Web site design for the masses

Two software programs take (most of) the HTML out of creating online sites

February 23, 2006|By DAVID COLKER | DAVID COLKER,LOS ANGELES TIMES

I woke up one recent morning with a gravelly voice that was about an octave lower than usual. Think Lauren Bacall meets Tom Waits.

In other words, I had a terrible cold.

It seemed like a good day to stay home and create a Web site. (Hey, it's almost as good as watching daytime TV.)

Once upon a time, that would have been tough to do in a day. In the dark ages of the Internet - the 1990s - building a Web site took hours of painstaking coding in HTML, the arcane formatting language of Web pages.

But since then, Web design software has made it possible to make a decent site by just pointing and clicking or dragging and dropping. It still can be a laborious process, but at least there's little or no HTML coding.

More recently, Web authoring tools have continued to evolve, claiming to make it easy for nonprogrammers to create attractive and sophisticated sites. I wanted to test that premise, so I took some nondrowsy cold medicine and tried two site-building tools: Apple Computer Inc.'s new iWeb program and the popular Blogger software that's part of the Google Inc. online empire.

Blogger (blogger.com) is free and can be used with Windows or Macintosh computers.

As you can tell by the name, it was specifically designed for creating blogs, the online journals that every tech-head or political activist seems to have these days.

But it's also a handy way to make a good-looking, personal Web site with text and photos, even if you don't have the urge to inflict your every thought and opinion on the world.

Blogger has 12 basic templates to choose from, each with spaces to be filled in for titles, a short self-profile of the site creator and then text and pictures.

The templates provide variations in layout, backgrounds and colors - some are minimalist, others a bit flashier. But all are straightforward enough to ensure that your design won't detract from the content.

I chose one of the more minimalist templates, which had a subtle brown tint in the background to suggest high-quality letter-writing paper. As if I had written a letter in years.

Filling in text was simply a matter of typing into a blank "edit" box. All of the page creation and editing takes place online via your Web browser; there's no software to install on your computer.

By clicking on the preview function, I could see how the text would look on the actual Web page.

Blogger allows you to upload images from your computer; the pictures arrive in the edit box as blocks of the dreaded HTML code.

But the blocks can be easily moved around by cutting and pasting; you don't have to type any code if you don't want to. (Uploading images is even easier with Google's free Picasa photo editing software, which sends them directly to your Web page with a few clicks.)

Blogger doesn't give you much control over the size and placement of the picture on the page. Layout choices are just "left," "right" or "center." That's actually an advantage, though, because it keeps the process simple.

And because Blogger can wrap text around a picture, neatly integrating it into the design, the results belie the simplicity of the process.

When done, I had the beginnings of a site on the theme of "Bread and Bicycles" (my two main hobbies are bread baking and bicycle riding) that included about 30 paragraphs of text and five photos.

My little site is not going to win any design awards, but it turned out much better than I expected, mostly because Blogger provided a classy framework and didn't give me enough rope to hang myself, design-wise.

Total time devoted to creating the site: an amazingly short 90 minutes.

An added benefit: Blogger gives your site a free home. My site is at breadbikes.blogspot.com.

Next I tried iWeb, Apple's new program that includes templates for publishing audio podcasts and videos as well as text and photos. The program is part of Apple's iLife '06 software suite, which costs $79 and is for Mac computers only.

iWeb makes HTML even more invisible than Blogger does - the user never even sees a line of code. And there are no separate edit and preview functions - additions and corrections are made directly on the page.

Furthermore, iWeb is tightly integrated with other software in its suite, including iPhoto for pictures and iMovie for video. It also works with iTunes - Apple's popular software for downloading and organizing music - to access and process audio.

But using iWeb is not likely to go quickly for the first-time site builder. All those integrated functions add complexity, and working with the templates does not go entirely smoothly, especially in placing or sizing photos.

The downloadable, 37-page instruction booklet for iWeb hardly scratches the surface, and the program's "help" function is sometimes inadequate. (Better help is on the way: The fine tech writer Jim Heid has a book coming out on iLife '06).

But if you're willing and able to spend the time, you can produce nice pages with iWeb.

And I did have the time as my cold continued into a second day.

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