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What makes for the best online Photoshop class? Craft and a lot of 1:1 time

Photoshop holds an appeal in countless imaginations as one app everyone recognizes is deeply complex, rich in possibilities, and cumbersome to learn. From installing the app to executing an idea, nothing about it is particularly easy. The same goes for any apps in this line, like the excellent Affinity Photo.

I started teaching an online Photoshop class a few years ago through IU. My thinking about how to make it a good course evolved like this:

  1. This should be the class I wish I had when I was a student.
  2. Let’s figure out some project ideas that balance Photoshop’s three main uses: photo edits, graphic design, and advertising/marketing.
  3. Maybe students should be able to choose a track — either creative or business — and focus exclusively on that and work related to it all semester.
  4. It’d be great if the class could mimic real life. Maybe deadlines could shift, or people could interact with clients and get all kinds of zany requests (“I don’t like it. Dunno why.” Or, “I don’t like the way that “E” looks.”)
  5. These projects should be useful for a portfolio.
  6. Feedback and revisions should be part of the course and built-in by design.

Who is teaching the best online classes?

Mediums have a way of imitating the things that came before them. The first television shows were just radio shows with a camera in front of two people sitting at mics. It took a while before people started to think about what the medium could do.

About six months into my first year I started asking around, “Who’s teaching the best online classes?” Not just on Photoshop, or at IU, but in the world. Responses were vague. Some people pointed to IU East as leading the way in online learning. Truth be told, I don’t think anyone really thought about it much.

I wanted to teach the best online Photoshop class in the world and I had all the infrastructure and audience of one of the best schools in the country at my disposal. This ought to be possible.

When I started thinking about online education, I realized that, like the first generation of TV shows, most online classes were just in-person classes ported into a simulacrum online. Even after COVID-19, this still seems the case despite it not working well.

  • The requirement for a “discussion forum” is prevalent. I never liked these when I was a student and no teacher ever reads them anyway.
  • Students are in online classes for many reasons, but especially my online asychronous class, they’re not interested in collaborating with other students through a forum or messages. They never see each other. Heck, they don’t even know there are other students in the class. From their perspective, this is just 1:1 tutoring. That’s kinda great.
  • Lectures are often screen recordings — because they kinda have to be — but the instructor doesn’t even bother to stand up most of the time. This saps energy. I stand up, move around, and record clips in various places to keep it visually interesting, like a good TV show.
  • Students assumed, perhaps rightly, that work would progress linearly through the semester, week-by-week, with a big project or two here or there in the middle or end. This is not how life works.
    None of this works well. You can’t force people to discuss things when they’re not interested. If you do, by requiring it for points, people just make up banal statements that no one reads because like press releases you know what it’s going to say.

Plus, many students come in knowing a little, a lot, or nothing at all about Photoshop. One student might have taken two classes in high school and be on an art or design track that keeps them thinking about design principles, color, and aesthetics. Another might be a business student who thought, “This looks kinda fun.”

I think I’ve moved the needle on this and am writing this as a way to encourage other instructors elsewhere.

Justin’s formula for the best online Photoshop class

I built the Photoshop class I wanted to take. For several semesters think it has gone pretty well. I’ve since revised it this semester from the ground-up, mostly because my videos were getting old and the new AI features were making much of the work obsolete.

This semester I’ve upped my game on the video production, preferring to make them in a slight nod to a great episode of Good Eats. I don’t have sock puppets, a cast, or a crew, but I try.

My rules for the class are:

  • Never assign a project you yourself wouldn’t want to do.
  • Don’t patronize students of any age.
  • The demos should exist for the benefit of all students with a lot of explanation about which tools or keyboard shortcut I’m hitting for novices, but also a lot of high-level principles and work for advanced students. The bar is high.
  • I only assign a “discussion post” twice in a semester: once at midterms and once near the end. I find students are quite keen to share by this point because they’ve got work worth showing. I ask them to share at least 4-5 pieces of work. I don’t ask them to explain it, but find many are quick to point out what challenges they had.
  • Revisions are required. I’ve said, “If I tried teaching you how to tie your shoes and I walked by and said, ‘That’s wrong!’ and walked out I wouldn’t just be a jerk, I’d be a bad teacher.” So, every assignment has a due date and for a week after it remains open for revisions. I turn grades around in about a day. Few students ever earn more than 60% on the first revision.
  • There should be multiple projects and weekly assignments. So each week is something, but also every 4 weeks is a larger Milestone project. I don’t do a Midterm as a bit of a nod to respecting their time. But that means every four weeks there are two things due at the same time. This is hard on some students the first month in.
  • Assignments should reflect reality. That’s why they’re incomplete, lacking all the information, and often purposefully so.

As one example in the first assignment, students are asked to create a poster for a bakery’s grand opening. I give students a prompt that says, “Here’s what the client sent along.” Often, these prompts are pulled or inspired from my inbox. They are frustratingly vague, which, like my inbox, is how life is. “Can we get a flyer about our grand opening? I attached a list of flavors we’ll have. Maybe we do something about it being 20% off cookies?”

The trap is the client says, “Attached is a list of flavors we’ll have on opening day.” But I never attach the list. Why? Because people forget attachments all the time. This proves punishing for students.

  • Students, often because the University demands it from teachers, are used to a full “brief” on an assignment that lays out nearly every detail. This is unrealistic to industry.
  • Students often wait until the very last minute — and I do mean 20 or so minutes before a deadline — to submit. They can’t email “the client” at 11:40 PM on a Sunday to get a list of flavors. So they make up a list. And then I have to say, “That’s not at all the list. Next time, read ahead and plan.”
  • Submission quality is often all over the map. Sometimes they’re pretty good, but usually the issues they face are logistical. They waited to the last minute, didn’t ask details, didn’t have a good follow-up question, or just didn’t seem to pay much attention. This quickly resolves as they realize they end up doing twice as much work to redo an assignment later, even as more deadlines keep rolling in.

By the midterm point most students are in a good flow. They’ve learned to watch for traps, missing pieces, and ask follow-up questions. Every other week is a “client-focused” project and alternating weeks from that are creative pieces. By midterms, the biggest challenge is getting students to push forward with creative thinking.

It’s not uncommon for students to start catching on to patterns and how things work (good!), but they’re also still unmotivated or lack a spark that encourages them to think deeply. This is when I start messaging students directly to start a conversation. I ask them what their degrees are, what they’re working on, etc. All things I can see as an instructor from my roster, but things I ask anyway just for sake of conversation. This is perhaps the single biggest turning point for most of them because, I think, it becomes realistic that I’m not just a faceless Computer Man, but actually a person sitting behind the screen. That and most young people are more comfortable typing than talking.

Challenges with teaching Photoshop to anyone abound in creativity

My biggest hurdle is getting people to develop a sense of taste. I spend a lot of time saying things like, “The light is plainly bright over here, so why is this person so dark?” And, “This is okay, but you just put four images together and added a couple of effects. This needs more.” Increasingly I tell students, “This isn’t anything a person couldn’t reasonably do in Canva, Word, or some $2 app from the App Store. Why the heck should I pay you?” I don’t intend that to be a fear tactic, though it is scary, but it should also set the stage for what stakes they face.

Creativity, craft, and focus on details is what’s hard to teach and what’s missing. Students can get countless YouTube tutorials on how to do this or that, all mimicking the various clicks and settings they need to make.
My value, I’m convinced, is being able to give them that plus the editorial one-on-one instruction that pushes them further. I can get away with that when I have 18-20 students. If I had 200 it’d be impossible. Even 60 might prove too much. But at about 20 students I can sustain a thread of continuity with them all semester, even when it must seem annoying to be told vague client responses like, “I dunno, I just don’t think I like that. Can we try something else?”

I’m always certain to give students a “client response” and then a “Notes from Justin” where I’ll explain, “Here’s what just happened. You now have a client who likes this, but not that, but to fix the part they don’t you’ll have to do all this work that’s probably not in scope. You could do X, Y, or Z, but that results in A, B, or C. Now what are you going to do?”

By about halfway through the semester most students start to say, “I want this to be better, but I don’t know how.” Weeks of me prodding on the little things — like cleaning up loose selections or not using a crummy font — are known to them. But more advanced things, like lighting or shadows or changing colors in spots, is not. They know it’s not quite right, but they can’t put their finger on it. This is where I am happy to spend time explaining, “See how the shadow on this wall looks like the sun is at about 11 o’clock in the sky? Your character needs to have the same shadow.”

Ultimately, by the end of the semester when people calm down, more than a few students — usually seniors who have had some taste of work life in an internship or industry job — tell me privately, “This is precisely what I needed from this course.”

Perhaps someday I’ll release all these videos for private consumption. For now, I’m happy to move through my semesters thinking IU has what I strive to make into the best online Photoshop course of any school, university, or program around.

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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