Q+A: Web Design 101

SND Quick Course

Quick course instructors Tyson Evans and Dave Wright answer five frequently asked questions from print designers looking toward the Web. Sign up for their Web Design Boot Camp in Chicago, November 7-8, to learn more.

1) Do I have to be a geek to build a web page?

Yes — but merely a different type of geek than you already are. Print designers have learned some relatively arcane systems (CCI, anyone?), this is just a different type of geekery. The learning curve is a bit steeper, but certainly not insurmountable — particularly considering the wealth of frameworks and help available on the Web now. Pixels will seem like a breeze if you’re used to doing your math in increments of 1/6th of an inch. The plus: These skills are applicable to any industry. The same HTML/CSS skills you learn to build a newspaper Web site could get you a job at Facebook or Google.

2) Everyone says I have to learn Dreamweaver. Is that true?

Nope. In fact, you should stay away from Dreamweaver at all costs.

If you want to learn to build great Web sites, you have to understand the fundamentals of CSS and HTML. Dreamweaver and other ‘What You See Is What You Get’ editors try to help you by automatically writing code that is probably over complicated and is never exactly what you want. Writing your own code with a text-based editor means you have precise control over what you’re making. And those explicit decisions are the best learning mechanism there is. At the end of the day, this is the only way to get exactly what you want and satisfy the OCD tendencies we know you all have.

3) I feel like I’m hopelessly behind in my understanding of technology? Are there ANY print skills that will translate?

Absolutely, and the asset that will most easily translate: Your eye. There’s a whole legion of computer scientists who know how to code but are clueless when it comes to color, typography, visual hierarchies, user experience and a ton of other skills you’ve honed as a print designer. Web design has borrowed a lot from print design, including a fairly widespread reliance on grid systems.

4) The IT department says I can’t touch our templates, so what’s the point?

There’s a whole lot of Web beyond your main site that’s ripe for invention and improvement. Maybe you can build internal tools (like a Wiki, blog or database reporting tool). Or, maybe you can build a prototype or stand-alone site that doesn’t live on your main site (for special events or breaking news). Not to mention all the personal or freelance work available (design your portfolio, or volunteer to rebuild a non-profit’s Web site). And, if nothing else, you’ll at least have the vocabulary and mindset to have smarter conversations with the people who can change your publication’s Web site. Prove yourself on the small projects and you’ll accumulate trust to tackle the big ones.

5) Isn’t Flash what all the cool kids are learning these days?

Depending on the context, Flash can be the perfect tool. But it’s not a silver bullet, and it’s often misused or overused. Interactive graphics, bold data visualization, timelines, slideshows, video players… these are all prime candidates for Flash (and, by Flash, we really mean ActionScript). But HTML, CSS and JavaScript are the bread and butter of the Web. These tools are standardized, open source, ubiquitous, ripe for Google and incredibly flexible. Sites built with HTML also translate easily to other platforms like mobile phones.

Looking for training? Sign up for Tyson and David’s Web Design Boot Camp in Chicago, November 7-8.

Tyson Evans is an interface engineer at The New York Times. Dave Wright is a senior interactive designer at NPR. Denise M. Reagan is SND’s education and training director and assistant managing editor for visuals at The Florida Times-Union and jacksonville.com.