Note: Our best free web design software round-up has been fully updated. This feature was first published in March 2013.
Simple WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) web design programs make creating basic sites as easy as using a word processor.
The next step up combines a WYSIWYG approach with more detailed low-level control of what you're doing, which is very useful when you're looking to create a more impressive site (although you may have to spend some time learning the basics).
There are plenty of high-level applications aimed at more experienced users, who like to be able to focus on the HTML, CSS or scripts.
Or you might consider an online solution, enabling you to build or manage your site from anywhere. (Just beware – the free versions often have annoying limits and restrictions).
Whatever you're looking for, though, we've found a free tool which can help – just keep reading to discover our pick of the best free software for web design.
- Also check out: Top 10 web design packages for small business
Mobirise Web Builder 188.8.131.52
Mobirise Web Builder opens with an appealing, minimalist interface, more like an app than a regular desktop application.
The main design process is quick and easy, just a matter of adding the blocks you need to your page – menus, headers, text, sliders, image galleries, videos, maps, tables, forms, footers and more.
Everything can be customised in many different ways, and there are buttons to preview your site in desktop, tablet or mobile views.
When you're finished, the completed site may be exported locally, to an FTP server or Google Drive.
Mobirise Web Builder has some problems – sites didn't always behave as we expected, it can generate messy HTML code, and the management tools struggle on sites with a lot of pages.
But it works well most of the time, produces good-looking sites and is free with no strings attached, so is definitely worth a try.
Available for: Windows XP+, OS X, Android
PSPad is a powerful programmer's editor which also has a pile of helpful web design features.
Coders will appreciate the syntax highlighting, CSS editor, auto correction, search and replace across files, matching bracket highlighting, and more.
There's plenty for less expert users, too, like a spellchecker. PSPad also offers smart HTML previews of your site, and the ability to work with several documents at once, then save them all as a "session" for easy restoration later. And it also includes an FTP client to help you edit files directly on the server.
PSPad will require some time to master, but if you're interested, take a look – it's a superb program, entirely free, and there's a busy forum to help out if you have any questions.
Available for: Windows XP+
Launch TOWeb and you're presented with over 120 responsive templates to start your website. They're not exactly leading-edge designs, but you get plenty of layouts and colour schemes to explore.
It's easy to customise the template text and images, and a sidebar offers plenty of surprising extras. You're able to watermark pictures, password-protect individual pages, allow visitors to post comments, add buttons to your social network sites, and more.
There are also plenty of advanced options available, and at any time you can see how the site will look on a mobile device, tablet or desktop.
The free build has some major catches: it only supports one website, with a size limit of 10MB, and the pages will have ads.
Still, if you can live with that, TOWeb's core editor is strong enough to justify the download.
Available for: Windows XP+, OS X, Linux
With its last update having been made way back in 2010, KompoZer probably isn't the best choice for building modern, responsive websites.
Despite that, the program's reliable code and lengthy feature list mean it's still one of the most popular free HTML editors around.
There are various templates available online to help you get started, or you can build pages manually by entering text, inserting images, tables, web forms and more.
Novices may find some tasks more difficult than they'd like, but one advantage of KompoZer's age is that there's a vast number of tutorials available online, so a quick search will probably answer any questions.
Still, KompoZer is probably best for more experienced users, who will appreciate powerful tools like the CSS editor.
Available for: Windows, OS X, GNU/Linux
Webflow is an excellent online web design tool which can create great-looking responsive websites, no coding required.
An attractive set of modern templates gets you up-to-speed immediately, but there are also plenty of ways to customise sites to suit your needs.
Webflow's code automatically reformats to suit the viewing device (desktop, tablet, mobile), however you can take full manual control if required, hiding specified content on some device types.
It's a superb system – the best designer here – but the free version has some big limitations: Webflow branding, 1K page views, webflow.io subdomain, you can only do a single project, with no HTML/CSS export, and no support beyond the forum.
We would say try it anyway, just to see how a good designer should work. But if you need an entirely free option then Webflow may not be for you.
Available for: Online (Chrome, Safari)
CoffeeCup Free HTML Editor 15.0
If you've ever used another HTML editor then CoffeeCup will seem familiar right away. Site map here, HTML code there, enter new code as required and watch any changes in the preview window – it's all very straightforward (as long as you're familiar with HTML, anyway).
CoffeeCup also has a strong set of high-end features: good site and project management, a library to store reusable code snippets, easy integration with multiple tools, spellcheck, a thesaurus, meta tag generator, code cleaner and more.
Issues include a distinct shortage of templates, and the free edition leaves out some major features (responsive design, FTP upload).
Still, if you're looking for a coding tool rather than a WYSIWYG designer, and you're willing to spend time mastering its features, CoffeeCup Free HTML Editor could still be a great choice.
Available for: Windows Vista+, OS X
SynWrite is a freeware text and coding editor which you can run from a USB stick, yet still finds room for an extensive set of development features.
An excellent editor supports syntax highlighting, auto-completion, auto-closing of tags, search and replace across files, and a whole lot more.
A strong selection of project, file and page management tools help you keep control of even the largest and most complex of sites.
If this isn't enough, easy integration of external tools and a lengthy list of plugins help you extend the program further.
Sounds complicated? Yes, it can be, but don't be put off entirely. You don't have to try out every feature at once – or ever, really – and you could get started just by using the program as a powerful Notepad replacement.
Available for: Windows XP+
openElement 1.50 R4
openElement doesn't make a good first impression, due mostly to uninspiring templates and a cluttered, intimidating interface.
There's a lot of power here, though, with support for adding all kinds of elements to your pages: image galleries, animations, videos, forms, maps, social media bars, CAPTCHAs, Google Analytics, scripts, multiple menu types, databases, and – you get the idea.
Whatever you use can be further tweaked and customised to suit your precise needs.
Beginners – or anyone looking to create a website in a few minutes – should probably stay away. There are far simpler alternatives around.
But if you're an advanced user there's a lot of functionality to explore, and it's all entirely free, with no annoying catches or restrictions to get in your way.
Available for: Windows XP+