This may seem counter-intuitive. If you are a raw beginner at website development, you are a lot better off taking the time to learn and practice the fundamentals than you are using automated templates and free, on-the-web graphics files. The reason? Very simple; you must think long-term. You may get a website posted very quickly with an HTML generating product and freeware images. Six months from now, you will want to enhance it, and you are no more prepared to do so than when you started. If you buy books or CDs to learn HTML, a quality graphics creation software product or two, and learn the basic tenets of structured design and layout in the beginning, you will be able to enhance and improve your web presence at will.
Computer programs are written to automate mundane human tasks. Included among those are HTML generating or editing software. You will find some very elegant sites constructed with all those tools. But you know what, after awhile they all start to look the same. They're cookie cutter templates. Plus, you have no idea how to modify the end result. You look at the code and it seems like gibberish. If you want to make a small tweak here, or an element relocation there, you're imprisoned by the interface of the program. If instead you first learn the language of HTML, the tags and their function, how to position and manipulate objects, and proper standard usage; you can then leverage a generation package to improve productivity.
We highly recommend a book and website by Joe Burns titled HTML Goodies as a starting reference. Joe introduces you to the language and constructs of HTML in a simple and often humorous manner that makes learning a snap. Progress at your own pace, learn by doing, practice and repeat, and before you know it you'll understand what building a fundamental web page is all about. If you want to stay with us, we offer some basic HTML tutorials as well.
You want to develop a certain look and feel to your website, one that sets you apart from the crowd. But you didn't go to design school and you certainly can't afford to pay a pro. Think of what you've seen that you like; on the web, in print publications, on television, at the movies. Surely you can get some ideas. Don't steal another design, but borrow a thought. It isn't three dimensional chess, but it does require at least a minimum of planning.
First be aware of navigation. Poor navigation will lose your guests as fast as a fart clears an elevator. A good place to start is the Web Developer's Virtual Library. They offer tips and tutorials about beginning design, tell you where to get free stuff, and help you with some sample navigational concepts. Since you're just starting out, remember to focus on simplicity. Don't be tempted to light up your site like fireworks, so avoid the dancing bears and neon marquees. Instead, deliver your message.
There are thousands of great free and linkware graphics sites on the web to jump-start your new web offering. Begin at the Open Directory for a collection of some of the best. But in our view, creating original graphics for use on your web site is just as important as learning HTML. They become your signature in a sense. A logo, page background, color schemes; all these will define your site as your own, and help later with recognition and branding. If you use someone else's graphics, particularly the freeware variety, rest assured you aren't the only one. So much for originality.
You will save a lot more in the long run by taking the do-it-yourself tact to web building, especially if it's for nothing more than personal and/or family pleasure.
Invest in a low-cost graphics editor. For beginners, we always recommend Corel Paint Shop Pro. PSP's strong suits include its ease of use, layering and effects, and frankly the dirt cheap price. You can construct and view all the popular image formats as well as create animations and filters. There are hundreds of plug-ins available for it ranging from totally free, to modestly priced suites. Learn some basics about creating graphics for the web. Lynda Weinman is generally considered the authority in this area. Pick up her book Designing Web Graphics.
By now you're probably thinking, "Man, this website stuff is expensive. They told me to buy all these books and software. I don't have that kind of money." Well yes, it can be a costly proposition. Large corporations spend millions annually on professionally designed and constructed websites. But everything we've mentioned here you can get for less than US$200 total. That's a relatively small price to pay for being able to do it yourself.
Compared to the automated tools we mentioned in the beginning, it's a bargain. Plus you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you learned a marketable skill, and you did your own thing. Learning how really can be the only expense you will incur, and it is so rewarding. When you're finally ready to publish your website for the world to see, you'll start to hear about things like web hosts and domain names. While beyond the scope of this article, those facilities can add expense to your project, but the good news is there are many completely free services just waiting for your business.
You will save a lot more in the long run by taking the do-it-yourself tact to web building, especially if it's for nothing more than personal and/or family pleasure. But before you dive right in, take some time to learn the basics of HTML, page layout and design, and graphics creation and editing. You will garner a lot more attention, and be able to pat yourself on the back. Go ahead, you deserve it.