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Maxvoltar - Why you can’t teach webdesign

Maxvoltar is the personal weblog of Tim Van Damme, a freelance interface designer at Made by Elephant.

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Why you can’t teach webdesign

I often get emails from people asking me how they can learn webdesign. Which books they should read, which studies they should choose or even which schools they should attend. I honestly have no idea what they should do.

With “webdesign”, I mean the ability to design a website with the drawing tool of your choice, and then slice it up and write the HTML and CSS yourself. Basically: Design + front-end coding.

I used to think that it should be all self-study, as the techniques and tricks change so fast. That it’s impossible for teachers to keep their curriculum up to date with what’s moving in the online world.

The advice I would give was: Quit school and go work at a company for a couple of years. Work hard, don’t expect to do A+ projects, and ask a lot of questions.

I was wrong, but not completely. There is a better way.

How many books have you read on the subject of webdesign? Wild guess: 3 or more. And you’ve probable read one or more of these (my favorites, preferable in this order):

Although not recent (Web Standards Solutions was first available in 2004), these books still provide an invaluable foundation and support in learning webdesign.

So that got me thinking: What if teachers could educate what is inside these books, and after they’ve covered the basics (although CSS Mastery already is pretty advanced), let their students decide what to specialize in?

It’s like parents raising kids (not that I know anything of that, just that my parents did a wonderful job). They can teach them a lot, but at a certain age, they need to let the kids go and learn on their own. The only thing parents can do from there on is supporting the kids, and guiding them through life.

Same goes for the teachers. The curriculum only gets you halfway. The only way you can learn the other half, is by learning it yourself. By guiding their students, teachers themselves will also stay on top of all the latest. It’s basically a win-win.

I know the subject of education in webdesign is a bit like a can of worms. Feel free to comment here, or write your own blogpost about it (I’ll link to it here).

Would love to know your opinions!


  • Josh Pyles

    3680 days ago

    <insert flaming comments here>

  • elliottcable

    3680 days ago

    Very true.

    I get asked to teach people stuff all the time. I do my best to help them accomplish their immediate task. I consider myself as rather good at this, to tell the truth. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to “teach them how to fish,” so to speak. I can only feed them.

  • James Macfarlane

    3680 days ago

    Good topic, I feel that a lot of webdesign schools within Auckland focus on everything — design, html/css, javascript, php, flash… It would be really great to get your feet wet in everything but as you said, you get to a certain point and know what you want to do, at this point it would be cool to specialise in certain areas like design & front-end coding.

  • Chris Olson

    3680 days ago

    So I was a little bummed at first when you said it cannot be taught. Obviously there needs to be some innate ability to understand the fundamentals of web design and front end dev. What I feel will set great web designers from just average designers is taking what they learn in either the workplace or teacher taught and going a new direction. There can only be so much replicated out of what is taught, taking the fundamentals and breaking new ground is what cannot be taught.

  • Andy

    3680 days ago

    As an aside, the book you’re describing at the end sounds a lot like Web Standardistas.

  • Ian P. Hines

    3680 days ago

    I agree with you.

    I have gone about learning web design a bit backwards (everything I know has been self-taught; I’ve never taken a course). And I don’t claim by any means to be an expert, or even someone capable of pursuing the field as a profession, but I consider that primarily a function of inexperience.

    I liken web design to a field like photography: you can take classes to learn how to use the camera, different elements of good composition, etc… but ultimately you have to see the shot and take it.

  • Jerome

    3680 days ago

    I’ve been wondering a lot about this self-teaching question and I’d wish universities and courses worked the way you’re describing them. Then I’d be willing to spend tens of thousands to get a damn paper saying I’m actually good. At the moment I feel this paper only represents someone who’s wasted a load of money and time on stuff I learned about years ago for free and now are completely dismissed in the latest available technologies.

    I’ve decided to go the self-teaching way because of just that. At the moment, I feel like I can teach myself better than any teacher could… because they don’t teach you how to learn, they give you the knowledge.

    Your idea is pretty darn good, but it would require a big change in how people view universities and even teaching in general. Apart from the good teachers that already are out there… in my experience with the school system, 75% of my teachers were awful at teaching.

    More over, I think teaching should be about the basics of a matter, to get students interested and the other ones to drop out the program… then they could make the whole class (or smaller groups) work on small projects (such as a website) for non-lucrative organizations, putting emphasis on problem solving. Telling them to search for the answers and to guide them on doing that. They would soon come across design patterns (once they know they exist) and from there they will know better what they like best. Could be front-end coding, designing, usability, information architecture, etc.

    I think this would make for people go for the job they like most, making them happier in their line of work and more prone to learning more on their own in that field and therefore delivering much better products.

  • Candi

    3680 days ago

    I was doing (horrible) web design for 7 years before I went to a school for a degree in design. It was an accelerated program (4 years of study in less than 2 years) so we ended up having only one month of basic HTML and CSS, two months of Flash, and one month of PHP. And I learned more in those four months than the 7 years on my own.

    So I guess it depends on the person. :)

  • Eddie Wilson

    3680 days ago

    Forgive me for the long comment but…I teach Web Design 101 for VCU in Virginia and I’ve found that the best way to teach is making every lesson a code example that each student builds by watching me build it on a projector, day after day. Day 1 is a “hello world”, day two is “headers and paragraphs” and you just grow from there, until each student has a library of code samples they can reference.

    You can’t teach it by having them take notes, and books are great as reference material, but all of us learned by actually doing it so that’s the way it needs to be taught. You build, you break, you fix, you learn.

    My curriculum is based around 1 project; a website of their choosing. By the end of the course each student has planned, designed, built, validated and launched a website (my only financial requirement of the course being 1 month of hosting). I grade live sites.

    Keep in mind that these website are constructed with VERY basic HTML; headers, paragraphs, lists, links, divs, etc. Design consists of basics CSS; background colors, border, and typography. No JS, no hacks. Images are content, not design elements because 1 semester is only so long, and I don’t have time to teach photoshop.

    I really want to change the name of the course to Web Publishing because that relates a bit more to what a 101 level web course is. 102 can be more design oriented once they know how to “write” with markup.

  • Ryan Glover

    3680 days ago

    I guess I’m 50/50 on this. I do feel like web design can be taught, but only certain aspects of it. For instance, the technical side (writing your markup and css) could easily be taught as a course at university. However, the side of design that we’re more familiar with, the artistic/graphic design side is very hard to teach. While the fundamentals can be taught, in order to truly become a “creative” you can’t just be cut out of a mold, you have to have a unique learning experience (otherwise everyone’s site will look the same).

  • Alex

    3680 days ago

    In addition to learning the technical aspect of web design, there tends to be a lack of focus on the goal of web design and development.

    I see this quite often. Learning technical skills is essential, but in addition, developers need to know what is their goal of designing or developing.

    The point of web design is all about the user. It is to satisfy a goal that the client, customer, and ultimately the end user or visitor of the website wants to achieve. Many clearly miss the mark and go straight into designing websites overloaded with graphics that are difficult to optimize, difficult to work with, and more so are difficult in terms of usability.

    I love design and creativity, but it is important to establish that goal-oriented mentality for those learning web development.

  • Pavle

    3680 days ago

    I must agree with Ryan Glover, you can’t teach someone whole web design, but you can teach him some good basics, like HTML, CSS, and some tricks we all learn over time, but no one can teach you to design (really design, not copycat) a website, you’re on your own here.

  • Pete

    3680 days ago

    Agreed mate

    I was asked a while ago to be a guest lecturer at a local sixth form. Couldn’t physically do it. I got sent the syllabus and it was so outdated. Think tables, spacer .gifs etc…

    I mean, you can still teach principles but these kids deserve to be taught practices and techniques that they can take with them into further learning and possible employment.

  • Jack Osborne

    3680 days ago

    This article is something which is actually very close to my heart, something that I’ve spoken about on many occasions.

    “it’s impossible for teachers to keep their curriculum up to date with what’s moving in the online world.”

    I only graduated last August after four years in the further education and for the majority of those four years I was left incredibly frustrated. Unfortunately there are no courses that I know of, here in Scotland dedicated entirely to web design/ development.

    Within the course I attended we were given an insight into a lot of subjects which was then supposed to give us enough information to go and choose our preferred class to work in for the rest of our lives. Obviously, my favourite was web design. However during these web design modules, I constantly felt like I was not being marked fairly. When using cutting edge techniques like rgba, rounded borders, jquery, and even basic css to construct my sites.

    I believe this to be due to the fact that you stated above, the teachers were not able to keep up with the industry due to the fact they had to teach several different classes. In my class people were given the same or a higher mark for their designs even when they were using tables to create it or even using one large photoshop image and embedding it into their page.

    Looking back now, I’m very proud to have achieved my qualification but at the same time I constantly wonder whether I would have been better off doing what you have mentioned. If the truth be told, two years would probably have sufficed and moving onto a company would have allowed me grow as a designer at a much quicker rate. Who knows where I’d be currently.

  • Maximilian Schöning

    3680 days ago

    Although I totally agree with you I do think dropping out of school/university is a risk. Right now the market is flooded with web-designers (and unfortunately not with very good ones) that “sort of” get CSS and some basic layout techniques but there will come a time where most of them will have trouble making a living. Without a degree you are only left with your talent and let’s face it: not everybody is as talented as the fucker who runs Made By Elephant!

  • Paul Davis

    3679 days ago

    I am completely self taught, all within the last 8 months I guess?

    I asked an agency if they were looking for a trainee… As things went on they now hire me (quite a lot) on a freelance basis. Looking to move for full time work with them if work picks up. (Global economy & stuff)

    I guess that shows the best thing for me was teaching myself.

  • Daniel Matthews

    3679 days ago

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, because i’m a student at the moment, and i want to be a web designer. But there is NO help available through my university for finding out the best way to move into the industry.

    Everything i know, i taught myself, and learnt through books. The small amount of stuff i learnt at University simply taught me a different method of doing things that i already knew how to do.

    Teaching yourself if the best way, i think, as it allows you to learn things at a pace you are comfortable with, and being comfortable with your knowledge is very important when you are expected to be so creative with it all the time.

    I complain that my University isn’t geared towards creating industry standard web designers, but now i see that getting to that level is more of a personal, rather than an academic achievement.

  • Forrest Fixx

    3679 days ago

    This might be a link to learning—online!

  • mckincy

    3678 days ago

    because of good design is difficult to define.
    so it is difficult to learn how to design.
    maybe everything about design is aways like that.

    my first webdesign is starting at photoshop.
    and my first css teacher is css mastery.
    i taught myself,but it is so hard to design a product to win somebody.
    they hate my design ,lol.

  • Christopher Murphy

    3678 days ago

    First off, full disclosure: In addition to maintaining my own practice I teach standards based web design at the University of Ulster, Belfast. I also co-authored Web Standardistas (kindly mentioned by Andy McMillan in the comments above). So, I might be just a little bit biased.

    I think it’s a mistake to state that web design can’t be taught. It can.

    Effectively teaching web design is not about covering everything. It’s also not about teaching software or specific frameworks, which serves the short term only. What it is about, is focusing on teaching principles and covering fundamentals.

    Importantly it’s about encouraging students to develop inquiring minds. My co-author Nicklas Persson and I graduated before web design was taught (or even existed) and we’re fully self-taught. As a consequence of this we try to nurture a culture of creative investigation amongst our students, signposting to interesting developments and encouraging students to experiment creatively.

    In that regard, the parenting metaphor you’ve used is perfect.

    All of the books you’ve listed are perfect, however, they all require existing knowledge before reading. Dan Cederholm’s ‘Web Standards Solutions’ is excellent, but it – like the others – requires a basic understanding of HTML and CSS before reading.

    You won’t be surprised to know that I concur with Andy McMillan in the comments above. If you haven’t already got it and are setting out on the one true path of standards based web design, get this book . It’s great.

  • Tim Van Damme

    3678 days ago

    @Christopher Murphy: I’m currently reading HTML and CSS Web Standards Solutions (or “Web Standardistas”, as you call it), and I must say I’m enjoying it quite a lot. Expect a review of it here soon!

    I’ve never came across a teacher that thought me webdesign in the way you just described, that’s the reason of this article. We were guided through Dreamweaver (the WYSIWYG part), and I once pissed off a teacher because I explained him you can style an h2 with CSS :)

  • Paulo

    3678 days ago

    One thing you might learn even you cant learn webdesigner: “your site must load in firefox.”

  • Honey Singh

    3670 days ago

    Your site must compatible with all the browsers.Cross browser compatibility is the most common issue which irritates the web designers but in the end you need to follow it. :P

  • Dillon

    3669 days ago

    Whenever i’m ask a question, i always try to stick with the basics. I’ve found that with a solid foundation, people will build themselves into all they can be.

  • Jonathan

    3666 days ago

    I agree with you. Probably the whole web design community does too.

    You can only teach someone the basic principles. How they choose to apply them depends on their own sense of design.

  • Mason

    3665 days ago

    Teach what you can, Make them want to learn!!

  • buddz

    3665 days ago

    Hey man thanks for the insight. I am trying to expand on my web design skills and am looking for tools/ideas to make things a little smother. Good post.

  • cheryl

    3660 days ago

    Open that can of worms and see what happens!

  • Zack Morgan

    3659 days ago

    One book I’d add to your list of recommended reading for aspiring web designers would be Steve Krug’s ‘Don’t make me think’. I see a lot of talented people getting carried away with implementing great-looking stuff, without thinking enough about things from the user’s point of view.

  • Sam Wieck

    3659 days ago

    I’m currently studying at Auckland University of Technology doing a major in Graphic Design.

    We recently embarked on the Web Design module. Having been a bit of a part-time fiddler beforehand I was pretty much floored when in one of the first lessons we were told:

    All websites are made with tables. They’re like jigsaw puzzles. Cut them up then put them back together with tables.

    I’m working on a blog/article about it now, and I’m thinking about talking to the head of design directly about it: it’s really sad that people are paying thousands of dollars on papers that are teaching them everything but standards.

  • James G

    3654 days ago

    Google, google, google… View source, keep reading.

  • Tim H

    3654 days ago

    I’ve seen some shockingly bad course materials but if anyone is looking to teach themselves or others they should take a look at the “Web Standards Curriculum” that Chris Mills of Opera manages: – Cracking content to supplement all the books mentioned above.

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