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Education for Dummies

by Andy Rutledge


A formal education in web design is not the

silver bullet it’s made out to be. Far from relyingVeer

on teachers to show them the way, it’s up to young

designers to blaze their own path to success.

This section sponsored by Veer




In my recent article on The UX Design Education Scam I observed that an academic web design education is largely a waste of time, trust and money. Apparently, that notion is rather daunting for many aspiring web designers. Among the comments I received, many were from budding web designers seeking advice on where to turn for alternatives to an academic education. Some of them agreed with my thesis, explaining how they wasted time and money on inadequate university programs that poorly prepared them for the working world and now they don’t know what to do.

Don’t know what to do?

Oy. I predict that this will likely be my least-popular article. Ever. And that’s saying something. This won’t be the helpful-group-hug-give-everyone-a-chance thing. It’ll be a nut-up-or-shut-up type, because that’s what those interested in educating themselves need to do in order to meet fundamental human responsibility.


At no time in modern history has it been easier for even the least-intelligent among us to pursue an education. The sad thing is, too many people have forgotten just how an education is acquired, and how large a role individual responsibility plays in the process. Education is not something you’re given, it’s something you take. Something you steal. So go and steal it! If you can’t, well — as Judge Smails so elegantly put it in Caddyshack — the world needs ditch diggers too.


Okay, maybe that was a bit harsh. Maybe I should just try and help a little. So let’s pretend that you have no idea what the web design profession requires in terms of skills and understanding. Let’s also pretend that this doesn’t reveal you as incompetent. Let’s further imagine that you have the highest disdain for anything that isn’t an academic education, even though history has taught us that academia is largely useless in providing a relevant web design education.

The Academic Path

This is not to say that all academic web design programs are without merit; just that most of them are. As I observed in my earlier essay, there are a few high-quality institutions with good programs. For instance, Hyper Island, SVA’s Interaction Design program and Carnegie Mellon’s Interaction Design program each offers a solid curriculum, but there aren’t too many others that do. If you look at what these institutions and programs offer and what they demand, you get the sense that they’re serious about delivering on the promise of their course descriptions.

Note, however, that in order to find the right institution or program, you have to understand what accounts for quality. You also need to have a goal in mind for your own career, and you should know what the finish line looks like. Either that, or you’ve got to rely on the kindness of strangers and their tolerance for irresponsibility in order to spoon-feed you options. Seriously—know what you’re looking for before you get started.

For all these particular institution’s attractions, they’re likely too far away, too expensive, or have too-rigorous a list of requirements for most prospective students. You’ll likely never get the chance to attend one of these institutions. These programs are for other people. Not you. Right?

Yeah, that was a challenge. If you’re used to listening to naysayers and in the habit of paying attention to those who say “you can’t,” then the scant availability of quality UX design education isn’t your problem. You are your problem, and you need to learn that the buck stops with you. So even if you desire a relevant, institutional education, I seriously doubt you’ll find one and then actually be able to enroll. Disagree? Prove me wrong.

You may have noticed that the few quality User Experience (UX) design programs are largely graduate programs, not undergraduate programs. There is a good reason for this, and it indicates their importance as simply part of a good education: these programs are specialized, and as such do not constitute a foundation degree. I highly recommend that any aspiring designer interested in academic education first acquire a basic liberal arts degree before pursuing one of these specialized programs. Education should initially be about preparing you as a responsible, competent human being. Skipping that in favour of specialized interest smacks of fetish, and it won’t prepare you for any profession.

The Bootstrap Path

Think about it: the most respected web designers in the world didn’t go to school for web design or UX design or interactive design. They learned whatever they could in school while figuring out web design’s ever-changing professional and technical skills on their own or with the help of their peers. In many cases, they made it up as they went along! The fact is the majority of them have left an ever-expanding legacy of information and tutorials in books and on their websites, sitting ready for any aspiring designer to learn from. Once again—steal your education!


You don’t need an institution in order to learn something. All you need is the desire to learn and the will to see it through. Self-teaching is, of course, involved in all education. A teacher might share information and point the way, but you must then take that material and teach it to yourself. Anyone who knows anything is self taught.


Here again, I will pretend that not knowing what to do about one’s own education doesn’t clearly indicate incompetence, and I’ll offer a few suggestions for resources for a self-directed UX design education. Now, I’m not suggesting that this is “the” selection of resources to tap, but here are a few to start with.

Here are some good books for a design foundation:

As well as some web craft books by these authors:

  • Dan Cedarholm
  • Jeffrey Zeldman
  • Eric Meyer
  • Andy Budd
  • Cameron Moll
  • Simon Collison
  • Andy Clarke
  • Jeremy Keith

And these helpful websites:

Self-directed education is no less arduous and often no less expensive than institutional education. However, if you’re not prepared to work just as hard at this as you would at an academic institution, you’re doomed. You’ll be culled to make room for your betters in the profession. That’s a good thing. Our profession doesn’t need any more dilettantes.


What Are You Going to Do?


Now, the fact that you might eventually be seeking entrance in to the design profession without a degree might seem daunting. It might even prove daunting. Not all agencies and companies know that an interactive design degree is largely meaningless. Some companies will hire based mostly on degree credentials because they don’t understand what it takes to do your job. So they look for a supposed standard—relevant or not—in order to maintain their ignorance and apathy.


So what!? These are not the agencies you want to work for. Go elsewhere. If you’re worth hiring, you’ll get hired. If you’re not, you won’t. Again, this is a good thing. In any event, stop looking around for the escalator and get busy climbing the stairs that are right in front of you.


It may seem that I had a sour taste in my mouth while writing this piece; that’s because I did. No one should have to offer such advice, stating the obvious for the benefit of those who apparently lack the discipline to put the obvious into practice. Perhaps some of those who “don’t know what to do” were merely experiencing a momentary lapse of will after being rocked back on their heels by academic fraud. I get that. I maintain, however, that worthy folks don’t lose their wits and lapse into incompetence. I pray you don’t either.


Please keep in mind, though, that you’re not entitled to anything and it doesn’t matter how worthy of success you are. If you’re worthy, go and get it. Nothing’s stopping you. If something does stop you, that’s your problem, not anyone else’s. Your education and success are up to you and no one else. Intelligence and qualification count for a lot, but the only thing that ultimately matters is what you can accomplish.


What are you accomplishing? What will you accomplish?




Andy is co-owner and chief design strategist for Plano, TX-based Unit Interactive. He often writes about design professionalism on his own site and shares random musings on Twitter.




adam qureshi

November 08, 2010 11:42 AM


hey you forgot a book http://www.undercoverux.com/ it's awesome ! once again AR is at it again . tough love never felt so good . Im learning on my own AR is providing the path i live in NYC i cant get into the SVA program i never finished college i used to work in retail for like 9 years then i decided to i was not happy and started to learn web design AR has been so inspiring really has helped me a great deal i started my own company ! now im doing what i love and im not making much money yet but at least im happy and always learning more occasionally taking classes at NYU continuing edu program . learning design principals . I feel as if i have a sense of things a natural curiosity to figure things out and im happy so that is why i keep doing / learning design principals first the foundation . Thank you andy i'd love to meet you one day and go for a century if you can endure it please write a book already ;-)



Joel G Goodman

November 08, 2010 11:44 AM


I agree with it all. I didn't study anything having to do with the web, but that's now my profession (in higher ed even).

However. As a self-taught webdev/designer, I try hard to get into teaching these abysmal classes to change the status quo, if not to at least encourage people interested in the courses to pursue self-directed learning. The programs at schools suck because *teachers* are teaching the classes rather than professionals.



Jesse Gardner

November 08, 2010 12:47 PM


May I humbly suggest The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam, especially if you're going to be dealing with clients.



Connor Montgomery

November 08, 2010 05:13 PM


I agree with the fact that most web design programs are below par. I'm completely self-taught (although, I don't aspire to be a full-time web designer and am currently studying CS at a well-respected University). People like Chris Coyier, Jeffrey Way, Zeldman, Croft, and Moll - those are the best teachers. The beauty about the web design field is that if you ever want to learn how something was done, you simply just inspect the page.

Honestly, I don't think there should be web design programs, in my opinion. There are tons of free resources, and really the only requirement is hard work.




November 09, 2010 10:07 AM


This is a harsh truth and it is a shame it even needs to be said out loud. When I was in high school I missed a lot of time because I simply was bored there. I would use that missed time to go to the library and read and learn about things I found interesting. I began studying liberal arts and art history in 7th grade. After high school I got my first real computer. In order to learn everything there was to know about it (a mac) I bought books and explored until the dawn; daily. When I began doing print design work I did the same. When I began web design work... well you get the idea.

Today there is an unbelievable amount of quality resources available at your fingertips. There is almost no excuse for not digging in and even finding a mentor to follow online. Study, learn, practice, and repeat.



Kelly Sahw

November 10, 2010 01:53 PM


A solid post.
I wonder though if you only hire fully experienced people.

I doubt it.
I bet you invest in talent and guide them with a fixed degree of patience.
I like to think of this as professional patronage.

It is reasonable to think that paying for an education will also provide ambition with professional patronage. The fail happens here.
Unfortunately it is the schools that " lack the discipline to put the obvious into practice"

To your points anyone who wants to get in the game must do serious due diligence on the course they plot for themselves.

In my experience Communication Design degrees provide a much better base to build from. Entry level folks should seriously consider them first.



Elle James

November 22, 2010 06:27 PM


An interesting post. You have used good grammar, expressive language, and proper punctuation. Were you born with this knowledge or did you learn it in a school?

College is an important part of growing regardless of ones age. You might not hire designers with college degrees however, I seriously doubt you hire the ignorant or illiterate.

It is vital to realize that an education is important. The artistic teenager who thinks they can quit school; create spectacular webpages; and earn a living is a myth.

Talent, determination, and education are equally important. The more education someone has the more they are able to learn about web design on their own.




November 30, 2010 06:43 PM


Great article,

I would like to say that as far as the "obviousness" of the information your presented, some very young (high school aged) people might be reading this and to them its not safe to assume whats obvious. Its obvious to us as adults but to them maybe not so much.

All the same though your article is inspiring and made the perhaps not so obvious, obvious.




Stacey Plant

December 03, 2010 04:58 PM


ouch! I needed that:) Have Bachelor Degree in Web Design. Now I need an education. I think I'll go get one.



Kurt McQuiston

December 05, 2010 07:54 PM


I've been working in higher education for most of my life. It is truly a wonderful thing and I feel extremely lucky. I consider myself a trained designer and teacher. I appreciate your position and frustration with this but really, higher education is not merely a trade school. Trade schools are trade schools. University and Colleges are places where people learn to learn. I, we create life long learners who a developed human beings. Learning to write clean code is one thing and fostering a career is important but there is so much more to higher education. I'm also surprised that you didn't mention important books like anything written by Philip Meggs or Wucius Wong. You know, th' classics. I would also like to encourage you to visit schools like RISD and The Art Center school of design in Pasadena. There are some really great schools out there.



Terry Kernan

December 20, 2010 08:03 AM


I completely agree with you. The best people IMO don't come from universities or colleges, they born out of a never ending desire to know and be able to do more (usually with less). University Degrees these days aren't worth the paper they are printed on. Like currency, if there is too much of it in circulation, it's value falls, that's what is happening with university, too many people are coming out the other side! We need to reduce the numbers, not increase the numbers, with student fees on the increase in the UK, it is happening right now!




January 10, 2011 06:13 AM


Your article on Smashing must've garnered the most flak of anything you ever wrote. Not because it was more honest but because the people who would take offense at being told to get a proper education are more abundant and active on the net than those who fail to - for lack of a better term - provide it.

I myself have got it comparatively bad right now, with both my school and my job failing me in terms of providing me with proper guidance and professional practices. But then, I went into my education to learn and neither school nor job impede me from that aside from leeching a large chunk of my time. I try to learn as much as I possibly can during those periods, but my real work and learning occurs on weekends and after hours.

Currently what I'm most interested in is project management and professional process. So what I'm working on for my last half year of school is finding a way to do a remote internship, cooperating with a great agency via the internet, stealing their knowledge and bouncing my self-taught knowledge off them for good measure. Rest assured, you're someone I'd love to steal from (and I've done so in the past); watch me try.



Ian Smith

January 13, 2011 02:49 PM


In the first six months after my BA in design, I learned three times as much via the real-world school of experience, and became 3 times as employable. I was well served only by the core classes of design fundamentals.



paul nobles

April 25, 2011 05:09 PM





Jen Heilemann

May 12, 2011 10:44 AM


This is a great article and a good kick in the butt to go educate myself.

I have to take issue with this, however:

"I will pretend that not knowing what to do about one’s own education doesn’t clearly indicate incompetence."

Everyone has to start somewhere. Just because a person has a desire to educate themselves does not mean that they are going to know where to start. Obviously a good place is articles like this, the books you mentioned, seeking out tutors, and getting a job wherever you can. But condescension towards those seeking more information is unnecessary.




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