need to rebuild my website authoring chops
March 27, 2010 11:00 AM   Subscribe

need to rebuild my website authoring chops -- can you teach me how to make tha cool stuff?

I used to build some websites several years ago using Front Page, but haven't "built" anything in a looong time. Trying to get back into it to design a couple sites for now and looking for some help because it seems EVERYTHING has changed.

I've downloaded Microsoft's Visual Web Developer and have published a couple basic sites. I want to make them more dynamic (i.e. drop down menus etc. not looking for Flash but just fluidity in the user interface.) I used to achieve this with Java. Is this still the best way? I can't find any resources to learn how to do these things.

I fully understand it may be that I am so used to the way it was, that I don't understand what I should be doing now in this new format of web development.

About me: I am a pretty technically proficient person. I code VB / VBA frequently and am fairly well versed in it.

I would like a free program. If the visual web developer isn't a good option, I would like feedback on that too.

Any suggested tools / templates to use for better user interface?

Thank you.
posted by jseven to Technology (8 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Not that I know anything about this but CMS Made Simple seems a possibility; and has the advantage of being free.
posted by adamvasco at 11:15 AM on March 27, 2010

The new way is AJAX. Check out for some good tutorials. They have some pretty decent coverage of new technologies.
posted by kenliu at 11:45 AM on March 27, 2010

The type of software you're looking for is fine if all you want to do is build small web sites that won't much change much. But if you want a "modern" web site then you want something that will allow you (or your clients) to quickly and easily add content, and which has tools available that can help encourage your visitors to contribute user generated content.

So I also suggest learning about content management systems (CMS). There are lots of good free ones available, but I would start by looking at Wordpress. You can do that in minutes by going to and signing up for a free blog.

You won't be able to use the plug-ins you could with self-hosted Wordpress , but you'll see the direction that the world's been going in.

If you don't want to learn/use a CMS, then I'd look at Dreamweaver.
posted by 14580 at 11:54 AM on March 27, 2010

Even today, notepad is all you REALLY need. Though code-hinting with modern programs is nice. I like dreamweaver, but of course it isn't free. I try to avoid anything microsoft for web development; microsoft has such a bad habit of putting MS propitiatory crap that I just wouldn't trust it (et hm, FrongPage extensions?!). I haven't used microsoft visual web developer though, so who knows.

While HTML4 hasn't changed, the way designers used it has. HTML for structure, CSS for presentation. HTML5 and CSS3 are "just around the corner" though, so there will be some know things happening. For now, learning about modern, semantic webpage building will really do a lot to help you understand the current state of design and development. A book I can't recommend enough is Transcending CSS by Andy Clarke. Everyone who touches web code should read this book. Seriously. It's as much about the philosophy of web design as it is about specific techniques.

For doing fancy schmancy interface effects, javascript libraries are really the new hotness with Jquery leading the way. Mootools has a growing body of support too. It's "Ajax" for dummies (and not so dummies too!) However some effects are even achievable with CSS, such as drop down menus using :hover. More will be with CSS3.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 1:28 PM on March 27, 2010

The new way is AJAX.

This is a bit misleading. Ajax a frequently-misused term; all it really is is a shorthand term for of retrieving data from the server without a full web page load. It has nothing to do with page layout or user interface or anything else. contains a decent overview of the bare bones basics of HTML and javascript, but a lot of it is well out of date; strictly speaking none of it is inaccurate but it could hardly be considered state of the art.

I used to achieve this with Java
I kinda suspect you're confused too; are you sure you don't mean javascript? (Despite the similarity in the names, the languages are almost entirely unrelated.)

Anyway, to answer the question: I'm a pretty strong believer that IDEs such as Visual Web Developer, Dreamweaver, et al generally do more harm than good. All you need is a good text editor.

If you want to learn how to build and lay out static web pages, you need to learn HTML, CSS, and Javascript. HTML is easy. CSS is easy, but also easy to misuse. I'm at a bit of a loss for what to recommend for someone just now learning this stuff, but especially for CSS best practices you could do a lot worse than browsing through the A List Apart archives.

For Javascript, look into jQuery, which is a solid library of js code that solves most cross browser compatibility problems, and greatly simplifies coding many interactions (DOM manipulation, visual effects, ajax calls, drag and drop, etc.) There are lots of similar competing libraries -- prototype/scriptaculous or YUI, for example, but jQuery seems to be by far the most popular. After you understand jQuery, jQueryUI will give you more toys to play with.

After you've got a handle on the above, then you can start worrying about which CMS to use, if that's the direction you want to go.
posted by ook at 1:59 PM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seconding ook, from the perspective of someone who learned HTML 13 years ago, left it for 12, and then dove back in last year. HTML + CSS + Jquery is a very good way to go, and you'll be able to get a lot done with relative speed.

My experience with Dreamweaver was not pleasant: every single page I made was packed with junk and structured in a way that I found difficult to read. Perhaps it's a useful tool for people who have to lay down lots of code in very short periods of time, but I feel like it would be counterproductive for learning. You want to see the exact effect of each bit of code you type, and Dreamweaver will only get in the way of that.
posted by McBearclaw at 5:57 PM on March 27, 2010

It doesn't sound like you want to learn the fundamentals, ie HTML, CSS and just want the "cool stuff". Try a site like dynamicdrive and browsing through their premade scripts.

Also Visual Web Devleoper isn't really for web design, try Expression (but its not free)
posted by wongcorgi at 3:48 AM on March 28, 2010

There's a whole lot to say here, and the 'right answer' is that you should be learning the fundamentals of HTML/CSS long before you dive into anything like jQuery, etc. And stay far away from dynamicdrive, CMS Made Simple, and any Microsoft tools. Good editors, I'd assume on Windows, are E, Notepad++, and, if you really need more, possibly jEdit or Eclipse, but start small and figure out what you need out of an editor.

Whether you need a book to learn this from is dependent on whether you learn quickly from books or you're better with tinkering. I'm more of the latter, so don't have book recommendations.

Yes, WordPress is a good option, and so is Drupal - and you can set up WAMP to get them working quickly.

It's also best to learn each of HTML, CSS, and Javascript as the unique languages they are - only PHP is part of the same type of language as VBA, and applying VBA-logic to Javascript isn't going to produce good code.
posted by tmcw at 10:04 AM on March 28, 2010

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