Cameron Moll

What skills and technologies should colleges and universities teach students who want to be web designers and/or developers? Why?

What we’re find as we speak to universities within the state is a single recurring theme: There’s a line drawn between fine arts and technology in degree curriculum, and never the twain shall meet. So either students leave college very well-trained in the visual (graphic design), or very well-trained in the technical (web development, HCI, etc). Rarely do we see students, or programs for that matter, that offer a blend of both.

And here’s why I believe this matters: To be a successful web professional today, especially one who specializes in user experience, it requires that one understand three components of user experience:

  1. graphic design,
  2. human computing, and
  3. communication.

Imagine these three components drawn as a Venn diagram. The intersection (or output) of the three would be a user interface. Or more importantly, the intersection would be user experience. It is my opinion that those who understand all three disciplines are able to produce the best user experiences.

To that end, and as an answer to your question, we need the line between the visual and the technical—and if we include the Venn diagram, between the soft skills (communication) as well—to be eliminated in curriculum and programs.

Should students be educated in both web design and development or just one? Why?

I personally believe students must be educated in both, and then eventually garner T-shaped knowledge—a broad understanding of all things web, but deep skills and expertise in one or two disciplines.

If you could create your dream curriculum for web design and development, what courses and information would you include? Why? What courses and information now in such programs would you eliminate? Why?

My answer to #1 is applicable here too.

I may not be the best person to ask this question, as I was educated not in graphic design nor technology but business management with an emphasis in marketing. I thought for sure I’d foster a career in marketing but fell into web design along the way and never looked back. I’m fortunate in that the skills I was taught as a marketing (e.g. knowing the customer) are highly applicable to web design (e.g. knowing the user).

I won’t offer an answer that includes specific course titles and topics. You might have to get that from someone else. However, I’ll offer a few thoughts from my experience and hopefully it helps you answer this question.

Right now I work within a team of 30 full-time web designers at the LDS Church headquarters. We have a very diverse team—two persons from China, one blind since birth, an art director from Lands’ End and LL Bean, etc. Our skills and skill level run the gamut.

Yet, we all came in as specialists, and we’re all working towards becoming generalists, as well. It is this shift, or perhaps broadening, from specialist to generalist that we expect new hires (students included) to embrace. Why? Because great user experiences are all about problem solving, not just solution provisioning. The specialists can provide solutions beautifully. The generalists, on the other hand, understand how to find problems and not just solve them. The world needs both, admittedly, but too often we web folk specialize to the extent we’re uncomfortable acting the generalist role.

There’s a fantastic article in the November issue of Communication Arts titled “Moving Northwest.” I encourage you to read it as it echoes much of what I’m saying here.

Getting back to your question about dream curriculum, again I state I don’t know what that would be. But if it helps, we have a pretty thorough in-house mentoring and training program we’re in the process of establishing. Among many elements that include weekly design reviews and an upcoming design tour in the U.S., we also put on full-day workshops taught by members of our team. Here is the tentative schedule for 2008 thus far:

  • Mar 14 - HTML/CSS I
  • Apr 10 - HTML/CSS II
  • Apr 11 - First Principles of Visual Design
  • May 27 - Getting to Know Asian Culture
  • June 6 - First Principles of Interaction Design
  • July 18 - Design Leadership & Communication

Book reading is naturally part of this overall program (which we’re currently calling “Design Excellence”), and though we’re still formalizing things I’d consider the following required reading for any web professional: The Elements of Typographic Style, How Designers Think, The Design of Everyday Things. Note the absence of tech titles. Those will inevitably be included, but these three books focus more on the generalist role rather than the specialist role. (Although one could probably argue Elements of Typographic Style caters to specialists.)

What type of projects do you want to see in a recent graduate’s web design and/or development portfolio?

A portfolio is important, no doubt. We recognize that students rarely have an extensive portfolio upon graduation. However, it’s difficult to hire a recent graduate for anything other than an internship if he/she hasn’t had thorough experience creating the very things he’s been learning about in school.

That said, we also like to see students be taught, and be able to speak to, the generalist role. Can they solve problems? Can they understand the user? Can they build great relationships with clients and internal customers? Etc.

How can colleges and universities keep web design and/or development curriculum current and relevant?

I hope would hope at some point in the future collegiate programs have some sort of built-in regimen for keeping their technology staff current, but right the responsibility for staying current seems to rest solely in the individual faculty member.