GDES 308: Handmade Web
Fall 2021

T + Th 5:30–8:50p
Pollak 321

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 be comprised 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 challenge how we think about accessibility, legibility, efficiency, and speed on the web?

When it comes to evaluation in this class, I am less interested in "polish" and whether or not something satisfies the desires of the design industry, and more interested in the effort, care, and development of a personal process. We all work and learn in different ways and at different speeds, and my greatest hope is that this class offers time, space, and guidance to explore web design in whatever way is most valuable to you.


The primary 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 the 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. You can design and organize this however you like, as long as all content required in this class is accessible and easily found. You will turn projects in by publishing them to your site.

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.


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. Passion
  2. Screensaver
  3. Homepage
  4. Aura

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

Final Project

The final project will take up the last two weeks 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 (as they say: "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 (our class Discord would be a good place for that...).


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 on the Tips page.


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).

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. 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.