Web design 101
March 10, 2009 5:36 AM   Subscribe

How can I learn to create a website, a server, get the tools themselves ?

I've been asked to create a website for a non-profit organization. I don't know much about designing websites (I've tried dreamweaver a few years ago) which means that I have to learn almost everything about it. Could you provide ideas, links, advice about creating a website from scratch ?
I don't need a thorough course to be able to become a designer, I just need the survival kit, including where to get free tools, how to set up a server.
Thanks !
posted by nicolin to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
> how to set up a server

Don't set up the server yourself, pay for hosting with a company that does this every day. It'll be much cheaper.
posted by devnull at 6:03 AM on March 10, 2009

Well, if they're a legitimate non-profit, have them apply for the free nonprofit hosting plan at HostGator. Do not mess with your own server.

If I were doing the site, I would then install WordPress (it's a one-click install at many hosts) and find a good theme. I'm partial to the ones from ThemeHybrid because they're coded pretty well, but you'll need some skills if you want to play with the design. Set everything up using "Pages" rather than "Posts". Then they'll be able to update the site even if you move on.

Or you could use HostGator's web-based SiteBuilder, but I don't know if that writes decent HTML.

Dreamweaver is fine (I use it every day), but it will let you create a godawful mess if you don't know what you're doing. If you want to use Dreamweaver (or Kompozer), find a free template at OSWD or someplace similar.
posted by belladonna at 6:10 AM on March 10, 2009

Thirding: use WordPress. It is a content management system, not just a blogging platform, that will help you correctly do all kinds of things that as a non-developer, you don't know you need to do - H1 and H2 tags, SEO friendly URLs, decent markup.

Here are two previous "How do I do this?" answers to this question: 1 2.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:31 AM on March 10, 2009

Most hosting companies will do something similar, but I've found a nice amount of flexibility and great service at Nearlyfreespeech.net .. You can create a virtual web server with just a few clicks on a web interface, then use a terminal application to log in (and ftp to upload files). NFSN has good forums that address a lot of the basic stumbling blocks you might run into.
posted by acro at 6:32 AM on March 10, 2009

If you're just starting out I'd really recommend using a separate "experimental" server at first; ideally something at arm's reach. Either install linux on any old machine or use virtualbox and an image that has a web-server built in (most linux distros do).

The advantage of this approach is that you can see the effect of any changes immediately, you can't really wreck anything serious, and you get a better understanding of what's going on when you can look at the server side easily (at least IMHO). It might be overkill if you're just looking to put up a couple of static HTML pages, but if you want to learn by doing I'd recommend starting out with a server you have full control over.
posted by PontifexPrimus at 7:07 AM on March 10, 2009

First thing to ask is "Who is managing the server?" Tending to a server and designing a web site are two different skill sets.

Whether your nonprofit needs a standalone server, or just a bit of space hosted elsewhere, or something in between, really depends on the nature of your site and how much traffic you intend to attract. A small non-interactive brochure site -- your organization's mission statement, examples, contact info, etc., can likely find an inexpensive home at one of the site hosting companies that rent server space. (Or, on an in-house PC converted to a server, if the traffic won't break your ISP budget and if someone competent is available to nursemaid it.) On the other hand, if you organization wants a more complex and interactive site -- frequent content changes, comments, forums, online sales, etc. -- then your level of complexity has increased by anorder or two, as will your demand on a server.

If you're looking at a small brochure site, WordPress is a fine way to go. Several inexpensive software tools are also available that allow the design and contruction of small sites from "pre-fab" parts. E.g., RapidWeaver for Mac, and even Apple's iWeb.

If your organization needs a more complex site, and unless you have a background in database use and server administration, I think you ought to suggest that they bring on board people with those skills to work with you.

I learn better from books than sites, and know that hundreds of how-to-build-a-web-site books are out there. I have my favorites but hesitate to recommend any because I've found that a book that works for on peson often doesn't work for another. So, visit a bookshop or library and browse their selection until you come across a book or two that you like. If you really starting from scratch, look first at books about basic site design, HTML, image display, etc., and skip over anything about PHP, perl, MySQL, Javascript, that will throw you into coding and talking to databases. First things first.

Also, if you're near a university or community college with a web design track, contact them to see if one of their budding designers might lend you a hand in return for a credit on the site and its inclusion in their portfolio when they go looking for a job.
posted by justcorbly at 7:58 AM on March 10, 2009

If you are actually willing to read and teach yourself then everything you need can be found/learned at these two sites:

W3Schools - Has information on about every protocol, language, and even server-end software stuff. I visit it daily when working on my web stuffs.

Wamp - This is a pre-configured HTML/PHP server package for Windows machine using the ubiquitous Apache web server. It is free and I personally have been using it on several servers with much success for the last couple years.

If you don't want to host yourself I'd suggest GoDaddy. They won't be the absolute cheapest, but my experience with their customer service has been good when setting up hosting and resolving issues therein for clients in the past. I don't know about not-for-profit business discounts, but that is certainly worth looking into.

Good luck to you. Everything I've learned about this stuff I have taught myself...so I know you can do it too!
posted by Gainesvillain at 7:58 AM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Another note: If you are going to need a database option I suggest MySQL over MS-SQL or other variants. It can be included with the Wamp installation. Alternatively, GoDaddy includes MySQL database space for free with their basic hosting plans.
posted by Gainesvillain at 8:01 AM on March 10, 2009

These are three different questions really (server, software, content). For someone in your position you definitely want to go with a hosted solution so you are just doing content. A web host with wordpress or drupal already installed would be ideal. That way you can focus on getting the content up and not worrying about everything else.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:06 AM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Gainsvillain: If you don't want to host yourself I'd suggest GoDaddy.

No offense, but most people seem to have very bad experiences with GoDaddy. Not to mention the fact that they're a pretty unfortunate company, when it comes down.

I've had tremendous luck with DreamHost - they had some billing issues earlier this year, but I think they handled it well, and generally they're both friendly and cheap. Also, they make it easy to set up things like WordPress.
posted by koeselitz at 8:26 AM on March 10, 2009

I've set up about a dozen GoDaddy accounts for paying clients in the last couple years. Have had to call them and talk to them directly regarding configuration issues and have never had any problems with them.

I looked through that Wikipedia page you linked and while those incidents are unfortunate I would be willing to be that every hosting company online has had similar albeit less publicly documented issues.

I can only go on personal experience...they have yet to let me or any clients of mine down. I'd also like to state that I am not, nor have I ever been, nor will I ever be, an employee of GoDaddy or any of its affiliates.
posted by Gainesvillain at 9:35 AM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks a lot, all the info that you've given so far is really appreciated. Justcorbly, you got it : my question is for A small non-interactive brochure site -- with no frequent content changes, comments, forums, online sales - so it gives you further info about what I need, including implementing the website through the use of a small DIY server (I've taken note that it's maybe not worth it, but anyway, even if I'm not using such a server for that project, I just feel curious about it).
posted by nicolin at 10:10 AM on March 10, 2009

my question is for A small non-interactive brochure site -- with no frequent content changes, comments, forums, online sales

Well if you want to climb the mountain of learning to do this all from scratch, may the force be with you, but again, just FYI - WordPress can do this out of the box. You just use pages instead of posts.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:34 AM on March 10, 2009

If you'd like to add dynamic html code to an infrequently changed site (the magic behind web 2.0) check out the site Dynamic Drive for free scripts.
posted by acro at 3:04 PM on March 10, 2009

So, I work at Jimdo, but there also other web services out there that are more than sufficient for a small, non-interactive brochure site -- with no frequent content changes, comments, forums, online sales. I totally encourage you to explore the DIY server interest (fun & good to know how the guts work), but if you're doing this for someone else, it'd be nice to spare them that learning curve.

Some other suggestions:

All with slightly different offerings, so hopefully one of them would fit what you're looking for. Also, with most of these, you don't have to be the bottleneck for updates, small corrections, or other such changes.
posted by polexa at 8:05 AM on March 12, 2009

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