Should Newbies Learn Static or Dynamic Web Design?

I have a question, one that goes out to all you experienced web designers from inexperienced web newbies like me –

  1. Should we be learning to design dynamic websites or start with basic static sites?
  2. Does anybody want static web sites any more?

As I look around on the web today I am seeing fewer and fewer static websites. Most sites seem to be built around a content management system (bespoke or otherwise) or blogging platform. So should we all be learning PHP/ASP or finding a suitable content management system that we can use to learn apply our newly acquired XHTML and CSS skills to.

What would you recommend – Joomla, Drupal, WordPress, Expression Engine? Or should designers stick with design and leave the coding to experienced developers?

Having experimented with WordPress I feel it could be a good way to go, I also have a forthcoming post about using WordPress as a CMS, but what do you think, what would you advise?

If you were just starting out in the world of web design, what would you do?

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39 Comments

  1. Posted September 4, 2007 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Not being a designer but someone who is commissioning a new dynamic website (in the day job), we have ended up using a ‘desgner’ to do the front end and ‘programming team’ to do the back end. However, both companies that we are using also offer what the other company is doing. We felt though that the one company offered better ‘back end’ while the other offered better ‘design’.

    The diffiuclty now is getting them to synergise what they have both created.

    So personally we have seperated the process.

  2. Posted September 4, 2007 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    I personally would vote for the Dynamic website option. However, having a basic knowledge of creating static pages would be of great help.

    Coz being a designer for over 7 yrs and knowing the fact that i have never been good at programing. It’s been almost a year since i first decide to move my website to WP(as CMS). And i still haven’t been able to.

    Cheers,
    Sanjeev

  3. Posted September 4, 2007 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Start where you feel comfrotable. For me it began with static HTML and CSS to get an overall feel for website design. I’ve since starting moving into CMS/PHP space and adapting my skills accordingly.

  4. Posted September 4, 2007 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Regarding the first question: I think it is a very good idea to start learning with static HTML sites and use CSS to apply the design. If you get a good grounding that way, when you move into CMSs it will be easier to understand the markup language that’s used in the templating engine – and indeed understand what implications your changes are going to have down the line.

    Regarding the second question: I still see a need for static sites for some small businesses. Although clients often think they need a full dynamic site, they may only need a static site with one or two sections that are dynamic (news and case studies for example) – or maybe a blog integrated into the site. Having said this, I would only attempt to build a static site in something like Dreamweaver as it does a pretty good job of managing the links and templates for you.

  5. Posted September 4, 2007 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I think think there is a destrinction between a ‘web designer’ who can play around with photoshop to make great flat visuals, buttons, etc and then put them into a good solid static HTML page using sound CSS – and a ‘web developer’ who can build bespoke PHP applications and modify and hack WordPress and Joomla to their hearts content.

    Ofter the visual folk (designers) aren’t to hot with the technical side, and the technical folk (developers) can really design very well. It’s a balance and people are usually better at one side then the other. That said, if you can balance both skills and become proficient all round then I think you make yourself a very employable prospect.

  6. Posted September 4, 2007 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Hi Darren, thanks for your input – its interesting to hear that a client has actually separated the process. I can imaging that must be quite hard to co-ordinate?

    Sanjeev, Thanks for your comment, I have a post coming up soon about WordPress as a CMS (with help from a WordPress Expert) you may be interested in.

    Hi Rob, I have been tweaking wordpress themes/sites but never actually built a website from scratch (even a static one) by hand coding. I previously used to use Freeway a WYSIWYG but found I wanted to know how/why things worked.

    Hi Paul, Thanks for your comment and your email. I see that you still recommend building static sites, with perhaps a few dynamic pages. Do you usually use a standard CMS for the dynamic pages or make your own?

  7. Posted September 4, 2007 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    I belive new web designers should start with basic sites. I think learning to do dynamic websites will be a faster to learn if you have these basic skills. Note- I know a photographer who uses a DSLR. But he has no idea about camera formats, the development process and has never been in a dark room. How can he be a photographer without photographic knowledge. I belive this to be the same for a web builder, why have the dynamic know how without the basic. I’m not a web builder but i know my XHTML and so should a web builder.

  8. Posted September 4, 2007 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    I think if you’re a total newbie, it’s good to start with a static site (bog standard html pages). This will help improve your skills as a designer / front end coder, and boost your confidence (hey, I’m getting the hang of this!).

    As you progress, I think a dynamic site is important because it adds that oh-so-valuable aspect to your website: interactivity.

    Can I ask you a question? Why do you blog? What is it that makes you continue blogging? I’m guessing part of your answer would be “the feedback”. Visitors like to be able to comment on blog entries. They like to feel part of the action. By granting your visitors the ability to comment on your blog entries, you are also increasing your knowledge / networking. You can learn from your visitors (because they may bring up points you’d never even though of) and you get to hear from new people. If they leave their URL, you’ll go and visit their site, no? Then, you can learn about them and the way they do things, follow their links, and so forth and so forth.

    It’s not always essential to be able to code your own CMS from scratch (using PHP or whatever). A CMS such as wordpress simply makes updating your site a lot easier for you.

    I think it’s important to understand the relationship between the ‘back-end’ stuff and the ‘front-end’ stuff. How does the PHP affect your site? What can you tweak to improve your site? How can you customise the layout of your site to get it exactly the way you want?

    Yeah, that’s my two cents. ^_^

  9. Posted September 4, 2007 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s pretty important to start with static sites. Getting a firm grasp on layout, typography, etc. with non-changing type will help in later designing dynamic sites. That being said, It’s way more fun to work with dynamic content!

  10. Posted September 4, 2007 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s probably easier to know how to implement pre-written code to make a site dynamic. There are plenty of free to use pieces of Javascript, PHP etc. out there that will add all sorts of dynamic features to a site. Knowing the basics of PHP and Javascript are all that is needed to use these. I’m not entirely certain someone can be a good designer AND a good developer. I used to work as a web designer/developer myself and it soon became clear it’s best to just focus on one aspect, so i’m now a graphic design student. Best leaving the development to someone who really knows what they’re doing whilst maintaining a basic understanding of how the development side works.

  11. Posted September 4, 2007 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Ok, I’m really dejected now. I posted a lengthy comment and hit submit.

    The next page informed that I needed to enter the anti-spam work, so I hit the back button.

    I returned to an empty comment box, rather than one with my post in it.

    Bummer.

    Is there a way that this can be avoided?

  12. Posted September 4, 2007 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Did you press the back button on the page, or the back button in your browser? Try hitting the ‘backspace’ button on your keyboard, that normally saves the stuff…

  13. Posted September 4, 2007 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    I think that you should always start from the roots and work your way up. Just like in photography, you always learn Black and white first and then move on to color and digital. As far as web design goes, html and css will probably not need to be hand coded very often anymore but we will only advance to using other languages with more frequency such as ajax etc.

  14. Posted September 5, 2007 at 12:22 am | Permalink

    It sounds like most people are saying start static, and I agree. It’s best to get a handle on the structure of HTML and CSS first.

    You asked some really good questions! When I stopped to think about it, it does seem that most websites aren’t static anymore. But I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Just because a site is built with a .php extention doesn’t mean it’s fully dynamic. I use the PHP require() function to create a library of common items like the shell of the website (navigation and such) but that’s the only part that is “dynamic.”

    And Aaron makes an excellent point about the difference between a programmer who can use filters in Photoshop and a true designer. Rarely is the creative professional the same as the code monkey ;p I have noticed many job descriptions requiring a “designer” but really meaning a “programmer/developer who knows Photoshop.”

    But then you get into the whole usability and SEO thing… to be truly on top, websites these days are rarely built by just one person. You need someone to design, someone to do the backend, someone to write copy (and real Web-friendly copy), someone to be an information architect, someone to test the usability… Many times several people can hold the same job, but all jobs done by one person? The website won’t be the best. You know, jack of all trades, master of none sort of thing.

    So I suppose the question is: What part do you want to be the best at? I’m guessing you, Tara, would say the design, with a little bit of usability.

  15. Posted September 5, 2007 at 1:30 am | Permalink

    1. Should we be learning to design dynamic websites or start with basic static sites?

    If you want to design, then design your heart out. If you want to be into more development, then learn how to dabble into web development but rather apply that knowledge into designing GOOD interactive web sites. Better to excel at one thing than to try and do everything (at least that is what the business folk say).

    Now if you want to do more development, start with static sites!!! (Who said they’re basic?) Good markup will never be out-dated. I wouldn’t recommend going into programming until markup is done correctly. Also, I would LEARN server-side programming. Even if you end up using a CMS, it’ll be much easier to use, implement, and edit if you know server-side programming. CMS system isn’t a substitute for programming, it’s meant to be a substitute for clients having to learn FTP and code. The developer on the other hand, better know the code. It’s impossible to have one CMS do everything.

    If I would recommend a free one, it’d be Joomla or Mambo. WordPress is very limiting in my opinion and would never work for web development – it’s great for blogs and should be kept to specialize in that territory (CMS do differ from territory to territory… wait until you need a CMS to do eCommerce or complex portfolios and you’ll see what I mean).

    Also, it’s hard to tell which sites are static and which are dynamic sometimes. For example, (I can’t include company name) but I know a company that uses a CMS that creates pages dynamically, using the best technology, but if you viewed the source of the web sites it creates you would never have guessed it to be dynamic. It’s hard to judge a book by its cover, even now-a-days. There are a lot of languages out there and they output differently.

    2. Does anybody want static web sites any more?

    Yes, you’d be surprised.

  16. Posted September 5, 2007 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    Tara, it’s best to start with building static sites and being very comfortable with HTML and CSS. Having taught at various colleges in different Web Design and Development courses, I’ve had many students coming from Print Design and switching over to Web. Our curriculum was built in teaching them HTML and CSS first, then a theoretical course on Programming concepts, then JavaScript, and only afterwards scripting languages like PHP, ColdFusion, ASP, etc.

    There is a point in such a structure, it’s not so much learning the languages, but the whole concept behind them.

    Print can be perceived as a pretty static concept, so a more organic transition for Graphic designers would be learning static web sites first, and then slowly switch your brain into a quite different gear.

    I’m also a more PRO “getting hands dirty” approach in building sites by hand-coding HTML in a text editor rather than using WYSIWYG eitors, like DW. Same thing with learning PHP – it’s much better learning it from scratch and building even simple dynamic pages, writing a simple code, and go from there, instead of tweaking bits of code in a CMS (be it WP, Joomla, or anything else).

    Regarding your question about which CMS is better – there is no such thing as a perfect CMS, you chose the right tool for the job, and the one you find easier to use.

    There’s an excellent site with the list of ALL open source CMS, where you can try each of the applications free of charge by going to demo sites – no need for installation, nothing. http://www.opensourcecms.com/
    Go there, check them out and see which one you personally find user friendly.

    And of course, let me know if you have any questions :-)
    Good Luck!

  17. Posted September 5, 2007 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Wow, thanks for the fantastic response everybody and all the advice. I guess its back to the drawing board for me as the overwhelming response seems to be learn static sites first :( . You always want to run before you can walk don’t you :) . I am hoping the Open University Course I start next month will force me to build a static site bay hand coding. Sorry for not replying to everyone individually it all went a bit manic yesterday afternoon.

    Ahsan – sorry about your comment getting deleted, I did change the spam catcha because I was having trouble with the previous one. Without the spam catcha I just get tons of spam, but I am open to suggestion of a better one?

    Rachael – Thanks for your suggestion on how to get round the spam problem

  18. Posted September 5, 2007 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    I just get tons of spam

    Do you have the akismet / bad behavious plugins installed? They’re supposed to be good for catching spam.

    You always want to run before you can walk don’t you

    YUP! But in this day an age, it’s easy to learn to run once you’ve got the walking part down. Two years ago I didn’t know an img tag from my elbow, and here I am today working on my own PHP blogging script.

    Once you’ve got the basics down and know them SOLIDLY, everything else will drop right into place and it’ll suddenly make sense.

    Good luck with your OU course.

  19. Posted September 5, 2007 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Hi Rachael – yes I use akismet which is great, but I was still getting a fair bit of spam (A lot of it got held for moderation) but with the extra anti spam I get hardly any.

  20. Posted September 5, 2007 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Rachael – forgit to ask – how did you learn PHP please – books, college?

  21. Posted September 5, 2007 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Well here’s how i started, and I think i went the right way about it:
    First, Static design. Nice pretty, css pages.
    Then, start taking apart wordpress themes (they’re by far the easiest) to get to know how they work
    Only after that can you make yours from scratch.
    And then post it to the world! Unless, of course, it’s your own site’s theme.

  22. Posted September 5, 2007 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Tara – the best way to learn PHP is probably the same as learning HTML/CSS, by searching online for tutorials and whatnot. The official PHP.net site is incredibly useful too with lenghtly discussion topics on every single function in PHP. http://www.webmonkey.com has some good tutorials on just about every web technology out there. If you’re a stumbleuponner it’s useful adding HTML related topics to your search as it can throw up some decent sites.

  23. Posted September 5, 2007 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Hi Nathan, thanks for you comment – I think it may be a while before I release a WordPress theme to the world :)

    Cheers Dan, I had never thought about using stumbleupon for this sort of thing I will try it.

  24. Posted September 6, 2007 at 4:36 am | Permalink

    And when you get around to your dynamic sites, I suggest Macromedia Dreamweaver 8 with ASP, ColdFusion, and PHP. It’s how I learned to integrate database interaction with PHP. It’s easy to follow and the step by step instructions are great! I’m not much of one for learning things through books (I like someone to show me how to do it) but this one is an exception.

  25. Posted September 6, 2007 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Lauren – another one for my Amazon list :)

  26. Posted September 6, 2007 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    I personally don’t program. I build the pages in dreamweaver and then contract out the programming.

    My suggestion is to find a PHP (linux server) programmer and an ASP (windows server) programmer or company that you trust. The thing I’ve had to learn is how to make my sites ready for them to plug in the back end programming.

    I’m doing this right now with http://www.phyllisbrowning.com, but it’s a little more complicated than that.

    I’m working with an ASP programmer, a designer, and another programmer who knows an old version of ASP and learning the new, and I’m doing the graphics and some designing.

    There is no way that I would be able to get in there and program this site…or any of the ones I’ve worked on like this. My brain doesn’t work like that.

    Now, at some point, probably next yar, I’m planning on learning some basic stuff. I’d like to be able to program my own email forms, newsletters, mailing lists, ecards, drop down menus and possibly a simple CMS without having to contract it out. Oh, and learn some database stuff.

    There’s quite a bit of source code out there that you can download for free or for pay to plug into your site and see how it works, but coding is not html.

    It’s more like ActionScripting in Flash.

    I suggest newbies learning what their brain can handle, but you will benefit most from knowing how to design and build staic sites. They are the easiest to sell and produce, but if you can integrate programming, great. It’s a rare breed that can do both.

    I know one guy who can, but his problem is working really, really late hours and running out of time.

  27. Posted September 6, 2007 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Oops, you’ll have to take out the comma at the end of the url on my last post, or use this one:

    http://www.phillisbrowning.com

    jorge

  28. Posted September 11, 2007 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    informative write-up,start from what u can on you own in a creative way but for me i would vote for Dynamic website.

  29. Posted May 27, 2008 at 2:23 am | Permalink

    I think to gain a true understanding of the various components of web design/development, it is best to start with static websites, from learning basic HTML to CSS and JavaScript, and then on to server-side technologies such as PHP / ASP etc…

    I have gone into more detail about this in
    my comment on the CSS-Tricks website
    .

  30. Posted August 10, 2008 at 4:02 am | Permalink

    For me i think joomla is easier to use for starters.

  31. Posted August 9, 2009 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    I would say to start learning about designing and putting together dynamic sites early on because you are probably going to find yourself needing those skills anyway and the more you challenge yourself, the more you force yourself to learn the more options it is going to give you.

  32. Posted October 18, 2009 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Most of the awarded CSS based websites that I have checked are quite boring.

    There is a big picture, usually at the top of the website, that extends fadingly down, towards the content.

    No dynamics. Everything is static and sucks. Basically there is a menu at the top and that is it. Every page that you open looks the same. Is it good? The critiques say that it is. I say that it is yawningly boring!

    Here are some samples:

    http://www.webdesignerwall.com/trends/best-of-css-design-2008/

    They look professional just because the web designers did have time to spend with that, unlike others like me, who do it as a hobby and try to learn web design in a few minutes a day.

    My website is a mess, I agree. It looks unfinished, some pages look awful because I don’t have time to update them, but I have always tried to have some ideas, my OWN ideas, not to copy what is “in”.

    I love HTML frames, something that official web design critique says that it’s not “allowed” anymore.

    I love IE browser, it doesn’t make problems to the web designer and neither to the users, let’s be honest about that. IE is great because most features are displayed there in the correct way.

    Many people though, think that using Mozilla and all kind of not professional browsers is “cool”, just because they think that it is “trendy”.

    I personally stick to IE, because I like that many javascripts work in this browser.

    And since my website is a non-profit one, whoever wants to check it, should press the IE button, instead of messing up with all kind of weird browsers.

    Another thing is that it took the hell of a lot of time to learn even that messed-up knowledge that you see there.

    Anyone who start web design should start in this order: learning HTML, CSS, DHTML, and a bit of javascript, which isn’t as easy as it seems. Even modiying already made javascripts isn’t so easy.

    Then you see what you can do afterwards. It will take the hell of a lot of time to grasp the meanings of these anyway.

    I personally love flash-based websites. Whoever doesn’t have adobe flash player installed and therefore isn’t able to see the website, is worthless using a computer anyway and should either throw the PC through th window, or jump from the closest buiding himself.

    Flash is the future of web design, but I find it difficult to purchase it and then to learn it. For a flash professional-looking site you also must have very high quality graphics displayed there, which, if you are not able to draw them yourself, you’re screwed.

    Here is a random example:

    http://www.gotmilk.com/

    The question is who is going to make all that animation for you, if you have no skills to draw?

    The sad conclusion is: Only plastic artists are able to make a good website. The rest just insert pictures and use that annoying grey colour just to not be criticised too harshly.

    Back to flash based websites, they still require more time to load, but the computers are more and more performant and so this problem will be solved. Animation is the future of web design.

    As about me, maybe I could subscribe to the worst website contest, after years of web design, but with all the risks of the free animated gifs and so on that I have on my web pages, I will never adhere to those static standard templatised websites.

    They do suck, literally! There is no difference between them and a magazine printed on paper. Internet should make a difference. And that difference is that it is wired and so it should be dynamic!

  33. Posted January 28, 2010 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    Doesn’t that depend on the type of online business you have? Maybe static if yours has a longstanding association. How about both? Best of both worlds…

  34. Posted March 14, 2010 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    I still learn :)
    From the basic :)

  35. Posted April 17, 2010 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    “Static” page design is how designers might start working even when creating a dynamic site. The static page is like a first draft. Pretty soon, though, it all moves into a dynamic templating system of some sort. Not that much call for static sites now. Once in a while there is, from a smaller organization that doesn’t want to put time into maintaining/adding to a dynamic one, and just wants a foothold online.

  36. Posted August 24, 2010 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Potential clients actually demand dynamic interface now. With static websites I know what I do, I leave just as quickly. Users want the information immediately, the dynamic platform not only allows for improved SEO, but it does inf act allow the user to gleam improved knowledge and with that is an increase in potential business.

  37. Posted March 18, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    I think you should start with simple HTML. Dreamweaver still takes some beating. Although I now use CMS for the design I still have an old copy Dreamweaver on my machine as I know it will allow me to get back to basics with simple HTML.

    As for CMS I found Joomla! had me spending more time resolving code conflicts and modules than actually designing. I have since moved to WordPress for the majority of my work and love it.

  38. Posted March 31, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    I think learning HTML, CSS, DHTML, are essential and very easy. Especially for clients who need to quickly change items for promotions or change out text. I personally am not a fan of flash-based websites. Google doesn’t read flash when scanning a website so as an SEO you may have a beautiful site but it’s no where on the rankings. Also with so many people utilizing their mobile devices as a tool to get online, websites must be readable on mobile.

    Cheers.

  39. Posted August 14, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I prefer both because in order to excel in dynamic web designing u need to have a sound knowledge in static pages and their development. As most web developers prefer dynamic pages I strongly suggest to go according to the requirements.As there may be requirement which doesn’t require any dynamic updates like a website about any institution but a website which provides information on plane/cricket score status has to be updated frequently. So choose the best design which fits your need. Adding to this static also gives u splendid look, feel like that of dynamic contents and it also reduces the burden on the server. So think twice before u choose the right one.

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