Inspiration

Reinventing web design training

Emma Boulton explains how and why Mark Boulton Design recruited a web design apprentice and what YOU can do to develop your team

Week after week there's a new or recycled row on Twitter, the blogosphere or national press about training and education. Last week, alone, there's been an outcry about the BBC and their use of interns and a Twitter row about the required qualifications for a part-time lecturer position.

A couple of months ago, Rich Rutter wrote about the lack of good web design courses in the UK in a blog post. He writes about his "experience of taking in interns who have abandoned their studies because they were teaching the lecturers."

Andy Rutledge also talks about education and training in his new eBook Design Professionalism. He talks about education as something that continues throughout your professional career: "Education should be a professional habit. If you want to be a responsible design professional, make it one of yours."

Andy Rutledge's Design Professionalism discusses how to be both a professional and a designer

Education, training and staff development is something we feel pretty strongly about at Mark Boulton Design. We work hard to develop and nurture our team whilst they are with us and give them opportunities to challenge themselves. Recently, however, we felt we needed to do something more to help those people just starting out in their career.

For a profession as vocational as web design, on-the-job work experience is invaluable but how much can you learn in a three-month stint or summer job, paid or unpaid? You're just getting into your stride and the placement finishes!

It's also really difficult to find the time to train someone new or inexperienced in a small, busy studio such as ours. Many of the tasks that can easily be delegated without supervision are menial and often administrative.

So, we decided to do something a little different: an apprenticeship. When we first announced our intentions in February, Mark explained our reasons on his blog:

"An Apprentice is something completely different. It's a commitment to teach and nurture you over a given period of time. You'll also be earning as you learn. It's providing web design education in a way that is supportive and fair, but most of all: industry-relevant."

So what did we do?

We asked interested applicants to hand-write a letter explaining why they'd like to spend two years of their life at Mark Boulton Design learning what we do. We also wanted to keep it fun and find out what makes them tick, so we gave a more open brief of telling us a story, writing a haiku or drawing us a picture.

We were inundated with post from all over the globe and after a rigorous selection process involving the whole team, we came up with a 'Top 10', three of which were shortlisted for interview.

We were so impressed with the standard of the applications, we blogged about out 'Top 10' (with their permission) as we felt they were worthy of some positive attention: markboultondesign.com/blog/our-top-10-apprentice-applications.

Clare Evans from London (@clare_lisbeth) sent a striking fold out ‘game' and was shortlisted for interview

We're sending personalised hand-written letters to the remaining applicants, giving them feedback and advice for how to kick-start their careers. It's taking a while to do so but we hope it's appreciated that we're taking the time to do so.

Who did we pick?

We received a wide variety of applicants in age, experience and background. We heard from school leavers, graduates and industry switchers; people with art/creative backgrounds, technical backgrounds and even people with no related background whatsoever who just fancied getting into web design. If we'd only asked for people with design backgrounds or qualifications in our job advert, we would have really restricted our candidates and maybe missed that special someone. When writing your job description or advert, think about the skills and experience you really need as opposed to those that are desirable.
 
Ultimately, we chose Colin Kersley (@alt_aesthetics on Twitter), an illustrator and Fine Art graduate, to be our apprentice. Colin hand-delivered us a large hand-made box. Inside were some instruction cards and a number of envelopes we were instructed to open in order. I blogged about it on our site and we're still getting thousands of visitors to the page each day.

Colin Kersley wowed Mark Boulton's team with a hand-made box of instruction cards including Construct a Colin
So what now?

Colin started with us at the beginning of May and we've set up programme of learning for him. He has no formal web experience so we're really starting with the basics and showing and involving him in absolutely everything. We're loosely structuring this on different parts of the business to help him really get to know a specific area before moving onto something else. We've also given him a massive pile of books to read!

For the first three months Colin is learning about all things Five Simple Steps. He's been thrown in at the deep end with customer service and manning our stand at two web conferences (Web Directions @media in London and DIBI in Newcastle). He's also learning how to typeset books working on Rob Mills's forthcoming title (designingtheinvisible.co.uk) and getting involved in the new site relaunch.

We've also asked him to blog about his journey with the aim of inspiring other companies to follow suit (markboultondesign.com/blog/alan-who-this-is-the-real-apprentice). Reflection may also help to crystalise what Colin is learning day-to-day and will make a useful reference point for him to look back on.

What could you do?

Of course internships and apprenticeships aren't for every business but there are things you can do when you next need to recruit someone or when dealing with freelancers. You can also think about your team and how you motivate, encourage and develop them:

1. Give feedback. However tedious and time-consuming feeding back is, you should always do so - people really appreciate actionable, constructive comments.

2. Give your staff training. We have a training budget for each staff member and we set goals yearly at appraisals.

3. Encourage your team to challenge each other and themselves and give them the tools to do so. Fridays mornings are no longer for client work at Mark Boulton Design but for R&D, personal projects, writing, creating and exploration.

4. Encourage creativity. When we first started Mark Boulton Design, we had a 'Happy Space Fund'; a small amount of money to spend on something to improve people's head space, work space or creative space. We now just buy nice/cool/inspiring things for everyone on a regular basis which we all share - Mindstorm LEGO, Pantone mugs, books, books, books and team trips/away-days.

5. Give knowledge away for free. We gave a copy of Mark's book 'A Practical Guide to Designing for the Web' to our 'Top 10' Apprentice applicants and Mark has also previously published it for free in an HTML version (designingfortheweb.co.uk).

We find it hard to blog and update our site regularly because we're so busy with actual work but we're all working on writing more articles and blog posts to help share our knowledge with the wider web community. I've also recently started a UX Bookclub in Cardiff to help encourage local UXers to get together and share their expertise.

As business owners, we can't just rely on universities and training establishments to provide the necessary skills needed to be great web designers. It's tough out there and we have to actively try to help improve the labour market. If we want to hire great staff, we have to do all we can to help people along the way! So, what are you waiting for - take action now!

Now check out these sites, featuring five great sites for web design training.

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