GDES 491: Handmade Web
Spring 2020

MW 5:30 - 8:50 pm
Pollak 315

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 first half of the semester 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, with some room for small workshops and discussion.


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/videos I will ask you to write a short response or series of questions and publish it to your personal website. 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!).

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 semester we will work on a series of smaller projects to practice and experiment with designing for the web:

  1. Poem
  2. Story

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

Final Project

The final project will take up the second-half of the semester. 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; a portfolio website. 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.

Peer Reviews

For some projects I will ask you to review and evaluate a peer’s work. We may do this in pairs or groups. Some questions to ask:

  • What is the idea of the work and how is the idea being communicated?
  • Who is the work for?
  • What is the purpose of the work?
  • What is the scale of the work? Can it scale up? Can it scale down? Does scale matter?

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


20% — Reading Responses, Peer-Reviews, Class Collection
40% — Exercises/Projects
40% — Final Project


This class will require a laptop, a text-editor (I recommend Atom), a browser (Chrome), and image editing software (Adobe Creative Suite or anything really). 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 adhere to Department of Graphic Design attendance policy. If you are going to be absent from class, please email me with as much notice as possible.

You are allowed:

  • Two absences from this class during the semester.
  • Four tardies (over ten minutes late) are equal to one absence.
  • Any subsequent absences may result in a reduction in your grade.

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:


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.

Class Site Tally

reading responses
javascript sketch
responsive sketch
interaction sketch
animation sketch
article exercise
p.1 poem
p.2 story