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Webflow’s director of design, David Hoang, shares about his analog upbringing and how early no-code tools like Flash and Dreamweaver taught him to code.
It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I realized I wanted to pursue a professional career. I couldn’t tell you what I wanted to do for a living throughout my youth or high school, but I could tell you what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
I am the son of immigrants who arrived in the United States in the 1980s during the Vietnam War. On the way, my older brother Daniel was born in an Indonesian refugee camp, and I was born in the United States. We were born and raised in a tiny town in southwest Washington. Mom and Dad worked as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen. They want for my brother and me to have a better life.
Because our house was only around 1000 square feet, we spent much of our time in the backyard, dreaming and making things. We found methods to pass the time like excavating a big hole, creating an underground fort, or building our own wrestling arena to hold our own WrestleMania.
Despite my parents’ preference for a more traditional upbringing, they were aware that technology will ultimately enter our life. My father bought the Commodore 64, the Apple II (my favorite), and the Gateway 2000 with a 386 Pentium CPU and a 14.4k modem as investments in technology. To be honest, I haven’t done anything constructive on a computer in years. They were mostly used to play Doom and the Quake Team Fortress mod.
Then I had my first encounter with my uncle. My uncle Son flew up from Los Angeles to pay us a visit. He was known as the family’s “clever one,” a UC Berkeley graduate who was always a great dreamer. He gave us Macromedia software, along with a copy of Adobe Photoshop 4.0, that would revolutionize the way I used the computer. ColdFusion, Dreamweaver, and Fireworks are the Macromedia applications that I recall being exposed to when it came to generating graphics on a computer and constructing websites.
I had no idea what HTML was, and CSS hadn’t even been invented yet. All I recall is staring at the graphical user interface and trying to figure out what was going on in the code. Then I’d try to create the code and see if I could come up with a visual representation.
This would be a recurring motif in my life. I’ve never been the brightest person in the room, and I’ve often found success via trial and error. I was disheartened by error messages, but I wanted to see victories, even if they were minor.
I’ve always had a unique learning style, which may explain why I just made it through high school. The school was tedious for me, and it was never structured in a way that prepared me for success. I didn’t think it was necessary to study Washington state history or memorize a list of facts. Then there was maths, my archenemy. I was so irritated because school-based learning felt so binary: either I was correct or incorrect. I used to be perplexed as to why there was only one solution to a problem.
Art, literature, photography, and creative writing, on the other hand, were subjects in which I excelled. These lessons inspired me to forge my own path and explore it. Computer science studies were not offered in high school at this period. Because our only encounter with a computer in school was in a keyboarding class, programming fell out of favor with me.
Introduction to Flash was the class that altered the way I thought about the world. I enrolled in the class because it seemed interesting. I recall seeing Nike.com was developed with Flash and want to learn more about it. I obviously didn’t read the course description carefully since I was surprised to learn that the class would be held at the computer science building.
I learned how to program objects with ActionScript in this basic Flash lesson. After all these years of hating math, I’ve discovered a useful application for it in my artistic pursuits. This one class was enough to inspire me to combine art and technology as a technique of creation.
As I returned to art school, I became interested in using coding as a creative medium. I worked in the computer lab for most of the summers, continuing to study ActionScript, HTML, and CSS.
My major project in college was an interactive sculpture that was a reflection on how people show themselves on the internet, particularly on Myspace, which was the preferred social media site for those who didn’t have access to Facebook at their schools. I utilized code as my medium for sculpting and created websites to display it in an interactive environment.
It was finally time for me to grow up after receiving my bachelor’s degree. Because transitioning to the real world was difficult for me — and because there was a recession at the time — I settled for a desk job, a 9-to-5 where I could still devote time after work to art and exploration.
I continued to develop work with interactive media in mind, including a collaboration with CNN reporter Veronica De La Cruz and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor to establish a website to raise awareness for De La Cruz’s brother Eric, who required a heart transplant. This is, without a doubt, the most significant online project I’ve ever worked on.
I began working on freelancing projects with folks in the Seattle startup ecosystem while I continued to improve my talents before and after my employment. People were seeking for designers who understood Photoshop since there was this new program called iOS.
Because the multitouch paradigm was so perplexing back then, realistic graphics elements were used to teach people how to interact with a piece of glass. Who thought my talent to make Corinthian letter buttons would lead to a career in technology?
Despite my lack of professional experience, I’ve always felt like I had an advantage as a designer, especially the capacity to create experiences.
I was able to express concepts in a dynamic fashion, despite the fact that they were not the most beautiful constructions. I was a member of the Quartz Composer period when designers rushed to this no-code graphics tool to develop prototypes in the early 2010s. (The most notable example was when HTC released Facebook Home on the HTC First phone.)
These formerly foreign words, like logic, state management, events, and conditions, quickly became familiar. I didn’t go out of my way to learn about databases, logic, and client-side interactions. Because of no-code tools, I learned these programming basics without even realizing it.
You’re learning programming and coding through osmosis. All too often, we educate with the steps in mind, like cogs in a cog, but what matters is why people want to create and construct in the first place. What matters more is instilling in them an insatiable desire to construct, rather than teaching them how to write grammar (the means, not the end). For me, a succession of no-code tools inspired a lifetime of creativity.
My personal and professional development was aided by a childhood filled with no-code tools and experimentation. Because I was proficient in both design and coding, it allowed me to find jobs focused on both. After a number of professional stops — my own consulting, agency work, and in-house product development — I’m now at Webflow, where we’re on a mission to make online design and creation accessible to everyone.
I feel as though my entire professional life has brought me to Webflow’s objective. The familiarity of no-code-to-know code returned in the product as I was getting onboarded at Webflow: dynamic data in CMS, components, developing interactions on events, and integrations — all of this while you’re designing.
These days, youngsters are using Minecraft to construct, Unity to play 3D games, SwiftUI to study, and Webflow to create cat fan sites. For me, learning to code was a slower process, but I’m looking forward to seeing how much faster the next generation learns to code.
“If you want to build a ship, teach people to desire for the infinite vastness of the sea rather than drumming up people to collect wood and assigning them jobs and work.”
Future generations of artists will have access to not only Webflow but also all of the no-code tools available. Ideas and expressions may now spread much more quickly. It’s incredible to see how many social impact initiatives individuals are generating in a single iteration, from concept to completion.
No-code tools are a fantastic place to start, grow, and continue improving your abilities, whether you want to be a designer, developer, or entrepreneur. My generation and the generations before us worked hard to get to where we are now, and it’s exciting to think about how the next generation will carry us beyond our wildest dreams.
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