Book Review: Design for Hackers

I came into web design from a different place than a lot of my peers. I didn’t have a design background. I didn’t work in print. I needed to make a website, and I just dove in and started hacking out HTML (CSS had just come out and not yet taken hold). It clicked immediately, and I had a lot of fun working with the code and seeing what I could do. And I built a few really, really ugly sites. It didn’t take long before I figured out there was more to the game than making things work, and that’s when I started learning about design.

Design for Hackers - Web Design Book Review

But it was an uphill battle. The design part just didn’t come as easily to me as the more technical parts of the job.

Who is Design for Hackers For?

If you find yourself more comfortable hacking out code and solving logical puzzles than designing beautiful and functional things, Design for Hackers is for you. It demystifies many of the design foundations that tend to stymie developers, helping us  understand the fundamentals of design in a way that makes sense for logical thinkers.

What does Design for Hackers Cover?

As a design book, Design for Hackers covers all the things that you would expect: defining design, design principals, color theory, typography, composition, and hierarchy. It includes two extremely useful appendices on typography: “Choosing and Pairing Fonts” and “Typographic Etiquette”.

Design for Hackers - Web Design Book Review

It also spends a lot of time laying the ground work of why design matters and what an impact it has on people’s lives, usually without anyone ever noticing. By starting the book emphasizing why the subject matters, it lends the chapters that follow a sense of importance.

What Works?

  • I love the way the book demonstrates the principals its teaching, which it does in two different ways. The first is to use extremely simple illustrations, such as a series of circles, to show the different foundations of design. As new principals are learned, the simple illustration is updated to reflect that. The other method involves looking at real life examples, such as the MailChimp logo or the Twitter homepage. Both of these are effective means of teaching, but combining them works especially well.
  • While I can’t quite put my finger on it, Design for Hackers approach to teaching typography worked for me in ways dozens of other books and articles didn’t. Typography is something I’ve always struggled with, and reading this book make a lot of the concept finally click for me. Its deconstruction of Comic Sans was particularly insightful and entertaining.
  • As a colorblind web developer, I’m always very conscious of how color can trip up people like me. Design for Hackers approaches this head on, and really does a great job of showing how color blind people struggle, and ways that designers can help to mitigate these issues.

What Doesn’t?

  • While I found the history lessons extremely interesting, I’ve read other reviews that criticize the book for focusing too much on the history of design. This one is going to come down to the individual reader: people like me who love history will enjoy it, while those who struggle with it won’t. Your mileage my vary.

The Verdict

If you’re a developer that wants to build a better understanding of design principals, this is the book for you. It offers a ton of insight, presented in ways that more logical thinkers can really understand. It also places all of these principals in historical and real world contexts that beautifully illustrate the concepts.

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