Andrew Wilson is an Assistant Professor teaching all things Web and has been working in the industry for nearly 15 years. He recently launched StudentWebHosting.com as an affordable hosting solution for designers. Enjoy our interview!
I had the Internet at home growing up before most folks knew much about the Internet (14.4k modem!). I had a little program on our Mac computer that was a “table builder” which spit out HTML tables. I used this program to build a table of my MP3 collection that I could share with my friends. I tried to modify the table code the program created, and I’ve been hooked since. Later that year, I designed and built the sports pages for my high schools website. So I guess, Napster is really to blame…
“How do you get customers/clients as a student?”
Network. Starting out in web design is a tricky business. There are lots of designers out there, and many start in early high school or even middle school. I encourage my students to do the class assignments on real world projects. Tell people you’re a web designer (even if you’re just learning), update your social profiles and list it as your profession. Talk about it in conversation. Most of the web freelance work I’ve done over the years is all from word of mouth. People know I “do websites” and when they are in conversation with people needing work, they say: “I’ve got a friend who does that.”
Be proactive. Here’s a secret: Industry people often call professors looking for student designers. It is a major hassle for myself, as the professor, to try and coordinate work with students and visa-versa. There’s no compensation for me and no incentives – other than helping my students out. Students who email and ask, keep in contact with me and stay proactive, get the referrals. It’s that simple.
My absolute favorite form of learning is trial and error. It’s the most time consuming, but creates an atmosphere of exploration. Things you figured out on your own get committed to long-term memory – it also fosters creativity. Having said that, there are more tutorials and resources on the web for “web stuff” than any other subject matter. Read and follow design blogs: Noupe, A List Apart, Smashing Magazine, etc.
A second extremely valuable area that few take advantage of are ‘user groups’. Join a web design user group in your area. Attend the meetings, watch and learn! Present on a topic of your own. They are great for networking, learning, and keeping up-to-date.
My absolute favorite form of learning is trial and error.
- Rapid evolvement – education moves slower than industry. Most teachers aren’t compensated for learning new software and the moving target of technology on the web. The big joke in higher education is that “I should have taught history”. With that, teachers often get behind on the latest and greatest trends, and can get stuck in their ways.
- Online education – “Politics” are really pushing online education. It’s my personal opinion that a lot of learning that takes place in a traditional classroom is lost in the ‘cyber space’ of the online education. Online is good for some people, but not for most.
- iPads – Not iPads, literally, but what they represent. There is this big trend of ‘bringing technology into the classroom’. I think my students have a technological overload. The iPad is a glorified PowerPoint as far as education goes. Students need to unplug a bit, get off the computer, stop texting and connect with the physical world around. I believe that it serves them not their work, design and education, but in life. Technology has made web education more difficult – designing for the multitude of desktop computers and browsers was difficult enough. Now we have mobile phones, iPads, Android tablets and retina displays. It’s getting much more difficult to teach about the broad range of devices that the world is consuming Internet content on.
Students need to unplug a bit, get off the computer, stop texting and connect with the physical world around.
- ‘Illusive web design’ – I can’t tell you how many students come into my classes with grandiose plans of building websites, only to have their dreams shattered by the extreme difficulty in execution. CMS’s are to blame for this. WordPress make anybody think that web design is easy as pie. I just click a couple of buttons, choose a theme and “Wallah!” It’s hard to get people to realize that web design isn’t about applying a theme to a CMS and pushing publish. It’s about custom design. When students say “Why should I do all this work for a simple website, when I can just use WordPress?” I say, “You shouldn’t, web design isn’t for you.” The hundreds and thousands of hours that have been poured into these systems have the world thinking making websites is easy. It’s an illusion, as we all know (I do love and use WordPress for tons of projects, but these point and click systems are an illusion for many designers starting out).
“What are 3 things you wish design students would do/learn before they graduate?”
- Degrees or Credentials get you interviewed/recognized – they don’t get you hired.
- You need a portfolio online.
- Take advantage of those around you.
In short, college has many things to offer a student. The degree gets you in the door for a job. The portfolio sets you apart from the ‘pack’. The skills (technical, social, critical thinking, problem solving, presenting, ability to work in a group, dealing with non-ideal situations – the indirect learning that takes place in your classes) is what gets you the offer/job.
”How long did it take before you felt proficient at what you do?”
This is a tough one. There was an article put out some time ago in the Harvard Business Review that stated you need to work full-time in your given field for 10 years before becoming “expert” at what you do. I would then say after 4 full time years, you’re “proficient”, or at least that’s about how long it took for me to feel so. A few college classes, and 2-3 websites make you an amateur. Your neighbor’s son who ‘does computers and websites’ is a hobbyist.
”What is the best way to keep track/organize a project?”
You need to get a budgeting/planning/bug tracking software set up – it is a MUST. There are several online options out there. Here is a couple that could point you in the right direction.
For bug & feature tracking: JIRA
Flowcharts & diagrams: Creately
There are book and books written on this topic. I’ll try to summarize a few quick thoughts in sequential order.
- Project Research – find out the target audience, the target market, the goals of the website. Look at competition, what else is out there? What are they doing well, how can you differentiate the brand?
- Create a project specification and contract – make deliverables easy to understand and specific add a clause that additional changes or deliverables will be billed. Don’t let the feature creep kill your project. Use Docracy to help get started with the legal documents and contracts if you don’t have your own.
- Start on paper – sketch up a few mockups of logos/wireframes/layouts.
- Move from paper to Photoshop – create the layout digitally – get the client to approve it. Don’t move to any HTML/CSS until the client has approved the design.
- Code – prioritize features and complete those first.
- Client approval.
- Tweak, rinse & repeat.
Plenty. Most of my mistakes have been with regards to SEO when I was learning (Changing the page titles often after they were already indexed by search engines). My biggest design mistakes almost always stem from my wanting to jump into Photoshop and create a quick logo or website without involving the creative side of my brain. I sell it short. I’m more technically minded, and my design suffers as result of my favouritism.
I’m also bad at peer review. I don’t mind critique but am often too lazy to get input on my designs. I’ve created countless extra hours of work for myself as a result of not getting critique.