What to Look For in a Web Design Program

You’ve decided that Web design is the career for you. You’re ready to jump into the game, but you’re going to need some education on how to design Web sites first. However, with literally hundreds of schools offering courses in every possible permutation – Web site design or graphic design with a focus on Web sites; certificates or full degrees – how do you decide which program meets your needs?

Skills taught in a Web Design program

Web site designers require a vast array of skills, not all of which are (or can be!) taught in the classroom. However, there are certain skills that all Web designers should know. First among these is HTML (HyperText Markup Language) code, which comprises the building blocks of the Web. All Web sites, no matter how fancy or how focused on Flash animation, consist of HTML at their core.

Although most designers now use Web editing programs such as FrontPage or Dreamweaver to design Web sites, in order to understand what is actually happening when the Web site loads, you need to know HTML. For entry-level positions, this markup language can be enough, but for more advanced positions, you should learn one or more other markup languages, such as XML (eXtended Markup Language) and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), as well as one or more scripting languages, such as JavaScript
and ActiveX.

You will also need to learn the basics of making a Web site look neat and professional. Although it may seem elementary, there are a wide range of techniques involved in creating a Web site that flows well. A logical site is designed to allow the user to quickly understand the purpose of the Web site, and to easily find the information he or she needs. Although this is obviously more of an art than a science, there are many techniques that help users navigate each page within a site more effectively and quickly. As a Web
site designer, you should be fluent in these techniques.

To work on Web sites, you’ll also need to understand the basics of how a computer operates. These technical skills enable you to set up and modify the Web site. Being able to use FTP (File Transfer Protocol) clients to add pages and upload site changes is paramount. So is being able to modify the site contents manually by using text editor software. Some of this software allows you to view changes instantaneously, such as the Real-Time HTML Editor, which is available online. Other text editors are included with your
office computer, or can be installed, enabling you to work on site contents outside of a site editing program.

Finally, depending on the specific career path you have in mind, you may need to have other skills. If you are focusing more on the graphic design aspect of Web design, you will need to focus on learning about vector and raster graphics. Raster graphics, comprised of grids of tiny pixels, are dependent on the size and quality of the image – photographs are raster images, for example, and can look blurry or sharp, depending upon image size and resolution. Vector graphics use geographical points and coordinates
instead of pixels, and can be resized without losing image quality. Typography, or the art of choosing and using fonts and typefaces, is also important. Page layout, or the skill of combining pictures, text, links, and animated images on a Web site to create a pleasing overall design, is also very important.

If, however, you are more interested in the technical aspects of maintaining a Web site, you will need to focus more on server administration, namely by learning to use Web server software (such as Microsoft IIS or Apache), and understanding how to run log analysis so you can track who visits the site, and how frequently you receive unique visitors. There are other specific domains in the field of Web design, including site optimization, security, usability, and quality assurance. Each sub-specialty in the Web design field requires the knowing the design basics described above, plus additional skills which you can learn in class and on the job.

In summary, these are the type of Web design classes you can look forward to taking:

  • HTML and other markup/scripting languages
  • Web site graphics and layout design
  • Some technical skills necessary to publish a Web site
  • Other skills related to the specific type of Web design career you want to pursue

How Do I Know This Web Design Program is Right for Me?

There are a large variety of Web design programs, which run the gamut from certificate programs to full degrees. These programs are offered at learning institutions ranging from small, private schools to large, public schools – and everything in between. Finding the specific Web or graphic design school that meets your needs from the many available can be a challenge. Here a few questions to ask yourself when deciding upon a course of study in Web design:

  • Do I want to study online or at a traditional school?
  • Can I fit a full-time program into my schedule, or should I go part-time?
  • Do I want a degree program, or a certificate program, which is usually quicker, and can help me get into the field more rapidly?
  • Am I willing to change my schedule or where I live to learn these new skills?
  • Am I more interested in the technical end of Web sites, or would I prefer to work on graphic design and page layout?
  • Does the Web design program I am interested in offer all of the classes needed for the career I want to focus on?
  • Does the school help graduates with their career planning by offering job or internship placement assistance?

By answering these questions, you are well on your way to figuring out which is the right Web design course for you!

Is There A “Best” Web Design Program?

Any aspiring web designer seeking help from a forum about the “best” web design software will immediately be greeted by two very different responses. One will either be told to use a large, expensive, purpose-built design program such as Dreamweaver or to use something they most likely already have- Notepad. These are very disparate responses, and this article will explore some of the general reasons this rift occurred.

The Two Sides

“Dreamweaver” and “Notepad” are the classic examples usually provided, though they are not exhaustive. The central conflict is generally between those who advocate the use of “WYSIWYG” programs and “text editors”. WYSIWYG is an only slightly more efficient way to say “What You See Is What You Get.” WYSIWYG programs employ a user interface designed to provide an accurate or nearly accurate preview of the end output while the content is being created. WYSIWYG web design programs endeavor to allow a user to edit their site information as it might appear in a browser when published to the web.

“Text editors” are simply that, small programs designed to edit text documents, of which most web pages are actually built on a “nuts and bolts” level. Very briefly, the web pages seen in a browser are simply lines of text with “markup,” the “M” in “HTML.” Markup is the series of tags that tell the browser what the document is, how to order it, and in many cases, how to display it. In order to edit a web page using a text editor, one has to know HTML. This is where the 2 web design camps diverge. WYSIWYG programs are basically designed to bring editing to those who do not know HTML.

“Controversy”

Many web designers take the view that one must learn HTML in order to design, and that WYSIWYG programs are, to quote a few common complaints, bloated, unnecessary, and produce poor code. Using Notepad, or any of a similar crop of basic text editing programs, seems to be a kind of “street cred” among those designers that value this knowledge. Although the ever increasing feature set (“bloat”) of many WYSIWYG programs cannot be denied, I found having more tools available is generally not a bad thing. Further, anyone who levels the “bad code” charge has probably not used modern WYSIWYG programs like Dreamweaver 8. In the past there have been WYSIWYG programs guilty of producing very bad code, FrontPage, for instance, but this is mostly a relic.

Novices are welcome to ignore these weak arguments and find a WYSIWYG program with which they are comfortable. One of the key benefits of a good WYSIWYG program is the ability to learn the code while using the program. Making changes in a “preview” mode and watching how the underlying code changes is a useful way to discover HTML. As a designer who started out using Notepad, I moved on to Dreamweaver for another important reason, convenience. Knowing the underlying code, I was able to quickly make changes in the “design” mode with a good knowledge of what those changes did to the code. I could also work in the “code” mode and see what the results might look like without having to upload them or preview in a browser. Most modern WYSIWYG design programs have strong underlying code editing systems, providing those who wish to use them with a “Notepad” like experience should they wish to use it. Modern WYSIWYG design programs also provide additional convenience of site management, re-useable code, custom templates, and a personal favorite of mine, spell check.

Conclusions

Don’t be shamed into trying to learn HTML via a text editor if that’s not right for you. Web design is a learning process and WYSIWYG software can provide an excellent learning platform. The only thing to be afraid of is, perhaps, the price tag of most WYSIWYG software. Notepad and similar text editors are certainly economical. There is some “middle ground” in the debate. Some “advanced” text editors do exist that are built with web design in mind and provide some basic luxuries. There is also a wide variety of online site builders that automate the design process beyond even that capable by expensive WYSIWYG software. There is no “best” web design program, only the best program for an individual designer.