When Tim Berners Lee devised the initial version of his World Wide Web, with the first browser released to the public in 1991, the Information Age had truly begun. But the architecture of early websites was very different from the Internet pages we view today. And just as we now view quaint old movies with an intuitive sense that they belong to the 20s, the 60s or some other historical era which is long gone by, the visual effects created by those early web designers seem far removed from the rich variety of options we can call up on our screens (PC/ tablet/ mobile … ) today.
Web design has evolved at a blistering pace from those dark ages when the web was the haunt of dogged researchers finding and navigating content by text hyperlinks alone. Layouts were functional at best during those dial-up days when getting a page to load at all was often the real triumph. All web publishing depended on a knowledge of HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), but as improvements arrived, the web became more widely used. At this point, people quickly became aware of the sheer volume of users keen to view web pages. All at once appearances began to matter, and so web design was born!
Tat central: The 90s awakening
The development of the GUI (Graphic User Interface) and PHP scripting language gave designers access to the tools needed to add images and graphic icons to web pages. Once animated GIF images burst upon the scene, almost overnight, sites began to acquire the look of a downmarket Moroccan bazaar: All tacky pictures, psychedelic wallpapers in flashy colours, and buttons of every description. With the dominant mantra being “more is more”, navigation was an extremely fluid concept, often changing completely from page to page and accompanied by bewildering interfaces and menu arrangements created on the hoof. (Check out some ancient cheesy websites.)
JackpotCity has been around for decades, but your favourite gambling site has changed its design many times since then. Back in the 90s, JackpotCity still offered high-quality online casino games and fun offers, but just like all the other 90s sites, visitors were greeted with flashing buttons, crazy colours and silly pictures!
To the extent that web design principles applied, designers routinely adopted fonts such as Comic Sans, which was considered rather cool, and bright colours were used everywhere. At this stage, design was very much in the hands of computer geeks whose primary focus was developing, incorporating and exploiting new technologies. Visual aesthetics was thus a relatively minor consideration. But perhaps this was no surprise with even the simplest website demanding a monster coding effort. And if you didn’t know how to code, then you’d have to use sites like Geocities to create your homepage.
Where webpages were harnessed to communicate information, designers began to employ tables as an efficient and controllable way to arrange text and graphics. Apple, for instance, were early adopters of this technique.
Flash and freedom
Adobe Flash arrived in the late 1990s and gave designers a tool they could use to realise their wildest dreams and fantasies. Flash allowed access to music, video and animation to create a vast array of effects and make truly interactive websites a reality for the first time. Experimentation was the order of the day and creative and technological innovations from this period include menu interaction, bubble buttons, splash pages and highly detailed animations of all kinds.
Though sites were often relatively undisciplined, such effects were more than just impressive, they also proved an excellent tool for catching the eye of the page visitor. This realisation was the core contribution Flash made to web design – it changed the way websites would later be used. Yet as a technology, Flash’s days were soon numbered: Because every user had to install the latest Flash plugin to gain access to a Flash-enabled website, it rapidly proved to be unwieldy and counter-productive by limiting rather than promoting user access.
2000s: Web design starts to mature
By the dawn of the 21st century, web design had become more consistent. It was then more common to find pages which combined technical knowledge with good visual design. By this time, webpages usually had a menu on the side or at the top of the page and often used glossy, rounded buttons. While some sites still employed Flash to add silly effects to their menus and loading screens, CCS (Cascading Style Sheet) technology gave designers much greater control over the placing and appearance of page elements. As a result of this separation of content and presentation, pages soon became more organised and visually appealing.
As visually aware designers began to exert more influence, pages became less cluttered thanks to a thinning of material and intelligent use of menus and tables. With gradient overlays, reflections and shadows replacing earlier flamboyant designs, it became easier for visitors to navigate around sites and landing page design was employed to support this by adopting a ‘signposting’ function.
User forums started to use “signature bars”, and though blogging had existed since 1999, it became more mainstream by around 2004. Social media was also in full swing by this time, with MySpace appearing in 2003, followed by Facebook in 2004 and then Twitter in 2006.
2010’s and the mobile web
The mobile access trend also heralded one-page layouts, sliders and carousels showcasing a procession of company products (You might also like …). Web developers created an advanced ‘flat design’: An efficient minimalist style which prioritised fast loading of pages and an enhanced user environment. Once again, sites were stripped of any useless buttons, badges and decorations. Social media buttons began appearing everywhere in the hope that users would share anything and everything. The whole world now seemed to want to blog, social media ‘influencers’ were everywhere, and algorithms employed to anticipate a user’s every wish.
From today’s perspective, it seems as if the Internet has now been completely transformed from a beautifully twisted, information-led playground into a heavily monetized commercial zone.