As someone who began designing websites in 1995 as an assignment for a computer class, and eventually went on to own my own web design company, I feel that I have a few things to say about web design which may be considered useful by many hopeful web designers.
This is the first installment in a series of entries that I will be writing about the various tools that are used in professional Website Design.
First and foremost on the list of important things: Website Editing Software! I started out coding mostly by hand in notepad, and alternated between that and Netscape Composer. But when you get to the point where you are managing 60 websites and you don't want to edit each and every page by hand anymore to say, update 1 link on the footer of a page, then you need to think about professional grade editing software!
When I designed my first website in 1995, there weren't many tools available. I took a class where one of my assignments was to download a copy of Netscape Composer (which was one of first free "WYSIWYG" editors available for free on the web.) WYSIWYG stands for "What You See Is What You Get". In other words, you could point and click and it would create very basic HTML code for you so that you could format your text size, color, or font; insert a picture; make a link; center something; etc. But if you wanted to do anything more complex, you would need to read an HTML book and use trial and error until you got it to work. This software was actually pretty advanced for a time when the Internet was new and most browsers were text based. Until I took that class, I had been running Lynx on a DOS based PC. I finally decided to upgrade to Windows 95 and Netscape Navigator after using them in class.
Our class only spent a week on web design, but I was hooked. I started a free geocities page, something with a silly name like geocities.com/enchantedforest/neighborhood15/something/something - and went to work on a personal website. I asked the teacher some questions - how can I do this, how can I do that? - and he didn't know. He said that half of what I wanted to do was simply impossible. And the rest, he had seen but didn't know how to do. So, I picked up a copy of the gigantic HTML Bible, which I still have sitting on my shelf to this day, despite the fact that Google and the Open Source community and their websites have rendered it pretty much obsolete. Sometimes there's still great satisfaction in picking up a book and looking it up. Especially when you have an Internet outage and can't read a tutorial website.
Over time I developed what was, at the time, a fairly complex website design for a beginner. (Later I moved it to its' own domain name, and it is still intact and looks the way that I designed it all those years ago on a free geocities server).
The next year, I bought my first version of dreamweaver - a student version of - at the college bookstore. For my professional websites, I still use Dreamweaver today. (The version I use is by Macromedia, but Adobe has bought them out since then). You can read about and purchase Dreamweaver here.
If you are only maintaining 1 website for your business and don't want to rely on a web designer, then some of the above tools *might* work for you, if you don't want your website to be overly complicated. They can certainly build an adequate website with a few pages describing your products or services, store hours, contact information, etc. But you will never make a really great shopping cart website to showcase your hundreds of products with these types of software, so you really need to sit down and figure out what your plan is before you invest in editing software. What are you trying to achieve? Will the software that you are considering do what you need it to do?
The other problem I have with most simple editors is aesthetics. Many times, WYSIWYG editors come with pre-created website templates for users who want to get started right away. They are great and very useful when used as a learning tool. But sadly, they usually look like a 3 year old drew them with a crayon. Or at best, like a 12 year old made them with a WYSIWYG editor. Yet many business owners use these templates almost "as is", simply adding text and a few pictures.
I will be the first to admit that aesthetics have nothing to do with usefulness. When marketing your website, an ugly website can be just as successful as a pretty website if it is programmed correctly. Often, all the stuff that goes into making a website pretty, makes it more difficult for search engines to crawl through. There are things to be said in favor of ugly websites. And yet, no one wants to be the business with the ugly website. Which is why these beginner and DIY tools are fantastic for learning the basics, but should never be relied upon by anyone who is serious about becoming a professional Website Designer, nor should they be used by any business who wants to impress potential customers who find their website.
If you are just starting out and can't afford to jump in and buy professional software yet, don't despair. There are many website editing programs out there that will allow you to try them without an expensive commitment. That way, if you decide that web design just isn't for you, and you would prefer to hire a professional to assist you with your website, you won't be out a huge amount of money.