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An Event Apart Boston: Moving Towards a Web Design Curriculum

Posted by: David Sleight on June 27, 2008

After two days, thirteen speakers, fifteen hours of sessions, and countless design conversations that stretched well into the wee hours (and even the train ride back), I’m settling into my desk here at BusinessWeek HQ with a head full of fresh ideas percolating. A lot of what I heard at AEA this time around seemed to speak to the still nascent but growing maturity of web design as a discipline.

Web designers and developers have been at it for a little over a decade now—give or take a few years—and that leads to interesting questions as we transition from back room upstarts to full-fledged revenue drivers, replete with a history and methodologies all our own.

One major concern? Education.

Jeffrey Zeldman hit on this in his conference opener, pointing out how most institutions lack an effective web design curriculum, inviting comparison with other fields by noting, “Teaching Excel is not the same as teaching business.” You can see where this juxtaposition is headed. You’d simply never dream of getting your MBA that way. Yet that’s exactly how most schools handle web design. From an application-driven perspective, focused on tools rather than principles.

Don’t agree? Pick up a dozen different course catalogs, flip around, and see what you find. Plenty of, “Adobe Photoshop for the Web,” but precious few options in the form of, “Fundamentals of Usability,” “Essential Web Standards,” or even “Basic Accessibility.” Software is ephemeral. The foundations it builds off are not. We’ve come far enough in the past decade to have established plenty of the latter. So why the dissonance?

I’m hopeful that institutions will find their way relatively soon. (Note that “relatively soon” can sometimes mean, “in a decade or so.”) There’s simply too much money at stake, and some programs are beginning to take shape that could translate into serious strides. Hence the buzz over SVA’s recently announced MFA in Interaction Design.

We may already be moving towards a web design curriculum.

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Reader Comments


June 29, 2008 05:29 PM

The School of Information at the University of Michigan teaches the foundations that you mention.

The most relevant coursework to your discussion is probably in the Human Computer Interaction and Social Computing specializations. But, the general principles of information science are taught at the school and then students can develop their own program in a form appropriate for their goals. So, people who want to be in usability or project management roles, for example, don't have to spend a lot of time with Photoshop.

This whole field is extremely interdisciplinary. I hope that educational programs develop along a truly interdisciplinary model.

David Malouf

June 29, 2008 07:38 PM

G-d! I hope that an MFA in IxD is NOT a "web design curriculum". IxD should be technology agnostic. Digital maybe, but definitely NOT limited to the web or even to desktop software, or even to software.

I have been worried about this programs strong affinity towards Jeffry's organization and this article doesn't make me feel much better about it.

But I also think that Jeffry is wrong about education for Web Design. Looking at Continuing Ed. he is right, but looking at bachelors and certificate programs there are a ton geared towards desktop interactive media including web. Maybe they don't have the exact class list he wants, but look around the US and there is a good score or 2 of programs in interactive media at bachelors, masters, and certificate levels. Personally, I don't think there should be "a course" on "web standards". That is way too specific. Standards should just be a day of a course on "contemporary web development".

-- dave

Matt Robin

June 29, 2008 08:10 PM

Good post David, we need more posts like this one on web sites outside of the conventional web design community.

It is great news about the MFA in Interaction Design from SVA, I just hope it is not an isolated example, it will be more exciting when a large number of institutions can offer something similar, so perhaps this is just a 'flash in the pan' and it is far too early to suggest we're moving any closer to a web design curriculum.
Within the Web Design community itself there has already been a strong calling for improvement in Web Design education for quite some time - we needed it 10 years ago! For anyone who is interested in reading further on this topic, I'd also suggest the following and its articles:

Jesse Friedman

June 30, 2008 12:05 AM

I attended AEA and heard Zeldman's seminar. He is right and I know this from first hand experience. I'm a professor at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI. I teach basic & advanced web design and several flash & actionscript classes. I have seen classroom curiculums consist of learning only about how to use an application instead of learning code, standards, and application of that knowledge in the field. I have made it a point to not allow students to write code in anything but notepad. This way they gain an understanding of the code before they use a "bigger" application like dreamweaver and wysiwyg are not aloud in my classes at all. On top of that many hours in my classroom is covering theory, best practices and standards. These are the same goals I'm trying to develop at

David Malouf

June 30, 2008 08:01 AM

Just a point of clarification. I also want to point out that in the US there are 2 other explicit IxD programs (CMU and KU) and in Europe there are more than 2 handfuls. While most are MDes or M of Interaction design, the concept of a Masters level program in IxD is far from new. We just need many many more of them especially in the US.

David Sleight

June 30, 2008 08:51 AM

@David Malouf: Frankly, a “good score or 2 of programs in interactive media,” is troubling when you consider there are thousands of institutions covering Web Design in some fashion—more often than not from the oddly application-driven perspective noted above. That’s not a ratio indicative of a healthy pedagogical foothold. (Also, I don’t see how one could do a respectable job covering any major topic in a “contemporary web development” program inside of a day, let alone Web Standards.)

I can’t speak for all the topics the upcoming SVA program will cover (full announcements haven’t been made yet), but insofar as Interaction Design and Web Design overlap in some areas, and the early faculty announcements include folks with proven track records of understanding how the Web works, that can only be a good thing.

True, an IxD curriculum should avoid the application-driven trap, but could it ever truly be 100% “technology agnostic”? A doorknob is every bit as much a piece of “technology” as a web browser.

David Malouf

July 1, 2008 10:29 PM

@DavidSleight being "technology agnostic" doesn't mean avoiding using or talking about technology. That would be quite impossible to your point, but I think if I was a student I would resist any program that focused too much on the web as an IxD program. They probably would be falling into the trap of being an "interactive program" instead of a true Design Thinking/Interaction Design program. But heck, maybe that is what some people want. As a leader in the IxD community, the distinction is pretty darn important to me and to many others.


July 8, 2008 07:05 AM

I was at AEA Boston and absolutely agreed with what Zeldman said. I work for Opera, and today we've published the Web Standards Curriculum, which is creative commons licensed and is a complete course to teach standards-based web development.

It's available as courseware to universities, schools, colleges or for private study. It's at

David Sleight

July 8, 2008 11:44 AM

@Bruce Thanks to you and to Opera for the new resource. I'll be giving this a close look, particularly to see about adding it to our own in-house training here at (By the way, I believe we shared a table the second evening, along with Eric and Ethan—sorry we didn't get a chance to chat more!)

Also, for those with the requisite chops and an interest in shaping that new SVA program, they're looking for an assistant to the chair:


July 16, 2008 11:33 AM

Hi David - you mean at the pub?

Drop me a line if I can help with adding it to your in-house training, or if you have any feedback on the web standards curriculum. (Or if you want to write a piece about it for businessweek)

David Sleight

July 16, 2008 12:35 PM

@Bruce Yep, that would be myself and designer Andrew Famiano to the left of that photo!

It's an impressive amount of material. I take it this is something Opera had been working on for a while?

Any general recommendations on how one would incorporate this into in-house training? Individual assignments? Small class sessions? Or something else altogether?


August 7, 2009 04:06 PM

I agree with the lack of web design curriculum. I recently graduated, but with a degree in Graphic Design, and I only took two classes that taught the basics of web design. The aspiring Web Designers in the school probably learned a lot more than I did being in a different major, but I have also spoken to recent grads in Web Design and they felt like that they didn't learn as much as they should have either. A better curriculum will help students find jobs sooner rather than playing catch up on what they should already know.

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