Teaching web design should integrate theory and practice, say Nicklas Persson and Christopher Murphy of the University of Ulster, aka ‘The Standardistas’
We work in a relatively young industry, one that’s moving fast while trying to find its feet. How can we, as educators, help move our industry forward and improve the state of web design education?
While a university’s role has traditionally been to focus on equipping graduates with the fundamental principles of a specialism, it’s clear that when it comes to teaching the craft of web design, we face a different challenge.
Equipping students with knowledge of design principles is essential, but we must also give them a matching understanding of contemporary skills, ensuring they have the ability to craft well-formed HTML and CSS. Bearing this in mind, it’s clear that there’s a demand for lecturers who can convey how design and craft go hand-in-hand.
Ideally, lecturers should be actively involved in the industry, sharing their time between teaching Integration Just as a computer science course with some bolted-on design modules doesn’t work, a communication design course with some bolted- on web modules doesn’t work. Integration is key.
We’re probably not alone in running a course that’s split into design and technical aspects. In theory, our students are taught design by staff from our School of Art and Design, and programming by our School of Computing and Mathematics. While we produce some extremely talented graduates, we believe this model of two halves is flawed.
Delivering the design and programming parts separately is, in our opinion, a mistake. Anyone who works in this industry knows that there is no hard and fast divide between design and development. We believe we must reflect this in contemporary approaches to teaching web design.
As designers first and foremost, we may be biased here, but we believe that web design should be taught primarily within a design context. It’s important to stress, however, that emphasising the design context does not mean simply leaving the technical side to someone else. This approach – though sadly still prevalent – is a completely outdated one.
There are areas of overlap between traditional graphic design and design for the web – information hierarchy, grid systems and typography, to name just three – but equally there are areas that require a specialist understanding. The creation of rich, immersive experiences, the crafting of beautiful user interfaces and an awareness of the psychology of interaction are all examples of skills that require such knowledge.
From academia’s ivory towers, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by a glacial pace of change and leaden level of bureaucracy. Universities are slow; the web design industry moves at considerable speed. How can we keep up with this rapid pace, ensuring our courses are fit for purpose?
One technique is to draw from the tools and techniques we teach every day by actually employing them ourselves; we need to practise what we preach.
Continuous learning is an integral part of our industry; it needs to be an integral part of how we teach. It’s an exciting industry to work in, and if we look to it for lessons, we can considerably improve our teaching for the benefit of all.
This article originally appeared in issue 208 of .net magazine - the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.