How to get started in web design

A quick note: this article was written back in 2000, and it shows its age. At this time, I have no intention of editing it to bring it up to the present. To me, it’s an interesting snapshot of the “old days”…

If you’re interested in Web design and want a simple “how to” guide to starting out, you’re in luck. That’s what this article’s about.

Learning the ropes
Thanks to the huge growth of the Internet during the past few years, it’s become easier than ever to get yourself on the Web without writing a single line of code. Sites such as Tripod, Homestead or FreeYellow will host your pages for free, give you tens of megabytes for you to fill up with files and free tools to help you build your site online in minutes.

Got the hang of it?
If you’re a little more advanced and want to work on your own HTML files, the Web is full of resources. You can have access to free online tutorials to help you beef up your design skills at the same sites mentioned above, or at sites such as CNET or ZDNet.

But my advice to you is to start easy. If you overwhelm yourself with tech terms and get into learning code from the start, you’ll most likely get bogged down and probably stop learning. Begin with FrontPage Express (you can find it at Microsoft’s Windows Update site) or some other free HTML editors such as Cool Page, HotDog or PageMill. The downloads section at ZDNET is where you’ll find free HTML editors and other cool web design programs and goodies. has a really good section on Web publishing tools.

Moving on up
Once you get the hang of these, you’re ready to graduate to the big dogs. Some of the premier HTML editors available these days are Macromedia Dreamweaver and UltraDev, Allaire Homesite and Microsoft FrontPage. What’s good about them is that they integrate ease of use with advanced features such as JavaScript, DHTML, ASP (Microsoft Active Server Pages, JSP (Java Script Pages) or CFML (Cold Fusion Markup Language) capabilities. These languages are what make most business Web sites run these days. They’re the hard code behind the pretty fronts that you click on.

Dreamweaver is made by Macromedia, the same company that made Flash a household name. I can’t say enough good things about this program. It is the premier web design application on the market, and it makes it fantastically easy to create quality websites. Of course, you also pay a pretty penny for it (price is around $250-300). UltraDev is Dreamweaver on steroids. Not only does it have all of the capabilities of Dreamweaver, but it also writes advanced code for you and makes it incredibly easy to add database functionality to your website. The price for it runs from $550-600.

Homesite on the other hand has a really nice and functional division between the work window and HTML view, though it lags behind Dreamweaver in the visual quality of the GUI. Allaire (which makes Homesite) was recently bought by Macromedia, so I’m not sure what the future of this application will be.

Microsoft FrontPage is good for beginners because it offers so many features and plug-ins, but it’s awkward to work with unless you use it exclusively. Switching HTML files between it and other editors is a nightmare because it changes the way the code is written. I stay away from it – far, far away – because I just don’t want to deal with the bloated code and the extra folders that it creates for itself on my web server.

After you use these programs yourself, you’ll discover your own pet peeves. And when you do, congratulate yourself, because you’ll have made it to the next level.

So you think you’re hot
If you think you’re ready for the big leagues, the Web development sections at CNET or ZDNet are the ones for you. CNET has a really good section with HTML tutorials and Web design, while ZDNet has a huge Developer section with all the tutorials and free code you could ever want. Other free code also abounds online. You’ll find more than enough CGI, Java and applets if you do a few diligent searches. It also never hurts to actually spend some money on good software books. Most of the time, they’ll come with CD-ROMs filled with free code and other goodies.

Goodies
Good clipart and sounds (great for enhancing your page) are also available free online at places such as AllFreeClipArt.com, About.com, or Volition.com. The best way to find the sounds you like is to search for them by categories. Say you like The Simpsons. Well, then you’d search for them by name, find the sound file that you need, then insert a hidden sound tag on your index page. This sound would then play every time that page was loaded. And if you want to be really annoying, you can make it play over and over and over…. Of course you will have to watch for copyright infringements. If it’s a personal page, no one will probably bother you, but if it’s a page that sells stuff, or your own page on your company’s website, you might get in trouble. Just make sure you check to see if it’s okay first.

Going pro
Last but not least, if you want to be good at this, learn from the masters. Actually, steal from the masters. Go to the sites for some of the coolest design companies these days: The Designory, Me Company, Fusive.Com, Contact Designs, Control V Interactive, DayStream, Exprimare or Lupuspernix. The list is debatable, and so is the order. The important thing is to find some really good sites and pick them apart. Look at the source code. Save the HTML files to your hard drive. Open them up in Dreamweaver, see what they’re made of, how they’re put together. Try to replicate the graphic design in Freehand, Illustrator or PhotoShop. Get into
Flash. It’s hot these days. See what you can do. Then do it better. And when you’re ready, apply for some jobs. You can’t keep bumming off your parents forever. Here’s how!

When I grow up, I want to be?
If you get to know all the stuff I’ve talked about, then you’ll probably wish to specialize, or learn more about a certain aspect of Web design. There are three main areas:

  1. Code Monkeys: these guys and gals want nothing more than to sit in front of the monitor writing JavaScript and messing around with SQL (Structured Query Language) or ASP (Active Server Pages) all day long.
  2. Graphic designers: these creative folks make the great fronts you see on some of today’s coolest Web pages. Homework: go find these really cool pages. Judge them, and be subjective. Art is what you make of it.
  3. Web designers: these guys are the go-betweens. They take the stuff that graphic designers make and they put it on Web pages. Then they get it ready for the code monkeys, which will go in and finish out the job by integrating the HTML with the other code that makes sites work (see above). At most places, the 2nd and 3rd categories are one and the same, but at bigger companies, you will find that most designers will fall into these three categories.
  4. Art/Creative Directors: these gals and guys work on the big picture and chart the direction in which a project needs to go. They’re interesting people with quirky habits, and for the most part, they know what they’re doing.