Addicted to novelty since 2001

How Many Web Designers Have a Fine Arts Education?

I know that there are Web designers among my readers, so I put this question to you and those who know designers. How many Web designers have a background that includes fine arts? When I say fine arts, I mean art history, visual art, art theory, etc.

I ask because I’m currently working with a designer on a new site. As source material, I sent her a bunch of images (album covers, actually, from a certain period) which I thought conveyed the style I was looking for. I pointed out specific elements–typographical and graphic–as well as more abstract aspects such as the mood the images provoked.

I reasoned that Web designers are visual artists, and that this approach would be a kind of shorthand to get us on the same page. When I’ve worked in the theatre, costume, scenic and lighting designers often bring images to early design meetings to provide a context for their vision of a production.

I’ve assumed (I know, ‘ass out of you and me’, blah, blah) that a visual artist would respond well to my submitted images, because she’s accustomed to working in the medium. I assumed that it’d be relatively easy for her to extrapolate from the source imagery to the site mockups. However, my approach isn’t really working. I’m not seeing much of my suggestions in the mockups, and I wonder if mine is an uncommon (and therefore wrong) approach to Web design?

I’m asking about a fine arts education because, in my experience, this is exactly where one comes in handy. It provides you with the language to discuss visual art and design, and enables you to synthesize and assimilate disparate artistic elements to create new work. Being a hack Web designer myself, and not having ever taken a Web design program, I don’t know how much fine arts education is involved.

11 Responses to “How Many Web Designers Have a Fine Arts Education?”

  1. alison

    well, i’d like to take a spin at this from another direction. i suggest that we drop the “web” aspect, and concentrate on the “designer” suffix for a second.

    in most cases people who refer to themselves as a designer, weather it be graphic, interior or even industrial, have some sort of back ground in fine arts. even before venturing into an institution, most designers have spent much of there time studying (in a life sense) and watching the things around them. deciding in there own mind what is art and how does it relate function.

    when you start to look at the web industry, there are many different skills that go into creating websites. but there are really only two labels for the people who build them. web designer and web developer.

    when a person calls them self a web developer, there is an assumption ( and rightfully so) that they have the ability to create web pages integrating dynamic content using scripting languages and databases and such.

    so therefore, as a default, often people who know html, javascript, a little css, can use photoshop, dreamweaver etc. are called web designers.

    now, i don’t know if this is the case with the woman you are working with. but there seems to be a large number of “web designers” out there that seem to know little or nothing about design.

    your providing her with materials depicting the style you are looking for is a great way to ease the sometimes complex process of defining the design needs of the client.

    so, do designers have a fine art background? Yes!

    BTW: i am accepting contracts again

  2. Donna

    I’m a web designer of sorts, although I have no formal training — just 9 years of experience learned the old fashioned way (ie, by doing it). That said, I find that the method you described works fine for me. I’ve designed several sites based on less than what you’ve described that came out pretty much exactly how they were hoping it would.

    I’m no artist by any stretch of the imagination, but if you’re making websites you have to have some basic understanding of how design works regardless of whether or not you have any formal training in it.

  3. 'nee

    Alison’s hit the nail on the head: most web designers aren’t so much designers as they are html artists. In my experience, lots of designers have taken college-level courses in programming with design on the side, or have done “art programs,” usually certificate-type things, rather than a real Fine Arts degree.

    I’m surprised, actually, by the number of people who don’t understand things like typography. But anyway, I think your idea about giving her samples should have worked perfectly, whatever her training. It’s not rocket science: “use these elements.”

    I HAVE discovered that lots of graphic designers have certain ways of doing layout, or certain styles and colours that are their own personal favourites, and it’s sometimes difficult to get them to deviate from it. You’re going to have to be more adamant that she stick to your suggestions, that’s all.

  4. Rick Gebhardt

    Well, it appears I am the first web designer to post that has a fine arts degree. I am a web designer and technical writer for Kingland Systems Inc. I designed their current website, found at and I also have a lame ass blog I designed (mimicing the cover of Action Comics 1) at

    Now, as for the fine arts degree. I received a BA in both computer science and in philosophy from St. John’s University ( ). When asked to design the Kingland site, I was given what they wanted as a general layout, so guidance as to page subdivisions, and some test images layouts. From those I used photoshop to make the graphics and final layouts. I then sliced them up and made the html pages. I then did all of the page coding myself (.asp pages using vb under IIS). Once finished, I published the site.

    In response to your problem, I think you’re doing it right and the problem may lie with the designer wanting to do what they want instead of taking suggestions. I’ve ran into some people like this. They have their mind made up and won’t deviate from their design path. I was only given the initial information and then I was left to my own devices to hammer out the website. After it was finished I received some input for minor changes, but basically I was on my own. I hope this helped a little bit. If you want more info/help/anything feel free to email me.

  5. Olaf

    I was an artist first, coder last. I don’t hold a degree, but I took formal art classes throughout my K-12 years. I never attended a university at all, so I’ve built upon my skills from on-the-job-training.

    I’m pretty certain that you must have some formal training with any real ‘design’ job, even if it’s your own personal reading. Without it, how would you know how to accomplish a “blue mood” or what “warm” colors are? On the technical side, you couldn’t be too efficient in color mixing on a computer without some time spent on a color wheel.

  6. Anonymous

    I have worked with several web designers and I usually find the only ones able to “design” are those with fine arts backgrounds. (Usually.) There are many “designers” who are really much like desktop-publishers or web hacks. They aren’t able to design and they only have basic development experience — no site/app architecting experience either. The worst “designer” I ever worked with was someone who turned out to have a degree in biology. She couldn’t come up with a single creative idea. However, if you told her *exactly* what you wanted, she would put together a technically competent site. Granted, you sometimes run across someone who’s really, really creative yet does not have a fine arts background — but I find most of those people can’t stand the thought of doing design for pay. :)

  7. Chris

    This is why DIDN’T go into web designing – I’m a horrible graphic designer. It gets frustrating when I tell people that I have a computer science degree and they say “oh cool, you must have a great webpage” or something like that. I have virtually no online presence, and when I do it’ll likely be a plain-text page, perhaps with a link to some photo galleries or something. I can’t do graphic design to save my life, but if you need system software written, I’m your man.

  8. Darren James Harkness

    Most of the working designers here in Edmonton have a college-level diploma from Grant McEwan college or other similar program. There seems to be a general disdain for the illustrators and designers who have been educated at the University, as they often have a holier-than-thou attitude (not my words) towards the community.

    I’m a designer/developer with a liberal arts education (English/History), and I think I’ve done just fine for myself (though I have to admit being unhappy with my own current sites). I find a lot of it to be instinctual – you have to go with the gut reaction for things like color and positioning.

    But back to Darren’s query… the best thing I can suggest is to talk to the designer and let her know that it’s not going the way you want it to. Get together with her and sketch out some ideas of what you’re looking for, *in person*.

    The key is to communicate with the designer and ensure that she knows the score. As I mentioned above, sit down with her and sketch out some concepts together. If you go through all this and are still unhappy with the results, talk to her about settling the outstanding hours and moving on.

    On a more general rant (and I’m likely not going to make friends with this), I find that most “designers” just don’t get the web. Yes, they can produce beautiful sites that initially make a good impression… but from a usability and accessibility point of view, they’re consistently lacking. It’s better to have someone that’s more rounded, or hire on an agency that uses a team to create the site (someone for design, someone else for site construction).

    Rick’s site (and Rick – nothing personal, site looks great) is a good example of this. There’s no text on the entry page, nor are there any alt or title attributes on the img tags. To search engines and accessible browsers, this is a ‘dead’ page.

    To the search engines, there’s no content, therefore rendering the page as unimportant in its eyes. Sure, the spider will continue through your site, but the all-important links into the content will carry little importance.

    People looking through search results won’t get any summary of the content either, and possibly head elsewhere.

    Accessible browsers can’t even get past the first page, because the navigation is a complete mystery to them. Speech browsers will recite the title, then “IMAGE… IMAGE… IMAGE…” etc.

    If you’re dealing with US government, then you might be in a spot of trouble… they require 501c compliance for their own sites, and it’s likely that they’ll start requiring it for vendor sites as well.

    A great book that I’d recommend to any formally trained designer wanting to work online is Zeldman’s “Taking your talent to the Web”.

  9. alison

    that’s an interesting comment darren, and i would agree with it on many levels, but i would like to rebut to the statement that “designers just don’t get the web”.

    the main difference between what we call art and what we call design, is that design has application. it is a designer’s responsibility (any form of designer) to create aesthetically pleasing projects that have all the functionality required. you wouldn’t expect an interior designer to design a living room without any seating, or a fashion designer to use only linen in their winter line up.

    it’s the culmination of form and function.

    so you should also expect your web designer to be able to produce a site that is visually pleasing, usable, and incorporates all the functional requirements. depending on what you need, going to a firm as opposed to an individual may be overkill, and more pricy then a small business might require.

  10. enjoyment is critical


    interesting conversation going on at Darren’s site about the role of the wed designer and weather manyof them have a fine art background….

  11. Darren James Harkness

    I can qualify my comment by saying I placed “designers” in quotes… by that (and I should have been more clear), I mean the people who are Capital-D Designers — those who place form above function. And sadly, I’ve met a lot of them.

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