The Impact of Software on Web Design

Adobe Muse is the latest in a series of software offerings aimed at helping people produce web designs. I’m all for making web design better and easier, but this isn’t it.

Whilst others, such as Elliot Jay Stocks, have published much better critiques of the software than I would be capable of, I see one area where such software could, depressingly, become very popular.

A Little Background

I’ve been interested in coding, in particular HTML and CSS, for a long time. Since I was just hitting my teens in fact. I made a lot of mistakes, playing with all sorts of messy JavaScript and using table based designs for example, but I always learned whilst doing these things.

At the time a lot of what I was doing was normal, or I assumed so as I learnt by looking at the source code of other sites, by breaking things and piecing them back together. This gave me a reasonable amount of experience when, shortly after getting my GCSEs, I started learning about “web design” in my college.

Save As Web Page

I say “web design” loosely, as what we were taught didn’t correlate with what I had learnt in my own time. The lecturer, who is a very nice person, was teaching us how to create websites using Microsoft Word. Think about that for a second. I approached the lecturer about this and he was aware of HTML, but didn’t have the resources or knowledge to teach us himself.

He did, however, allow me to code my site myself. So whilst the rest of the class designed in word, I worked away in Notepad. I was the only student who did so.

Moving On With Education

After passing with flying colours I moved on to higher levels of education. I was accepted onto an Applied A-Level, things should get better here, right?

In a way they did; we weren’t using Microsoft Office to create web pages any more, instead we were using another Microsoft application, FrontPage. It was the first actual “web design” tool I ever used. I hated it, as I’m sure any coder could sympathise with.

Microsoft FrontPage 98

Unfortunately my lecturers viewed our work as needing to be done with this software, and I wasn’t allowed to use anything else (not even my beloved Notepad). Fortunately FrontPage did have a code view, so I could work away happily using that, even if my lecturers frowned upon it.

This requirement was lifted in the second year of the course, as an additional tool was made available to us, Macromedia Dreamweaver. We were advised to use the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) mode, which produced less than great code. I found it clunky, slow even. But because we had choice I was able to go back to using Notepad.

At this point, whilst I had been increasingly pushed towards WYSIWYG editors, I had been making steps forward with software I wanted to use. No longer was I working in Notepad, I had found Notepad++, which is a lot like Notepad but better equipped to handle coding in general. This improved my productivity in ways WYSIWYG software never could, as it augmented my ability to work, it didn’t try to obscure it in any way.

Bigger Things

Eventually I survived this course (I passed, with a low pass, from what grew to be my worse course of education ever, but that is a story for another time, preferably with a pint) and was accepted into another course. The course was a Foundation Degree in IMD, the introduction to a very high quality degree I recently passed with a First Class Honours.

After the shambles of the previous course, my education in web design really couldn’t have gotten any worse. Unfortunately, they didn’t really get a whole lot better either. The pre-disposition of the Foundation Degree lecturer who taught us web design was very similar to that of previous courses, that WYSIWYG was the order of the day.

Whilst this disappointed me, I was overjoyed to see the requirement that we use such software lifted. I, alongside a handful of other students of the course, were finally able to stretch out wings and do stuff. It was fantastic.

A Well Kept Secret

It was also during this time that I discovered one of the best kept secrets of my education, which has carried over into non-educational life. The people around you, your fellow students, are often times much better equipped to teach you the things that you need to know in a manner that you will understand, much better than the lecturers teaching you. Whilst I have encountered exceptions, this seems to be the norm.

During my foundation degree I was safely able to completely ignore my lecturer when it came to both web design and web development. Why? My knowledge of web design was more current than the material taught in the course and the people around me, in particular Simon Fraser, were better able to teach me PHP, both in terms of actually helping me learn and also in terms of making sure I was learning the right stuff.

Interactive Multimedia Design

It was a natural progression to go from the Foundation Degree to the full thing, after all that’s pretty much the point of a Foundation Degree. By this point in my education I was fully prepared for putting in my time just waiting to get the piece of paper that said I knew how to do stuff. Imagine my delight that nothing could be further from the truth.

My time on the IMD course was, without a doubt, the most enjoyable, stressful, and educational experience I have had on any course. Lecturers not only knew of, but used modern web technologies. Lectures were informative, interesting and regularly hilarious. Students weren’t penalised for trying new things, doing things differently or for disagreeing. It was encouraged. This blew my mind.

You weren’t hand fed, you weren’t taught to use WYSIWYG tools. This was great for me, but challenging for others. Everyone I knew, and that I met, adapted and these things showed in the quality of their work. Work wasn’t marked based on your ability to follow instructions. It was based on your skill, of your capability to code. You were marked on the calibre of your work, not the quantity of work that you completed.

There were always aims and objectives for the work we did, but it was largely left up to us, as individuals, to decide how to get there. Lecturers were always on hand to provide assistance and guidance, but your path was always your own. You got from the course what you put into it. Exactly how it should be.

The course has also had additional benefits to me. Design Studios looking for upcoming talent gave me work, and have given me a job since. But, more importantly than any job, the course rounds out the knowledge, the confidence, and (if you are talented enough) the contacts to help you succeed.

But What’s Your Point?

That’s a great deal of background for a post. If you’ve made it this far you must either be interested in what I have to say, or have nothing better to do. The reason that I’ve put together so much background is to highlight that a lot of educational courses use software that isn’t really suited to what they’re teaching.

Microsoft Word was never meant to be used for web page creation. FrontPage was, but the quality of the code it produced was never a good thing. Dreamweaver has, in recent versions, become a very good coding application, but that doesn’t matter when the college using Dreamweaver doesn’t have the most recent version or when the lecturers teach you how to use a WYSIWYG interface, rather than teaching you how to create, tweak, and fine-tune your code.

A lot of people talking about Adobe Muse see it as a tool for amateurs, or a tool with a lot of potential but that isn’t quite there. I sadly see it as something else. I see it as another application that can be used in education that abstracts the students even further from one of the most important parts of the site - the markup.

Finely crafting a site, in it’s entirety, is an important element of web design. Tools like Adobe Muse, as it stands now at least, might serve as a stepping stone into a more in depth education but, unless the lecturer has a passion about the topic, most would use it as the only step in educating people in web design.

This is something that happens a lot in my own experience of education, where the goal is just enough as opposed to doing it right. Lecturers with this kind of attitude can lead to students developing an interest in something, only for them to find that they aren’t capable of doing what they are no interested in properly.

Many of these students can persevere, I’ve seen it happen first hand, but such practices immediately disadvantage them. I can see tools like Adobe Muse being improperly used to further distance students from the material that they should be learning to deal with.