Jumping beans

Three recent books on Java should help print designers understand and even come up with some pretty respectable website design. Paul Murphy tests them out

Packages the size of telephone directories are constantly arriving at the Design Week offices. Hopes for a glossy monograph on Paul Rand are dashed when more often than not they turn out to be books on computer programming. Not just any computer language but specifically Java. So why would the otherwise sensible publisher Prentice Hall send DW Instant Java and Java by Example?

Java, developed by Sun Microsystems, is a streamlined programming language which most importantly is platform-independent and will therefore run on any Java-enabled machine, whether it’s a Mac or a PC. “So what?” you might say, but if you’ve looked at the World Wide Web then you’ve almost certainly encountered what it is that Java can do. As Steve Devo, technical director at Online Magic, the company responsible for the Sky Sports and Channel 4 sites, says: “The point is that Java can do pretty much whatever you want to do – animation, complex forms, layouts, interactivity – ultimately it means more control over your site.”

Early criticisms of the web as a design medium focused on the lack of control over layouts and fonts, these being dictated by the user’s browser. For designers coming from a print background, most notably Neville Brody, this was the ultimate turn-off. While improvements in browsers and new HTML standards have partly addressed these issues, the promise of Java is not only true control over page layouts that would match the expectations of print, but also animation and interactivity. At last “what you see” will be “what the user gets”. The drawback is that Java is still a programming language and without programming experience, it’s fairly incomprehensible.

Prentice Hall, in alliance with Sun Micro systems, has produced a series of Java books under the Sunsoft Press imprint, and Instant Java by John A Pew is the latest one aimed at the non-programmer. Sensibly for such a premise, Instant Java has limited itself to the use of Java applets on web pages as a way of adding sound, animation and interactivity rather than attempting to teach the syntax of the full Java programming language. The applets range from image manipulation (scaling, blurring, skewing images and so on) through to animation and slide shows. All the code necessary is included alongside a brief description of what it does, and the included CD-ROM contains all the working examples. These are easily adapted and customised for uploading to a website.

The images the author has chosen are pretty cheesy, but don’t let this put you off as what matters here is the code. For a web production company employing programmers the use is limited, but for a designer dabbling in the web this is a straightforward, understandable guide. Alternatively, you could download the source code from a Java-enabled site to “borrow” for your own use. But whichever way you go the problem with using generic code is that you’re always dependent on what’s already available.

Prentice Hall’s companion publication Java by Example is aimed squarely at the experienced programmer and without that knowledge is quite frankly incomprehensible. A better bet for the non-programming designer who wants to take the plunge into Java programming would be Just Java – a painless introduction to Java and object-orientated programming.

Instant Java by John A Pew, Java by Example by Jerry R Jackson and Alan L McClennan and Just Java by Peter van der Linden are all published by Prentice Hall at 27.95 each.

Latest articles