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Is your book, manual, or website remarkable (or recognizable) at every scale?


There's a game I used to play where you take a really small image from the painting of a famous artist and try to identify it. The trick is to see how small a sample you can use before you can no longer recognize either the painting or the artist. It's amazing just how identifiable a Van Gogh or a Monet or a Kandinsky or a Miro is, just from the tiniest slice. It's a wonderful game to teach yourself to really see the way the artist used color, texture, light, shapes, lines, etc.

Now, take the nearest computer book on your shelf and open it to a random interior page somewhere in the middle. Can you tell who the publisher is just by looking? Can you tell who the author is? Go a little further and start reading a paragraph. Now can you tell?

That's the problem.

The books might be easy to differentiate on a larger scale like, say, the level of a chapter or the whole book. A book from author "A" might cover the whole of the topic in a very different (and substantially better) way than author "B", but at smaller scales... can you tell the difference? Is there anything distinct about the look and feel? About the writing?

Why shouldn't a book be a reflection of the brand? Most publishers will tell you that they are. They enforce editorial standards and layout guidelines to help ensure consistency. But consistency is not enough! Not nearly enough to make a memorable impact. Not nearly enough to be even identifiably unique, let alone remarkable.

So why don't more publishers do more to ensure that their books are recognizable (and ideally remarkable) at every scale? Why don't more authors put their pages to the test... the "flip to a random page and see if there's anything different from the 30,000 other currently-shipping computer books on Amazon" test? A lot of authors don't because they're writing to strict formatting guidelines, and have no influence on the layout and style. And that's not always a bad thing... a lot of authors certainly don't pretend to be interior book designers. But they can still do it with their writing and information style. But I read so many paragraphs that could be so interachangeable with another book from a different publisher and author on the same topic.

There are, of course, a ton of authors whose paragraphs you can recognize. Peter van der Linden, one of my favorites, immediately comes to mind along with my good friend Solveig Haugland. (Interesting twist -- Solveig now helps edit Peter's books...) And I can always tell (and enjoy) Bruce Eckel's books.

I'm not suggesting this recognizability is the most important thing -- you could certainly print each terrible paragraph in day-glow orange and it would be recognizable, even remarkable, but still a terrible book. But let's say we've crossed the threshold and we have good writing, good content, technical expertise... all the things a good computer book needs to have. Now what? How do you begin to differentiate yourself from all the other equally good books? We all know that you can do it simply by being the first out with a book on a particular topic, but that's not a sustainable and healthy strategy.

The best way, in our opinion, is to create the book for the user, using the approach I suggested in How to write a non-fiction bestseller. But we're talking about a different, smaller scale in this post...

So which brands/books are recognizable at every scale? Certainly the Dummies series does this. I believe the O'Reilly Missing Manuals series does this, as does their Hacks series. The Visual QuickStart guides from Peachpit are pretty easy to spot. Our Head First books pass the test pretty well:

Our intention was for each page to look as though it was constructed by a somewhat strange instructor using a whiteboard and markers to draw things. It's supposed to have a kind of friendly hand-drawn classroom feel. That's not the feeling everyone wants from a technical book, but it works for our audience (shameless self-promotion: Head First Design Patterns was THE #1 bestselling computer book on Amazon for part of last week, according to their bestseller list--way to go Eric and Beth!), and they can spot it on virtually every page.

And it's not just in the look and feel (fonts, graphics, etc.), but in the actual writing style.

But just so you don't think I'm too full of myself... here's the first book Bert and I wrote, a couple months before we designed the Head First series:


Looks just like every other computer book. In fact, for comparison, here's another page from a different publisher. Can you tell who published either of these books? (Neither are from O'Reilly).


Yeah, that's what we thought. Nothing identifiable. Nothing unique. Nothing recognizable. Nothing remarkable. At least not at the level of the page look and feel. The first one, from Bert and I, is our Osborne/McGraw-Hill Java certification book. The second page is from a great book -- Marty Hall's Core Servlets book published by Prentice-Hall.

But they look the same.

Is that really a problem? Don't virtually all novels look pretty much the same inside, and after all--this is about writing and words are, well, words? Does (or should) the typography and column grid make any difference?

If you're writing fiction, I'd say no, it doesn't. Beyond basic readability. But then again, publishers have notoriously poor customer/market recognition. Almost nobody goes to the store believing their intention is to buy a book from a particular publisher. They go to buy a book on a particular topic, or from a particular author, or perhaps from a particular series (which is usually as close to brand recognition as a publisher ever gets).

But if you're writing non-fiction, I don't think it has to -- or SHOULD -- be that way. The problem with so many non-fiction books, especially books meant to be instructional, is that they're treated as "writing", when they should be treated as "experiences." Our goal is to change what's inside someone's head, and that might point to a very different approach than if the goal is simply to "write a good book." So, I believe that publishers, authors, book interior designers, etc. should think more about the experience and less about the delivery of written words.

And if that experience is designed in a way that really works and is remarkable, then it will be recognizable at any scale, and will add to the power and memorability of the brand (and if all the other good things happen that we talk about on this blog, may even lead to passion).

And while we're on books, what about product manuals? I bought a Nikon Coolpix 5700 when it still cost over $1000. Nikon is a pretty cool company, and has some wonderful passion-inspiring things on their website (if they can make me a better photographer, they're going to train me to realize I need a more expensive model camera ; ), but look at the manual that came with the camera:


For comparison, notice how it looks no more remarkable than the manual that came with my Canon digital video camera:


Absolutely nothing there to reinforce the brand. And although both manuals are decent, neither are particurlarly good. And neither go out of their way to try to make me better at using the equipment, when if they DID, I'd be more inclined to buy the next thing they make -- including accessories and a more expensive and capable model.

In comparison, though, look at the manual that comes with a wonderful music software app, PropellerHead's Reason:


The manual has a nice look and feel that draws you in and makes you want to learn more about Reason. And the better you get, well, now I'm obviously going to have to upgrade to version 3.0...

And for one last contrast, here's what the part of the Nikon site looks like that includes online learning:


Now why can't the manual look at least a little bit like that?

I think I'm going to do another blog on this topic of "remarkable at any scale", but in terms of things other than books and manuals. Maybe I'm just obsessed with mapping everything into fractals...

Thanks for being patient while I've been mostly offline folks. I think I'm really back this time : )

Posted by Kathy on May 30, 2005 | Permalink


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Well said, Kathy. I think part of the problem is that we (publishers, authors, etc.) tend to think in terms of what's worked in the past, not necessarily what approach is best for the future. That's why so many of those books look the same. It also reflects the textbooks many of us grew up with.

I look at how my 3 children (ages 10, 16 and 18) learn and I see a huge opportunity for styles other than the traditional textbook. In fact, anything that looks or smells like a book at all is going to be a tough sell. They tend to get the majority of their information online, in bite-size chunks. The first author/publisher to create an attractive product that fits this model will hit it big. Right now though, like many of us, they're getting much of what they need for free from sources like Google...

Posted by: Joe Wikert | May 30, 2005 4:33:11 PM


I like the use of graphics in your Head First Java book very much. Consider me a fan.

However, on a few occasions, I felt the heavy use of graphics actually got in my way. It slowed my reading speed. My eye had to take too many little *detours* to finish the page. Still, I like the graphics. (The only other thing I didn't like about the book was the skimpy coverage of string manipulation.)

But graphics alone do not a make a great book. In fact, IMHO the best *beginner's* computer programming book I've ever read is Greg Perry's "Absolute Beginner's Guide to C" which was written in 1994! It uses very little in the way of graphics (except for some silly icons), is extremely easy to understand, and can be very rapidly read.

My point is this: I don't think the use of graphics is necessarily of critical importance in a programming book. Your book (with graphics) and Perry's book (without graphics) are BOTH excellent. Why is this the case? I think it's because you were both trying harder to *teach* than to *impress.*

I've spoken with authors who have said "there's no real money in writing computer books, but it looks great on a resume." I think most authors are secretly trying harder to impress than to teach. In other words, THEY want to "kick ass" -- ef the poor reader who buys the book.

I'm looking forward to other "non-Java" Head First books (where the use of graphics may very well be of critcal importance). By the way, when is your Head First Moviemaking book coming out? : )

Posted by: Johnny | Jun 1, 2005 8:07:35 AM

I hate you:)
I was this close )( to going live with my first ebook and now you went and inspired me to change it again.
That's okay I was feeling it needed something to make it sing and you gave me just what it needed. Thanks. I took the elements that were on a few pages and put them on most of the important pages. It would be far too cluttered to put it on every page, but maybe in the next book in the series.

I love your posts, they are really inspiring to me, keep up the good work.

Posted by: Stephan F | Jun 1, 2005 4:09:45 PM

I can't believe it, my co-worker just bought a car for $67002. Isn't that crazy!

Posted by: Betsy Markum | Nov 16, 2005 7:08:22 PM

Great info, thanks a lot!!! I wish I will have such a writing skills.

Posted by: PODO | May 19, 2007 12:29:35 PM

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