More on the sorry state of web design education | December 2, 2009

Yesterday I documented my thoughts and observations on the standard of digital design education. From talking to current and recent students I’ve shared their frustrations as they bemoan being taught out-of-date technologies by lecturers far removed from the daily practices of design. Through visiting degree show I’ve witnessed a slew of substandard work caused by an over reliance of tool based education and a lack of design thinking ( If I witness one more Flash portfolio in the shape of a designers studio I think I’m going to cry.) So where does this problem arise from and what can be done?

It’s true that the web is still in it’s infancy and the profession doesn’t have the heritage of architecture or product design. However the web isn’t as young as it used to be and change happens a lot slower than we’d like to think. I’ve been pushing web standards for nearly a decade, yet we’re only now starting to see wide spread adoption. Sure, HTML5 and CSS3 are bleeding edge at the moment, but it’s going to take a good 3-5 years before they gain widespread adoption in the industry, so there’s plenty of time for Universities and Colleges to adapt.

I think one of the biggest problems stems from the faculty members themselves. In the early days people didn’t know what to do with web courses so gave them to the departments that resembled them best; computer science, graphic design, library sciences or HCI. Each department bought their own spin and their own set of prejudices and pre-conceptions. If you want to teach front end development, don’t give the course to a Java developer. Similarly, if you want to teach web design, don’t run the course out of the graphic design department. They may share similar DNA, but the differences are a lot stronger than they may first appear.

We need design courses to be taught by web designers. It’s as simple as that. So we need to remove these courses from the auspices of other departments and give them the room they need to breath. Much like architecture or product design, It’s a multi-disciplinary subject that needs to be taught my multi-disciplinary teams; interaction designer, front end developers and usability specialists.

For this to work we need buy-in from the Universities and a strong, charismatic course director to drive their vision through. A fantastic example of such a person is Liz Dansico, the force behind the new Interaction Design MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York. I had the honour of speaking to some of Liz’s students last week and I have to say that I was truly impressed. Liz has managed to pull together an amazing faculty which includes Jeffrey Zeldman, Robert Fabricant, Jason Santa Maria, Christopher Fahey and Khoi Vinh to name just a few. The week I was there she had Matt Mullenweg and Scott Berkin present to her class while the week before Jason Fried gave a talk. This is a line-up worthy of any industry conference. To have these people as your lecturers is outstanding.

What we need to do is encourage more practitioners into design education and encourage more design educators to continue their practice. Rather than having their own education stall at the point they enter the teaching profession, we need to encourage lecturers to keep up-to-date with the latest trends and techniques. This can be done by keeping abreast of books and blogs, by going to community events and by securing enough budget to attend industry conferences. We also need to encourage some of the great designers in our industry to take up teaching posts. In short, we need educators who are leaders rather than followers.

A great example of this are Web Standardistas Christopher Murphy and Nicklas Persson. These guys lecture on interaction design at the University of Ulster in Belfast. As well as writing a best selling book on standards based design they speak at conferences, organise community events and generally act as part of the glue that keeps our web community together.

Similar inspirational educators do exist, but they’re often poorly supported by their institutions and fairly thin on the ground. People I know doing good work include Dan Dixon at the Bristol Institute of Technology who I first met at London BarCamp and who regularly organises a web design conference for the students on his course. Or you have people like Leslie Jensen Inman from the University of Tennessee who is one of the driving forces behind the WASP Educational Task Force. We even have a few people from the school system like David Smith from St Paul’s School, London, who we first met at Reboot and who teaches his 14 year olds how to hardware hack on Arduino.

So what can be done?

In the medium term (2-3years) what I’d like to see is an inspirational course director get the backing of a respected University and given the remit (and budget) to put together a world leading curriculum. I’d like to see them assemble an amazing faculty passionate lecturers and industry experts in an amazing location and attract some of the most promising students around. Due to the density of local talent I think London is a logical place, although Brighton and Bristol run a close second. With a model to follow and something to strive for I imagine this would encourage other establishments to follow, in order to gain the respect and kudos this kind of excellence brings.

In the shorter term, I think we need to bring together some of these pockets of excellence and open up a discussion on the subject. It’s early days yet but I’ve already starting talking to the web standardistas about the possibility of arranging some kind of meet-up. We’d need facilities and preferably some sponsorship. But most of all we’d need a small but passionate group of people who are interested in changing the quality of design education in the UK for the better. I’d be interested to hear what you think and whether you feel that you fall into this category.

Over to you!

Posted at December 2, 2009 5:39 PM


Angela said on December 2, 2009 5:57 PM

So true Andy. Things definitely need to change.

Ben Bodien said on December 2, 2009 6:19 PM

Eloquent and bang on the money as usual, Mr Budd.

I’d love to teach modern front-end development techniques at college or university level, as it’s really frustrating seeing graduates and possible recruits come out of further education having struggled against their dusty tool-oriented curricula, and essentially usually needing an education top-up, or at best having wasted a lot of time and money and energy on stuff they could have picked up from a Dummies book.

I’ll jump at any chance to help out. I had a look at London’s academic institutes a while ago and couldn’t find any web courses that looked progressive enough to include the sorts of subjects we need to see. Any ideas for a particular organisation within which to establish a beach head?

Mark Aplet said on December 2, 2009 6:27 PM

I agree with you completely. Having friends in the education department myself, I am frequently appalled that the instructors are not web designers, but programmers, and graphic designers, whom have to learn the curriculum they are required to teach. It’s also frustrating that the institutions themselves are not updating the curriculum being taught.

Andrew Yates said on December 2, 2009 6:28 PM

If my school’s IT lessons regarding website creation is anything to go by alot of change is in order.

Websites were back then (3 years ago) created using Frontpage Express, using the WYSIWYG editor. Only a select few actually turned to the source of the sites.

To actually get people thinking about going into web design/development from school, this needs to change. People get the wrong impression that you simply drag and drop stuff and that’s it.

I agree that web design needs to be taught by people in the industry, not just Geography teachers who also teach IT (from my experience). I’m looking at this at a very early level. I’m sure colleges and universitys improve on this. But how much?

Great post.

Kevin Dees said on December 2, 2009 6:36 PM

I couldn’t agree more! But things are moving forward. For one thing are starting to move in the right direction with “web standards interact”. However, I see another problem.

I am a working student out of the US and because of the current educational situation I have chosen to go for an Associates Degree. This has created a few problem for me.

While I have been able to avoid the high costs of a BS, and its un-educational programs, I can’t move forward to graduate level programs like Interaction Design MFA.

It seems to me there is no way around breaking bank or taking out a loan on less than satisfactory education to move forward. So this is my predicament.

I would much rather spend my hard earned cash on conferences, books, and low level eduction. Than wast four years of my life on outdated programs. I can’t be more frustrated!

So, like the rest I have taught myself everything I know by reading, writing and running projects on my own time, and dollar. I read more blogs than I care to admit, and they are not tutorials. (WC3 news, Zeldman, You, and the best)

I know this sounds like gripping but its not. I’m extremely concerned. Students should get what they pay for, it time for change. Are their options out there for student like me, who have avoided a “real education” who want to be educated outside a conference of book? I can’t find any options that actually work without burning money that isn’t even mine.

Jonathan Baldwin said on December 2, 2009 7:06 PM

You’re right that a lot of web design education is poor, and that the understanding of what web design education is, or should be, is pretty poor (too many “how to use Flash” courses, not enough design strategy or client relations courses. I’ve been saying the same about design education in general for quite some time. Indeed I put my money where my mouth is and made the move from industry to academia 11 years ago and have made changing design education one of my core activities ever since.

So I agree with you. To a point.
You’re wrong about why - for the main part.

(The irony of just about every “design education is crap” article I read is that they make a broad assertion and then list lots of counter examples that contradict the argument!)

The best education happens, like you say, at the cutting edge. This is found where academics and practitioners are engaged in research; these are the people who are developing many of the technologies that later become the ones we take for granted. They’re the experimenters, the hackers, the risk takers. Research as practice, or practice as research - it happens in academia, it happens in industry. But practice itself, just doing stuff, is not something that fosters the cutting edge.

There’s a myth in design education that only practitioners can or should teach design, and that academics are “out of touch” and should be made to spend time in “the real world”. Trouble is, if you take a look at most of it, it is taught by practitioners. That’s where the problem lies.

Just because you do something doesn’t mean you can automatically teach it. (And just because you do something, doesn’t mean you do it very well! There are crap web designers out there…) I’ve witnessed many, many experts in design try to teach it and end up sucking the knowledge out of the students.
Teaching is a skill in itself, and it needs to be learnt. A good teacher encourages students to explore and learn, a bad teacher adopts a didactic approach, teaching via step by step approaches or expecting students to follow by example. That’s what results in the things you say you’re seeing and hearing.

A great teacher, meanwhile, is someone who can get students to teach them. i.e. they should be able to lead a class in a subject they know little about. It’s not bluffing, it’s knowing how people learn.

We don’t need more practitioners teaching, we need more teachers teaching. And we need those teachers to be given the time to research, to push the boundaries, not to “practice” because that “practice” ultimately means building a few websites. That’s what freezes knowledge - and it’s ultimately impossible because the pressure of commercial practice means it’s difficult to fit client deadlines in to the academic year.

I learnt that particular lesson a few years ago and gave up everything except consultancy. But I think you could talk to any of my students and they’d tell you I’m not only “up to date” in my knowledge but in many respects ahead of the game.

Students taught by a practitioner learn that practitioner’s techniques. And those aren’t particularly useful in other situations. It leads to stagnation, and irrelevance.
Students taught by someone unshackled by practice learn their own techniques. And that leads to evolution and, occasionally, revolution.

It’s what you mean by “knowledge” that matters. I couldn’t teach someone to program in the latest web technology, but I could (and do) enable them to learn for themselves. That is by far the better approach.

And for what it’s worth… Tim Berners-Lee is an academic. He’s never been a professional web designer. I bet no student would turn down a lecture from him ;-)

Alan Hogan said on December 2, 2009 7:14 PM

Amen. Fantastic piece, Andy.

Rob Smith said on December 2, 2009 8:47 PM

This runs through web designers and developers too. Too many times in interviews with potential new developers I have seen terrible portfolios and included are poorly thought out projects for students to complete that don’t real world applications.

I agree more emphasis needs to be on higher level education. With development that can be issues like scalability, good coding habits, database structure, etc etc. While a lot of this is taught within software development, it’s not taken as seriously when you look at the website side of things!

In Manchester, I was sitting on the education committee for a while at Manchester Digital, which is bringing together the industry and institutions like MMU to find great ways to work going forwards which is good progress, but things are so far off sometimes it’s pretty frustrating. Our best applicants are generally people that have the passion and therefore self taught on their own personal projects.

Great post, good debate.

John McMullen said on December 2, 2009 9:38 PM

Couldn’t agree with you more. I am currently teaching an intro to Flash and an Actionscripting class. I have 2 days of teaching dedicated to trying to get students to think outside of their normal box web design techniques, and preach almost daily about how you can use javascript to accomplish everything we do in Flash.

Poor kids are probably royally confused.

Matt Carey said on December 2, 2009 10:13 PM

I agree, one of the London instiutions needs to take the plunge and do this. I wonder if it should be Central St Martins, even though I shudder at the prospect, because of their international name. Westminster have an excellent Information Design course, and could be a good base. Ravensbourne have long had a digital focused course, though I don’t know what the standard is like these days.

What I keep coming back to is the need for balance in the teaching. Classic design training + web/screen specific elements. Colour theory, legibility research and all that.

I though it was an eye opener (for me) that when I opened Mark Bolton’s excellent book this year, it was pretty much everything I was taught as an undergraduate. That is because I did a traditional design course…

Lindsey said on December 3, 2009 3:30 AM

This is a great article and I agree with much of it. I am an adjunct teacher at a university this fall semester and I was asked to teach Dreamweaver within this computer app class I am teaching (which also covers Photoshop, Illustrator and Indesign). I told them I did not want to teach the WYSIWYG aspect of Dreamweaver because that is not the best way for a person studying to be a professional designer to learn web. They thankfully were open with my idea of simply introducing them to the very basics of web (Knowing how it works, understanding design restriction, graphic optimizing, Working with an FTP and finally some very basic HTML CSS) I think it has went well so far.

This University I am teaching at I think is starting to realize more and more the importance of teaching web the right way. I am glad to see this!

Mark McCorkell said on December 3, 2009 8:36 AM

Great article, and so true! I’m only out of Uni about two years now, and I must say, I was taught very little useful stuff relating to Web Design. The Lecturers just didn’t have the experience, or the knowledge to effectively teach the area. They often focused on “HCI” and their teachings were more focused on software principles than actual design.

Tom Smith said on December 3, 2009 9:20 AM

I’ve recently graduated from what was the HND Interactive Media course at Wakefield College, which is now FDA Web Design. I wanted to give a shout out to this course. All of the flaws you pointed out in web design education are covered by this course. Hell, I made one website in the first year due to spending so much time studying the principles of design, the fundamentals of typography, the relevance of accessibility, etc, etc.

The course tutor, Steve, spends copious amounts of time building links with the local industry and making sure students are ready for employment or self-employment. There are regular visits from industry pros giving a realistic look at what to expect in the industry, thus helping prepare students.

I could write a book about the advantages I’ve gained from the course, but I think you probably get my point!

I’ve now moved from education to employment, and I’ve found the transition really easy due to the high quality education I received. I even find myself teaching those I work with - who have been in the industry years - a thing or two.

On the whole, I agree with your article, but I thought it was worth pointing out there are exceptions. This course is one of them.

Leif Kendall said on December 3, 2009 10:32 AM

Andy, would it be worth talking to the people who are responsible for “ensur[ing] the UK has the technology skills it needs to succeed in a global digital economy”? Apparently there is another skills council that covers the design side of web stuff.


Adam Clare said on December 3, 2009 12:18 PM

Good article and one that echoes my thoughts I’ve had for a long time. Every year it’s both exasperating and sad to see the latest freshfaced batch of post grads knocking at the door for an intern ship or position in the studio all of which have in common is a complete lack of appropriate usable skillsets. Portfolios containing images as text, table based constructs, minimal CSS work or all Flash sites (badly scripted) with no fall-back option. + I think I’ll scream if I click one more dead portfolio link!

I did guest at the local college for a few years, teaching Web Standards, CSS layouts, Accessible UI Design, Flash Scripting and related skillsets. I thoroughly enjoyed it, it was so fulfilling to see the lightbulbs go on and to give the students something that actually made them employable at the end of the course - and a lot were. However that college course has now closed with recent Government cut backs and most others inc the local Uni continue to disgorge candidates with little or no Web Standards knowledge, no CSS work in their portfolio or relevant/usable skillsets that can be honed in a real world environment. It’s very sad.

Also a main stumbling block I would foresee Andy to your call to arms is - and please correct me if I’m wrong - but I was told recently that industry professionals, due to recent law changes, cannot now just walk into a teaching/academia roll, despite having time served experience, without a relevant certified teaching qualification, the gaining of which would require you also to go back to college for a year or two, yourself, no?

Rick Hurst said on December 3, 2009 1:45 PM

I’ve done a couple of hands-on HTML/CSS workshops as a guest lecturer at UWE in Bristol. It went down really well with both lecturers (most of whom are well aware they can only teach what they find in books, and are keen to have industry professional input), and the students.

I think any professional web designer with a passion for web standards and current/ future techniques, whether freelance or employed (employer permitting), should consider making themselves available as a guest lecturer to their local universities and colleges.

Daryn St. Pierre said on December 3, 2009 2:24 PM

I’m happy to see that more and more developers and designers like myself are speaking out about this. I noticed this becoming a large problem as time went on and we had more and more interns come in with absolutely no knowledge of today’s web standards. All of them were still creating table-based websites and heavily hooked into WYSIWYG editors. My colleague and I found ourselves educating interns more than we were giving them work. Granted the gratitude you receive from them is really rewarding, they should be coming out of school with the most up-to-date knowledge available.

Something definitely has to be done. While in school I taught a lot of students in my classes and would probably be willing to contribute. I think even I have a lot to learn but regardless, I also have a lot to give.

Matthew Kempster said on December 3, 2009 4:30 PM

Thanks for this Andy.

I am currently in my final year of college and deciding between studying a web course at university or leaving college and freelancing or whatever.

I’m not really sure how good any of the courses for web design/development are but it does seem a bit ridiculous to spend 3-4 years learning the wrong practicies at university and erasing everything I have taught myself over the last couple of years.

What do you think about that?

Rob said on December 3, 2009 10:14 PM

outstanding write-up on web design education. How I wish there were such a program at my alma mater - Florida State University. I’d be there in an INSTANT!

Jonny Campbell said on December 3, 2009 10:36 PM

I’m a student in Belfast and have studied under the Standardistas in a web design related course. I’ve compiled a few thoughts on the matter

Ms. Jen said on December 4, 2009 12:29 AM

After teaching web design at the University level from 2001-2003, and again in 2005, I can tell you that the big problem in the US is multiple fold, from the experience as the web professional who has taught as an adjunct, from the perspective of a person on a design dept hiring committee, and what I know about how design departments are run. The following is about design and art departments that are a part of a larger university or college, rather than the perspective of a design college such as the Art Center, Cooper Union, Parsons, etc.

Most Universities and Colleges in the US are under pressure to hire instructors and professors who have the terminal degree in their field for the Uni/college to retain their accreditation in their field, particularly if the person has been taught for more than a couple of semesters.

Also, in times of budget cuts, which for most colleges is all the time, a department will try to fill a course with an existing full-time staff instructor or professor, even if not qualified, before looking to hire adjuncts with professional experience. When they do hire an adjunct it is usually at pay scales far below what a professional would be hired for a project that would take as many hours.

When I taught from 2001-2003, I joked that after planning classes, time in class, and helping students in person or via email, that cashiers at McDonald’s made more than me.

I was told due to accreditation concerns that I would not be able to teach at the University I was at after Spring 2005 unless I went back to graduate school and got the terminal degree in my field. The problem here is that the Dean couldn’t decide if the it would need to be an MFA in Design or a Ph.D. in Computer Science, which only exacerbated the ongoing feud between the CompSci & Design departments who who should be teaching web design.

Now that I do have a MSc, frankly, every time I get approached by an LA-area Uni or design college to teach web design, I get discouraged by following: I know that I want don’t want to be a full-time academic, the amount of time required versus the adjunct pay scale, and my own knowledge that as the perfectionist that I am I will be incapable of doing anything less than giving my best.

The crux lies in that until Universities are willing to pay rates equal to that of the professional field, which most won’t or can’t unless they are top tier, then academics who don’t have professional experience will be teaching courses they maybe just learning themselves. Also, until there are more graduates with MFAs in web design, IA, ID, or UX, who want to be teaching full-time after a time in the profession, there won’t be advocates on the inside of the university for higher standards in hiring.

Academia is has been at odds with a good design education and very much at odds with the professional practice of design for many years. Since our field is still such a young one, it may take a few more years before Universities catch up to us or for accreditation boards to realize that some disciplines will have by far more talented instructors amongst professionals without terminal degrees and possibly make exceptions to their rules.

Lillie Neff said on December 4, 2009 12:51 AM

As a Graphic design student for the last four semesters at a two year college. I can attest to the frustration of not feeling I am getting up to date or credible knowledge on web design. I was thrilled that my college just revamped their curriculum this semester to provide a class on HTML and CSS. To my horror it was then that I realised just how far I had to go to be a viable web designer. I feel that the Graphic design degree does offer some great knowledge that can be used in web development. However, is a completely different monster in it’s own right. I would love for nothing more then the opportunity to have my college expand their curriculum to include web development as a seperate degree. Instead I am trying to cram the elementary fundamentals of HTML and CSS in to one semester just one night a week. Luckily I have great instructors who have worked in the industry that have gone to bat for us to constantly improve this situation but their is still a long way to go.

As i stated most of my instructors have worked or still work in the design or web field. Most of my instructors have been inspirational teachers and all of them are very talented but I can agree with an earlier comment that just because you are a talented designer that does not make you capable of teaching. i have had my classes where I felt like I learned more from watching web tutorials then those I was paying to teach me. i still have not decided how far I plan to take my education but I do not regret the investment I have made. While on the job training is a key element to the field I am going in to, the opportunities that you get for development are priceless in college. The critical thinking alone is remarkable. You are constantly put to the test as to what you can accomplish in a short amount of time. That is what is going to matter most when you do get out in to the workforce.

Dan Goodwin said on December 4, 2009 9:39 AM

This is good stuff Andy. I have in the past made several attempts (as a UX/web development practitioner) to offer help, teaching assistance, whatever to further education institutions and got nowhere.

Adam’s point above about needing a teaching qualification may be relevant here, but surely that leaves practitioners with a chicken/egg situation?

I’ll follow along with interest, it’s still something I’m personally keen to be involved in in some way. It does seem as though very little progress has been made in bringing relevant web design/development teaching to further/higher education since I went through both (well over 10 years ago).

Paddy Donnelly said on December 4, 2009 7:48 PM

Some really great comments here, however I will keep mine short and to the point.

I think a huge part of the responsibility to improve design courses is also on the students themselves. The design savvy lecturers (like the Standardistas) will be constantly battling the old, traditional methods of universities, which can involve endless meetings over months and years to change one topic in a module. You guys, the students, need to stand up and make yourselves heard if you are unhappy with a certain module/course/topic. If you make enough noise that you want to be taught key design principles over Microsoft Paint then the university will eventually listen.

Get shouting!

Paul Segsworth said on December 4, 2009 9:12 PM

Criticisms about formal education not being relevant to the needs of real-life are not new. This is especially true in a field (like web design) that is evolving so rapidly. The problem isn’t directly the teachers. The education system just can’t adjust quickly.

A recent parallel can be seen in graphic design with the move from paste-up board to desktop design in the mid-to-late 80s. I’m old enough to remember having gone through that. There was a time when a college graphic design education was almost laughable and designers were forced to teach themselves. The problem then, as now with web design, was that technology was changing much faster than the educators. Of course, that’s all changed now, and many colleges have excellent graphic design programs.

Likewise, I suspect most web design education will also eventually catch up. In the meantime, some strong background noise (like the comments on this blog) will help the progress.

I’ve recently decided to update my skills and am fortunate to be a part of an apparently uncharacteristically great web design program at North Idaho College. My instructor (Jesh Barlow) makes his primary living as a web designer and teaches a very pragmatic and foundational approach to web design.

Michael Kozakewich said on December 4, 2009 9:34 PM

There are plenty of resources online for learning web design, development, architecture, or whatever; but it’s hard to find anything online for teaching web professions.

I’ve interested one student, so far, who has found his college courses lacking, so I’ll be heading him in the right direction. I think, though, that I’ll have to create lesson plans and objectives, or my thoughts will have as many spin offs as Doctor Who has.

Charles Roper said on December 6, 2009 12:54 AM

Why are we thinking in terms of traditional universities where everyone has to be in the same physical location? Let’s do some lateral thinking. This is the web.

Let’s have a virtual university, that is open and inclusive. Like the Open University, but built by the web community, for the web community. You’d have an environment to enroll into, a curriculum, teachers, guest lecturers, etc. Lectures could be held in real universities, but they’d also be streamed live with live backchannels. All students would be required to setup blogs and twitter accounts. Assignments would be posted to their blogs. Exams could be taken at designated locations, as with the OU. (Having said that, I don’t believe exams are a particularly useful mechanism for gauging the skill of a web designer).

Alumni would be encouraged to help and teach new students. Courses could be provided via rich media: video, audio, live chats, etc. And of course, regular, real-life meetups would be commonplace and encouraged: evening pub sessions (as if students would need encouraging), study groups, skills swaps.

You would perhaps not even need to earn a degree out of it: the work you do, the materials you produce, the involvement you have with the community will all speak much louder than a piece of paper with ‘degree’ written at the top.

Damian Gribben said on December 7, 2009 2:35 AM

Alot of what you say is true, that there are some antiquated aspects being taught in degree pathways that are primarily supposed to be web design degrees.

I have experience this myself as I currently study the IMD course in UUJ Belfast.

As i am currently in the final year of my degree I am still being taught VB6 which, as it may be a good base to learn the fundamentals of programming languages should really be replaced with a good PHP or JavaScript module.

I have also been lucky enough to have been taught design, typography, colour and grid layout by the ‘Web Standardistas’ Nick and Chris, who strive to ensure thst all their students leave the course with an understanding of web standards and good practice.

What the students of the future really need are impassioned lectures that will ingrain in them the necessary outlook with which to enter the industry.

Lee Munroe said on December 7, 2009 7:36 AM

I think what lecturers/educators do outside of teaching makes a big difference. Having also studied at the University of Ulster under various lecturers, including the Web Standardistas, I can say that the guys who are active in the industry (outside of University) are the ones who had a bigger impact on me and were more ‘cutting edge’, so I think that’s important.

The web evolves so fast that topics and courses that were relevant 7 years ago (or even 12 months ago) aren’t relevant now, and Universities need to act on this as soon as possible. A course dedicated solely to web design, for example, might have been hard to put together and justify at one point but it could easily be put together now and split from other related fields like Computer Science. It would be good to see courses like this.

Liam Friel said on December 7, 2009 4:04 PM

I agree with this post having come from college through to an honours degree in “web design”. Every year the lecturers promised to rid us of director and focus more on industry standard technologies. I eventually got fed up and had to start self teaching the technologies and I don’t believe I have learned good design at all.

Old fashioned technologies taught by old fashioned people wont cut it. I’m not asking that every year we get taught the cutting edge… god no… no one would ever learn properly that way, but a spark of innovation now and then would be great!

Also consider the this - 3rd year entry university students are reaching 120 + per module. They are lumping music students into web design classes - how to lecturers cope? by teaching something they are comfortable with which is the old stuff.

Steve said on December 7, 2009 10:18 PM

As someone who is a recent graduate, I agree completely. When I graduated, I knew some HTML and CSS, and had used Dreamweaver and Fireworks a bit. Didn’t know much about Photoshop, hardly understood Javascript, and hadn’t even been exposed to PHP. I have been scrambling to catch up to where I need to be in order to be able to bring in work for myself.

What higher education needs is teachers who currently work in the field. I had a web application development class taught by the CEO of a local web development company, and it was honestly the best class I had in my time in school.

Kyle Boyd said on December 9, 2009 5:07 PM

Sorry It seems I am a bit late to the party but I will give my two punts none the less…

Having been taught by the webstandardistas at both Undergraduate & Masters level I feel that without there guidance of web standards I wouldnt have been at the level I am today. Keeping ahead of the game is what its all about.

But more has to be done!

It disappoints me when I meet other ‘Design students’ from other colleges who are being taught out of date stuff even here in Belfast.

We must unite come together and not only continue to spread the Web Standards Message but set the standard for Web Design in Education!

Robert Annett said on December 10, 2009 2:54 AM

Got to agree with Kyle, I am currently an undergraduate taught by the webstandardistas and they keep us up to date with any developments in the industry while cramming in the Curriculum.

They also deliver quite an interesting unique experience when attending theie events & lectures, very rarely does a student enjoy a lecture but Chris and Nick seem to pull it off.

Dan Dixon said on December 10, 2009 11:20 AM

Typically as an academic I’m coming in late to this conversation. I don’t think the outside world understands how raggedly we get run. As a bit of background, I run a BSc in Web Design at the University of the West of England. Up till the point where I was brought in to do that I was working in the Web industry, largely as a producer and product manager. I’ve worked in agencies, I’ve worked at the Beeb, so I have experience of what it is like in a number of different contexts. I jumped the ship and got into teaching because I thought it might be easy… I was soooo wrong.

There are a number of issues here which contribute to the poor quality of Web education. The symptoms are clear, but the causes have not been brought up. There are some other symptoms and problems that have not been mentioned.

The clear issues (and symptoms) are lack of industry experience in the teaching staff, simple lack of knowledge in teaching staff and lack of industry liaison or input into the course. The industry can shout at universities to deliver better, but it’s not going to happen unless the underlying causes are sorted out. And many of these are not unique to this industry/area.

So there are a couple of things that cause this that are difficult to solve. First is the nature of Higher Education teaching in the UK. Teachers are not expected to be practitioners (and in fact due to the beaurocracy actively discouraged), and often it is more important whether they have a PhD when they are hired, rather than industry experience. Academic research is valued in universities, not professional practice. This is as much a problem for Architects as it is for Web Designers, and the same debates occur there.

Another reason is that it is a new field, so at UWE we’re teaching the course mostly via Information Systems, Computer Science and Software Engineering. Whilst we’ve taken on some great staff in the last couple of years we can only do this at a rate of maybe one a year. Which means that it might take us up to 10 years to get the right staff mix. And this is worse now because the universities are finally feeling the pressure of the credit crunch.

There is problem as well with student motivation. Just because the student is on a web course, doesn’t mean that they’re interested in it. Sounds surprising but it’s true. Although a good half of my students are amazing, and the truly motivated guys constantly surprise me, I’ve got plenty of people that just want to work in IT and don’t really care what degree they do. They just thought Web Design might be easy…. They are sooo wrong.

And the overall difficulty of the subject are has only truly struck me since I’ve started teaching it. Our Software Engineers learn Java over 3 years, just Java, with a couple of weeks of HTML/CSS somewhere in there so they know the web exists. Our Web Designers need to learn the end to end web technology stack HTML, CSS, Javascript and PHP, including new applications of this like CSS3 and JSON/AJAX whilst also learning about interface design, usability and information architecture. It’s a lot for anyone to get their head around. I like to think of my course as really only every being able to give people a taster and helping them understand what they enjoy and what they are good at. (I’m mainly focussing on technical skills and not the conceptual stuff that we really are trying to teach).

I’m finishing with the single most important issue, that we’re driven entirely by student numbers, if we had more students then we could bring on more teachers with the right background, but numbers are low compared to our other degrees. The Web is quite trendy, so every single new university in the country has a Web Design or Web Development course. What this means is that the people who want to do those courses are spread across the entire UK, being taught in small groups by people who don’t really want to teach this to them and are either waiting to retire or wanting to get back to their AI research. If we could convince half the universities in the country to give up teaching Web stuff then we would all be better off. Better still if we could have two of three places where this happened then it would be incredible.

I agree with Andy in his point that we need a national centre for this and need to agree on where this will be. The industry should choose and support one place and get behind that one. His example of Fashion Design is good, even though just about every art school offers a fashion degree, there are only a couple of places you would want to go to do it seriously.

What I’ve come up against so far is the lack of an industry organization to help out with issues like this. There is a great community of web professionals, but not a body that can take collective action, and to sort this out we need that kind of collective action.

Happy to hear back from people… my email is dan.dixon (at)

Rant over :)

Andy said on December 13, 2009 4:10 PM

I Completely agree with most that is being said here, in particular what Lee has said about the need for specific degrees in Web design. My post is specifically going to talk about my own current situation.I have just finished a module in UUJ IMD final year, that had me creating a 3D game in Director. Bare in mind this module specification has not been updated since 2002! Our design modules, I feel are among the best available to anyone in the UK right now, being spearheaded by the Standardistas. I genuinely feel that is the only reason I’m paying three grand per year. I for one will listen to Paddy and email my course director to tell him my thoughts on the whole course so that hopefully those to graduate after myself will benefit from more up to date, relevant teaching material.

troy bennettThe Art Institute of Atlanta said on December 15, 2009 3:22 AM

At the Art Institute of Atlanta we feel your pain regarding the general state of higher ed in Web Design. In fact, Chris Mills of the Opera Web Standards Curriculum has quoted me in previous presentations to this effect.

You won’t remember me, but I approached you at SXSW 2005 in Salt Lake City Utah USA to thank you for writing the textbook that we’ve been using since it first hit the shelves. (CSS Mastery) We are now using the second edition.

Since 2002 The Web Design and Interactive Media Dept. at The Art Institute of Atlanta has been addressing the use of Web Standards, Information Architecture, Usability, Accessibility, progressive enhancement with CSS and JavaScript, and semantic markup. The students get a parallel track of standards design and Flash.

Heck, even one of our former faculty members, Aarron Walter is now a significant member of the WASP EDU taskforce. If you check out the WASP InterAct Curriculum you’ll see a good chunk of it is modeled after our own curriculum.

Zeldman, Myers, Schmidt, Cerderholm, The ClearLeft Club, and the SXSW Rat Pack are all authors that our student read; can’t forget the Opera WSC too.

So yeah, there are problems with education regarding Web standards and best practices, but we’ve been there from the beginning shouting it as loud as we can.

Kristina Brown said on December 17, 2009 4:14 PM

Yes, I agree completely. It does seem like a majority of programs out there do not offer the right courses that are necessary for web design. Very few of those programs are being taught by currently practicing web designers. I find it impossible to be taught by someone who no longer works in the field.

Recently, in a program that I am currently in, the instructor was changed to an individual who’s other business is web design. This has changed my web design learning experience completely. I believe that every student should have this same opportunity.

Dan Barber said on December 18, 2009 3:54 PM

Hi Andy, amen, thank you, something needs to be done.

Christian said on December 20, 2009 1:40 AM

I agree with your post.
I will disagree with some of the comments I’ve read though. At a lot of major design schools, graphic designers are now required to learn web design and development techniques. Know for sure a student is at SCAD.

website designer melbourne said on December 21, 2009 3:03 AM

Yes i think teachers and lectures should keep up to date on new web design practices.