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Joe Gosen, a Visual Journalism Instructor at Brooks Institute, is teaching a class on web design for photographers. From my perspective, college classes in web design always seem to be behind the times, arming students with knowledge that’s a touch out-dated, and are structured around “how it looks” than “how it works.”
But his class is different.
Joe Gosen, teaching in a digital lab at Brooks Institute. (photo by Doriane Raiman)
He’s positioned himself, and his students, on the bleeding edge of what’s happening right now. Not only does he weave marketing concepts into the class, but he even shows students how to keep up with the changes in technology as they emerge – so they can evolve with it, not fight against it.
For a teacher at a college, this is no easy task. Schools need to set their curriculum far in advance, and once set, is usually very difficult to change. Since technology changes at a rapid pace, schools are finding that they need to update their curriculum faster, and more often, especially when it comes to the topic of web design and marketing.
On the first day of class, Gosen asks his new students a set of basic questions about photographer websites. Near the end of the term, he re-asks the same questions, and gets very different answers.
When students enter the class, they worry most about “how it looks,” but when they leave, they’re much more interested in “how it works.” A very dramatic shift in attitude happens to his students, and they leave his class with a set of tools and a direction that’s realistic and focused.
I asked Joe to list the common changes in attitude he sees in his students.
Old Attitude: “I’m not interested in blogging.”
New Attitude: “I blogged about a recent shoot I did and linked it to my social networks. I get more traffic to my site whenever I make a blog post.”
Old Attitude: “I’m not really into stats.”
New Attitude: “I’ve been tracking my site traffic and saw a 75% increase to my travel page after I posted a link on Facebook. My unique visits are up, page views are up and overall time on the site has increased.”
Old Attitude: “I don’t want my site to look like everyone else’s.”
New Attitude: “I’m using the same template as ‘… insert name of successful photographer …’ but customized it to my liking.”
Old Attitude: “I like the look of Flash-based websites.”
New Attitude: “I can’t see this Flash-based website on my iPhone or iPad and the content isn’t indexed on Google.”
Old Attitude: “I just want a clean simple site that showcases my work.”
New Attitude: “I also want to generate sales through my site and market my new project.”
I think Joe’s really onto something here, and I’m hopeful that other college programs will take a similar approach. I asked Joe a few questions about the transition, the student reaction, and how he’s managing to keep up with changes as the come.
1) What are some of the changes you made to your website class over the years?
This year I started teaching the web class in our visual journalism program and shifted the focus away from being software-based to one that is more about creating and maintaining a online presence using content management systems and social networks. Basic HTML and CSS is still taught in the class but blogging, SEO, archive management, monitoring site traffic and marketing are now part of the regular discussion rather than it being a lecture or two.
Prior to 2011, students in the visual journalism program would learn how to build HTML websites using Dreamweaver in one class and then learn to build animated websites using Flash in another class. Recognizing that many portable devices did not support Flash-based websites and that the contents within a Flash site are not easily indexed, the visual journalism faculty decided to no longer require the Flash website class as part of our core curriculum. However, students wanting to learn this software can take it as an elective class if they choose.
2) What prompted the change in focus away from a more “how it looks” focus, to a “how it works” emphasis?
The major prompt was one of practicality. One of the issues the visual journalism faculty noticed over the years was that many students were not updating their websites on a regular basis. They would take a web class one year and then not touch their site for another year or two because they were off working on photo projects and documentary films. By the time they got around to updating their site they were daunted by the task. We wanted to set students up with a system where updating their websites was just part of their normal workflow.
Another prompt was market driven. A majority of the students in our visual journalism program are not seeking careers in web development from a programming standpoint. However, all of our students will be entering a career where they will be expected to create content for the web and interact with the web. So we shifted the emphasis from writing code and building from scratch to one of customizing pre-existing templates using WordPress files and other content management systems. This switch allows students to spend more of their time and energy on creating media-rich content.
Another prompt was the increased role that search engines play in site design. Creating a search engine friendly site is just as important as creating a user-friendly site. While the user is drawn to the visuals, the search engines are drawn to the words. I try to help students combine these two concepts in the overall design of their sites. There is a fair amount of discussion about writing effective descriptions, strong links and keywords along with the visuals.
3) What are some of the biggest challenges that students face during the class?
One of the biggest challenges students have is the task of looking over their body of work and assessing how they want to display it on their site. For some, they might have so much work that they have no idea of how to pair it all down and organize it all for their site. For others, they might realize they don’t have the quantity or quality of work needed to create a professional web presence. In either case, I hope this process inspires them to take a serious look at where they’ve been, where they want to go and to continue creating new work.
Getting over any preconceived notions of needing a site unlike any other on the Internet can be a challenge at first. We all want to be seen as creative individuals and put our unique stamp on the world. Once students realize that it’s okay if their site has a similar look and feel of another site, it helps them turn their focus toward the content. The original content is what will make them stand out in the end.
Another challenge for some is embracing the writer within. Most of the students I encounter are very good writers but they may not share the same passion for writing as they do with their photo or video projects. So I try to encourage them to write more because it adds depth to their storytelling abilities and the additional payoff is improved SEO.
4) Business, marketing, and PR are all important concepts that should really roll-up into a photographer’s website. How are you approaching these topics?
For one, I have students research a visual journalist and analyze their marketing efforts. We look at their potential market, how they are targeting an audience, how they use social media to cast a wide net, how they blog about work in progress, what kind of e-commerce options they have and what kinds of calls to action they solicit. There are a lot of photographers on PhotoShelter who are doing this very well and serve as good case studies. From this, students can then apply some of these concepts into their own web presence and begin monitoring the traffic on their site over time and begin to see the cause and effect relationship with their own online activity.
The web class I teach is a lower division class, so I am introducing foundational concepts. As they progress through the program they can continue to build their identity with the additional business and marketing classes and the photojournalism and documentary film classes.
5) Is social media making its way into your program yet?
Yes! Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Vimeo are obvious social media we discuss in class but there are so many interest-specific social networks out there to explore and participate in. I have students look into a wide variety of social networks, not only for marketing opportunities, but to see them as a resource for story ideas and projects. Couchsurfing.org for instance, isn’t just a resource for finding a free place to crash. If you are traveling you can find people on this site willing to show you around their town and introduce you to some of the local scene. Similarly, Yelp may help you find the best place to get a cheap meal or find a reliable mechanic, but it’s also a great place to find potential sources for stories.
6) Things are changing fast – how do you keep up with the changes?
The VJ program has an excellent professional advisory board made up of top industry professionals and educators. We regularly check in with them to discuss trends and to get feedback on our curriculum. Personally, I stay touch with a lot of working pros and keep tabs with what they are doing to keep up with the changes. I don’t always have the time or the funds to seek out all of the amazing workshops available these days, so I follow what’s being written on PhotoShelter, Poynter Institute and other online communities. Our school also has an account with Lynda.com, so I have full access to all of their tutorials, as do any Brooks students or faculty member. It’s a great resource.