web design history

The Early Days of Web Design

Web design has been important since sites began competing for attention. A well-designed site holds readers’ interest, is easy to read, and presents its content in a clear, organized way. Views on what accomplishes this have changed over the years, as the available technology has changed and designers have accumulated experience.

The earliest Web pages, starting in 1991, weren’t “designed” in the sense of paying special attention to layout. They were articles written by researchers for other researchers, and all that mattered was the content and links. But as the Web became more widely used in the mid-nineties, the appearance of pages began to matter. The people creating them were computer geeks, and they had more interest in experimenting with the new technology than in aesthetics. Images played a greater role, and lists and tables organized information. JavaScript was available, but people treated it more as a toy than a design tool.

By the second half of the nineties, commercial sites were starting to appear. The appearance of a site became a more serious concern. Designers started to give more attention to readability and appeal, and sites started to use animation for serious purposes. At first the only option was animated GIF images. Then came Adobe Flash, which allowed a huge range of effects. Sites built almost entirely on Flash began appearing. On the server side, dynamic pages with PHP and CGI started coming into use. This made design even more undisciplined, as site creators had a bigger set of tools to play with.

The Web at the Turn of the Century

By the start of the 21st century, a new idea had started to take hold: that the creation of pages should involve not just technical knowledge but expertise in visual design. CSS2 had been available since 1998, allowing the important principle of separation of appearance and content. Page creators had much finer control over the placement and appearance of every element.

As people with design skills joined in the process, they recognized that too much material in a page or too much text in an unbroken block is a burden on the reader. They started splitting content into more pages, with menus and tables for navigation. The landing page became increasingly important, often having little content but directing viewers to other pages. Blinking text and bright colors started giving way to more subdued designs.

The growing availability of high-speed connections, faster processors, and monitors with more pixels opened new opportunities to designers. High-resolution graphics and animations became popular. Multi-column layouts and sidebars took advantage of the larger screens. People started talking about “Web 2.0” for pages with interactive and customized features.

The Later 2000s and the Mobile Web

A revolution came in 2007 with the release of the iPhone. Its impact wasn’t obvious at first, but smartphones would soon completely change the way people used the Internet. The immediate impact came from Steve Jobs’ declaration that it wouldn’t support Flash. Adobe’s software was starting to show its age, and it presented several problems. It wasn’t a W3C standard but a proprietary plugin. Other technologies had become available.

Search engines had rapidly risen in importance, and Flash content was invisible to them. The phrase “search engine optimization” wasn’t in common use yet, but site owners wanted their pages to be found. Meanwhile, it was becoming possible to create more kinds of content with HTML, reducing the need for Flash. A decade later, Flash is almost completely obsolete.

Ajax, a JavaScript technique which allows updating pages in place, let sites become increasingly interactive. Now small changes in response to user input became possible without reloading the whole page. It was possible to talk about Web applications in a meaningful way.

Web Design from 2010 to the Present

Since 2010, mobile devices have grown to the point of accounting for more than half of the Web page access in the world. This means that sites have to work well on both small and large screens. For a while, the dominant design approach was to offer two versions of a page. This was a maintenance headache, though, and people receiving links could find themselves on the wrong page for their machine. These problems led to responsive design as a better solution.

With responsive design, the same page is available to all devices, and the browser uses JavaScript and CSS to configure it for the hardware on which it’s running. The release of HTML5 and CSS3 have aided in this effort by bringing another important principle to the fore: the separation of the document object model (DOM) from the content and the appearance. Being able to handle the DOM independently has helped to create page designs which work with any content and can customize its appearance as necessary.

Today’s Web Design & Future Trends

One of the latest trends is the closing of the gap between the front and back ends. Many sites now run JavaScript on the server as well as the browser, with very close interaction between the two sides. The distinction between a website and a mobile application has blurred, and either kind of client often can run offline and catch up with the server when it has a connection.

As design trends continue to change, we’ll be with you to create the most attractive and up-to-date appearance and features for your site. Contact Creative MMS to learn more.