GDES 308: Handmade Web
Fall 2020

T + Th 5:30–8:50pm

Aidan Quinlan

“I evoke the term ‘handmade web’ to suggest slowness and smallness as forms of resistance.”
— J. R. Carpenter


The hand has become increasingly less present in the web as we know it today. Websites are automated or built from templates, and the knowledge of how to make a website is relegated to a select few. It has only gotten easier to learn and make on the web, but the idea and perceived requirements for a website have become so convoluted and arcane that many avoid the subject. This course seeks to dispel these ideas and will emphasize the hand-quality of websites by developing an understanding of the best practices, language, history, and present context of the web. We will examine the space of the web at large and explore and challenge what a website is and can be with the hopes of reclaiming an important creative space.

The websites we will make may be small, but their hearts will be big.

The first half of the class will be technically focused. It will comprise of a series of lessons, readings, workshops, and small projects to develop familiarity and confidence with the language of the web. We will focus on the basic languages of web development: HTML, CSS, and a little Javascript. This class is designed for students with no programming experience at all, but should be friendly to any skill level. The second half will be focused on a larger project website.


This class will place heavy emphasis on the hand, craft, and care of your design and code. We will learn how to borrow and learn from others’ code, but we will strive to understand how to code it ourselves. This class will question much of what is commonly understood about the web and technology in general.

  • Is tech always the answer? (“There’s an app for that…”)
  • Why put something on the web?
  • How can we think about accessibility, legibility, efficiency, and speed on the web?


The first goal of this class is to demystify and remove the barrier for entry into web development and programming. Any and all questions are welcome. I will not know every answer, but we can work together to find one (and there are always many when it comes to programming). Learning how to search is the programmer’s greatest tool.

By the end of the class you will:

  • Have a working knowledge of HTML, CSS, and basic Javascript
  • Understand the design principles particular to the web and dynamic media
  • Have a basic understanding of web publishing
  • Have an understanding of the history and present context of web

Class Websites

Early in the semester we will set up individual class websites to house all products of this class (projects, writing, anything else…). We will host them using Github Pages and purchase a domain name to attach to it. You can design and organize this however you like, so long all content is accessible and easily found — I will be grading from this!

Reading Responses

For assigned readings I will ask you to respond to the reading with a rough written/sketched website concept (or, if you want, a coded sketch of the website) that reacts to the concepts and topics of the reading. Then, upload this response to your class site. Use this as an opportunity to catalogue some ideas for future web projects (either in this class or beyond!).

There will be some time for reading discussions, but class time will largely be reserved for work, review, and activities. However, these readings will help facilitate a common understanding about the history and present context of the web. Ideally, they will also serve as inspiration for you (as they have been for me!).

For each week that we have a reading for, only choose 1 to respond to. For example: if there are 3 assigned readings in a week, only respond to one of those.

More details can be found in the project page.

Class Collection (

Over the course of the semester we will collect and share materials and research on — a social bookmarking platform that complements web research well. Over time this will become a shared resource of inspiration, reference, and information for our class and for any wanderer who comes across the collection.


During the first half of the class we will work on a series of smaller projects to practice and experiment with designing for the web:

  1. Article
  2. Screensaver
  3. Secret
  4. Aura

Details for each project will be outlined on the Projects page.

Final Project

The final project will take up the last half of the class. It can be anything you like: a project you’ve had in mind for some time; an extension of your practice or an even larger project outside of this class. What is important is the craft, care, and concept of the project. It will be graded on these qualities. It should be unique, personal, and a world of its own.

Project Presentations & Critique

For each major project there will be an informal presentation and feedback session. As much of this class is focused on technical introduction and skill-building, the finished projects will likely still be works in progress (the web is always under construction). Treat these sessions as opportunities to ask technical or conceptual questions to push your projects further!

Beyond these review sessions I would encourage everyone to regularly share work and code inside and out of class!


40% — Participation
40% — Process
20% — Execution


This class will require a computer, a text-editor (I recommend Atom), and a browser (Chrome). I would also suggest a sketchbook for much encouraged off-screen thinking, note-taking, sketching, and journaling.

More details can be found in the Library.


This class will take place entirely online, with some flexibility on potentially meeting in person for individual meetings. Unless stated otherwise, we will regularly meet (synchronously) during the scheduled class times using Zoom.

You will also have access to the scheduled class space in Pollak Room 317 if you want to use that space during class time, though we will still all collectively meet online through Zoom. One thing to note is that departmental policy, at the time, only allows 10 students in a classroom at a time and only during the scheduled class time. Please make sure to prioritize your own safety and the safety of others when using public spaces!

We can consider this a feature rather than a hinderance for learning web design as we will inhabit and communicate within the environment that we will be making for!

Class Discord

As this class will take place online, we will be using a Discord server to centralize communication and announcements for the class. The Discord will also serve as a space for feedback and comments during feedback sessions. If there are any updates/changes to the class I will announce them on the Discord, so be sure to check often.


The standard VCU attendance policy states that student absences during the semester are not expected to exceed the number of times the class meets in one week (2). This semester, because we are facing unprecedented circumstances, we will be following a revised policy that addresses larger issues of expected engagement in the course, articulated below. Consistent engagement is a vital component of successful completion of the course objectives.

The progression of this course requires all participants to be present and actively engaged in class, both during synchronous on-screen meetings, in-person, and with asynchronous activities. Consistency of engagement is vital for a successful completion of the course objectives. Each of us carries different circumstances and capacities; we are accountable for our own agency. This is always true, but especially crucial now.

If at any point during the semester you are unable to be present, communicate this with me as soon as you can. While presence in class is important, my primary concerns with this class are your wellbeing and an emphasis on not applying unnecessary pressure in an already difficult period. Please remember to prioritize your mental and physical health over school.

VCU Policies and Resources

The University requires all students and faculty to be aware of policies outlining expectations, requirements and student services related to academic life. Please visit the following link and review these at the start of each semester:

COVID-19 Updates

For information regarding institutional adjustments, policies, and safety precautions during COVID-19 please consult the web page for One VCU: Responsible Together.


This syllabus and class’s foundation has a number of sources to thank

  • Laurel Schwulst — whose published syllabi and class portals served as my own unbidden introduction to web design. Much of the pacing and tone of this class is modeled after her approach.
  • Mindy Seu — whose classes and workshops have helped expand my thought around digital pedagogy.
  • Roy McKelvey — whose generously provided syllabus has served as the organizational structure of this class.