Death Marches and Rabbit Holes — the Jack of all Trades and Master of all. Inside the multi planar world leading [ ……] insert profession here.

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It’s that tingling, numbing sensation in the fingers, closely followed by the perennial fight to keep your eyes open. Focus, focus! There’s a flaw in the code. What’s more there’s another three days ahead of this. The room, intermittently, visited by others, displays cans of strewn cola and pizzas — the diet of start-upers.

Memories like this don’t leave you; all part of the lifestyle — death marches and rabbit holes. That scene in the matrix where Seraph has to fight Neo on his way to the Oracle and declares you don’t know what someone is like until you fight them. Well, in the dotcom world you didn’t know what a person was really like until they were smashed tired and have to find that little extra mile of problem-solving neurons.

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London City e.g. Soho 2001, seems a long time ago, but in 2016 a new generation is hard at it. In 10 contact days spread over 10 weeks, in between a raft of other modules, a group of students with no prior knowledge of the web and comms will have the opportunity to go from zero to hero pitching their sites to Google exec at Google headquarters in London, but first there is the little matter of understanding what it takes to create a site.

Firstly, some context. Design is for me a passion, but I don’t see myself as designer per se. I am thrilled by video and cinema, but I tend not to prescribe myself as a video producer, or even writer, or for the matter an educationist. The structure of how we see the world is codified by politics, economics, technology and differing philosophies based around cultures and societies.

If there was a term I could use, which unfortunately has been appropriated I would call myself a lifer — a life long learner and exchanger. It sounds priggish, but wanting to know, whether as a child taking the radio apart would yield those miniature people inside or bizarrely helping my flat mate with his Economics paper and finding it absorbing when I had a Ogan Chemistry paper for my degree the next day, or delving into the gut of PR to understand why journalism is an illusion to maintain the threads of skewed democracy, learning ( a comb. of skills and knowledge) has been my passion. So even as lecturer at my university, I’m at my most creative working also outside with third parties.

I believe we have the capacity to be multi-layered and that were it not for the way we’ve sold education down the river, much like the Fordist ideology and division of labour, the original concept of academies nurturing the multi-faceted professional would prevail. This alt mode, which industrialists referenced as the specialist, has its merits, but the constraints too can be overwhelming.

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Former students from 2012 inspecting their final design

There was a time when when there was a clear division of labour in web design too (still to a degree): Front end folks e.g. designers and project managers were the presentables, a mix of casuals and denims. Back enders, usually coders and system engineers looked like they worked the vice squad undercover, and then there are the intermediaries such as SEO marketeers and data analysts.

In the visceral multi-skilled world of millennia with zero hour contracts, ‘bait and switch’ policies, and heightened risk taking, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t try and understand the mechanics of your targeted production work flow. This is the era of the jack of all trades and master of all. Yet, paradoxically and sadly, that doesn’t mean becoming a loner on the basis you can do it all.

That too is a sad indictment of our times, just because you can do something alone, does not mean it needs to. Collaboration is desirable, and in many cases essential.

So, I got to design like this. In my last broadcast/ new media industry job which was my primary employment, I allowed myself to become frustrated. Frustrated at stories broadcasters wouldn’t bite on, or stories that fell into the abyss once aired. There had to be a better way of showcasing and preserving these assets.

In 1998 I learned to code, but was so hung up on the narcism of showing my stuff that I struggled at what to show and how. Agency do it with aplomb attributing success to the team. On your own, beating your chest can come across as self-aggrandisement.

I took the plunge anyway with this I found on wayback, (the Internet archive) being one of the first scrawled (2003) designs, using HTML and Flash. It looks awful by today’s standards, but back in the days, it held its own using HTML and the now defunct ‘Flash’. You can see also my influences from this comparative screen grab of Channel 4 about the same time.

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But guess what, whilst Channel 4 had a team of web coders and designers, I was just me.

Amongst some of my top stories at the time, my film work with heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis fighting Tyson in Minneapolis, an interview in Washington with a former head of the CIA about their new recruiting policy, a diving expedition to the cold waters of Gallipoli and my international work in South Africa and its townships freelancing for the BBC World Service.

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Working with heavyweight boxer Lennox Lewis as his filmmaker and interviewing the former head of the CIA

In 2003, the traditional route, still employed by broadcasters to get noticed was a showreel on VHS. The VHS has since been dropped, but broadcasters are still fixated on the opening 15 seconds of what you look like and how you sound. I would later find out it was one of the biggest barriers to hiring minorities, on the basis for several media outfits you just didn’t look and sound right.

Now, today our own media has a place to breath, but what’s the skinny on tooling up yourself? Endless, but in these brief moments here’s how we do it with designing websites. What’s the point when you can buy a template, or do Instagram. You’re missing the point, what we do is about transferable skills. Design is about hierarchies whether you’re publishing online or baking a cake.

Our students in ten weeks do the following:

  1. Coding HTML 5 and CSS3 and Java
  2. Coding for mobile first and responsive designs — almost off the bat, it’s too understand that you can be accessed on the go.
  3. Creating the brief that underpins research into the name and purpose of the site. This tends to be a rigorous exercise employing both working in a team, turn taking, and understanding one’s limits. Members gather data on the exemplars that may influence them, performing their own internal and analysis. Semiotics, cognitive reception, white paper syndrome — all crop up here, though we try and veer away from, say, semiotics luggage, such as indexical etc. More often than not students struggle getting will require a series of nudges. Try to imagine you don’t know what a website looks like, but you’re having the experience you desire on one.
  4. Their efforts are evaluated through a systematic approach to critiquing. Students then must present their work. Self-organise themselves with overall collective responsibility, and areas they want to contribute more. We encourage students to take on roles, they would not normally assume, so they’re outside their comfort zone.
  5. More often than not here too, by critiquing students, they come to learn how to evaluate their own work, which we call ‘First Impression’ syndrome. It’s what the audience sees and explicitly and implicitly builds up knowledge of you ( just as you’ve been doing in this article). The knowledge exchange approach is not to indicate what anyone might perceive as wrong, for there are rarely straight cut flaws in this process. After all it’s their design. My role is to question why they’re doing something and the reasons they got to where they are.
  6. Back to design, coding to build on their briefs. This becomes a collective process, something akin to a thesis. Their proposition must lead to questions about their aim of their thesis and they’ll be picking any number of methodologies towards that process. It is however an artistic approach, so there is flexibility and creativity in building the process.
  7. Design principles are re-emphasised, with hierarchies and different cognitive design and compositional processes. Often I’ll use my knowledge of the Romantics, Impressionists and Classical painters. How did the great masters teach us how to see the world and what conventions do we possess to decode websites. A good point here is that different countries have different conventions at looking at things. This too is dependent on the audience and the era. Note how my 2003 Mrdot design (above) was good for its time, but is deflating now.
  8. Videojournalism and photoshop compositional workflows are introduced, alongside other rich media, but the prompt is partially from the student. By now they’re taking on so much knowledge that any new knowledge will only be of use, if they have a direct need, so we set up scenarios for that need.
  9. Further critiques and presentations. The web presentation must complement a booklet handout they must put together for VCs to read. This critique often yields more testing, particularly with the audience and different operating systems.
  10. By the fifth week we hold surgeries to find out from students their concerns. These often yield a range of issues from wanting more coding time, to the use of rich media, which we assess, how we might implement towards further enriching their experience.
  11. The week after is soft launch. This is death march territory. It’s often one of the biggest snags. Design, code and content flaws arise. Here too the content, style and tone can be assessed with their market and students are encouraged to poll, test, conduct qualitative analysis with their target audience.
  12. Hard launch follows with tweets to industry, friends etc about the launch. Another death march ensues. SEO strategies on the page and strategies of writing for SEOs are discussed and enacted.
  13. The site is up. Back to the brief. Does the site match the brief, if not it needs to. Students present a pecha kucha — ten minutes or less to sell their site to a VC or expert. Here business plans for expansion and social media methodologies are finessed.
  14. Presentation to Industry. In the following years we’ve presented to Channel 4 News, ITV, senior exec at the BBC WS. This year we’re at google.
  15. The next three weeks involves building their own sites, based on the workflow above. This involves identifying who the students would like to work for and how we approach the employer.

A couple of take aways here. Whilst the emphasis appears to be laid on skills, which is necessary, the main investigations involve cognitive skills at understanding the psychology of websites. For instance, why would anyone come to your site? What’s their motive? What do you want from them? How do they navigate your site? How do colours affect them? How is your writing style tempered to the audience?

The issues coupled with the whole concept of web design become the rabbit hole. It becomes addictive. On several occasions students will express at the end of the course that they never want to go near a site again. Some will email me to say they are now working in online.

There is one abiding memory that I have which keeps me focused and spurs me on. That if you have the potential, if you believe in what you can achieve, if your dreams keep you excited, then online is not a job, it’s a window into your world that showcases whet you want and others may take some joy from too.

A decade ago, I won (an unexpected dream) one of the US’ most coveted international digital awards, the Knight Batten for a website that has changed since but was built on these principles. Since then many of the students I have been fortunate to interact with have come close to their dreams.

And all because of Death Marches and Rabbit Holes.

If this grabs your fancy do what you have to do….

Written by

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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