The Evolution of Web Design: 1990-Present

Few can argue that technology has a deep and lasting impact on how we perform and perceive works of art. According to the renowned painter Howard Sparks, “The art of our era is not art, but technology. Today Rembrandt is painting automobiles; Shakespeare is writing research reports; Michelangelo is designing more efficient bank lobbies.”

While Sparks’ assertion that the Shakespeare of today would be grinding away at research papers can be interpreted as a bit controversial, there is a great deal of truth to his statement. And nowhere is the impact of technology on art more clear than in the world of web design. But rather than acting as a barrier, technology has spurred artistic expression in web design and beyond, allowing for more and more possibilities in many different realms. Technology has also opened the world of web design up to people who don’t have knowledge of programming, somewhat similar to the impact that Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press had on the amount of people that could publish works of literature in the 15th century.

You’ll have a difficult time finding a book that was created on a printing press, just like you’ll probably have a hard time finding a single column, text based website done entirely in HTML. But the difference between the two is that, while the printing press evolved into the digital printer over a period of more than 500 years, web design has evolved to incredible heights in only about 20. What factors played a role in such a rapid transformation in the world of web design? How has web design evolved over the past two decades?

Early 1990s – Text Based Sites and Mosaic

In August of 1991, a physicist named Tim Berners-Lee created the first website from his NeXT computer located at the CERN facility in the Swiss Alps. At the time, Berners-Lee didn’t have that big of an audience to impress (basically just his colleagues at CERN). In fact, most people didn’t even know that their lives had forever changed until the web browser Mosaic popularized the World Wide Web in 1993. And how could they? While the idea of clear Internet coverage is about as essential of a utility as water today, people would have had to wait several minutes for a single picture to load in 1991, let alone a streaming YouTube video.

The impact of Mosaic’s release was almost immediate. But Mosaic was far from the only web browser at the time. Browsers like Cello, MidasWWW, Erwise, and tkWWW were already in use and were popular with Linux computer users. But Mosaic was the first web browser to gain public acceptance and widespread use. Mosaic also offered other new developments crucial to the evolution of web design:

  • It was the first web browser to allow pictures to appear inline with text, rather than being opened in a separate tab.
  • It was the first browser created and supported by full-time programmers, not scientists.
  • It became the first web browser intended for novices.

In a 1994 Wired article, Gary Wolfe claimed that “Prodigy, AOL, and CompuServe are all suddenly obsolete. (Mosaic) is well on its way to becoming the world’s standard interface.” By 1995, Mosaic had a browser market share of 53%. AOL would certainly feel the immediate shock of Mosaic, but wouldn’t become obsolete until its merger with Time Warner in 2001, and it still had a role in popularizing personal websites by offering member home pages in the mid-1990s.

Today, even (that famous first website) has evolved to a much more attractive design, but you can still see how the site looked in 1992.

Mid-1990s – Table Based Graphics and Online Site Builders

By around 1995, the practice of adding images to a website was nearly compulsory, but they were nowhere near as user friendly (or designer friendly) as they are today. Instead, most designers were forced to chop pictures up into smaller sections before organizing them in a table, similar to how you would put together a very simple puzzle.

Website tables changed the way websites looked. Not only did their implementation begin competitive web design (best practices were abandoned for whatever looked the most “high-tech”), but they allowed web developers to organize text in easier to read ways. When people began to enjoy sites that used more creative content layouts, web designers began using more and more techniques to stay ahead of other websites. And this was vital to a website’s success. Before search engine marketing, websites were judged not by how relevant they were to search queries, but how modern (or futuristic) they looked when compared to competitors’ websites. For the first time, companies were hiring teams of web designers to find new ways to improve their online presence. And these design teams made huge advancements, including:

  • The first hit counters began to appear at the bottom of websites.
  • Text was still king – web designers animated it, made it scroll across your screen, and made it fly all over your browser.
  • Designers put more focus on text color, which led to seizure-inducing text sites that excited visitors of the time.

Then, in 1995, Adobe was approached by a small design company called FutureWave with an offer to sell their proprietary application known as FutureSplash. Adobe turned them down. But FutureWave was not ready to give up. In 1996, they pitched their application to another small company in San Francisco called Macromedia. Macromedia purchased the entire company as quickly as they could write the check, and FutureSplash was renamed Macromedia Flash. Today, you probably still use the same application from time to time. But you probably know it by the name of it’s current owner – the same company that turned the application down in 1995 – Adobe Flash.

Late 1990s – The Age of Flash

By the late 1990s, everyone wanted a website. And companies like GeoCities were not about to let such an opportunity pass them by. For almost five years, GeoCities had been offering users free home pages within their web directory. Users would choose which of the six “neighborhoods” (GeoCities’ divisions within their web directory) they wanted their site to appear in and their website would go live. But the age of Flash made websites look exciting, and more people started to get interested in web design as a separate entity of web development. GeoCities allowed two major advancements in the field of web design:

  • User-accessible website creation software, and
  • Some of the ugliest websites the world has ever seen.

The mere fact that some websites were suddenly deemed “ugly” was an important development in web design. Even up to the late 1990s, simply having a website was a major selling point. Design elements that would be laughed off the web today were still perfectly acceptable before GeoCities made web publishing easy. But the droves of user-created, unprofessional web designs led the way to the popularization of professional web design services and schools offering web design courses. So, in a way, many web designers probably owe their jobs to GeoCities.

For the first time, website users were able to interact with a website, but still on a limited basis. Small changes began to appear, like the first use of interactive links that expanded and changed color when users clicked on them. Websites played music when you visited them, and company logos bounced all over the screen. Web designers focused most of their attention on interaction between the website and user, and these interactivity principles are still alive and well today (unlike user-created GeoCities websites).

In 1998, the first popular dynamic design language was released in the form of PHP3. And, with PHP3, web design truly entered a new era. Most of the older websites were quickly dying out and search engine marketing was in full force, pushing older websites deeper into the lost catacombs of the Internet (although you can still find some today with a bit of digging). But while PHP3 was a huge advancement in the ease of web design, the biggest advancement in design would become popular at the turn of the century, and would change the way we design websites forever.

2000 – Cascading Style Sheets

Around the year 2000, CSS began to gain popularity among web designers. What made CSS so important was that it allowed designers to create graphics separately from content. Before CSS, coders would need to individually write the code for every page – even if the pages used a similar design. Cascading style sheets allowed designers to define some of the important and stoic elements of a web page, such as text size, font, background color, etc. One style sheet could be used to cut hours of coding from a website. In addition, sites began to develop a more uniform appearance because of these style sheets. You might think of CSS as the father of design-based website branding.

CSS owes its current popularity to Microsoft. In 2000, Internet Explorer 5 (one of the most popular browsers of the time) was the first browser to offer 99% support of CSS1. It was clear that web designers either learned CSS or found another job. Most learned CSS.

Mid-2000s – Javascript and Semantics

Javascript had been introduced in 1995 but didn’t really gain popularity until the mid-2000s. In fact, part of the reason the world didn’t end in the year 2000 was the Microsoft implementation of JScript, which corrected the Y2K date method problems in Javascript. The introduction of Javascript marked the death of website table layouts, and was the first successful attempt at animated menus and data computation without the use of Flash. Four new web design elements appeared with Javascript:

  • Top navigation menus
  • Drop down menus
  • Web forms
  • User created content (like profiles, journals, and photo collections)

The success of Javascript also led to the era of online semantics, when people became more interested in allowing computers to understand websites just as well as humans. Completely new issues for web designers began to appear, such as the need to include Meta data for each page, or the importance of well-organized hyperlinks.

Many of the seemingly small things we enjoy today arose in the age of Javascript and Semantics. For example, the late 2000s saw the first instances of sites that could display new content without the user needing to refresh the page (like your “Wall” on Facebook).

Today – Web 2.0 and Beyond

“Web 1.0 was all about connecting people. It was an interactive space, and I think Web 2.0 is, of course, a piece of jargon, nobody even knows what it means. If Web 2.0 for you is blogs and wikis, then that is people to people. But that was what the Web was supposed to be all along.”Tim Berners-Lee, 2006

Today, HTML5 is still under development, but it promises to be the final nail in the coffin for Flash. User interaction is becoming more and more important, and Google rules the world. More people visit than any other site online, and is the indisputable king of eCommerce. Web designers are working on new and exciting ways of presenting content, like infographics and the inevitable upgrade to interactive infographics.

In 2005, Adobe realized their mistake and acquired Macromedia’s enormously successful Flash, which has helped make them the powerhouse they are today. And that really is a microcosm of the state of web design as we begin yet another decade of the 21st century. The web designer of today can’t be the Adobe of the past, ignoring new applications and design trends. Even now, it’s difficult to write about the recent history of web design. Before I can complete this sentence about the newest trend in website graphics, I’m hit with 1,000 Tweets about it being out of date.

While Tim Berners-Lee doesn’t buy into Web 2.0, claiming that it’s what the web was supposed to be all along, it’s tough not to be awed by the speed at which web design has evolved, and continues to evolve. The Gutenberg printing press changed the world, moving libraries from the halls of monks and kings to the lowly houses of the populace. Gutenberg would be proud to see what his printing press has spawned; perhaps the Gutenberg of today would be a content writer like me. And while I’ll agree with Howard Sparks that Shakespeare would probably be writing most of Wikipedia, and that Michelangelo would make my next trip to Wells-Fargo more efficient, I’d like to think that the Rembrandt of today would be a web designer.