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Which site is best for DIY web publishing?

Posted on 29 Oct 2012 at 10:07

You don't need huge amounts of time and money to create your own attractive and effective website, as Tom Arah explains

In recent columns I’ve concentrated on professional web design using Adobe’s Creative Suite, but such complex and expensive software is unsuitable for many people. For those who simply want an effective web presence for as little time and money as possible, what are the best DIY web solutions?

I’m regularly asked to recommend a good value, easy-to-use HTML/CSS editor to get people started on their site. Ten years ago, I’d have suggested Dreamweaver for anyone who could afford it, and Namo WebEditor for anyone who couldn’t.

These days, though, my advice begins from a completely different place. It’s no longer necessary for non-pros to handle HTML and CSS code directly, since creating it can be devolved to authoring software.

I’ve looked at four applications that employ such a "code-free" approach, enabling you to ignore technicalities and concentrate on more important stuff such as your site’s structure, appearance and content.

Xara Web Designer MX

Xara Web Designer MX ($49, around £31) offers a wide range of free-to-use sample sites. Load one and simply rearrange its elements to your own design, editing the text and replacing photos with your own.

When you’re happy, you can preview or export your page or site; Xara generates all the necessary HTML and CSS code, along with JPEGs and PNG bitmaps.

It may be simple, but Xara offers real power. Customisable drag-and-drop widgets let you add interactive elements such as dropdown and fly-out navigation bars, image thumbnails tied to full-sized pop-ups, web galleries, slideshows, YouTube videos, Google Maps, web forms and animated pie charts. These elements generally require JavaScript programming, so the fact that Xara can generate them without you having to write code is impressive.

The bottom line is that, in the majority of modern browsers, Xara delivers the goods.

Traditional static design remains a good way to add impact, and Xara offers powerful wysiwyg graphic design features for this purpose. You can draw lines and shapes anywhere on the screen, and format them with solid, gradient, bitmap or fractal fills and graduated transparency and shadow effects. You can non-destructively crop and manipulate imported bitmaps, flow text within columns around them and rotate it to any angle.

If you need even more power, Web Designer MX Premium ($99, around £64) adds tools such as freehand brushes, bevels, distortions and 3D extrusions, and enables you to add your own animated elements and choice of fonts.

Xara Web Designer MX and MX Premium offer plenty of creative power without the need for coding, but do they really set web beginners on the right road? Purists will be shouting "look at the code!", which would once have been my response, too.

It’s true that Xara’s liberal application of absolutely positioned span tags is inefficient and goes against the spirit of HTML’s flow-based design philosophy, but the bottom line is that, in the majority of modern browsers, Xara delivers the goods.

Xara shows that wysiwyg design can be made to work in modern browsers, but it does have drawbacks, one of which is mobile viewing. A wysiwyg layout designed for desktop delivery is inherently fixed and can’t adapt to small screens.

Also, this whole design-intensive approach simply doesn’t scale well for websites that have lots of regularly updated content.

Ultimately, Xara Web Designer MX is only really suitable for producing eye-catching "brochureware" sites, high-impact web versions of printed brochures that are designed to introduce your company, service, product, band, school or whatever to the wider world.

Artisteer 3

For sites that have to deliver an ongoing stream of text-based content, it’s worth considering Artisteer 3 ($49, around £31). This takes a radically different approach from Xara’s anything-goes, free-form layout by offering fully automated design. Artisteer keeps style and content completely separate, and your first task is to take care of the presentation of your site.

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