Jessica Hische on teaching yourself how to code

An edited version of this article first appeared in issue 224 of .net magazine the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

.net: What inspired you to create Don't Fear the Internet?
JH: The inspiration of the site came through teaching myself a fair amount of mark-up and CSS while rebuilding my portfolio site and the Daily Drop Cap site. Over the past few years I gained a bit of knowledge about CSS editing, starting first in Blogger, then Tumblr when I launched Daily Drop Cap. I knew that both blogging platforms were pretty limited compared to WordPress so when Daily Drop Cap was about three quarters of the way finished I wanted to reorganise it and build a more robust archiving system in WordPress. It seemed like most young web designers I knew were making beautiful websites by just hacking WordPress, and since I was already familiar with blog platforms, figured it was probably something I could dig my heels into. By rebuilding Daily Drop Cap from scratch using stripped down WordPress themes I taught myself a lot about editing CSS, HTML and some PHP. By diving in head first I realised how not-scary CSS and HTML could be and really wanted to share that with other designers and illustrators that never considered working in a web environment.

Don't Fear the Internet was a way for me to reorganise and share what I learned so far with others that didn't know where to start. So many services are popping up now that try to remove you as far away from the code and structure as possible, and I believe if you are just introduced to it in a way that isn't intimidating, you can really benefit from knowing how things work and create amazing sites from the inside out. I don't know why or how mark-up and CSS was branded as being something strictly for the supernerds, but it's easy and fun to learn.

.net: What kind of response have you had so far?
JH: The response has been amazing. We can't make videos fast enough! We've consistently had over 100k visitors a month and get requests every day to post more videos. Professors have told us that they are using the videos as tools in their classroom including a Stanford University master class, and countless people have emailed to thank us and to say that they learned more in one of our five-minute videos than in a full weekend workshop.

.net: What do you think about the current state of affairs with regard to the accessibility of the resources that available to people who want to learn to code?
JH: There aren't enough resources out there right now because people perceive code as something that can and should be automated entirely. Most new resources for making websites strip away your ability to see the code or deal with the code. By making a statement "make a website without coding" it automatically makes you think that knowing how to code is not only unnecessary but is something that a designer or illustrator could never do.

I get in arguments with people that are excited about these sort of services, stating that they are "the future". They don't see the craft in well-written code. To me it's like buying a house just for the faade. Or comparing ikea furniture to something built by an artisanal carpenter. Yes, those services get the job done, but if you don't care about the bricks that go into building your house, it will never be as good as it can be.

There are a lot of resources for learning mark-up and code out there, but very few that are easily digestible. We hope that Don't Fear the Internet can eventually be an excellent resource for people interested in learning HTML and CSS, but really we hope just to get people enthusiastic and to take away some of the intimidation of learning a new language. Once people have their first "eureka moment", all the seemingly cryptic but very rich resources out there start making sense. We can be a jumping off point to more hardcore resources.

.net: As a print designer, what was your personal experience of the process of showcasing your work online? Did you learn any coding in school? Do you think it should be taught in school?
JH: I had to take "interactive" classes in college, but only half a semester was devoted to "HTML" (really Dreamweaver). We weren't taught how to code, and at the time that I was in school everyone thought for sure that Flash would be what took over the world. All of the advanced interactive classes taught Flash only. I do wish we had even a day or two of introduction to HTML and CSS without a WYSIWYG interface like Dreamweaver.

I don't think it's necessarily the job of schools to teach you how to master several coding languages, but schools should give you an introduction and point you to the right resources to learn it on your own. Since the industry is ever evolving and updating, the main point should be to incite the desire to stay on top of it, to seek out information, to teach yourself.

Aside from the previous iteration of my site (not the one that is currently live, the one prior) I've always built my own portfolio sites. The current version is the one I'm most proud of, as I didn't rely on programs to do the structural work for me. While I didn't code it from scratch, I did work with a very stripped down theme and built it from as bare a structure as I could. Knowing how it's built, and how things work, help tremendously when I want to make adjustments or add new sections to the site. I couldn't imagine relying on another person now to make those changes for me.

.net: How far do you think you will take it? Will it remain always a beginner's resource, or move into more advanced territory?
JH: We'll keep going with it as far as we can push it, but I think focussing on HTML and CSS is important for us. The videos are slow going now since Russ has a full time job and I'm always working and travelling, but we hope that in the meantime, before DFTI is a comprehensive resource for those studying HTML and CSS, that it's at least enough to stir interest and excitement in fiddling around and learning it yourself.

.net: What are you going to cover next?
JH: We've only barely scratched the surface, so there is still so much more to cover! I hope to do a large series of videos about web typography and we definitely hope to cover responsive design in the coming videos.

It's great to be able to start people out with up-to-date technologies and approaches since most people that move from print to web start by making web versions of printed materials, not by considering them a new beast entirely. I think with the videos we have a real opportunity to teach people how to design in the browser, to reconsider fixed-width design, and to make all designers appreciate the work that goes into make a solid website.

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