So You Want to Be a Web Designer (A Treehouse Review)



“The goal is that you could pay $75 over three months to be job ready instead of $50,000 a year for a CS degree.” -Ryan Carson, Treehouse CEO (quote alleged)

Treehouse1 is a for-profit education website with training to help you “learn how to build websites and apps, write code or start a business.”  According to their press kit, it was started in November 2011 and now has over 46,000 active users.  Currently, it offers eight “tracks” consisting of:

  • Web Design
  • Front End Web Development
  • Rails Development
  • iOS Development
  • Android Development
  • PHP Development
  • WordPress Development
  • Starting a Business

I recently completed the web design track.  Though a subscription normally costs $25 per month, I have access to a free account through some type of workforce initiative in Bloomington, IN.  I wanted to post a review to help people determine whether the service was “right for them.”

My Background

Summary: I have a degree and job in accounting which I dislike, “hobby-level” experience with CSS, and have taken a community college computer science class that used C++.

Don and I started Half-Sanity in April 2012 with the intent of becoming rich and famous from our writing.  Since then, we’ve struggled to get our friends to read our website, let alone strangers straggling in from Google searches.

The initial feedback we had received from our friends was positive, which in retrospect perhaps hurt our progress.  I became convinced that we were “good” writers and that, given time, our content would attract a regular reader base.  It took maybe a year before before I questioned why we had 0 to 5 visitors a week.

I started comparing Half-Sanity to websites I liked to read and decided one factor in our “failure” was that the site was ugly.  I made lists and saved links to websites with aesthetic elements I wanted to steal, and sent a compiled “wishlist” to Don.  Don was the “technical guy.”  He had bought the domain, installed WordPress, and set up our child theme.

At some point, Don just told me to make the changes myself and said that CSS wasn’t that complicated.  I feel like I’ve spent one to ten hours a week since then trying to adjust font and line sizes, column widths, typefaces, color schemes, background images, menu styles, or at least listening to web design podcasts and reading blogs.2  I started to believe two things: 1) I would love to work as a website designer but 2) I was “terrible” at design.

For kind of unrelated reasons, in December 2013, I moved to Bloomington, IN, from Reno, NV, and though I’m still working as an internal accountant, I’ve enrolled at a local community college for computer science.  After completing my first semester, however, I was underwhelmed at my perceived prospects for a career change.  I decided not to take classes over the summer and see what I could teach myself.

My girlfriend heard on NPR that the Bloomington Technology Partnership was going to pilot a program called “Bloomington Code School,”3 offering courses in web design, as well as rails, front end, and PHP development.  I signed up for web design the same day.

Bloomington Code School


Bloomington Code School consisted of completing the Treehouse curriculum on your own and meeting as a class at least once a week on a regularly scheduled night with a “mentor.”  The mentors were local professionals in that field, volunteering their time.

Initially, the mentor sessions were planned as a time to continue using Treehouse and answering questions for each other.  After a few weeks, based on participant feedback, a decision was made to do something independent of Treehouse in the sessions.

Our mentor was a web designer for Indiana University.  In class, he showed us projects he was working on, examples of well and poorly designed websites, additional design resources, etc.

All of this was free.  If you have an opportunity to participate in a future iteration of Bloomington Code School, I strongly recommend it.


Per the Bloomington Code School program, we had 3 months to complete our Treehouse track (Treehouse itself hasn’t imposed any time limits on completion).  I finished the Web Design curriculum in just under 2 months, spending probably one to three hours a day, including weekends, following along with videos, completing code challenges and quizzes.  As I write this, Bloomington Code School is still “in session.”  My impression is that most other students are a little behind, rather than well ahead, of the 3-month schedule.

I would group the courses within the Treehouse Web Design track as:

  1. How to Make a Website (overview of the elements of a basic website)

  2. HTML Forms and CSS Foundations (coding)

  3. Aesthetic and Design Foundations (design)

  4. Photoshop and Illustrator Foundations (design tools)

  5. Logo Design, Brand Identity, UX, and SEO Basics (marketing and design “ad hoc”)

  6. Sass and Compass Basics (a little more advanced coding)

The relative strengths of the web design track, I felt, were the tool and technical aspects, as well as the overview of how to make a website.  The HTML, CSS, Sass, Photoshop, and Illustrator courses should provide ample instruction to start using these platforms and continue to serve as reference material.

The weakest points, I felt, unfortunately, were the design courses — Aesthetic and Design Foundations, Logo Design and UX Basics.  I remember feeling very excited to start each of these, but uneasy as each finished.  However, that seems consistent with cultural critiques of the state of education.  Design is abstract, closer to an art, relative to coding.

In talking with another Bloomington Code School student, we agreed that the transition to becoming a developer, rather than a designer, seemed easier for us (his background has been in construction, mine in accounting).  HTML, CSS, Sass and JavaScript implementations could be discerned and taught as “right” and “wrong,” at least in terms of “broken” and “not broken,” but the design-side still feels mysterious and elusive.

The “best” path to web design seems to involve studying the visual arts.  Our professional mentor had an art and print graphic design background, picking up just enough CSS to “get the job done.”  I now spend about 30 minutes a day drawing, both because it seems fundamental to design and because I find it fun.

Finishing the Web Design track felt abrupt and anti-climactic.  It seems to just kind of end after completing the Compass course.  As a “capstone,” I plan to redesign Half-Sanity using Bootstrap.4  Our Code School mentor completed and recommended taking the Treehouse course, “Framework Basics” (which you can find in the searchable library) as a guide to using Bootstrap on our own projects.

If someone were to ask me, “Can Treehouse take me from being a waiter to being a freelance web designer?”  I would say, “If you’re a waiter who creates beautiful paintings on the weekends that make people laugh and cry, then probably, yes.”  As I should have expected, I guess, I don’t feel like I could walk into a studio in New York or Chicago or San Francisco and get a job, but I do feel like I could redesign a website for a local business, as a starting point, to something.

If my free account were to expire today, I would still buy a subscription at $25 per month, at least until I completed the Framework Basics course, the Front End Web Development track, and built a few websites I felt proud of.  Though this review may have taken a negative tone, it stems from “very high” hopes.  There aren’t many, if any, comprehensive programs like Treehouse available universally and near-free.  I’ve also started reading web design books like Responsive Web Design and On Web Typography.  Treehouse seems to be an adequate introduction to the tools of web design, which, I feel, can be “hacked” in 2 months of online training.  “Learning to see,” however, doesn’t seem so simple.

Footnotes and Links:

1. Team Treehouse website

2. Web Design Blogs and Podcasts:

3. Bloomington Technology Partnership website and the Code School page

4. Bootstrap is a framework for building a website, kind of like a WordPress or Tumblr theme, but easier-to-adjust and “lacking” a content management system

(5.) Brackets is an open source code editor recommended by our mentor that I’m going to start using in place of TextMate


Posted in Barely Interesting Non-Fiction, Matt

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