May 4th, 2009 by Mike Fulton
Categories: Web Design & Programming, Web Hosting

Having heard so much about Squarespace from watching Tekzilla & Diggnation, and from seeing it briefly at the Web 2.0 Expo. I thought I’d take advantage of their trial setup to see how it all works.

In case you haven’t heard of Squarespace yet,  basically it’s a combination of a hosting service and website building software.  But instead of a downloadable website editing application such as Dreamweaver or Expression Web, you create a Squarespace-based website directly through their site. Once you’ve signed up, you’re presented with a web-based application for creating and maintaining your website design.  They have a variety of starter templates for you to start from, but you can later customize most aspects of the design.

The target user for Squarespace seems to be someone who might be thinking about doing a WordPress site.  The kind where WordPress hosts it for you, that is, rather than the kind where you download their software and install it on your own web hosting package.  The main difference for these users will be the fact that Squarespace offers a real GUI for creating and editing your layout.  For a regular, non-gearhead user, this is quite a bit more friendly and accessible than the WordPress method of manually editing the PHP code and CSS stylesheets for your selected theme.

WordPress offers a lot of options for customizing a site in ways other than the basic page layout.  Using plug-ins, you can give a WordPress site a wide variety of additional functions that the original authors never envisioned.  Squarespace, not so much.  Their customization is pretty much limited to changing font sizes, colors, and so forth.  On the one hand, their GUI makes it fairly easy to come up with a unique layout.  On the other hand, even if you don’t want to customize a WordPress theme yourself, there are THOUSANDS of WordPress themes out in the wild web for you to choose from.  Many users never customize their sites beyond selecting a theme and maybe uploading a new graphic banner or two.

One thing about Squarespace that I definitely do not care for is something that I see on other websites all the time.  They give you a little tiny piddly-ass space to edit your text, instead of a decent sized window, and then they give you no option to make it any bigger.  This isn’t simply a matter of personal reference for large editing windows… it can be very difficult to manipulate things in a small window when you’re doing something like inserting a graphic and trying to position it relative to a particular piece of text.  The Squarespace text editor is not going to accommodate any but fairly small graphics.

Perhaps the editor size is something one can change, but if so I’ve not yet figured out how to do it.

This is, thankfully, not an issue with the editor in WordPress.  You can easily adjust the height of the WordPress editor simply by dragging around the bottom right corner of the window, and the width adjusts automatically when you change the size of the browser window.

Editing the layout of your Squarespace site is something that ranges from very easy to somewhat frustrating.  Most individual aspects of the layout are fairly easy to change… you want a different font, different colors, or a different banner graphic?  All easily changed.  But the higher up you go in the page structure, the more difficult things get to change.  You want to adjust the width of the content area?  Uh… not quite so easy.  I could change the width of  the separate sections within, but never did get the width of the whole content area to change.  Either the option is not there at all, or else it’s hard enough to find that other people will also have trouble finding it.

Squarespace seemed to be not quite finished to me… there were a number of  places where I’d click on something expecting a result, but nothing happened.   I also note that there is an absense of things like popup info, or “tool tips” when you hover the mouse over something.  Other times, I’d make a change to the template and nothing would happen… I’d click to make the same change again and the original setting would still be there.  It turns out that your changes didn’t changed unless you clicked somewhere that was outside of the edit field, but not on a button that would change the page.  Bad Javascript Mojo there, mon!

One could argue that no application is ever really quite “finished”, but the fact that Squarespace is 100% web-based means they can roll out updates several times a day if needed.  They’ll never have to worry about what version the user has installed, because they will always be using the most recent version.  This is perhaps the most significant advantage of “cloud” applications.

Ultimately, Squarespace is not something I expect to continue using once my free trial expires.  That’s not a reflection on the company or their product, however.  More than anything else, it really just points out that I’m not really the sort of user they’re targetting.  Squarespace’s target audience isn’t the web designer like myself who is currently using Dreamweaver and Flash.  They’re looking for regular users who just want to get something going easily and quickly.  Their software is designed to provide a complete solution to people who don’t have the desire, knowledge, and/or time to become a “real” web designer.  If that describes you, then perhaps you need to have a look at Squarespace.