The web as an art medium & democratizing tech education: meet Treehouse designer, Hope Armstrong

Hope’s childhood was spent in a rural town, where she channeled shyness into cultivating her art and creative interests. Then the personal blogging craze introduced Hope to the web as an art medium. She was drawn to the limitless creativity of the web, and soon her curiosity led to exploring the source code of websites, and experimenting with code.

Years later, Hope found herself freelancing as a web designer while attending art school. She soon discovered how stable the career opportunities were for her, so after graduation Hope committed to web design full-time. When Hope first heard about Treehouse she was inspired and enticed by our mission. As soon as a designer position opened up, Hope applied for — and landed — the job.

Today, Hope is a designer at Treehouse where she’s constantly rewarded with stories of how students’ lives have changed by learning to code. Being part of Treehouse also gives Hope the opportunity to work alongside a down to earth and encouraging team of designers, all with a shared interest for learning.

In her interview, Hope shares her experience becoming a designer, being part of a movement to democratize technology education, the high level of trust and autonomy at Treehouse, the importance of constantly learning, and what it’s like to be part of the Design Team at Treehouse.

1. What inspired you to become a web designer?

As a shy kid growing up in small rural towns, I felt most comfortable making art in my bedroom. I was attracted to all the usual fine art stuff like drawing, painting, and making collages. When LiveJournal and Geocities became popular, I got into the personal blogging craze. I had the most fun covering my pages with garish buttons, animated glitter GIFs, and flashing marquee text. But I didn’t know how to seriously view the web as an art medium until one fateful day when I found a webring (yes, hi early 2000s) of female bloggers who made their own websites from scratch, on their own custom domains. Everything was hand coded; they weren’t bound by the constraints of any website building tool. I was intrigued. I had to know how they were made so I started digging to find out.

Everything was hand coded; they weren’t bound by the constraints of any website building tool. I was intrigued. I had to know how they were made so I started digging to find out.

2. How did you first learn to code?

I started by looking at websites I admired, right clicking on the page, and viewing the page source. That allowed me to see how the website was made. I’d copy parts I liked, paste it into Notepad, and play around with it locally in my browser. I did a lot of trial and error — I’d make a change to the code, refresh the page, and see what happened. I essentially just pattern matched to make sense of it — it felt like reading a foreign language. From there, I had more specific things I wanted to learn so I turned to online tutorials. Before long, I wanted a custom domain. Since I was too young to have a credit card, I saved up my babysitting earnings and mailed cash to a hosting company. My first websites were a personal blog and a No Doubt fansite.

3. How has your career evolved since then and what brought you to Treehouse?

I ended up going to art school and earned a BFA in painting. It was a good fit because I love painting, and the flexible curriculum allowed me to create a learning plan that interested me. I spent my senior year exclusively making websites, although they were in a fine art sense and considered “net art.” Meanwhile, I stumbled upon requests to make websites for bars and restaurants. That’s when it clicked: I can make money doing this.

After graduating, I was met with a fork in the road: go the art residency route, build a professional art practice and waitress part time, or make commercial websites. It was 2009, right in the midst of the recession so job prospects were dismal. I was good at making websites, enjoyed doing it, and it provided stable income and benefits… so off I went pursuing that! After a year and a half of struggling to find my footing, I went on to work as a designer in higher education, finance, and a couple tech startups.

I started thinking about applying to Treehouse when I listened to Susan Lin talk on the podcast Design Details about her experience as a designer at Treehouse. As she described it, the heart and soul of the company was apparent and enticing. I made note to check the job page periodically. Luckily, after nearly a year of refreshing the page, I saw a job posting that was a perfect fit.

4. What does the Treehouse mission mean to you?

First, the fact that Treehouse is truly mission driven is paramount to me. We’re set on democratizing technology education. The U.S. education system isn’t adequately addressing the demand for technology expertise. While there are costly private educational offerings, these options are out of reach for people without financial means. Treehouse is filling this gap in technology training, at a price point that is affordable for a diverse range of people. We strive to present coding with a welcoming “can do” attitude. I love that this makes even more advanced coding concepts feel accessible for those of us without computer science degrees or who otherwise don’t fit into the “hacker ninja” mold. The mission isn’t something that hangs on a wall, collecting dust. It’s what gives me purpose as I question why I’m shuffling rectangles across my screen all day.

The fact that Treehouse is truly mission driven is paramount to me. We’re set on democratizing technology education.

5. What is your workspace setup?

I have an Apple Thunderbolt Display and a 15-inch MacBook Pro circa 2016. I also have an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil I use for drawing. Sorry, this is starting to sound like an Apple ad. I also have a desk light that’s in the shape of a cat.

6. With so many of the team remote, how does the design team collaborate?

There’s five of us on the design team, in three time zones. We have a few recurring Zoom meetings that keep us in sync. Every Wednesday we have a design team meeting where we talk about current projects, upcoming projects, and any interesting design news from that week. On Tuesdays and Thursdays we meet up for design critiques where we share our work and give feedback. On Slack, we have have a few channels: a Design channel which gives us a place to talk and for others in the company to reach us, a Design Critique channel for quick feedback, and a Designer Reading Nook for sharing articles. We keep track of projects in Asana (marketing stuff) and Jira (engineering stuff). All of our Sketch files are managed by Abstract and everything else is in Google Drive.

7. Tell us a bit about the designer culture on your team.

Everyone is down-to-earth and encouraging. We make time for each other, to listen and give advice. All of us have a learning mindset — there’s always more to learn. Oh, and there’s a decent amount of jokes. My favorite routine of ours is we start our weekly meetings with “would you rather…” questions.

We make time for each other, to listen and give advice. All of us have a learning mindset — there’s always more to learn.

8. What are a few of your favorite aspects of the work you do?

From a feel good standpoint, I love hearing stories about how a person was able to transform their life by using what they learned from Treehouse. Being able to play a part in positively touching someone’s life is rewarding.

From a things-I-work-on standpoint, I love working on a small team and being able to work on a lot of different projects. Being able to switch from developing a landing page, to doing spot illustrations for the product, to wireframing a user flow, to making a brand guide keeps me engaged and also allows me to touch various parts of the user experience.

Being able to play a part in positively touching someone’s life is rewarding.

9. What do you enjoy most about working at Treehouse compared to past companies you’ve worked for?

At Treehouse, I feel like I’m actively being supported in anything I want to learn. There’s a high level of trust and autonomy. When I joined, I was used to the process of me writing code then handing it off to a developer to put it through code review and push it into production. At Treehouse, the expectation is that designers push production code. While I definitely had (have) The Fear of pushing code into production, it was empowering to be entrusted with that ability. It was something I thought was out of reach for me to learn, but when I learned, it actually was quite easy…which is usually how learning works.

At Treehouse, the expectation is that designers push production code. While I definitely had (have) The Fear of pushing code into production, it was empowering to be entrusted with that ability.

10. What are some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced as a designer and how do you overcome them?

Earlier in my career, criticism of my work felt personal. And sometimes it was (giving good criticism is a skill in an of itself). We can’t be in control of what others say, but we can guide the conversation back to the core problem that needs to be solved. Instead of framing it as you and your work versus the critiquer, imagine yourself on the same side as the critiquer. You’re on the same team. It’s you two versus the problem. This helps to diffuse the situation and allows you to better empathize with the stakeholder.

Figuring out what to do with feedback is another challenge. Instead of getting distracted by irrelevant feedback, weight the feedback to determine what’s helpful. Always go back to the core problem. Also, some design choices can get passed off as being subjective, and thus become hard to defend. I’ve found that leaning on design principles and user research gives weight to design decisions and brings to focus the problem at hand instead of arbitrary personal preferences.

Figuring out what to do with feedback is a challenge. Instead of getting distracted by irrelevant feedback, weight the feedback to determine what’s helpful. Always go back to the core problem.

11. What advice would you give to aspiring designers who are just starting out?

  • Let your interests be your guide. Forget about whatever trend is hot at the moment and seek out designs you admire. The web design world can feel like a vacuum sometimes, so walk away from your computer and go explore print design or works from decades ago to keep your ideas fresh.
  • Analyze your favorite products and think of how you’d improve the user experience. This will help you empathize with users and look at your everyday experiences with a critical eye.
  • Soak in as much information as you can by learning new skills and staying up to date. The web is always evolving, so get used to always learning.
  • Find podcasts to hear about other designers’ journeys, such as Design Details, Creative South Podcast, Style Guide Podcast, Working File, Overshare, and Design Matters.
Soak in as much information as you can by learning new skills and staying up to date. The web is always evolving, so get used to always learning.
Like what you read? Give Treehouse a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.