Interviewee

James Archer

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

None. The industry moves fast enough that the curriculum is obsolete by the time they get around to committee approval. That’s why Forty won’t hire anyone who comes out of a university web design/development program.

I guess that’s probably not a feasible answer, though, since they’ll forge on ahead and do it anyway, so I’d say that the most important skills and technologies are:

  • History of the internet in general, and the web specifically. Anyone can learn that means bold, but becoming proficient requires a broader understanding of the background of the web, and a historical perspective can provide that.

  • Solid background in design as a discipline. Typography. Color theory. Layout. Grids. The basics. Education institutions tend (with a few exceptions) to skip even the most basic principles of design (“the why”), and instead to jump right into technology and implementation (“the how”). This has resulted in a generation of Photoshop Jockeys who have mastered gradients and bevels, but have no idea how to find the golden mean, or how leading should be handled.

  • Information architecture is absolutely essential—and almost universally ignored. Teach proper web planning—site maps, wireframes, page description diagrams, etc.

  • HTML/CSS should be hand coded. No exceptions. WYSIWYG works great up until the point that something goes wrong (open tags, messed up cascades, etc.), and then it’s worthless. They need to know how to handle bad situations, not just ideal ones.

  • HTML should be taught in tandem with CSS. Students should see them as fully symbiotic.

  • If I had to break it down, I’d do it like this:

  • 40% - design theory
  • 25% - information architecture (interface planning)
  • 20% - HTML/CSS
  • 5% - flash and javascript (overview)
  • 5% - project management (overview)
  • 5% - server side software (overview)

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

Anyone who can’t understand how it works at a detailed level shouldn’t be designing it. Not every developer has to be a designer, but every designer should be a developer in order to understand what they’re designing.

(A great painter understands the chemical properties of the paint he uses. Technology and creativity are always fundamentally intertwined.)

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?

  • History of the Web
  • Fundamentals of Design (typography, layout, color, etc.)
  • Information Architecture
  • Web Project Management & Business
  • HTML/CSS
  • Server-side software (PHP, ASP, Rails, etc.—overview)
  • Client-side software (Javascript, Ajax, Flash)

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

Purpose. I want to look at a page, understand the purpose, and see that it was cleverly and intentionally designed to achieve that purpose. I want to see that they’ve accomplished a lot with a little. I don’t care about drop shadows, gradients, wet floors, etc.—I want to see what they can do with Helvetica and no graphics.

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

Honestly, I don’t know if they can. The culture of large educational institutions has, in my experience, consistently proven itself unable to cope with the demands of such a varied and fast-moving industry. I know many good people are trying, but I’ve yet to see anyone come out of a university program knowing what they’d need to know in order for us to hire them. Most of the time, they’ve been brought a long way down the wrong path.

I hate to be cynical-I genuinely do want this to work, since we need more talent to hire-but that’s the current consensus around these parts.