Jason Santa Maria

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

Technologies come and go and advance all the time, but good design problem solving skills not only stay fresh for a very long time, but are integral to establish a base for personal learning after school. Additionally, many of these design skills are best learned in a group of peers, rather than alone. When learning with your peers, you will not only encounter healthy competition, but benefit from group activities like brainstorming, critiques, and a larger pool of mistakes and successes to learn from.

As far as actual skills and technologies, designers should be schooled in past and current design history, and foundation art courses: drawing, 2D and 3D design, color theory, multiple courses in typography, layout, writing, visual thinking, etc. I feel that designers, web or otherwise, need a foundation in design practices, rather than just an understanding of how to make a website. Design is always larger than just a layout, it’s about a message. Otherwise, when it comes time to actually design a website, those without proper design training will typically look to their medium for answers, commonly falling back on design as merely style.

For technologies, a knowledge of modern coding principles and concerns: Validation, Accessibility, XHTML, and CSS. Additional languages/programs like Javascript, Flash, PHP, etc, are important for awareness, but these should be pursued as a specialization. I’ve always been of the opinion that technologies can be learned easier than a basic design foundation on your own.

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

I’m leaning towards “no”. I think there needs to be awareness of both on each side, but I find the people who specialize in one or the other tend to be much stronger than someone who is spread thinly across both. I think it is very important for web designers to be aware of web development in as many capacities as possible without taking away from their design work too much (and vice versa). After all, they will need to work with developers and must have an understanding of their capabilities.

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?

I would focus heavily on the design foundations I mentioned above, for about the first two years of a four year program, and the following two made up with web design courses that apply the design ideals they’ve already learned.

The biggest problem I see with web design curriculums in schools now is that they really consider it web building. They show students how to make a website, but not why they are making a website look, act, and read a certain way. Design, and specifically web design, should never be one or the other. Web should be viewed an another medium, rather than a wholly different entity separated from design. Packaging designers, book designers, newspaper designers, on-screen TV designers, all learn about design, though they work in technically unique mediums that all have different concerns attached to them. Web design, while a bit of a leap from print design, still benefits from traditional design ideals.

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

I would like to see less “interactive” work. Often times classes are taught a wide variety of interactive work, DVD menus, screensavers, etc, most of which aren’t applicable to jobs in the field. Maybe this is done to formulate some sort of well roundedness, but it detracts from the specialization.

I would enjoy seeing more website design work that has a purpose or aims to solve a problem. I won’t hire someone who makes things look pretty alone, they need to back that design up with a real message that gets communicated well.

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

It’s very tough, things change so quickly and curriculums have to be organized far in advance. This leaves little time for classes to adapt to current trends and conditions. The best way I’ve seen this done is by having classes that involve themselves well in what’s currently going on, either by hiring people currently working in the field to teach the class, or at least guest lecture, as well as having a curriculum that is constantly looking at what’s happening at the moment and how that reflects on what they are learning. I guess what it comes down to is teachers who are less about teaching what’s in a book, and more about teaching current principles.