And So It Begins
I have just begun a new semester teaching at the University of Rhode Island. As I meet my new students and begin presenting an introduction to the wonderful world website design and front-end development, one of the truths I also hope to convey to these students is that the most critical element to their success as web designers is something I cannot give them in the classroom – experience.
Building a Foundation
The majority of the students that I teach are new to web design. They have never worked with HTML or built a website before, so my primary goal is to forge a solid foundation of skills and knowledge that they can build upon. This is what the classroom is good for – covering the information that will form their foundation. This includes lectures and an explanation of the syntax of both HTML and CSS. It also includes practical lab exercises where we will put that knowledge to use and build a basic introductory website in the early part of the class and a more robust site later on. There is, however, only so much I can present inside that classroom. To truly be successful, students must build upon this foundation outside of class - they have to practice what they are learning.
My Turn to Learn
I am not big on New Year's resolutions, but at the start of each year, I do decide on new skills or activities I wish to explore for my own continued self growth. In the past, these new skills have sometimes centered around website design and development and the work that I do. Other times they have not – such as last year when I decided to take up the violin. For this year, I have chosen to try my hand(s) at origami.
My first step has been to learn the symbols and techniques of origami – a process that is not that different than my students learning the syntax and basics of HTML and CSS. Understanding the difference between a mountain or a valley fold or learning to fold one of the handful of bases that many origami designs are built upon is how I have started my exploration into the art of paper folding. While I would love to jump right into folding complex designs, just like my students would love to design and develop a professional-quality website after their first class, the reality in both cases is that you need to start small and with the basics.
Rise of the Squirrels
After a few weeks of learning the basics of origami, I decided to try my first design – a squirrel.
The book that I am using to learn origami lists this design as a “fundamental model”, so I figured it would be a good start for me. The first time I tried to fold the design was rough. The instructions confused me and my hands simply didn’t want to move the way they seemingly needed to in order to make the necessary folds. After struggling through the design for about 45 minutes, I gave up on this attempt – but I did not quit.
The next day I was at it again – another try at my origami squirrel. This time I found that some of the instructions I had struggled with last time came a little easier. My hands felt more comfortable with the paper and the folds and after about a half hour, I had a squirrel. Admittedly, my completed design was roughly done and didn’t look nearly as nice as the one in my book, but I could see the squirrel poking out through that series of folds. I had completed my first origami design.
March of the Squirrels
Encouraged by my success, I tried the design again the following day. This time, I completed the project much quicker and the final result was much crisper. This was only my third time folding this design, but I could feel such a difference already. Folds and techniques that were seemingly impossible at first began to felt natural and intuitive. I completed the design in about ten minutes and was thrilled to see that the final result was better than before.
I grabbed another sheet of origami paper and immediately began folding. Once again the end result was better than my previous attempt. Excited by my progress, I quickly began again – my fifth attempt at the design and third in a row that day. A short while later, I proudly displayed my latest origami squirrel - one that I was delighted to admit looked very much like the photo in my instructions book. I placed him beside my first few attempts (expect for my very first try, that one end up in the trash) to create a nice timeline of my progress on this project.
You can a photo see these final designs, and the progress I made with each successive attempt, at the top of this article’s design. Each try produced a better result – the product of dedication and practice.
Learning by Doing
Five attempts of this project took me from failure to a pretty damn good representation of a paper squirrel. Every time I tried the project again, I got a better result. This is the lesson I hope to share with my web design students, and others new to this industry – that to get better, you have to do the work.
My first five website design projects have been lost to the years, but if I could look at them all today, I know I would see progress in each one similar to what I see in my origami squirrels. This is what I cannot give my students in the classroom, the experience that only comes by doing the work over and over again.
Just as my hands began to feel comfortable and the techniques natural as I folded each subsequent squirrel, the process of web design will also begin to become clearer as you build out more projects. You start to develop a workflow that suits your individual process and develop tricks and ways of doing the work that you can only discover by actually getting your hands dirty with a project (or as “dirty” as pixels and HTML code will get your hands).
Year in and year out, I see this in the students that I teach. Those that put only a little effort in get only a little in return, but those that work hard outside of the classroom and experiment with what they are learning produce better work and go onto greater success after the class is over.
Whether you are folding origami squirrels or building websites, the process is the same. Start with the basics and form a solid foundation upon which you can build. Once you have that foundation – do the work. Do it over and over again, refusing to become discouraged when things don’t go as planned. Those bumps in the road will teach you as much as the subsequent successes you have. Just keep doing the work – before you know it, you will have a gallery of websites, or an army of paper squirrels, that you can be proud of.