite hard to find. The book does not come with a disk and the online version (available at safari.oreilly.com) does not link to them. The files are actually found on the book’s page in O’Reilly’s online catalog under the term “Examples.” The download is a large ZIP file, which makes me wonder why the publisher doesn’t break the exercises down into smaller packets for easy access and hyperlinking.

Despite this, Search Engine Optimization for Flash is a great resource for Flash designers building projects for the Web. Todd does a fine job explaining all the important techniques for optimizing Flash content for search engines, and given Flash’s evolution from a cool animation tool to a content delivery application I think it’s important for all Flash designers to understand how to maximize search engine optimization for their projects.

Search Engine Optimization for Flash
Todd Perkins
Published by O’Reilly
Rating: 9/10

The Twitter Book Is The Definitive Resource (So Far)


Twitter can be an arcane technology, requiring tricks for functions like sending direct messages or executing a successful search at Twitter.com. This combined with the fact that Twitter is the hottest social media sensation today is problematic—everyone knows Twitter is the hot communications tool of the moment, but not many know how to use it effectively and a lot of people don’t actually know what it really is. If Twitter is to achieve mainstream success (which it has not), then it has to be as easy to use as e-mail.

For now the next best thing is The Twitter Book by Tim O’Reilly (founder of the publishing company O’Reilly) and Sarah Milstein, who was the 21st person to use Twitter—back when it was called Twttr. They are the perfect duo to write this book: they have a strong Twitter pedigree and a down-to-earth writing style that is just right for a book like this. The result is a book that’s not a textbook or even the usual O’Reilly technical book—it’s a book that feels more like a conversation, which is ironic since the authors maintain that Twitter is a conversational tool as much as it is a micro-blogging tool. This all means that The Twitter Book is a good fit for the uninitiated as much as it is for the fanatics.

Complete coverage, yet never complete

Twitter is relatively new and so it is constantly changing, with more apps and marketing theories surrounding it every day. Unfortunately, books do not change once the ink hits the paper and so The Twitter Book is already beginning a slow crawl into obsolescence. This can’t be helped—it’s the nature of the printed page (as opposed to the HTML page)—and so I am otherwise impressed by the completeness of the book. It’s well-organized with sections on:

  • Getting started with Twitter and following others,
  • Building a Twitter account people will want to follow,
  • Publishing pictures, links and entire stories on Twitter,
  • Perfecting your Twitter profile, and
  • Using Twitter for business: goals, managing staff and tweets, building PR and even making money.

I can’t think of a Twitter topic this book doesn’t cover. A few topics could have been covered with greater depth—the swarm of Twitter apps, for example—but they are better served by online resources that can keep growing as they do. Some books, including many printed by O’Reilly, offer extra material online that would have been wonderful for The Twitter Book, but for some reason the book offers nothing like this. It does cite many third-party websites though.

The Twitter Book‘s design and layout is not too flashy and serves its purpose very well. I’m normally bothered by books that puts all its pictures on the left pages and all its text on the right pages but in this book it seems to work well. Maybe it’s because the pictures aren’t just photographs but screenshots and charts that carry content. One improvement I would recommend to the authors is to better handle the web addresses (URLs) in the book: it’s fine to have them on the pages where they are referred to but an appendix listing them all by topic would be ideal. And it’s very ironic that, even though URL shortening is an essential Twitter skill, no URLs were shortened in this book even when it was desperately needed. Here’s one from page 163:


The only way to check out these links is to type them in, and it’s quite a chore. Using a URL shortener like bit.ly would have been a great help to readers and also allowed O’Reilly to track clickthroughs.

A definitive resource

Despite a couple little things that I thought could be improved, The Twitter Book is the definitive resource for Twitter users and particularly useful for new users. I can’t think of a book that covers Twitter with the same depth and style. Unfortunately there is a lot more to be read about Twitter, and for that one will have to start browsing the Web. But for those who want to start with words on paper, The Twitter Book is the one to buy.

The Twitter Book
Tim O’Reilly and Sarah Milstein
Published by O’Reilly
Rating: 10/10