The CMS revolution

With the advent of all-singing, all-dancing Rich Internet Applications (RIA), you’d be forgiven for thinking that the static HTML web page has had its day.

The CMS revolution

That absolutely isn’t the case. The HTML web page is here to stay, but that doesn’t make it immune from change – in fact, web authoring is currently undergoing a revolution of its own.

According to W3Techs, in April 2011 a quarter of the top million websites were created using a Content Management System (CMS), a year-on-year rise of almost 7%.

Add in custom-built, data-driven sites and it begins to look as though time is up for the hand-crafted website. If that’s true, what does it mean for traditional, page-focused web designers?


Static page-based publishing has been fundamental to the development of the web from the late 1980s, when Tim Berners-Lee dreamt of a universal information space and realised the only way to achieve that was through simplicity – the deliberately basic, ASCII text-based HyperText Markup Language (HTML).

HTML-based web pages were Berners-Lee’s gift to mankind, and to the profession they created, the web designer. Using a simple text editor such as Notepad – or later dedicated HTML editors such as Dreamweaver – web designers create their pages in the language of the web.

By merely FTPing the resulting HTML file (plus any associated graphics) onto a web server, with a link to it from an existing page, your new page automatically becomes a fully paid-up member of the World Wide Web, accessible to anyone with a browser and internet connection.

Universal access

Such universal access was extraordinary, but how could users know your page exists? The truly unbeatable strength of HTML – its combination of ASCII text and hypertext links connecting fixed URLs – enabled search engines such as Google not only to collate all the content from the billions of pages that make up the web, but to rank them, resulting in highly accurate, near-instant access to the web universe.

It’s the modern equivalent of the Victorian encyclopaedia that inspired Berners-Lee as a child, Enquire Within Upon Everything.

I believe that the HTML web page and the page-focused web designer are here to stay, because the web wouldn’t work without them.

This static page-based publishing model is inherently simple, efficient, flexible, open, accessible and searchable. The web as we know it was built with it, so the obvious question is, why change? Why throw away such a successful formula by shifting to a CMS?

That’s a really tough question, as I know to my cost. A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog for PC Pro entitled “I’m sorry but Dreamweaver is dying”, in which I suggested that those considering a career in web design would do better to learn a CMS such as Drupal than follow the well-trodden route of page-based publishing using Dreamweaver.


Thanks to Digg and Slashdot this piece caused quite a storm, and for months afterwards my inbox was inundated with angry comments, of which “troll” and “retard” were the least offensive and most popular.

In retrospect, I can understand their strong feelings: clearly, many designers feel that the advent of CMS represents a massive, and fundamentally backward, step. Why would you choose to shift your content from an open page to a closed database?

Why would you choose to lose the simplicity of direct HTML handling for the complexity of scripting languages and database management? Why would you throw away the absolute flexibility of tailor-made pages for the visual straitjacket of most off-the-shelf CMSes?

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