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Powers, Shelley. Painting the Web. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly, 2008. xiv, 638, [1] pp. ISBN 978-0-596-51509-6 $44.99 £27.99

I'll swear that O'Reilly products are getting thicker: I wonder what their carbon footprint is as a result of chopping down all those trees? The 638 pages of this mammoth volume are devoted to the use of images on Websites. The author is described as "an avid amateur photographer and web graphics aficionado" who has also written for O'Reilly on the semantic Web, Ajax, JavaScript and Unix. So, in spite of the statement in the Preface that "Contrary to expectations, one doesn't have to have to be a professional graphics artist or designer to have fun with web pages." (p. ix), I suspect that a good knowledge of Web technologies will help.

Although the book is not formally divided into parts or sections, we can impose some to get an idea of the structure. Chapter 1 is simply an introduction, focusing on the notion that doing Web graphics ought to be 'fun' - well, a reasonable aim, but I'm not sure that I regard slaving away at trying to get images to behave properly on a Web page can be regarded as highly entertaining. 'Frustrating' is the word that comes to mind. However, that's just my incompetence! The chapter goes on to deal with some of the horrors of early Web graphics: this 'Hall of Shame' includes such things as blinking logos and text and awful design characteristics, such as putting coloured text on a conflicting background - probably with some blinking going on. Fortunately, most of that seems to have disappeared these days, but the occasional infringer still pops up from time to time - often in pop-ups!

Chapters 2 to 5 deal with elements of image formats and more technical matters such as working with various photo editors to process photographs for Web use. The software mentioned includes both free and commercial, from to Adobe Photshop C3. (That's a price range from zero to $649.00). From the darkroom to the Web: we move on to software for producing thumbnail images, slideshows and photo galleries and then to non-photographic images. There's a great deal of useful information in these chapters on achieving various affects that previously involved hours in the darkroom but which can now be achieved in hours at the PC. (My current personal interest is in High Dynamic Range images and I don't like to think of how much time I'm spending on tweaking photos in software!)

From Chapter 6 we begin to hit the technical stuff beginning with a chapter on vector graphics and the use of such software as Inkscape and GIMP, both of which are open source. Chapter 7 gets into the SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) standard and, if you have ever tried to read a W3C standard you'll realise that this is fairly hairy stuff. However, Powers clarifies things a great deal, by making it simple and providing examples, and also draws attention to the browser problem and SVG. Specifically, Internet explorer doesn't recognise SVG and, as SVG requires a page to be xhtml rather than html, there is the further problem that some browsers will produce the xml code instead of the page. So, wait and see, perhaps until things get sorted out - unless you have an audience (inside a company, for example) that has the right software, operating systems and browsers. Chapter 8 is also rather technical, dealing with Cascading Style Sheets - as you can imagine, given that entire books are devoted to the subject, a chapter of thirty-seven pages can do little more than touch on a number of techniques, involving CSS, that enable the effective display of text and images.

The next section consists of only one chapter and I think of it as a 'breather' in the middle of the techie stuff. It deals with Web page design for the non-designer and, although, Powers is not a designer, she does give some excellent advice on the subject. The key features, which I have tried to provide on this site, are ease of navigation, readability, lack of clutter and effective use of colour and images. Guardian Unlimited is featured as a site that observes principles of good design, which no doubt helps to make it one of the most visited newspaper sites on the Web. This demonstrates, for me, that good page design rather than, specifically, good Web page design, is the key. The Guardian newspaper regularly wins awards for its typography and style and, clearly, the in-house staff have the ability to transfer those skills to the Web.

After that relatively easy read, it's back to technical matters, with Chapter 10 on dynamic graphics and more on CSS; Chapter 11 on the Apple equivalent of SVG, Canvas; Chapter 12 on dynamic SVG and Canvas; Chapter 13 on image generation and manipulation tools such as ImageMagick and IMagick (a php extension used in conjuction with ImageMagick); Chapter 14 on using maps, especially those provided by Google Earth; and a final chapter on working dynamically with data to create on-the-fly graphs.

In common with all O'Reilly products, Painting the Web is beautifully produced with numerous code examples and illustration. There is no bibliography and references in passing to Websites are the only pointers to additional information. All examples are available at the O'Reilly site. For anyone with responsibility for building Websites, this book will provide hundreds of tips and tricks on managing images.

Professor Tom Wilson
August, 2008

How to cite this review

Wilson, T.D. (2008). Review of: Powers, Shelley. Painting the Web. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly, 2008. Information Research, 13(3), review no. R308  [Available at:]