Web design has come a long way since the days of dial-up internet. From the text-only interfaces of the 80s and blocky layouts of the 90s to the flashy ‘web logs’ (aka blogs) of the early ‘00s, we’ve seen many iterations of websites over the last 30 years. While it can be humorous to look back at these older websites and wonder ‘what were they thinking?’ there’s plenty we can learn from looking back at the history of web design. By taking inspiration from the retro websites of yore, everything old can be new again.
Here, we take a deep dive into how web design has changed over the last few years—and how it will continue to evolve. Whether you’re taking a nostalgic trip down memory lane or learning about its timeline for the first time, read on for the history of web design.
The concept of the ‘world wide web’ is believed to date back as far as 1946, when it was first described in a short story by Murray Leinster. However, its official (albeit accidental) invention is credited to physicist Tim Berner-Lee in 1989. While creating a database of software for a client, he used hypertext to create an index of pages on the system. This eventually evolved into what we now know as web pages.
This era of web design was known as the dark ages, as designers would work on black screens with pixels. Designs were made up of symbols and tabulation (also known as the TAB key) as you can see in this mock-up of what Google would have looked like in the 80s.
While we may now see this iteration of web design as primitive, many designers still take inspiration from the post-modern aesthetic of the 80s. In a sea of ultra-modern websites, this web design layout stands out with its pixelated background, icons and blocky text.
It’s not hard to see why Berners-Lee is thought of as the forefather of web design–the man was busy! On August 6, 1991, he launched the world’s first web page with the help of his team. Hosted on a NeXT computer at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, this was a simple page containing information about the World Wide Web.
This breakthrough forged a path for web designers, who mainly worked with HTML tables to organize content horizontally and vertically. These were text-only pages, devoid of any of the visual elements we associate with modern web pages.
Long before celebrities ‘broke the internet’ or viral memes, a seemingly mundane image started it all. In 1992, pop parody group Les Horribles Cernettes became the subjects of the very first photo on the internet. When Berners-Lee rolled out an update of his browser that could support photos, his team tested it out of this image taken of the band backstage by an IT developer.
After this, it didn’t take long for images to become an essential facet of web design in the 90s—and beyond. Now, it’s hard to imagine the internet without photos, as they play many roles from telling stories, adding context and contributing to the overall aesthetic.
Two years later, the internet began its transition into the commercial powerhouse it is today. The first banner ad was purchased by technology company AT&T on HotWired.com in 1994. This ad was clicked on by 44% of people who saw it and it created an undeniable buzz amongst advertisers and consumers alike.
From that moment on, ‘in-your-face’ web banners like this one became a popular trend in 90s web design. This applied to not only advertising but also gaudy banners that welcomed new users to the site.
In recent years, we’ve seen the decline of web banner ads, with many consumers going as far as to download ad-blocking software to avoid clicking on them. However, web banners remain a staple in modern design, as they’re an excellent way to seamlessly integrate your logo into your overall layout.
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That same year, web hosting service Geocities was invented. This allowed users to create free homepages, hosted in six different ‘neighborhoods.’ This was a major turning point in web design, as it marked the first time everyday people could easily create websites of their own. While the layouts were simple, would-be designers and hobbyists brought their creations to life with bright, patterned backgrounds, clip art, and experimental text formatting.
Enter, FutureSplash—later known as Adobe Flash. This innovative technology gave web designers the freedom to create more dynamic websites by integrating animation, video, and audio.
These multimedia elements were packed into a file, then sent to a browser to be displayed. While this was an undoubtedly exciting time in web design, there was one caveat—users had to have the correct flash technology installed to view these animations.
This was the hey-day of scrolling marquees and gifs, which are now virtually non-existent in modern web design. However, they proved to be a predecessor to elements like animation, video, and micro-interactions—and of course, memes— which are still going strong.
The late 90s saw the invention of cornerstone technology in web design, CSS. Otherwise known as Cascading Style Sheets, this programming software was created by Hakon Wium Lie and Bert Bos in December 1996. This allowed the content (HTML) to be separated from the visual elements (the layouts, colors, and font) for the very first time. This gave designers far more flexibility and control of the appearance of a website than ever before.
In 2003, WordPress burst onto the scene. Created by Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little, the blogging software was an extension of an earlier project called Cafelog. Upon the first release, users were limited to creating simple, static blog posts with very little visual personalization.
But of course, this was only the beginning. Within two years, WordPress had introduced plug-ins for further customization and themes that would allow users to change the appearance of their site without altering the content. Today, WordPress is the world’s leading Content Management System, offering both a free blogging platform (Wordpress.com) and open-source software for designers (Wordpress.org)
While MySpace is primarily remembered as the first big social media network, it also brought coding into the mainstream. The platform gave users the ability to customize their layout or ‘wall’ through simple HTML programming.
The result was a ‘more-is-more’ aesthetic, filled with glittery graphics, image-heavy layouts, and blocks of texts. While most websites now look much more refined, it’s hard to deny that MySpace taught us a thing or two about expressing yourself through DIY design.
With the launch of the first iPhone in 2007, making websites accessible on mobile phones became a priority for the first time. 960-grid systems and 12-column division rose in popularity in design to address the demand for browsing on mobile.
While responsive scrolling and mobile-first navigation were still a few years away, the mobile era gave way to ‘flat’ design. This is when traces of depth and 3D effects have been removed, to make visual elements translate more easily to the smaller screen.
More than a decade later, grid-based layouts and flat design are still common techniques in web design—for both desktop and mobile.
Responsive design was invented as a direct reaction to the growing popularity of smartphone browsing. This technology allows designers and developers to create build websites that automatically adjust and scale to any size, regardless of what device you’re browsing on.
Fast forward to now and responsive design is no longer a trend, but a necessity. In order to appear credible and professional and give users a pleasant browsing experience, designers must optimize their website for all devices.
Over the last ten years, HTML, responsive design and CSS have continued to reign supreme. However, there is no longer a one-size-fits-all definition of what a ‘good’ website design looks like.
The profession of web design and development has exploded and with it, attracted people from many different generations, cultures and walks of life. This has given rise to many different aesthetics and styles—some even taking inspiration from earlier iterations of web design! The highly customizable nature of web design has only contributed to this individualism.
However, if there’s one defining aesthetic of the last decade of web design, it’s the minimalist look. There’s been an undeniable move away from crowded layouts, busy color schemes and text-heavy websites. Instead, modern web designers tend to keep their color palettes and layouts simple, relying on typography, illustration and other visual elements to make an impact. You can see this in action in email marketing platform Mailchimp’s recent design above.
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Today, browsing a website is a multi-sensory experience, thanks to the growing popularity of full-screen video backgrounds, animation, and interactive navigation. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. As we enter the new frontier of web design, we’re likely to see the user more involved in the website than ever before.
It’s hard to know just how Black Mirror-esque this next phase of web design will be. Will we no longer have screens and instead, consume content through a lens in-built into our eyes? Will the rise of voice-based technology make scrolling with a mouse or keypad completely redundant?
Wherever technology takes us, it’s safe to say that virtual reality (VR), AI (artificial intelligence) and augmented reality (AR) will be at the forefront. Whether it’s conversing with an animojis instead of chatbots or wearing a headset for a 4D internet browsing experience, the interplay of digital design and tech innovations will no doubt put users in the driver’s seat.
Web design doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In order to create truly effective and engaging interfaces, we must learn from the past and look forward to the future. Whether it’s taking inspiration from the nostalgic designs of the 80s and 90s or becoming an early adopter of new technologies, your personal design style can—and should—continue to evolve, too.