Web Design Education: A Problem of Specialization

When I was a kid in the mid-1980s, my dad came home with a brand new appliance for our kitchen. It was a microwave and a toaster oven combined into one big, brown metal package. My dad, an engineer with close to 1,000 patents to his name (for everything from robots to cordless toothbrushes), was a sucker for gadgets, and this counter-space-saving miracle of technology was his latest find.

The problem with the microwave/toaster was it didn’t toast things all that well, and it didn’t really microwave things either. It inhabited a nether-region of sub-usefulness while maintaining a guise of helpfulness.

That’s the same area is where you’ll find many web design students these days: caught somewhere between learning code and learning how to effectively communicate through design—without really mastering either skill.

There’s a problem with web design education today, and it has to do with specialization.

For too long, web design has been taught strictly as a technical endeavor. Web design classes start by diving right in to the nuts and bolts of cascading style sheets and HTML. The result is students with web design portfolio samples clearly limited by their own understanding of mark-up language—and very rarely exhibit tangible, job-catching design skills.

Web development is an organic art form; it grows and changes rapidly. Staying on top of coding languages, browser capabilities and the latest technology is a demanding job. Design, web design especially, is also an organic art form. It requires a similar dedication of time and energy for one to stay up on design trends, tools and technology. There’s a reason why pitchers in baseball have extremely low batting averages: Batting and pitching each require too much attention for one person to do both well (without the extraordinary talent of a Babe Ruth). So they need to pick one. For pitchers, it’s pitching—as long as they know enough about hitting to not embarrass themselves at the plate.

Students who study usability, interface design and page and site architecture, as well as elements of design and principles such as information hierarchy, have a more attractive skill set to potential employers. With many students entering college looking to become web designers—a major difference from just five years ago when web design was an add-on at most universities—the idea of studying fundamental design principles is becoming more important than ever.

It’s also important that web designers develop the ability to form relationships with developers, just as art directors have partnered with copywriters for so many years. Web design educators could give more collaborative assignments where students have to work with others with complimenting skill sets to complete a project. Ideally, this would include students from other disciplines such as computer science to be more reflective of a true working environment.

Eventually, my family got rid of our microwave-toaster and replaced it with a two specialty appliances—a toaster and a microwave. I hope web design educators take a similar step and stop making coding the priority—we need to start teaching web design as we do any other form of graphic communication.

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One thought on “Web Design Education: A Problem of Specialization

  1. melissalittledesign

    Agreed. Unfortunately, some of the larger commercial schools haven’t yet made the change to even include web design on their degrees. In today’s job market print only is just not feasible for the new graduate. Very few jobs offer print only duties and fewer offer any sort of specialization unless you are in NYC, LA or Chicago which offer better job markets that smaller cities. One look at CraigsList or Careerbuilder shows that new trend on the design front where hiring companies look for that Jack-of-all-Trades, a mythical creature that is expert in all design software packages and development languages, has amazing design skills, and wants to bring home as little as possible in their twice-monthy paychecks. What type of degree can possibly cover all of that?