Gavin Wray

Book review: 'A Practical Guide to Designing the Invisible'

A Practical Guide to Designing the Invisible by is a compact, useful primer for web design beginners with refresher lessons for more experienced designers.

The book has five sections, which explore:

  • invisible communication
  • wayfinding
  • importance and meaning of colour
  • tone of voice
  • storytelling

Firstly, this book isn’t about HTML, CSS or creating graphics. It’s not a practical book to have open by your computer. What it does is get you thinking, in depth, about the details in a design which positively affect your web experience. The detail could be small, consistent icons. It could be the subtle menu cues that make a complex structure easier to navigate. It could be the tone of voice helping you perceive the website owner’s personality.

Robert has a friendly, open writing style and presents these topics simply and clearly. While many web design books cover the connotations of colour, I was pleased to see a large chunk of the book covering language, tone of voice and storytelling. That’s why I bought the book. It’s good to see language and content explored in the context of web design. I hope this book goes some way in encouraging new web designers to consider content, as well as learning graphic design, markup and programming.

Bugbear alert: content isn’t that ‘weird wordy stuff’ dropped into placeholders in a design. Content can fundamentally change the meaning or effectiveness of a design, so give the content as much thought as the design (if not more). One passage chimed with my experience in writing web content:

“The best way to tell an immersive story and connect with your audience is by understanding them and knowing what their goals are […] put yourself in someone else’s position to experience what a situation is like for them. If you do this through use cases and personas, you’ll understand your audience much better. The more you understand your audience, the easier it will be to tell a story that engages them.”

If you can do this, though I suspect we’d all like more time to do so, you have a solid foundation to start writing. When things get difficult, you have this foundation to refer to. For those with some web design experience, I think the sections on icons, wayfinding and colour palettes will be familiar, while they may benefit from the other sections. This book really is for beginners (this is made clear on the back cover). That’s the good stuff.

On the downside, this book is full of typos. So many, in fact, they distracted me from what Robert was saying, affecting my enjoyment of the book.

Also, the binding is too tight and the page content set too close to the spine, with generous margins on the outer edges of the page. While this looks elegant (the paper and print quality are great) you need superhuman strength to hold the book open with one hand and still be able to read the full width of a paragraph. I had to wrench the book open flat and crack the spine to read it comfortably. Definitely a case of form over function.

Overall, I found Designing the Invisible a refreshingly good read, particularly the chapters on wayfinding, language and storytelling. At £29 for the printed book though, it’s a shame that attention to detail in production wasn’t up to the same level as the content.

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