CAMPAIGN-I: Spotlight on: design training - Are software skills becoming more vital than design ones? - Will courses teaching web skills usurp traditional art schools?

You could argue that this isn't the best time to launch a new package of web design courses, as Macromedia did recently. We're at one of the awkward spots on the supply and demand curve - and there's not going to be a shortage of people with excellent new-media design skills, now is there?

You could argue that this isn't the best time to launch a new package of web design courses, as Macromedia did recently. We're at one of the awkward spots on the supply and demand curve - and there's not going to be a shortage of people with excellent new-media design skills, now is there?

Macromedia lies at one end of the training spectrum - it's primarily in the business of selling web publishing software and its Macromedia University exists to allow users to master Macromedia products Naturally, given that it seeks to claim a place at the vanguard of the new economy, the teaching is done online.

At the other end are the traditional establishments of higher education - the art schools that have been feeding talent into the advertising and marketing industries for generations. They've obviously been teaching onscreen skills since Macintosh computers began elbowing their way into the creative industries more than a decade ago.

It's not hard to find people who'll argue that if you really want to get to grips with the web, you're not going to find what you want at art college. There's always been a faction in the new economy who have an almost Calvinist adherence to do-it-yourself principles, whether it involves studying the manual or endless hours of creative play. On the other hand, there are plenty of creative gurus who'll tell you that if you want something over-engineered and unapproachable, you really have no option than to call on the services of a software geek.

Is there a middle way these days? How well are we provided for in terms of training? And does it matter? This doesn't look like a growth sector in the short term. That's hardly the point, Richard Doust, a senior tutor in graphic design at the Royal College of Art's School of Communications Arts, argues. He comments: 'There will always be those who don't want to have anything to do with it, but the feeling now is that graphic design people need to know about this. People know they have to have a broad range of skills. And even if you are not working in new media, you will need those skills.'

Doust thinks we're well placed in this country. He states: 'Britain is pretty high up. It takes its lead in some things from the US and Japan but the most innovative sites come out of the UK. Good design linked to good web skills will produce excellent work.'

But it's telling that Doust doesn't believe you have to scratch too far beneath the surface where software is concerned. After all, designers and layout artists, who've been using Macintosh computers for years, don't generally know much about the Mac operating system software.

Bisi Lawal, the managing director of the Mac University and Web University, located on London's South Bank as well as in cyberspace, says that their courses are designed to give a broad overview. Some courses out there, she implies, are pretty superficial. She comments: 'There are loads of packages that will help you create a website but they are very basic.

The question is: will they enable you to create an online server? People are screaming out for that sort of skill. It's fundamental to what the web is about, which is all sorts of interactivity.

'So if you don't have HTML, you might not be able to make the most of what you've learned in other packages. The penny won't drop. Our Immersion Tank course is designed to let you understand how all the tools and skills fit together - site navigation, information architecture, interface design and even the legal aspects. We feel it's important to understand the issues behind a site so that, for instance, you don't end up creating a site that looks nice but that you can't find your way around.'

Harvey Flinder, the group creative director of Wheel, is of the opinion that you have to take the long view where training is concerned: 'You have to question whether people coming out of the art schools have the right skills. Some of the older ones have classic graphics design skills and never went near a computer. Some these days come out having done courses that are very much concentrated on software.

'My overall comment about some of the people we see is that they aren't equipped with certain skills. For instance, they might not understand about target audiences and how to talk to different types of people. They sometimes struggle to differentiate between the idea and the execution. I think also that typography has been neglected. Some people thought that typography was irrelevant when computers came along but it's obviously still an important part of anything you look at. The thing is, you don't have to use the default typeface any more.'

And Flinder argues that, ideally, we should take a new approach to training. He concludes: 'We're realising that what we do is actually a mix of advertising and product design rather than pure graphic design. We produce products that people use. We need to understand interactivity and we need to understand architectures.

We need people who can think in three dimensions. This isn't about a picture on a flat screen. If I was setting up a course today, I would want one that gave students a broad perspective. I also think it's important to recognise the speed at which the industry is moving.'


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