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Web Design at Universities Still Dismal

My friend Mary and I attended the University of Alberta’s Bachelor of Design Grad Show yesterday afternoon, eager to see what new crop of designers are out there and perhaps glimpse samples of where design may be going, any type of trends. Well, one thing was interesting: The slimmer 3.5” x 1.5” business cards were in vogue. Also, there was a larger use of patterns, illustrations, and organic images in all the print design. Layers were also big. So all in all, the 2007 Bachelor of Design grads had a great print showing.

Their digital offerings, however, had a lot left to be desired. And I’m not just talking coding. It was disheartening to see that in this digital age, in a Bachelor of Design program which I’m sure had interactive components, only had ONE computer to view only ONE student’s website… which, in my professional opinion, was shockingly amateurish. After four years of hard work, this was the final offering? This was the creme of the crop of the year? And of course, my heart sank further when I checked the website’s source code. Can we say “ImageReady export”? Why?

“This can’t be it,” I thought to myself. “This can’t be the best U of A has to offer.”

And I was right. I looked through the Bachelor of Design 2007’s student catalogue, desperate to see student URL work. And visual design-wise, I did find a couple of gems. Notably:

  • Jeff Kulak’s portfolio (coding makes amateur mistakes, but can easily be fixed to be standards-based from peeking at his code; lovely portfolio work)
  • Joachim Lapiak’s site (also easily fixed to be standards-based… he tried, but made amateur mistakes. portfolio content also good)
  • Kathleen Jacque’s portfolio (wow, it validates! tho, i’d still fix some semantic mistakes; also, the site design is a bit simplistic but her print work is great! Love the cat illustration)

So, obviously, there are some people who at least know some basics of visual design for the web. Why weren’t these people’s works emphasized more in the digital examples? I won’t even bother ranting about the obvious lack of emphasis on web standards, and I don’t even want to begin talking about information architecture. Let’s pretend those important aspects don’t exist for a moment. What saddened me the most was that there wasn’t a bigger offering of excellent digital designs, aesthetically speaking, period.

Another thing that baffles me and continues to baffle me is seeing too many yahoo and gmail accounts as the main addresses on the business cards. $10 in investing in a domain name will project more of a professional image than your ualberta.ca or gmail account ever will.

What does this tell me? Universities (or at least U of A) major priority right now is print work. Based on the digital offerings, it shows me that there isn’t enough emphasis of carrying fundamental design principles onto an interactive stage. And standardistas: there looks to be a new crop of designers still in need of basic web standards knowledge. It’s an insular community we have at times — we think we’ve already established basic coding principles, but seeing the grad show today only emphasized that students are still not being taught practical skills to survive in the digital jungle.

What can be done? It looks as if the community still has a lot of work ahead of us…

I will be attending Grant Macewan’s (my alma mater) grad show at the end of the month. I wonder how their digital offerring will fare…

10 blabs to Web Design at Universities Still Dismal

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When I left my last job, I spent a week doing interviews to fill my position, and it was really disheartening to see the quality of a lot of the work that was presented in the majority of the portfolios I viewed. And, as you mentioned, there was quite a number of candidates that were still using email addresses from various free webmail providers (e.g. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)).

Coincidentally, many of them were recent U of A grads…

Picture of Lea

Name Lea

Date Apr 05
01:40 PM

That’s the saddest part, Jeff. There are a lot of us out there EAGER to hire, but these institutions aren’t arming their grads with the right skillsets, at least for our industry, to be competitive front-runners.

Hi, Lea – I just found your blog through a referral to my site.

I’m glad to hear you liked my portfolio for the most part. I’ve still got some revisions to make to the site, and more content to add…the grad show came up fast, and I ended up launching the site in a slightly less than ideal form just so there would be something there to see.

Regarding the quality of web design at U of A: the web class isn’t offered until the senior year, and I must say I was a disappointed with it, especially since I had been looking forward to it. The three students you linked, Jeff, Joachim and I, were the students who had taught ourselves some web design before taking the class.

But the situation is apparently going to get better. U of A is in the process of hiring a new full-time web prof, and improving the interactive media side of the program. It’s just too bad I’m graduating a year too early to see it.

As for the grad show, a lot of students told me they didn’t know they COULD submit web work!

Thanks for the feedback – I do appreciate it.


I imagine the main problem is that there simply aren’t that many web standards developers who are looking to teach a full university course yet.

When you think about it, web standards have only come to be considered important in the last 5 years so it’s probably only now that we’re going to see people who actually know what they’re talking about starting to enter careers as university educators.

When I was looking for a job after graduation (last June) it became clear that web design is a highly competitive field, yet the actual standard of competition was very low. To put it simply, someone like me who’s had no design training should not be the strongest candidate for web design jobs but unfortunately that seemed to be the case (though In fairness I wasn’t applying to the top agencies).

But if UoA are getting a proper web teacher like Kathleen said then things are looking promising for the future.

As someone who took senior-level courses as U of A, I can echo Kathleen’s feedback. First, I need to say I really enjoyed my web design prof (I took two classes from him) but there was a definitive disinterest in standards, or ANY css for layout, when I approached him with it.

On a more general level, my feeling has always been that the U of A’s design program is more bent on socially programming designers than preparing them for real-world, client/designer relationships or work with a firm. The logical conclusion to the approach they took was that we (designers) should all go out and make environmental protest posters for a living, our bills be damned. Furthermore, a heavy emphasis on print work, to the detriment of digital work, clouded the program (I was there in 2003-4, I believe). Even the ‘information design’ course I took, while valuable, didn’t cover new media, and this ultimately hurts the program’s graduates.

The fundamentals and theory of design were well taught, and this is something I sometimes see lacking in some short-term, certificate-type programs, but I strongly believe the U of A is doing its design students a disservice by not adequately preparing them for the digital world and work within an agency.

Also found this blog through referral.

Why were you surprised when you saw the lone student’s work at the show “shockingly amateurish?” That was probably his first ever website that he designed. It appears that you felt he should have spent the four years working on web design, when in actuality, there was only one course on web design.

There even wouldn’t be enough time for a student to master CSS programming (especially when most of them were introduced to HTML and Dreamweaver for the first time). A large chunk of the course was also focused on information architecture and navigation.

I agree that there should be more of an emphasis on web design, especially for web standards, but are students there to learn programming or the fundamentals of design: theory, typography, layout, and image? Granted, some of these applications can be taught along with web design, but no doubt not without strong understanding of HTML, CSS, and web basics. Having to teach the above requirements will command more resources, which could compromise the University’s excellent quality of “fundamentals and theory of design” that Reese highlighted.

I feel this blog post comes across as simplistic, and to me, offensive, especially after dabbling with web design for years. To respond to your “also easily fixed to be standards-based? he tried, but made amateur mistakes” comment, I’ve tested my webpage in Firefox, IE, and Safari and all worked properly. Isn’t that the most important thing? Just because running the URL through http://validator.w3.org/ and telling me that I need to add alt tags to my images or that I used list tags differently to achieve the same result doesn’t mean the website is amateurish.

Picture of Lea

Name Lea

Date Apr 09
02:29 PM

Joachim, I apologize if this post came off as offensive. Regarding the particular student’s website offerring — wouldn’t you agree that for a graduation show, shouldn’t the site being showcased be the absolute best possible one? One course on web design doesn’t excuse poor visual design choices. Without having it right beside me to critique properly, let’s completely forget code, but I quite remember that the choices this particular student made regarding layout and typography was simplistic at best, and poor at worst.

I wonder if you really read my post, because I even dismissed coding for a second in favour of looking at the design critically, and frankly, the design choices in the print offerring were not reflected in the digital offering.

And don’t get me wrong, I don’t disagree with teaching the fundamentals of design — I attended design school, as well! I recognize the value of theory, typography, layout, colour and image — NONE of which I found in the ONE sample website showing at the grad show. The entire point is that currently, the U of A design program, BASED on what they showed in their grad show, and now from what you mentioned (one web design class?), tells you that there isn’t enough occurring in universities to properly prepare their students to be competitive off the bat in this field. If you read the first comment, as you can see, we are willing to hire graduates but are frustrated they don’t have the basic skillset. Some things can be improved over time, but some fundamentals need to be in place before hiring!

As for your site, the website works, yes, but unfortunately, that isn’t all what coding with web standards is: it also means using proper tags for its proper uses. Interestingly, I’m not even the strictest standards advocate. I concur with a lot of Mike Davidson’s points. It’s unfortunate you are highly defensive over my VERY mild criticism of your website. Like I mentioned, I’m not even a strict standardista, but according to your response, you are already aware of the very MINOR (hence, “amateurish”) mistakes and yet are unwilling to just take that extra step (5 sec?) to clean it up? How is that a mark of a professional, entry-level or not?

Also, I don’t think teaching web basics, html, css, etc. would compromise the University’s excellent design fundamentals. One needn’t be exclusive to the other and in fact, SHOULDN’T.

Lea, I apologize if I came across as overly defensive. My reaction was solely based on your initial post alone, which I felt came across as extreme nitpicking (even if you intended it to be a minor criticism.)

I agree that for a graduation show, the best possible website should be chosen, but the problem was, as Kathleen mentioned, a lot of students didn’t know that we could submit web work. Therefore, that particular student was likely the only one who submitted a web offering. Unfortunately, a lot of us were not provided with the details necessary to make best use of the show.

As for integrating web design throughout the curriculum, I did hint that web design should not be exclusive. Realistically, it would be difficult to integrate into the curriculum without a complete overhaul of the existing system. Currently, web design is taught in the final semester of the 4th year, which we both can agree is not a good idea as it does not equip the student with web expertise. On the bright side, it at least gives the student an opportunity to learn the basic skill to be refined for the future. Having web design taught in the first semester would be an excellent idea, but the expectations of web-based projects each year or each semester would be required. That would undoubtedly replace a lot of valuable print projects that we depend on which helps us refine our skills in important areas of graphic design. Learning about web design with its internet background and coding requirements takes up significantly more time than learning how to use Photoshop or Illustrator.

In addition, our training is very multi-disciplinary. Students go through extensive courses on art history, drawing, painting, printmaking, photography, etc., to equip us with a wide range of versatile skills that are invaluable to us as designers for the future. Shifting the focus more to the digital would mean less hands-on creativity and more dependence on computers and programming. In the end, I’m all for compromise; finding an ideal middle ground that can give students the best of both worlds of print and web design. But with so many projects and multi-disciplinary offerings, the expectations right now are, realistically, too high.

Picture of Corrie

Name Corrie

Date Apr 10
11:54 AM

From the (few) friends that I know who have taken “web design classes” at universities, it seemed like their experiences were more about learning how to use software (Dreamweaver, Flash, After Effects) — and a very basic knowledge about the software at that — than about HTML, CSS, web standards, etc. Having never actually taken design classes myself, is this typical with print classes as well — i.e., is the emphasis mainly on learning software, or is there a better mix of design principle as well?

I thought Andrew’s point was a good one — the universities probably haven’t “caught up yet” with the movement towards standards. Being somewhat slow myself, I can sympathize. :-)

Picture of Linda C

Name Linda C

Date Apr 16
09:43 PM

I echo your comment about the state of academia industry when it comes to producing solid web designers. Although some universities had came out with some pretty awesome site redesigns and application developments lately. Take a look at University of Nebraska calendar system (http://events.unl.edu) or Brown University website (brown.edu). They are heading the right way ;).

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