Christopher Murphy and Nicklas Persson are designers and digital artists as well as lecturers in interactive design at the University of Ulster at Belfast. In addition, they co-authored the newly-released book HTML and CSS Web Standards Solutions: A Web Standardistas’ Approach. They are passionately and actively promoting web standards in education and through their own practice and are now commonly referred to as the Web Standardistas.
[Chris Wallace]: With web standards being embraced by today’s web professional, it seems like universities are still lagging behind with incorporating web standards into their curriculum. Where do you see the biggest advancements being made with universities teaching web standards-based design?
[Christopher Murphy / Nicklas Persson]: Although the web standards movement has been active for over a decade, there’s a frustrating tendency for universities – which should be at the forefront of advancing standards and innovating – to lag behind industry in championing and incorporating best practice into the curriculum. Although there are many universities advancing web standards based curricula, sadly, there aren’t enough.
We’re working within a rapidly advancing industry, an industry that changes year on year (sometimes month on month, and even week on week), and the only way to keep university curricula current is to develop rolling programs of learning that keep pace with current and emerging developments.
Often this means rewriting aspects of course content on a year by year basis which we work hard to do, to ensure that what we deliver is relevant to today’s (and tomorrow’s) industry.
We see the biggest advancements being made through collaboration with industry. Over the last few years we’ve worked hard to establish ongoing partnerships with industry partners, both nationally and internationally, to ensure that we deliver an innovative and thought-provoking programme. We’ve also worked hard to nurture an ongoing relationship with alumni, ensuring successful graduates return to inspire our current students.
One exciting move towards connecting education and industry is the WaSP’s InterAct Curriculum, a living, open web standards curriculum which looks extremely promising.
[Chris Wallace]: What areas are still lacking?
[Christopher Murphy / Nicklas Persson]: If universities are to take the lead in developing contemporary, web standards based curricula, there needs to be much tighter integration between industry and academia.
There’s no question that the partnership between industry and academia needs work. It’s easy for those in industry to criticise shortcomings within academia, however, a more effective, and constructive approach is for industry to get involved with academia and shape curricula and develop dynamic and innovative learning experiences.
Many of our biggest successes has been through partnering with industrial colleagues to, amongst other initiatives: deliver live briefs, to give students a taste of live project work with real deliverables; provide student feedback, most recently using Campfire to undertake group critiques online; and to have national and international practitioners present work that is contemporary, client-focused and inspiring.
We’ve also worked hard to develop a very successful International Guest Lecture Programme, inviting inspirational speakers from all over the world to present their work in Belfast. We’ve been fortunate to have been supported by an all-star cast of designers, sharing their creativity with both students and industry as part of the programme.
Most recently we welcomed Nicholas Felton to Belfast for an extremely inspiring presentation on his work. We’ve also, amongst others, enjoyed presentations by Nicholas Roope of Poke and Hulger, Andy Stevens of Graphic Thought Facility and design critic Adrian Shaughnessy. Future speakers lined up include Elliot Jay Stocks and Paul Farrington of Studio Tonne.
[Chris Wallace]: You’ve been instrumental in the education of some talented young designers. What is your approach to teaching young designers who haven’t been tainted by tables for layout and CSS hacks for ancient browsers?
[Christopher Murphy / Nicklas Persson]: We start with the basics (which often involves firmly encouraging the occasional over-eager student to slow down, trust our approach and learn to walk before they run). Before we even cover (X)HTML and CSS we cover the principles of design, introducing fundamentals including: typography, information hierarchy, narrative, composition, grid systems… the usual suspects.
We firmly encourage a content out approach, stressing the importance of using semantic markup and making markup meaningful.
In our second year design modules we introduce this through the systematic analysis of set texts, encouraging students to mark up content using the full range of elements at their disposal. We spend a considerable amount of time ensuring students are aware that a well-structured document is a part of the design process and that meaningful markup is as important as CSS.
Only once we’ve covered well-formed markup do we move onto CSS which we, again, introduce in a systematic manner comprehensively covering typography and grid systems.
Throughout the process we encourage an understanding of the importance of accessibility, ensuring students are aware of contemporary accessibility guidelines and the importance of a clear document structure.
Of equal importance to the fundamentals, we work hard to encourage our students to develop an inquiring mind. We graduated before web development was taught (or even existed) and we’re fully self-taught. As a consequence of this we try to nurture a culture of creative investigation amongst our students, signposting to interesting developments and encouraging students to experiment creatively.
[Chris Wallace]: You have a number of talented young designers (such as Lee Munroe and Chris Colhoun), emerging from your courses. Who’s worth watching?
[Christopher Murphy / Nicklas Persson]: We’ve been fortunate to teach many young, emerging designers who share our passion for web standards. There are too many to mention here, but a few are worth singling out.
Lee Munroe, a graduate of our MA Multidisciplinary Design course (and our undergraduate Interactive Design course), is rapidly establishing himself as an internationally respected web designer and developer. In addition to his collaboration with Paddy Donnelly on The Big Word Project, he is currently developing Lookaly, a beautifully designed business directory.
Paddy Donnelly, another graduate from our MA Multidisciplinary Design course (who also studied on our undergraduate Interactive Design course), is now working as a Creative Strategist for Nascom in Brussels. His Twitter interviews with Tim O’Reilly, Guy Kawasaki and Paul Boag amongst others, have really helped to establish him as a thought-leader on the power of social networks (and Twitter) as a marketing tool.
David Henderson, the winner of our 2008 Design Prize (a prize we sponsor every year through Web Standardistas), is establishing a successful freelance design practice. In no small part due to his excellent final year project The Best of Belfast, an extremely accomplished piece of work.
Chris Colhoun is currently approaching the end of his undergraduate study with us and looks set to embark on a successful career. With interviews for posts at some very well-known web design and development firms recently completed, watch this space…
[Chris Wallace]: With exciting things like CSS3 and HTML5 slowly creeping into the picture, what’s your approach to teaching new ideas and concepts, even though the specs aren’t yet finalized or consistently implemented in major browsers?
[Christopher Murphy / Nicklas Persson]: It’s an exciting time to be both working in this medium and teaching it, and we’re constantly maintaining our skill sets through ongoing learning. We encourage our students to embrace a similar model of self-motivated learning, nurturing an inquisitive approach.
We’re committed to teaching students to become self-motivated and self-sufficient, equipping them with the skills to learn themselves in an ongoing manner after they have graduated and are working in industry.
It’s important to stress also that we’re primarily teaching principles and not software or specific frameworks. We see a web standards approach as a design methodology and, with the fundamentals in place, a solid foundation on which to build as new standards emerge.
[Chris Wallace]:Major browser versions and even new browsers (like Google’s Chrome) are seemingly being released every few months nowadays. Teaching web standards is nothing like teaching a math course where 1+1 always equals 2. How do you keep your students up-to-date on updates to major browsers and issues or bugs that are introduced (or fixed) in new browser versions?
[Christopher Murphy / Nicklas Persson]: Although educators, we’re both practicing designers and artists and maintain ongoing consultancy and client work in addition to exhibiting experimental works as artists, exhibiting internationally.
In order to effectively teach contemporary practice, we feel it’s essential for educators to maintain their practice "in the real world" and we regularly reference our client work and consultancy in our lectures through an ongoing, and open, ‘show and tell’ process. We believe in teaching by example, tying principles and theory into contemporary best practice.
To keep our students up-to-date with current and rapidly emerging developments, we use the long-established Japanese just-in-time principle (essentially re-writing almost all of our lectures the week before we deliver them!). We do this on a year-by-year basis to ensure our lecture content remains relevant. Although the principles are the same, we adjust the detail to reflect current developments and signpost emerging trends.
Although this results in a great deal of year-on-year revision of lecture content, we believe there’s no other way to teach a subject that is changing and evolving so rapidly.
[Chris Wallace]: You’re obviously very passionate about what you do. What led you to become authors, educators, and advocates for web standards?
We’ve both learned a great deal through experience and we’re both passionate about passing this learning on. Like many others, we’ve made mistakes as we’ve embarked on our careers and we’re more than happy to share our knowledge and experience (and honestly highlight the mistakes we might have made) if it helps our students moving forward.
We adopt a very open process to learning and share a great deal of the work on our hard drives with our students. We’re both passionate about web standards and we enjoy working with enthusiastic students. There’s a great deal of talent coming through and we’re happy to be contributing to that talent.
Our students are extremely loyal and we have a strong alumni programme with students maintaining contact years after they have graduated. We’re slowly, but surely helping to build a solid web design community in Belfast, a community that’s incredibly inspiring to be a part of. We’re happy to be helping to move that forward.
[Chris Wallace]: Who are some of your main influences?
[Christopher Murphy / Nicklas Persson]: The usual suspects.
People: Jeffrey Zeldmann, Dan Cederholm, Mark Boulton and John Gruber (we’re committed Markdown enthusiasts).
Resources: A List Apart, Design Observer, CSS Zen Garden and 37 Signals (Getting Real and Signal vs. Noise are both excellent reading).
Miscellaneous: You Look Nice Today, TED, The Wire and Lost.
As lecturers we’re also inspired by the work of our students. It’s refreshing to be working with talented students and their enthusiasm is inspiring. (They also help to keep us on our toes!)
[Chris Wallace]: I can’t go the whole interview without asking about the book you’ve released, HTML and CSS Web Standards Solutions: A Web Standardistas’ Approach. What was your approach when writing this book and what can readers expect to learn from it?
[Christopher Murphy / Nicklas Persson]: Our approach involved lots of late nights, the occasional reward of sushi and beer, and many, many, many long weekends.
There are a lot of excellent books that we point our students toward: Dan Cederholm’s inspiring Web Standards Solutions; Paul Haine’s meticulous HTML Mastery; and Andy Budd’s indispensable CSS Mastery, to name but a few. All are fantastic books, however, none of them seemed to cover everything our students needed to embark on a well-grounded, web standards–based approach in one package: namely, a solid foundation in well-structured XHTML coupled with a comprehensive introduction to CSS (all in one book).
Cue Web Standardistas.
Readers of the book can expect to learn how to build hand-crafted web pages using well-structured XHTML for content and CSS for presentation. In short, everything required to embark on a web standards approach to building future-proof web pages the right way, which forms a solid foundation on which to learn moving forward.
Although the book has only just been published, feedback on it has already been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve also been delighted by the response to the Web Standardistas’ web site which we’re developing to accompany the book.
The site, which features daily entries on web design and other, design-related topics, in addition to longer, monthly articles in our periodical has rapidly gathered a dedicated following and we’re looking forward to developing it as we move forward with other Web Standardistas’ projects.
For the latest news and for a daily dose of carefully chosen links, follow us on Twitter. We’re also interested in hearing from other educators. If you’re involved in education – especially at university level – get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.
We’d like to thank Christopher and Nicklas for taking the time to answer our questions. Make sure to pick up a copy of their book, HTML and CSS Web Standards Solutions: A Web Standardistas’ Approach.