An Event Apart Boston: Moving Towards a Web Design Curriculum

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.