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Adobe Muse Lets You Design Websites Without Knowing Code

Is that necessarily a good thing?

Adobe makes programs like InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop, which enable nearly every graphic designer on the planet to create nearly every piece of visual content you've ever laid your eyes on. Naturally, their bread and butter is making graphic designers happy. So their newest product, Muse, hopes to make life even easier for designers—specifically ones working in more traditional mediums who are being tapped to take on more web-based projects—as an ultra-simplified, graphically focused tool for making websites.

Muse's biggest selling point is that designers don't have to learn code (or "markup languages") like HTML, CSS, or Javascript to break through the barrier of designing for the Internet. As Muse's engineering director, Joe Shankar, says in the introductory video, "We're going to change the way websites are built for graphic designers."

For some design firms, learning code isn't a bonus, it's a requirement.

Using an interface that's much like Abobe's InDesign, designers can quickly and easily create websites as a series of dynamic documents which generate the necessary HTML code for them to be published online. Elements like navigation bars and pull-down menus—typically complicated Javascript features—are included as a series of widgets that can be dragged and dropped onto the page. As a technological achievement, it's incredibly impressive. Brian W. Jones, a graphic designer who knows some HTML and CSS but doesn't consider himself "fluent," was amazed that he completed the tutorial and built the tutorial website in about three hours. "I still think it's important for a designer to understand markup," says Jones. "But I think this has huge potential. For certain, small-biz clients of mine, I think it has its place." Jones plans to redesign his own website with Muse.


Muse allows designers to build a template that can be easily edited for each website page

It's easy to see that Muse will allow designers who are skilled at creating beautiful print layouts to easily turn their work into a simple, fully functioning website. But for designers who have taken the time to learn how to design and code their sites—a group that Adobe engineer Jason Prozora-Plein says in the video is "very small"—they're frustrated that Muse is providing a shortcut to what they think should be a mandatory rite of passage for anyone working on or near the web.

"Good markup is a fundamental part of good design: beautiful on the inside, beautiful on the outside," says Frank Chimero, an independent designer and illustrator who wrote an excellent post arguing the case for code. "It’s important to realize that the web is an experiential medium. It’s 4-D: there is change over time as users interact with the work. Still images of sites are no good, much like how a still from a movie only gives a faint sensation of what it is to see the film."

For some design firms, learning code isn't a bonus, it's a requirement. Randy J. Hunt, creative director at Etsy.com, won't hire graphic designers who don't know how to write code, even if it's not their primary job. "It's about understanding your medium," he says. "A designer that intends to create websites or make interactive products must understand the moving parts that they're working with. In fact, they must be able to create them. Being able to manipulate means you can actually make your design decisions in the medium."


Muse uses an interface and toolbar that will be familiar to anyone who has used the Adobe program InDesign

Adobe's last attempt at a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) web design tool is Dreamweaver, which Adobe acquired from Macromedia in 2005. With an interface that toggled between code and images, Dreamweaver was the darling of Web 1.0 designers, but was criticized because the code it generated wasn't as good as what a designer could do by hand—especially when it came to web standards, a movement to make content flexible and compliant across browsers and devices. Dreamweaver has improved, but now Muse—with its code completely hidden—seems like a step back. One of the champions of web standards, design guru Jeffrey Zeldman, says while he likes Muse for its ease of creating layouts, it still doesn't answer his plea for a better Internet. "Software can't generate HTML that is search-engine friendly, accessibility-friendly, and portable between desktop and mobile," he says. "Only web design professionals who understand semantic markup, responsive and adaptive web layout, and mobile user interface can do that."

But maybe Muse can serve a greater purpose for designers who aren't comfortable learning code—or who don't have the time—in the way that they interact with clients and developers. John Morefield, an architect who is working on a new site, used Muse to create a close estimation of the website which he can share with investors and other people working on the project. "I can generate and iterate on this much quicker than a wireframe Photoshop mockup," he says. "This tool allows me to get feedback from someone, change it up, send them a link, and let them view it." Morefield says he's able to express his ideas more clearly than a sketch or slide deck because he's working in the medium—which moves the project faster. "I think that's the niche this should fall into," he says of Muse. "That way I, as the creative but non-code-oriented cofounder, can actually generate useful work in the pre-launch phases of the project." Later, he plans to pass the his prototype to a web developer, who can recreate what he made (and fix any potential bugs, he says).

Morefield says he's able to express his ideas more clearly than a sketch.

As a non-designer who has been pressed into Internet service when making my own website, I can see the allure of Muse. I taught myself (very basic) HTML and CSS to customize a Wordpress template to my liking, but I certainly wouldn't be able to produce a website with complicated graphics like Muse's tutorial site with my current skill set. Sure, I'd like my site to look prettier. But at the same time, I'd rather know how every piece of code affects the final product. I want to be able to understand why something's broken on my site and how I can fix it. And with resources like Code Academy, a series of free, online tutorials for learning things like HTML, and the entertaining video series Don't Fear the Internet, there's really no reason for anyone, designers or non-designers, not to at least try to learn.


A website for a fictional Katie's Cafe, which was created using the Adobe Muse tutorial

For someone who wants to create a static, image-driven site, like a wedding website or a small business page, with information that doesn't have to be updated or changed very often, Muse might make sense. And that's why it's smart for Adobe to make Muse free for the first year, as it will lure in the non-designers or amateur designers with the promise of building their own website, then charge them a monthly subscription fee when it launches. But with no way to connect it to a content management system, it's not much use to anyone who envisions having a dynamic, interactive website, with features like a blog component (which is pretty important, in my mind). And although Muse is made for designers, it's not going to catapult any print designer into a successful web design career, because those kinds of features are what clients want. "Muse will help some people create websites," says Zeldman. "But it can't replace the skills of a competent professional front-end designer any more than auto-accompaniment can replace musicians."

[Top image: A still from the video for Radiohead's House of Cards]