A few years ago I was asked to be a guest speaker in a high school web design class in Barrington, IL. At the time I didn’t think anything of it and just looked at it as another day, but I ended up actually enjoying doing it. Since then I’ve had it in the back of my mind that I would like to teach a web design class at the college level. I don’t want to be full time faculty by any means, but I would like to teach one or two classes a week. Hell, maybe even a few seminars.
Now, let me preface the article with this; I am by no means attacking any individual colleges, students, or alumni. And everything in this article is about my industry, the web design industry. I’m also not saying that I am the world’s best designer, but I am cognizant of my own skill set. While I talk about myself in this article, the article is not about me and I am not trying to brag. I’m merely using my experience as an example to point out the problems I see with web design at the college level.
Higher education and web design is a two way street. One of the nice things about our industry is that you don’t need a piece of paper saying you graduated; If you’re good you can make a living doing it. On the other hand, since you don’t need a degree, if you’re bad you can make a living doing it. You can’t say this for many industries. Doctors need a degree, many businesspeople need a degree, grade school teachers need a degree.
Remember when your parents used to tell you “practice makes perfect”? They lied to you. Practice helps but it’ll never make you perfect. I believe design is a skill that you either have or you don’t. Regardless of your level you can get better, but you can’t become Saul Bass by reading books on theory and getting a Masters degree.
But at least if you have a degree in web design you’re one step closer, right? If you’re taught properly, yes, but that’s the problem.
Much of the web work I have seen from fresh graduates is quite lackluster (to put it nicely). Colors clash, the markup is beyond poor, and usability is close to nonexistent. And these people are looking for jobs. Jobs in my field. And they have a degree. Something is wrong here. How is it possible that they can go through four years of college and still be putting out sub-par work? Who is teaching these people?
In the past two months alone I have been flat out offered 6 full time jobs, some at top design firms, and invited to be a founding member of a number of startups. All of which I have turned down (I’m very happy working for myself). Meanwhile, I finally decided to apply for some adjunct teaching positions at several colleges in my area.
I have only heard back from one, whom said I wasn’t qualified to teach. I didn’t even get a phone call, let alone an interview. Just an email stating they’re not interested.
…Why? Is it because I don’t hold a Master’s degree? I have a Bachelor of Arts degree, but I didn’t study design. In fact, I never even took a web design class. Is that why I’m not qualified? How is it that I am able to do so well in web design and be asked out of the blue to design for some of our nations top brands, but I’m not qualified to teach others how to do it? Recently a site I made got national attention from the biggest media outlets in the country and in the world. I’m capable of doing that but not to teach a room of 15 people? Something is broken here.
In all fairness, maybe some of these candidates are better designers than me. Maybe their code is that much cleaner than mine. But what they’re teaching certainly doesn’t show it. The books for these courses are 4 or 5 years old. My sister took a Photoshop class when CS4 was the newest version. They taught her CS1 and the book she had to buy for the class was on CS1. We work in a fast paced industry and in 5 years a shitload of things can change.
The generation that is entering college now is smart. They have grown up on computers. Many of them could probably make much better websites faster than you or I could, but they still need to be molded; And I feel our colleges are failing to do so. Teaching outdated programs and outdated code is doing a disservice to them and to our industry as a whole. There is absolutely no excuse for this. When that student graduates without the proper knowledge and skill set it makes them look bad, it makes the school look bad, and it hurts our industry as a whole.
There are websites out there like tutsplus and treehouse that teach up to date information starting from $19 a month. A community college costs about $5,000 per semester. So that’s $1,000 per course, divided by 15 classes equals about $66 per class. So if students are paying that much money for web design classes, shouldn’t they at least be getting taught up to date technology?
Something needs to change here. Higher education needs to be more about skills and less about how education looks on paper. And that goes for both the students graduating and the teachers teaching the classes. Students need to have a good work and a strong portfolio to get a job. I don’t care if they have a degree, most employers in our industry won’t care if they have a degree, and their clients certainly won’t care if they have a degree, as long as the work is good; Which it is not. It seems to me the degree mostly matters to the colleges that distribute them. And as long as colleges keep hiring their design teachers based on their on-paper-education rather than their skills, this will remain an infinite loop.