My senior year of college, I found the best web design course I have ever taken by accident. It wasn’t the best because we created supremely technical websites or anything. The class wasn’t even in the IT department’s listings. No, the best web design class was in the English department and was labeled as a course in web authoring.
The goals of the class were simple: design and code a website from scratch that will showcase your chosen content in the most favorable light. A lot of my classmates made resume sites for themselves. Some people made nonprofit sites with clear calls to action. I made a choose your own adventure style site. (I may have been the only creative writing student in a room of technical writers. I was afraid to ask.)
The best day of this class was when we were going over HTML and text formatting. Now, this class was not going to test our knowledge of HTML. Our final project was a working site; no one cared how much we had to reference our notes to accomplish the task. So already the teaching style was very different from any IT classroom I’d been in. As our professor went over different HTML tags, we began to hit the more… esoteric ones, the ones CSS was developed to replace.
After going over the list of tags, our professor turned to the class and announced a contest. To make sure we knew what we were doing, he asked us to make the gaudiest websites ever seen, throwing whatever sort of crazy formatting we wanted onto our pages in an attempt to outdo our classmates. There was no need for any more motivation than that; we attacked our super basic websites with some of the worst design choices known to man and we loved every minute of it.
When we were done and the best of the worst was elected, our professor gave us all a stern look. “Now, you all got that out of your systems? Good. Never do any of that again.”
We all laughed, naturally. We went on to learn how to do the same things in CSS and made final projects that looked MUCH better than those initial concepts.
Still, there was something to that lesson I didn’t immediately appreciate. Making us “get it out of our systems” was an inherently genius way to get us to learn to code without worrying about the design elements of our site. We got to take HTML for a test drive and test all the features. Most importantly, we got to have fun.
That approach to learning stuck with me. Sometimes, making a mess with whatever you are experimenting with is the best way to get things done. It feels like being handed a new set of paints for an art project and having to learn how it works best with the canvas. Sure, I end up with a bit of a mess, but I know more than I did before.
When it comes time to learn some new type of code now, I like to make a fictional project where I can “kick the tires” so to speak. I start making ridiculous coding snippets to test new commands and see if they compile. It gives me a chance to make mistakes and get my hands messy. This works for all sorts of new tasks. When studying Japanese I have a notebook where I write in a weird mix of Japanese and English. I don’t look things up; I just write what I need to as best I can and keep going. That notebook is a place to make mistakes and let go of my fears.
So, shout out to that professor for giving me not just some cool coding knowledge, but for teaching me how to make something beautiful by making something absolutely awful first.