Posted: January 24, 2022 / Last updated: January 29, 2022
Technically, Derek Wood created the school. But we’ll answer as “we” because what we’re doing is growing – and we’ve always had a big vision for PE. You’ve also got Ivy and Karen, and hopefully – another Derek soon! PE is much more of an idea than a person or a “founder.”
Some of our most thoughtful applicants have asked the following questions – and here are our answers.
Why did you create this school?
Derek had always been interested in education. He went to an alternative elementary school, some interesting high schools, including an art magnet high school, and later went to college for art. He enjoys breaking things down and creating systems. You’re welcome to read a bit more about his backstory.
College was great, but it was also really expensive. After he graduated, he sat down with some of his friends and did some math. Why was it so expensive? We’d been to our teacher’s houses. We knew that they weren’t rich. The school owned all of its classic tools for printmaking and sculpture equipment. Even the new fancy G5 computer labs weren’t that expensive. And besides, in hindsight – the most important things about school weren’t expensive. The things that mattered most were questions. Teachers who pushed you further asked you to dig deeper – and who inspired you. That was rarely with their raw “art talent.” Knowledge and skill aren’t transferable. You can only create the space for the student to learn.
The goal was never to “out price” the college and make our own… but it got him thinking. What is education? What is its goal? And why did it seem like this well-known (and expensive) college didn’t seem to have one? It didn’t seem like anyone ever thought about what would happen to us after school. What were we working towards? Were we all just hoping to become “famous artists” somehow? There was certainly that cliche “1/100 of you will be artists – some of you will work in commercial design (and be looked down upon) – and the rest of you – who cares” mentality from many of the teachers. And this doesn’t just go for art school. Classic 4-year colleges aren’t much different. You go to classes, you pay – and then you’re done – and hopefully you get a job or something. Hopefully, you’re at least a more well-rounded person.
Derek could just paint in his bedroom. It didn’t require much equipment. But many of his friends were studying wood/furniture. Where were they going to do that now? It just seemed like we could all pool our money together – and get new students to join in – and have a super fun art school type place where everyone could help each other and learn – and really get the heart of the purpose of the whole thing – and all for a lot less money. There’s not enough room to explain all the details in this article. People have done it.
Derek’s friends agreed but laughed it off. They weren’t willing to take a risk on something like that at the time. The idea never went away for Derek.
Fast forward to 2010 or so. Derek was playing in bands and holding the type of menial jobs that didn’t mind if he had to go out of town for 6 weeks (low-paying ones). He had always tinkered around styling out MySpace pages or helping his friends with their websites. His friend Jim couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t making a bunch of money learning web development. Seemed like a good idea, but it felt very foreign. What even is a “Web developer.” Derek’s girlfriend at the time was a print designer fighting a transition into web development so, he learned a bit more and tried to teach it to her and break the ice. She took off and has a happy career. But it was fun. Really fun. And so – Derek kept on learning and never stopped.
Since then, Derek has worked in just about every type of design/programming team. Freelance, small contracts, small agencies, bigger agencies, – doing visual design, programming, websites, UX, application design, user testing, product design. And all that time tried just about every way to learn there was. We’re talking web apps here… and while not a “prolific” career by many standards, it covered a lot of ground. He’s seen a lot of things. He’s seen how these teams work (and more importantly how and why they don’t work). The impetus for the school was to break down the misaligned concepts of “creatives” and “Coders” – which he did in our first blog post.
For some reason – with “coding” – we just send people out onto the battlefield and say “If you learn it / and you can make us money… we’ll pay you. Good luck!” People burn themselves out for years reading whatever random article or following hundreds of tutorials (written by beginners) – and just a night after grueling night – learning bad habits and creating wildly inaccurate mental models. There’s often a mentality of trying to get “better” than everyone else – as fast as possible.
There’s a reason why medical school has an agreed-upon foundation. There’s a reason why physicians take the Hippocratic Oath. There’s a reason why you need to know how blood works / before you start sawing into someone’s brain. You don’t just wing it.
The most basic answer is that Derek started the school to teach people how to design and build things for the internet — because no one else is doing it. At least not in the way we think they should. You can go to school for Graphic design – and you can go to school for Computer Science – but those aren’t going to teach you how to design and build digital products. Neither is a “coding boot camp” in most cases.
If The Web is the defacto communication platform now, then it has to be taken seriously. It demands respect and it demands real designers to cultivate it and ensure that it is equitable and serves a greater good.
We’re not the only ones who need to work toward this. But, we are some people who are. We firmly believe that we need well-rounded designers to lead the charge – and we’re putting everything we have into finding ways to train them. We don’t think there is anything more important than training people to be lean human-centered designers. It’s much bigger than just websites. It’s everything. It’s the most important skill for the world in general. And – well, we’re starting with The Web.
Besides just trying to save the world – and hopefully not be held hostage by a hellscape of incompetent user interfaces in our old age… there are other reasons.
Because there is no standard or official certification or level of “Web Designer” or “Web Developer” – pretty much everyone has completely different sets of skills. This is great in many ways, but it’s really hard to teach people when their knowledge is a cartoon piece of cheese full of holes and blurry conceptual misunderstandings. If you feel like we’re exaggerating, let us show you. Anyway: it’s a pain in the ass to try and reteach people who have been learning a ton of bad habits in their basement for years. People really really hold on to those hard-won skills. The whole lack of an education path forges a lot of stubborn habits. We don’t want to beg people to let us fix them. We want to just teach it properly the first time. It’s incredibly inefficient and silly to teach people one at a time. When working in groups, students are able to learn much more by seeing many more types of mistakes and successes. They’ll seem more trials and errors and solutions than they would alone. There are plenty of books on the subject already. People don’t need to follow along and memorize what to type. They need a space to learn. They need a space to create knowledge of their own.
If we can train enough people to a common foundation, we can teach those people advanced subjects with a clear understanding of what they all – already know.
Building a program like this costs money. We want to hire lots of specialists to come in and work on future elective courses and build a community of life-long learners. We don’t want to be beholden to venture capital and stockholders, so – we’ve chosen to just build it with blood and sweat and tears. The school’s purpose is also to generate its own capital to continue to grow our resources and perpetually improve our education materials.
What are you getting out of it as instructors?
Well, so far: not money. That would be fun. All of our tuition goes back into the program to pay for the office and to award scholarships and things like that. But – it’s fair to say that the school could eventually pay for our time and efforts.
What we get out of it, is a sandbox to continue to design the education system. Our students are the lifeblood of the program. Without them, there is no purpose. They are the live feedback we need to improve and learn even more.
Over the past 10 years or so, Derek has probably answered 10s of thousands of questions on StackOverflow and Quora and Slack and Discord. He’s long been collecting the multitudes of confusions and their origin. We’ve pretty much got that worked out already. But the students are who prove our system is working. We get to continue learning and working with designers to build a better world.
The designers we train – will get out there and design better interfaces, objects, and systems that will all get to enjoy and learn from.
As course creators, we’ll be meeting and working with many of our heroes and getting to learn from them as we build new parts of the course. So – it allows us to perpetually go to school as well.
We expect to build life-long friendships within our community.
What is your course meant to do/provide for the student?
Design for The Web (the main PE course) – is designed to create a fun and supportive environment to learn web design and web development. Its series of daily lessons are built to streamline the process and act as a force multiplier. By combining concise and ordered concepts with personal mentorship, targeted exercises, stories, group projects, accountability, user experience, visual design, and programming – we seek to offer the deepest and most complete education available to design and build digital products.
Students who take the course seriously, complete the work, participate, push the boundaries, and put their heart into it, will come away with years of real-world knowledge. They’ll be able to enter the field at a markedly higher salary – and they’ll have learned to truly love their craft.
We also believe that this foundation will serve them in any industry – and allow them to learn with confidence to go anywhere they desire. We’ll be there for them – along with the rest of the community we build together.
What are your aspirations for your students?
We hope to show our students how powerful they really are. That they can change the world, but not for the sake of change. We want to give them the confidence and stability to reflect on what it means to be a human and what it means to design things for humans and the earth around us.
In a practical sense, we’d like them to get out there into meaningful roles. We’d like them to make enough money to stop thinking about it. We’d like them in positions where they can learn the most and share the most. We want our students to spread wonder, to delight in all that is good. We hope that they can let go of their opinions and judgment and live a goal-driven life. We hope that they can look at things with fresh eyes and take the time to reinterpret and rethink history and our ways of life.
We want to empower our students to be true to themselves to respect the power that they hold as designers. Something like that.