Dec 2009

A Temporary Death

I’m sure it happens everyday on college campuses across the world. Not enough students, so a class gets cut. Not enough interest, so a class gets cut. But in my case, when departmental funding began to dry up, well, so did my teaching position.

I should start this out by saying that I am in no way bitter or angry about the situation. I firmly believe that if financial circumstances were different that my class – “Fundamentals of Web Design” – would continue to be offered. I sincerely believe it will also be reinstated in the future. So it’s not about me getting cut, it’s about web education getting cut.

I could have given two craps about web education.

Now admittedly, I could have given two craps about web education a mere 2 years ago. I was primarily interested in advancing my own career with very little mind paid to educating or mentoring the next generation of designers coming up. Pretty selfish…and extraordinarily short-sighted!

How did my perspective change?

I can look back now and see that it was a combination of really 5 things: moving from Brooklyn to New Orleans in 2006, getting involved with AIGA, meeting my future wife (and her beautiful daughter who was 4 at the time), being asked to temporarily fill-in for an adjunct professor who had a nervous breakdown and had to quit the week before classes were to start and finally bumping into Leslie Jensen-Inman at the annual AIGA leadership retreat in Portland this last summer.

From the Beginning

My existence in New York was nothing short of frantic. I look back on it with fondness, but were I to critically analyze the experience, I could give you a long list of points for improvement. So, the decision to embrace a lifestyle and pace that freed up a little brain real estate was ultimately a good thing. I arrived in post-Katrina New Orleans as an enthusiastic if not slightly disoriented new-comer who was ready to contribute in any way possible. Opportunity existed (exists?) everywhere. Just had to decide how to engage it.

One of the first things I did upon arrival was join the local AIGA chapter. I had never been a member prior, and was honestly just looking for some like-minded folks to hang out with. Just by getting involved I began to notice that this “community” of creatives was in need of some fresh energy and perspective. New Orleans is a fairly traditional design market. You have your boutique studios. You have your advertising agencies. You have your requisite bevy of freelancers. But you also have no less than 7 colleges in the region with some sort of graphic design program – opportunity.


That brings me to my wife of now 2+ years, and her lovely daughter (now my lovely daughter) who was 4 at the time, but who now occupies the body of an 8 year-old while possessing the the intelligence, curiosity and creativity that sometimes I feel supersedes my own. Sorry, honey, but this is more about her than about you.

You see, with little people around there exists an opportunity to create an environment of constant learning. At least that’s what I found myself thinking. Here’s this younger person with really no experience in the world who is completely fascinated with the idea of her dad getting to be creative all day – basically playing and having fun – while getting paid for it. Not a day goes by that this little person shows me who she’s going to become.

She doesn’t talk about becoming a fashion designer she’s actively designing.

She’s not just drawing princesses, but the complete bevy of wardrobe options and accessories said princess is able to choose from. Her level of creative output really is quite inspiring!

We have a son now who is just old enough to stop eating the crayons and start putting them on paper. He has a wildly engaging personality, which I feel will enable him to become a curious and creative individual just like his big sister. The opportunity is there.

A Panic Attack

Around the holidays of 2008, I got a panicked call from a friend of mine who teaches at a local university saying that she had a class full of students an no instructor. Apparently he had some sort of nervous breakdown and had to bail at the last minute. The class was a basic “web design” class, and my friend felt like I could handle teaching it based on my professional experience alone. “Cool!”, I thought. I could earn a little extra dough while passing along some knowledge I’d gained over the years.

Little did I know, teaching is way harder than it looks. This wasn’t some community education day-class with a bunch of housewives and old-folks looking for companionship. I had a week to prepare to teach in a university classroom. I felt like I was going to have a nervous breakdown! But opportunity existed here to try and provide these junior and senior year graphic design students with some sort of meaningful and valuable exposure to “web design”. So I dove in, completed my first semester, and went into the summer recess with plans to revise and focus the class content in hopes of delivering a more coherent learning experience.

Web Standards & Twitterstance

So, I know this might sound idiotic, but I really just embraced web standards last year (that’s right – 2008). As much as I exist in a world of ever evolving technology and possibility, I am admittedly a little slow on the uptake at times. As it pertains to web standards, I was about 9 years slow on the uptake. I take comfort in knowing I am not alone, but nevertheless, once I rounded the corner, I have never looked back.

I knew enough when I began teaching to design the class content with emphasis on valid and semantic page mark-up. “Hell no we won’t be using Dreamweaver to build our sites!” was my reply to one poor soul who asked me on the first day of class if we would be learning how to use the popular WYSIWYG editor in class. Not that I have anything against Dreamweaver, I just use it for about 3 minutes in a project (to create the initial HTML content like DOCTYPE, basic content of head tags and that’s it). I’m proud to say that every one of my students has the foundation knowledge necessary to hand-code a basic website. They understand the difference between structure (XHTML), presentation (CSS) and function (JavaScript or the like). No dragging and dropping of anything. Apparently, this is a rare approach to teaching this particular skill. But I believe this is changing around the country.

One of the organizations leading the charge for improved quality and standardization of web education is the Open Web Education Alliance (OWEA) – a task force established by the W3C who’s primary goal and mission is to craft a program for institutions of higher education to adopt that focuses on a complete and well-rounded exposure to the skills necessary to become a great designer (or for that matter front-end developer, UX designer, UI designer, information architect, etc) for the web. I became aware of this organization quite by accident.

While attending the 2009 AIGA National Leadership Retreat in Portland, I received a random “tweet” from a friend of mine who alerted me to the fact that Leslie Jensen-Inman was attending the conference and that I should try and find her and say hello. I always feel a little weird walking up to people I don’t know and saying, “Hi, I know you don’t know me, but a friend of mine said I should come meet you so…blah blah blah.” It almost never ends well. But in this case, I introduced myself, told Leslie I was teaching a class on “web design” at a university, and she immediately hit me with URLs to check out, people to contact, and even loaned me her copy of Elliot Jay Stocks’ “Sexy Web Design” for me to peruse. Wow! Not the response I planned for. I discovered that there was an active community working to get web education into universities.

A few weeks after returning home, I received an email from Leslie asking Ben Friedman of Iconologic in Atlanta and I if we were interested in serving as AIGA representatives to the OWEA group. Ben and I enthusiastically accepted, and though my participation has been limited by available time, I can honestly say that the manifesto being developed by the members of this task force has been thoughtfully crafted, and the recommendations made therein will help set the stage for educators who want to provide the knowledge and resources necessary to graduate students who are better prepared to pursue a career in design for the web.

Sitting On The Bench

As I mentioned from the outset, I’m not really mad about how things have turned out. But no one likes to sit on the bench while the rest of the team is out having fun. I just hope that if I have a chance to get back in the game – be it 1 or 2 or 5 semesters from now – that design for the web will not be seen as an option, but as a requirement for a well-rounded and complete design education.

Post a comment (1 comment to date)
Thu 10 Dec 2009 at 9:04 am

Steven Flynn

Not too shabby - for a first effort, that is ;-)

Seriously: Well told. I think you may have coined a new word - “twitterstance”

I assume you’ve investigated the possibilities at Delgado and UNO?  (and LSU?) In any case, you’re ready for the next opportunity, when it appears…

Cheers Bro’


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