MA Web Design & Content Planning

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.

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. Use the material listed below to acquire a good understanding of web design basics.

Context

Developing a good understanding of the Web landscape is a key first step. Read this book first.

Coding

Familiarising yourself with the fundamentals of HTML and CSS is the second step and there's a choice: use either the two Code Academy interactive tutorials or the Shay Howe tutorials.

Design

We always aim for a balance between coding and design because in the context of the Web, the two are inseperable and, in fact, in many cases they are one and the same.

Further Reading

Once you have covered context and coding, you'll be ready to deepen your understanding. The three books below will help you do this.

Reference

There are many online references for Web Design, some better than others. We recommend the one below.

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 books.

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 the following 2 books to start with:

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 could take a look at our suggested web design books list for more ideas.

Treehouse website

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. You'll find other useful tutorials at Treehouse, which has a free 7-day trial but don't spend any money just yet because students on this programme get full access to Lynda.com.

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.

Blogs

We list some of our favourites below. The first two are crucial and we recommend you visit them regularly (once a week), the others are worth visiting monthly.

A List Apart

* Not to be missed!

If you have an iPhone, iPad or an Android smartphone or tablet, we recommend the Feedly mobile app as a great way to always have the latest articles at your fingertips.

It's not always convenient to read articles when you stumble upon them but fortunately, there's an app for that too. Use Pocket to store useful articles so you can read them at a more convenient time.

Podcasts

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 couple you may find useful:

Print magazines

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

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:Twitter

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

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

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.

Conferences

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 website

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 (say State of the Browser) in order to kick-start your education in web design and meet up with current students. If you can't do that you should definitely check out the archive of the wonderful dConstruct conference series.

Will I need my own laptop/MacBook?

Taking notes with tablets and notebooksThe short answer is “yes”. Most of our students find having their own Windows laptop or MacBook incredibly useful and convenient as it means they can easily work between home and class seamlessly. It also makes our teaching/learning environment more flexible, allowing you to get the most out of the programme. Most web designers tend to favour Macs but a Windows laptop will be just fine; we support both. Web design is not particularly demanding in computing terms, so any mid-range computer less than about 3 years old will be ideal.

What about software?

It's a good idea to become familiar with a text editor specifically designed for writing code. There is a lot of choice but we recommend Sublime Text (Windows/OS X/Linux). However, an excellent free alternative is Atom (Windows/OS X). If you use a Mac, you should also take a look at Espresso. There's no need to change if you already have a favourite editor that you love working with.

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 free versions of these applications.

The only other thing you'll need is a FTP client. There are lots to choose from but Filezilla will do to begin with.

If you're unsure about any of the software described here, don't worry, we cover all the details and will help you install everything during induction week.

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'll help you get set up with your own hosting during induction week. If you don't already have hosting in place and you'd like to have something organised ahead of time, we recommend the shared-0 hosting account at Clook. It has everything you need at a reasonable price (£25 for a year) and their support is great.

Will I need to reorganise my life?

ClockYou 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:

Preparation

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.

Tony

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.

Alison

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.

Gurur

Time

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.

Kate

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.

Adam

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.

Wes

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.

Kate

Reading

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.

Tom

Out of the entire reading list, the Book Apart series has been the most instructive, accessible and engaging—this series is essential.

Kate

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.

Phil

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.

Will

Sonata preparing for a lecture

Sonata arrives early for Talk Web Design 2014

Learning

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”!

Barbara

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.

Zoe

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.

Pui

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.

Wes

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.

Kate

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.

Sonata

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.

Kate

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.

Kate

Tools

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.

Jonathan

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.

James

PhotoshopI 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.

Andreia

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.

Wes

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.

Jonathan

Github and Codepen are great places to read code from others and to share your work.

Phil

General advice

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.

Tony

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.

Wes

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.

Tony

Thanks to all the students who contributed to the content of this page.

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