Top Content Management Systems for Designers

Dreamweaver is great for creating website designs, but if you want to build a site that’s more than a collection of static pages, you’ll need a content management system (CMS). At the core of a CMS is a database that stores articles, blog posts, user data and other information. A CMS also includes features for configuring the website, posting stories, dynamically generating pages and doing pretty much everything else that we expect of a website. By and large, these are big, complex beasts that require a considerable investment of time to install and maintain.

Best Content Management Systems for Designers

The most popular content management systems—WordPress, Drupal and Joomla!—employ an open-source development model. You can download and use the software at no cost, but more importantly, an open-source license gives developers the freedom to modify and redistribute the code. The “Big Three” have thus spawned large communities of programmers who make improvements and create add-ons that build on the software’s core capabilities. These communities are part of larger ecosystems that include extensive training resources such as books, videos and conferences. And because they are so popular, it’s relatively easy to find developers and administrators familiar with the tools.

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As an alternative, numerous companies offer proprietary content management systems that you pay for. Some are downloadable packages that you must configure for use on a server, whereas others are hosted online services. The downside isn’t necessarily the cost, though you certainly have to factor that in. The main issue is that these programs lack user or developer communities that match the “Big Three” in terms of size or scope. Instead, the vendors point to advantages such as ease of use, better features or integrated design tools.

Here’s a look at some of the best content management systems for designers, beginning with the “Big Three.”

WordPress

WordPress is by far the most widely used CMS. It began as a blogging platform, and remains a popular choice for blog-heavy websites. However, you can use it to build other kinds of websites as well (see these examples). HOW’s own website is built in a responsive WordPress theme.

WordPress, Content Management systems

Compared with the other open-source systems, WordPress stands out for ease of use. Designers in particular seem to prefer it over Drupal and Joomla. However, even with its large selection of plug-ins, it’s not as customizable as the other systems, and it has a reputation for being prone to security holes. WordPress is generally best-suited for sites with relatively simple requirements, or where the users responsible for content-posting or site administration are not technically proficient.

WordPress uses “themes”—packages containing CSS, PHP and other files—to determine how the site appears to end users. Users can download free themes from WordPress.org or purchase commercial themes from various sources. However, most designers will want to develop their own themes. To build custom themes from scratch, you’ll need a solid grasp of CSS and at least an entry-level understanding of PHP, the programming language that underlies WordPress. However, numerous guides are available to help you through the process. Another option is to use one of many theme frameworks, some of which remove the need for manual coding.

Drupal

Whereas designers seem to prefer WordPress, Drupal is a favorite among developers. It’s the most-customizable of the Big Three and the one best suited for large enterprise sites with thousands of pages. It also has a reputation for being the most secure of the top systems. One well-known site created in Drupal is WhiteHouse.gov. Here are others for further investigation.

The default Drupal download contains the core of the CMS, allowing you to create a simple website. However, Drupal gets its power from the 25,000-plus add-on modules contributed by developers. These modules cover every conceivable aspect of website development, but programmers are free to build their own modules as well. You can also find packaged distributions of Drupal for specific applications, such as publishing, academic and nonprofit sites.

Drupal, top content management systems

The main rap on Drupal is that it has a steep learning curve and is difficult to use. This was especially true prior to the release of Drupal 7 in 2011. You don’t have to be a developer to build or manage sites in Drupal, but most users will find WordPress to be easier.

Another issue is backward compatibility. Modules have to be rewritten for each major upgrade, so moving from one version of Drupal to the next is a big undertaking. Though Drupal 7 is the current version, many sites are still on Drupal 6 due to the expense and difficulty of upgrading. Drupal 8 is currently in alpha testing, and it’s not yet clear when it will be released. Even when this happens, it will likely be months before many modules are fully upgraded and suitably de-bugged. So if you’re planning to work with this CMS, you should begin with Drupal 7 and prepare your clients to bite the bullet if they eventually want to move to Drupal 8.

As with WordPress, Drupal uses themes to define the appearance of web pages, and the process for creating and customizing themes is similar. You can download existing themes, build them from scratch or use “starting themes” as a shortcut. You’ll need a basic understanding of PHP to create or modify themes, but as with WordPress, you can find extensive training resources online.

Joomla

Joomla occupies a middle ground between the other two open-source systems: It’s more customizable than WordPress, and some regard it as being easier to use than Drupal (at least the versions prior to Drupal 7). It has a sizable developer community, but the selection of add-ons is relatively limited—about 7600 compared with 25,000 for Drupal and 30,000 for WordPress. This makes you more reliant on developers if you want capabilities not available in the core software.

To define the appearance of web pages, Joomla uses “templates,” a package of files similar to the themes in WordPress and Drupal. As with the other systems, you can download existing templates or create your own.

joomla

Sites that use Joomla include Oklahoma State University and the IHOP restaurant chain. You can find additional examples.

ExpressionEngine

Developed by EllisLab, ExpressionEngine is a proprietary CMS with capabilities similar to those in the Big Three. However, it lacks the kind of broad ecosystem you’ll find with the open-source systems. This means fewer add-ons, fewer training resources and fewer developers who are familiar with the technology. On the other hand, developers who use ExpressionEngine give it high marks for flexibility, scalability, performance and out-of-the-box site-building features.

The software uses templates to define the appearance of web pages, but these should not be confused with the themes or templates in the open-source systems. A Joomla template contains multiple files that you upload to the server. An ExpressionEngine template is a single document that you create through the CMS interface. The most common type of template is a “webpage,” which can include static HTML or content dynamically generated from the database. To display the latter, you use the software’s internal tagging language. For example, this tag generates the 10 most-recent news items: {exp:channel:entries channel=”news” limit=”10″}. Templates can also be CSS, JavaScript or XML documents.

ExpressionEngine; content management system

Sites created with ExpressionEngine include the Jackson Hole, Wyo. travel site, Breedlove Guitars  and University of Florida Student Affairs. You can find a showcase of additional sites.

The company offers a free version, ExpressionEngine Core, for personal or non-commercial use only. It’s a good way to get a taste of the software, but lacks some features in the full version, such as mailing list management and e-commerce (see the comparison chart at the bottom of this page. Otherwise, the software costs a minimum of $299 per site, with additional fees for discussion forums and multiple site management. Basic technical support costs $49 per month, or you can choose the Gold ($299/month) or Platinum ($1,999/month) plans for more-extensive handholding.

LightCMS

At the other end of the spectrum is LightCMS, an easy-to-use online service that includes site-design and content-management tools. Geared for rapid deployment of websites, it provides two options for creating site designs. The quickest and simplest is to begin with a built-in template, and use the online Design Editor to modify site navigation, appearance and other settings. The other option is to create your own templates—HTML files containing small bits of code called “tokens” that pull dynamically generated content onto the page. You then upload these to the site along with associated CSS, JavaScript and image files. (It’s all explained here). Whichever method you choose, designs can include regions that are editable by your clients.

LIghtCMS, content Management systems

Sites created with LightCMS can include blogs, galleries, forms and online stores. The software also provides built-in tools for user-management, traffic analysis and search-engine optimization. LightCMS handles the hosting of your site, though you can use your clients’ existing domains.

You won’t find much in the way of training resources beyond what’s available on the site. However, LightCMS is so easy to use that this isn’t a big deal. A more serious problem is the lack of a built-in export option that would let you move content to a more full-featured CMS.

I wouldn’t use LightCMS to create a big corporate site or one with complex features, but it seems like a good option if you need to develop a relatively simple site in a hurry.

Pricing ranges from $19 to $99 per month depending on the size of the site and number of products sold through the e-commerce feature. Each plan includes the entire suite of tools. Click here for a gallery of sites created with the program.

Squarespace

This online service is similar to LightCMS, providing easy-to-use tools for site-design and content management. On the whole, I think most designers will prefer LightCMS, but Squarespace is certainly worth a look. It has a comprehensive feature set that includes e-commerce, blogs, search-engine optimization and traffic analysis. You can import blog content from Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr or Posterous, but content export is limited to WordPress.

As with LightCMS, you can begin by choosing from one of numerous built-in templates, and then use control panels to customize the site. Squarespace has a slicker interface, but I found LightCMS to be more intuitive.

The style editor lets you modify settings for fonts, font sizes, alignment, type styles and colors. However, for more-extensive formatting options, such as padding or margins, you’ll need to attach custom CSS, which generates a warning that you could break the design.

SquareSpace, Content Management Systems

Designers who want greater control over their websites can use the new developer platform, which is currently in public beta. The platform uses a template system that’s similar to theming in Drupal and WordPress. However, instead of using PHP, it’s based on the simpler JSON Template language. Templates can also include JavaScript.

The developer platform appears promising, but designers who just want a custom look for their websites will probably find the LightCMS approach to be easier.

The company offers various pricing options, the most popular being the $16- to $20-per-month “Professional” plan, which includes unlimited pages and the ability to sell up to 20 products (you get the lower rate if you pay for an entire year up front). All but the low-end “Personal” plan include the developer platform. If you choose an annual plan, you get a free domain. A free 14-day trial is available.

You can find a showcase of sites developed with the software here.

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4 thoughts on “Top Content Management Systems for Designers

  1. BeauIngram

    Nice blog. Truly WordPress, Drupal and Joomla are some of the best content management system, not only for designers but for non designers too. Anyone can easily start their website by following few basic steps that too without learning any coding language. However, for small business website you can do it yourself, but if you wish to create good responsive website for large business you need to look for web development companies present on Compalog portal or browsing through the internet. It’s very easy to get developers and administrators who have thorough understanding of these tools.

  2. marnie

    As a web designer, over the past year or so, I have seen less orders for outright raw-HTML-from-scratch web design requests, than I have for simple site management needs via CMS/predesigned sites. I am being approached by clients who have already created a site via WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, Web.com, Et Al. These sites are really well done (she says, shooting her own financial foot)… So site creation is a moot point by the time I am approached. What these clients need is time. They are hiring designers for content management; also lucrative but less… Interesting, in my opinion. So this has begged the question: Is HTML, as it applies to site creation via a single designer, going the way of the buggy whip? If these CMS programs make it easy for a novice to create a fully functioning, eye-catching website, then why would they pay what could be a few thousand dollars, to have someone else do it? With all the new CMS programs coming out; Wix and Foursquare to name a few, what is the future of designers like myself who still, somewhat, operate on the old-school principles of “from-scratch-HTML” site creation? I’m afraid we can’t survive the changing genre of do-it-yourself CMS sites which will only get better and better with risk competition. What is the advantage of using a designer with a fresh HTML site vs. doing it yourself using a CMS?

  3. steeve

    Hi Marnie,
    For the last 5 years, the number of hand coded website that I did was… one only. And it was just a temporary website. Nearly 100% of website projects for our company takes on are built using CMS. The reason is quite clear for our clients: it’s quick and nearly 80% of them revamp their sites every three years both in content and in structure. So from their perspective, there’s no logic to build from scratch as it is time consuming and costly.

    Hand coded websites will continue to exist however, but it will be more and more a specialized niche. I feel that for many, CMS is the way to go as they will only improve with time as you’ve mentioned. More is demanded from web design agency nowaday. We have to be jacks-of-all-trades and master of one. If you have other strong complementary skills (such as graphic design, motion design, UX), besides coding, you will stand from the rest.

    Cheers.

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