Preparing for study
Our MA programme is intensive and fast-paced. Our students are expected to be motivated independent learners. For most students, that means the programme can successfully be negotiated only by applying a great deal of hard work. However, you can make your life much easier if you prepare well for the programme before it begins.
The purpose of this page is to point you in the direction of some learning materials that you should use in order to prepare yourself for the programme. It is especially important that those with little or no background in web design start studying early. Although the programme assumes no prior knowledge, you will give yourself a major advantage by at least reading through the materials recommended below. Even those who think they are more advanced may benefit from further background reading.
Do I need to buy books?
Not necessarily. We are very fortunate that there is a great deal of good quality learning material available on the web for free. If your budget is restricted or non-existent, we recommend that you use the material listed here to acquire a good understanding of web design basics.
- Code Academy
- Learn to Code HTML & CSS
- HTML Dog
- A Practical Guide to Designing for the Web
- Web Style Guide
- The Shape of Design
What if I prefer reading paper books?
That's just fine — in fact, there is even more scope for finding learning materials that suit the way you learn if you prefer reading on paper.
Those of you who already have some experience of web design may have your favourite texts but for those who are absolute beginners, we recommend one of the following 2 books as a primer:
- Learning Web Design (4th edition)
This book by Jennifer Niederst Robbins is our key text for the Webpage Design course and it should therefore be at the top of your shopping list. If any book could claim to be a single volume introduction to everything a beginner needs to know about web design, this book comes closer than any other. At just over 600 pages long, this isn't a short read, but it is a surprisingly light read. Robbins is obviously a teacher and her clear and logical explanations of the topics in this book are delivered at a sensible pace, which makes even complex concepts such as progressive enhancement and responsive web design easy to understand.
- Head First HTML and CSS (2nd edition)
There are many books on web design written for beginners but this is one of our favourites. Head First HTML and CSS by Elizabeth and Eric Freeman is an excellent book that provides a comfortable introduction to the complex topic of web design. It assumes nothing but manages to cover a great deal of ground. The Head First series of books are not conventional text books — they are illustrated, annotated and full of pull quotes and break-out boxes. However, it is an incredibly effective way of learning and each section includes question and answer summaries to keep you on track. This book is an alternative to the one above and may appeal to those who prefer a more gentle introduction.
If you are completely new to web design we recommend you also read Jeffrey Zeldman's Designing with Web Standards (3rd edition). This book will give you the context within which all our teaching takes place.
Of course, there are many books on web design that you could read to prepare yourself for this programme. To some extent, your choice of reading will depend on your background but you should take a look at our suggested web design books list for more ideas.
I learn best by watching videos
That's OK too but we recommend you spread your learning across a range of media. Active learning is always best, so make sure you follow up on any examples in videos with some hands-on work rather than just watching them. Of course there are 1000's of videos on YouTube that you could watch but ideally you should look for a series of video lessons that give a good introduction to the subject. If you're looking for a free video course, the HTML5 & CSS3 Fundamentals track at Microsoft's Channel 9 is very good. If you can afford to spend a little money on tutorials, we'd recommend Treehouse, which has a free 14-day trial.
Isn't Web Design changing all the time?
Yes, it's a fact, learning about web design is only half the battle. Keeping up with new ideas, changing techniques and evolving standards is also very important. Fortunately, there are a number of excellent sources of information that will keep you informed of contemporary issues.
We list 10 of our favourites below and recommend you visit each site regularly (once a week), subscribe to their RSS feeds or follow them on Twitter.
- A List Apart
- Smashing Magazine
- CSS Tricks
- The Next Web
- Six Revisions
- Impressive Webs
- Line 25
- Web Designer Wall
It's not always convenient to read articles when you stumble upon them but fortunately, there's an app for that too. Use Pocket or Readability to store useful articles so you can read them at a later time. To get you started, read 7 web design mistakes every beginner makes and you'll be all set to avoid them!
There are plenty of design and Web related podcasts available and if you have a lengthy commute or you sit at a computer for extended periods, listening to podcasts can be an efficient use of time. Here are a few you may find useful:
- Unfinished Business with Andrew Clarke
- Shop Talk with Chris Coyier & Dave Rupert
- The Back to Front Show with Keir Whitaker & Kieran Masterton
- Happy Monday with Josh Long & Sarah Parmenter
- 99% Invisible “a tiny radio show about design”
For general industry news, articles and tutorials in a more traditional format, we highly recommend .net Magazine. You will find a 12 month subscription an excellent investment.
Twitter is the place where web designers sound off and discuss code and design. It's also the place to be if you want to keep up-to-date with the world of web design. We encourage all our students to get involved. Here is a starter pack of 25 people you should follow:
- @rachelandrew – Rachel Andrew
- @markboulton – Mark Boulton
- @andybudd – Andy Budd
- @simplebits – Dan Cederholm
- @malarkey – Andy Clarke
- @anna_debenham – Anna Debenham
- @brad_frost – Brad Frost
- @stopsatgreen – Peter Gasston
- @codepo8 – Christian Heilmann
- @paul_irish – Paul Irish
- @adactio – Jeremy Keith
- @kissane – Erin Kissane
- @brucel – Bruce Lawson
- @beep – Ethan Marcotte
- @meyerweb – Eric Meyer
- @addyosmani – Addy Osmani
- @vpieters – Veerle Pieters
- @csswizardry – Harry Roberts
- @sturobson – Stuart Robson
- @jasonsantamaria – Jason Santa Maria
- @crisspooner – Chris Spooner
- @stubbornella – Nicole Sullivan
- @jonathantorke – Jonathan Torke
- @leaverou – Lea Verou
- @zeldman – Jeffrey Zeldman
How do I get to meet other web designers?
In general, web designers are a very open and welcoming bunch of people. The best way to start networking is to attend meetups and conferences where you can hear talks from experts and mingle with like-minded folks.
Meetups are usually monthly evening events and most are free. Tickets go quickly so it's best to sign up for email alerts so you know when they become available. Our favourite meetups are:
- London Web Standards
- Front-end London (FEL)
- MK Geek Night (Milton Keynes)
- Breaking Borders (Reading)
- London Web
Meetups are also a really good way to get to know what's going on in your local area, so if you live outside London, check out your local meetups—not only are they a great way to make contacts but you're likely to hear about job opportunities before they're even advertised.
There are an increasing number of web design conferences all over the UK and abroad. You'll mainly be going to hear world-renowned speakers talk about their work. Most of these talks are inspirational and you're likely to go home feeling creatively energised. Conferences are usually one-day events but some extend over 2 or 3 days. Most conferences are not free and typically cost £100-£200 but most have substantial student discounts and/or allow student volunteers free access to the talks. There are too many good conferences to list them all, but here are a few to look out for:
- Reasons to be Creative (Brighton in September)
- dConstruct (Brighton in September)
- Generate Conference (London in September)
- The Web is… (Cardiff in October)
- Break Conference (Belfast in November)
- Industry Web Conference (Newcastle upon Tyne in April)
Some of the best conferences are scheduled at the beginning of September, before the start of the academic year but it would be worthwhile attending at least one of these in order to kick-start your education in web design. If you can't do that you should definately take a look at some of the recorded talks from previous conferences at Besquare.
Will I need to provide my own web hosting?
All students will need a web hosting account so that project work can be presented online. It's also important that students learn how to manage websites and configure web hosting options.
We know that web hosting can be confusing for those new to web design, so we have made it simple for you. Our wonderful friends at Pentangle have very kindly offered free web hosting to all students while they are on this programme. This is very generous and we are grateful to Azlan and the team for providing such a great service. Information on setting up a hosting account will be given to students in the first week, so if you don't already have a hosting account, you should wait until you join us.
Do I need my own laptop/MacBook?
You could probably get by using the fixed computing provision at the University and a home desktop but most of our students find having their own laptop or MacBook incredibly useful and convenient as it means they can easily work between home and class seamlessly. Most web designers tend to favour Macs but a Windows laptop will be just fine. Web design is not particularly demanding in computing terms, so any mid-range computer less than about 3 years old would be ideal.
What about software?
It's a good idea to become familiar with a text editor specifically designed for writing code. We recommend Sublime Text (Windows/OS X/Linux) but there are many others such as Notepad++ (Windows only) that will do the job. There's no need to change if you already have a favourite.
Don't spend a lot of money on software such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator before you begin the programme. As a student, you will be eligible for significant discounts on these applications.
Will I need to reorganise my life?
You may; it depends on how much free time you currently have. Our full-time students tell us that they spend between 25 and 50 hours per week on coursework during term time. That is a major commitment and proves that this really is a full-time programme despite the fact that attendance is only one day per week. Our recommendation is that if you work full-time, you should take the programme in part-time mode because you probably won't have enough time to successfully complete the coursework. Even if you don't work full-time, you still need to ensure that you can dedicate that many hours to your studies.
Advice from our students
We regularly ask our students for feedback so that we can improve the programme but we also ask them what advice they would give to students who haven't yet started. Here are a few of their comments:
Do all you can before you start. A basic knowledge of HTML elements and CSS selectors gave me a massive head start. Get yourself familiar with the tools and let the course teach you the technique.
As a student who had no inkling or clue as to any web design/coding before the course began I would recommend prospective students buy the required books and start reading straight away, before the course begins.
I think the most important thing is that students commit to pre-read a very select number of books on the reading list. Once you are into the main learning there is very little time to do core stuff—so I would recommend that CSS and HTML pre-reading must be done.
Don't underestimate how much work is involved. In my first year, even though I was a part-time student, when a project deadline was close, I was doing 30-35 hours a week on top of my job. In regular weeks, I spent at least 15 hours a week on work/reading/practising Illustrator and coding etc.
As a full-time student, I work anywhere between 25 hours to 50 hours a week. For example I would do 5 hours Mon to Fri doing classwork and reading. However, when a big project drops I could spend anywhere up to 12/14 hours a day.
Be prepared to work hard. I am a part-time student and work 4 days full-time. A lot of time is needed to be able to read, learn and do the assignments/course work we are given. Try to keep on top of things and not leave things to the last minute. It can feel intense when you're trying to learn how to do something and then actually do it but if you are organised you'll feel in control of your learning.
If people are unsure about going full-time or part-time, then I'd always suggest the part-time option. I feel that I've got so much more out of taking my time, absorbing things, reading around topics and applying the things I've been learning at work or in personal projects.
There are a couple of books that I read once the course had started that looking back I would like to have read the summer before. One was Don't Make me Think and the other was Handcrafted CSS. I've only just had a chance to read the latter in any great depth, and it's fantastic, and manageable.
Out of the entire reading list, the Book Apart series has been the most instructive, accessible and engaging—this series is essential.
The web has changed a lot in recent years. I would highly recommend reading about Responsive Design before starting the course (Ethan Marcotte's ALA article and book are essential). RWD is difficult for those of us used to desktop computers or traditional design, but is the way things are moving.
A book that was recommended in class, The Web Designer's Idea Book (Patrick McNeil) is a great book for layout inspiration. Something I should have done is to start reading .net Magazine before the programme began. I've been reading articles constantly from A List Apart and subscribed to the newsletter at Sitepoint; those are, in my opinion, the best websites and I think the sooner new students get to know them the better.
It's important to realise that the course is a framework to guide you and help you if you have questions, but you shouldn't rely on classroom time alone to become a web guru. You'll have to do further reading in your own time about the topics covered in class, and use an actual coursework project to experiment with the techniques you read about. Even if you have previous web experience (like I did), you'll have to put in the hours to do the coursework to a high standard. I thought I could carry on in my full time (8.5 hours a day) job while I did the course, but I realised after a while that it was too much. Don't burn out - either switch to part time work, or the part time course. Continue to push yourself - try something new with every piece of coursework you do, even if it's just one small thing. Try those things you're scared of - start planning your projects as soon as you get the brief from the tutors so that you can spend extra time working on bits you're not as comfortable with. And finally - my favourite aspect of the course was to see other students' work, and give and receive feedback, both positive and negative. Apart from taking the comments on board, this helps you practice critiques in general and verbalise the reasons for design decisions; after all, a client isn't going to be content with “I did that because it looks nice”!
Something that helped me a lot was the HTML Dog step by step tutorials, I've done most of them and it was great to practice the basics of coding.
I may not ‘tweet’ as often as I'd like on Twitter, but I find it an incredible resource for up-to-date articles/goings-on in the web design industry. I look at Twitter on my phone almost every day just to glance at what's happening in the world, straight from the mouths of those that are so influential in the industry.
If you're not already a Twitter user then set up an account and start following other experienced designers and developers. There is a lot of useful information that is tweeted, including articles to help build your knowledge and views and comments on the latest things happening in web design.
For me, Treehouse has been the best learning support online—it covers everything that the MA does on the coding side and this really helped with things like setting up WAMPP, learning PHP basics and, at the moment, is invaluable for getting to grips with coding original WordPress themes. If students can afford it, it is well worth the approx. £15 a month subscription which can be cancelled at any time.
Attend as many web events as possible (time and money permitting), I found it to be the best source of inspiration! And of course it's a great way to pack in a lot of knowledge in one day.
I'd always advise people to make the most of free/cheap tickets for web conferences and meet ups as the prices are eye-watering following graduation. I've loved the conferences I've been to on a student ticket and feel that this is where you get to know more about the cutting edge stuff that the course teaches. For keeping up to date at other times, Front End Rescue gives a good overview for getting started.
Regarding design, Prisca's Eyelearn site is amazing for design links, but I've also learned a lot from studying the work of contributors to sites like Typography Served, Branding Served and Web Design Served. I also found UX Apprentice to be good for a UX intro.
Get yourself setup with a decent laptop and key software before the course starts as there's not much time to mess about once its underway.
Pick a good text editor such as Sublime Text and learn it well (keyboard shortcuts, features, plugins). You'll be using it daily so invest time now and you will be more efficient in the long run.
I learned Photoshop in the two months before I started. Absolutely essential. Also, knowledge about how a text editor such as Sublime Text works is good to know too.
Sign up to Pocket or similar. It's hard to read everything at once and sometimes you need to go back and read things a few times. Pocket lets you save any article you see for easy reading later. You can add tags to make it easy to find and group similar articles.
Of course you can use free software to create websites and manipulate images but there's a reason that Adobe are the software packges of choice to the web design and creative communities. Using your student card you can pick all the key packages bundled up for less than a third of the price of the commercial version. Work this in to your course budget up-front and you'll be ahead of the game.
Know when you need help and don't suffer quietly. The support I've received cannot be faulted and seeking advice left me in a better position to exceed to my full potential.
Build good relationships with your class mates. Not only can you learn from sharing each others' skills and knowledge but being sociable together can really enhance your MA experience. When the pressure is on it's nice to have group of people you can moan to or ask advice from.
Make friends with your colleagues, they may end up being your foot in the door. Your knowledge of modern standards is rare and in high demand. Build up your network and job vacancies will find you.
Thanks to all the students who contributed to the content of this page.