Up until a couple of years ago, if you would have tried to tell me there was anything better for building websites than Dreamweaver, I would have had trouble hiding the grimace from my face. I have always enjoyed the creative aspects of design, and code was the ultimate symbol of geekdom (I never wanted to be a geek). Like many others who weren't born with left brains much larger than a pea, I fought for a long time to stay in my comfort zone of drag and drop.
However, if you take a quick look around at the web design world today, you'll know that a lot is changing very quickly. It used to be easy for a print designer to slap together a design in Photoshop, make some rollovers, slice it up then export to Dreamweaver. But that was before the world cared about good website design. That was before clients were concerned about those little things like budget, turn-around time, ease of maintenance and interactive features. It was the hey day of poor usability, bloated designs with pixelated graphics, scroll bars everywhere and look ma, I can do a Flash splash screen too...
Well now a days like it or not, internet users and clients have come to expect more. For us designers that means just one thing. Either upgrade our skills, or watch ourselves quickly become as relevant as a rubber King Kong on a movie set! This may come as a surprise to many, but even though the Adobe marketing team is still marching ahead full steam, Dreamweaver is quickly becoming like an old movie prop. The problem comes down to the fact that Dreamweaver has not gotten serious about supporting dynamic, interactive, database driven sites. In fact, it hasn't really improved much at all in that area for a long time. Even in the next version of Dreamweaver, CS4, there will be none to very little improvement. So while the old mare is still pretty good for a quick static site, here are some compelling reasons to think about the alternatives:
Dreamweaver offers little in the way of interactive/dynamic features like ecommerce, blogging, forums, community building (social networking) or content management. There is simple ASP, PHP and Cold Fusion support, but again it's very simple. I know because I've taken it to it's limits. I've also worked with extensions such as Cartweaver (which adds a basic shopping cart) and many others, but they have always been unsatisfactory.
Clients want to be able to update their own sites. The old way of dealing with this is usually, a) convince them to plunck down $400 for Dreameaver or b) Set them up with Contribute or c) do the maintenance yourself, and charge a killing. Problems with this, clients aren't designers. They will inevitably make mince meat out of the site. That will make them unhappy clients in the end, a situation that benefits no one. And if you are still lucky enough to be collecting large sums for doing all your clients' updating, lucky be you. Clients are quickly becoming aware of the benefits of Content Management Systems (CMS). They can make updates with confidence and they don't have to wait for you to get around to doing it.
Dreamweaver was never meant to work with a larger site efficiently. Sure you can use templates and libraries, but they are primitive and break easily. They are also proprietary to and won't be usable without Dreamwever.
As already mentioned, the price of Dreamweaver ain't cheap. Why pay $400 for something when you can get a much more powerful design environment absolutely free!
So what is this Dreamweaver killer that I'm so convinced is currently making its way towards everyday web designers like a category 5 hurricane? That would be Open Source software. In fact, Open Source is changing a lot in the technology world in many ways. OS is an intersting thing. It's free to download and use, even for commercial uses. You can copy it, change it however you like, and even sell it as long as you credit the original author in the non front-end code. Even though it's free, open source encourages a philosophy of participation and mutual responsibility. Many people who use OS, contribute back in many ways. Even if you're not a programmer, you can contribute documentation, help answer questions at a help forum, the list goes on. But without getting too much into the philosophy, I'll just say that I think it's a really cool idea that encourages a real working alternative to a purely money based economy. And as unlikely as it sounds, I believe OS could be a positive role model for our societies in general as it catches on.
The fact is no matter how you feel about it, the software is provided as a free download. And in this case, free doesn't mean cheap. Many of these projects (everyone's heard of Firefox for example) now rival their commercial counterparts and are depended on by many professionals. Some of the CMS and blogging software also fall into this category. Joomla, Drupal and Wordpress (for blogs) are now used by millions of web sites. Many large corporate sites run on them. The reason? They are easy to use and powerful. They are simple to update and maintain. You can add interactive features much easier and no reinventing the wheel each time, and best of all you don't need to be a serious PHP/ASP programmer to do it. So pretty much, all those things Dreamweaver can't do.
So now you're probably wondering. How hard is it to learn to design sites with a CMS. Am I stuck with trying to design with code or worse, limited to some portal CMS design paradigm? Well, yes there's a bit of a learning curve but no there are no limits to design. There are a lot of beautiful 3rd party templates for these systems, which are very easy to get up and running with. But designing an original site can be bit of a challenge at first, especially if you don't know HTML/CSS. Learning CSS is particularly important for this way of working. If you already have Dreamweaver, you can still use it in code view to take advantage of it's very decent CSS tools (although other code editors work just as well). But as previously mentioned, the complicated things like databases and server side code are already done for you. The other good thing is you can still mock your sites up in Photoshop and export the graphics (without Photoshop code). This is how I do most of my sites, so in essence... you only need to learn how to build the layout you already see.
Once you get past the initial hump, I doubt you would ever consider turning back. You'll be much more valuable to clients and have tools in your belt that you never dreamed of having. Take a look at the extensions page at http://extensions.joomla.org. I think that will give you a pretty good idea of just how much you can do!
By the way, this website is built with Joomla. Aside the some of the obvious features it has (forum, blog, "My Space" style profiles for registered users, link exchange, etc.), posting to my blog is a breeze. Basically, I log in, click on "new article", write the article, choose a category and post. But it doesn't go to just one place. It goes to the top of the blog page (and the older ones shuffle down or on to the next page), but it also goes into the "Web Design" category. Then it gets added to the footer on each page as a latest blog posting. Last but not least, it automatically gets added to my site map... which has been submitted to Google as a live feed. So with that one example you get the idea I think... a lot of time can be saved.
All this may sound incredibly complex, but the good thing is you can take it in smaller steps. Next time you have some free time, try installing and using a CMS. It's really not hard at all and I highly recommend giving it a try. And I'll part with a shameless plug by saying if you feel like you need some experienced help, you're always welcome to ask for a quote or schedule some training time (if you are local).
Cheers, let me know what you think.