The design of websites has certainly changed since the publication of the first website way back in 1991. The citizens of the internet were way fewer in those early years, but some would still remember times when the web looked way, way different to now. There’s 3 billion people online in 2016, according to the United Nations’ agency that oversees communications. And the web they’re interacting with is not what it was 25, 10, even 5 years ago.
The Roots of the Web
The first website in history was created by CERN, published on August 6th, 1991. It was exclusively text-based and of course looked nothing like the sophisticated, smartphone-compatible websites of today. Over the last 25 years, web design has slowly evolved to eventually reach the kind of websites we see today; sites which enable us to not only glean information, but to purchase, interact and even add content to them ourselves.
It took a few years before we saw the advent of high-speed internet connections. Prior to then, we had to rely on dial-up modems. This meant that web designers could not afford to create content-rich websites, and relied heavily on text. The kind of design layouts that we now take for granted simply didn't exist back then. Prior to high-speed internet, websites were purely informational, and were optimized for slow internet connections.
Fast forward a couple of years and on-site page builders and spacer GIFs became the norm, with designers using table-based layouts in order to organize the site’s content. While sites were still text dominant, this format allowed for greater flexibility and creativity. We also started to see the appearance of animated texts, all singing and all dancing GIFs, and page hit counters. Frames were an important element in the evolution of website design as they gave the page structure and allowed for the positioning of different elements of information in different sections of the web pages. Today fame-based designs are old-hat, as they mean slow page-load times and visual inconsistency.
With the introduction of Flash (which is almost dead now), in 1996, things began to change, as it opened up a world of design possibilities that just weren't achievable with HTML alone. Designers were able to offer features such as color-changing navigation tools, tiled background images and 3D, interactive buttons. The structure and ease of navigation of the site became important considerations, and so began the birth of websites which focused on the visitor experience and usability.
Let's take a look at some of the forefathers of today's modern sites. For example, here's the early version of the BBC website, which is a worldwide institution:
Compare that to today's offering, with its links to current news, sports, entertainment, lifestyle, and even the ability to allow you to watch all the shows aired recently on the BBC network via iPlayer – a far cry from the above screenshot from 2000.
Take It From The Top
If we look at today's websites, web design is seen as one of the main parts of every good marketing strategy. Aesthetically, sites have become more minimalist with large background images, flat graphics and blended typography being commonplace.
We have brands across a variety of industries – practically all of them – following simple rules to create clean, informative, and visually pleasing homepages, whether it be a clothing brand or an online gaming site.
Designers realize that most people scan websites to look for the information that they need, so websites which present information in a clear way and which are easy to navigate always come up trumps. In addition, the vast majority of us don't read everything that's on a website, so it's vital for a designer to have an understanding of how we take in information, and use this knowledge to inform their designs.
One example is clothing brand H&M’s website: large, poster-like visual cues draw visitors’ attentions to new lines, offers and all sorts of internal links. Similarly, the designers of poker website PokerStars have acknowledged this, with the design of their site containing all the important information and enticing offers above the fold, instantly drawing the user to bonuses and competitions for them to take part in. Brands now understand that a website doesn’t have to be a book: it’s rather a pin board, on which they can choose to promote specific aspects of their product, while still maintaining the rest of them available through deeper links.
We’re living at a time when the most brilliant websites are considered to be art – although it’s fair to say that a few notable websites of the early 2000s had their own artistic charm. Let’s not forget that the Webby Awards have been around since 1996, commending not only great content but also great website design.
Video Is The Internet Star
Video shines in 2016’s internet. Consider the iPlayer. On-demand television has become a major part of how we live our lives, and the iPlayer has been at the forefront of that – certainly in the UK – since day one. It launched in 2007, and has got to the point now where BBC Three, one of its television channels, is expected to shift completely online by early next year. It’s a remarkable move for the corporation and in fact web development, with the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime also showing that’s the future of entertainment.
That has all come from the birth of Web 2.0 which saw the biggest growth in website design, with multimedia applications, interactive content and social sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube gradually coming to the fore.
That came after CSS became the dominant factor in web design, enabling the separation of content and design, giving more creative freedom to both web designers and content providers. Reduced and less complex coding made websites much easier to create and maintain, allowed for more flexibility and made the sites much quicker to load. As web designers gained a better understanding of color, we saw a decrease in bright and garish sites and an increase in white space. Links could now be accessed from icons rather than just text, and the whole design of websites became more centered on usability.
The arrival of Web 2.0 was a game changer, and it’s very easy to tell simply by looking at the likes of Facebook and Twitter.
Facebook circa 2004:
Compare it to the Facebook of today.
Twitter 2006 is below:
Now view its current home page.
Now, Twitter and Facebook both comfortably sit in the top 10 most visited sites worldwide. And they’ve come a long way since their launches. Aesthetically, we have seen an increased use of icons, more attention paid to typography, better use of color, and more importantly perhaps, the design of a website becoming more focused on the actual content.
Sharing Is Caring
Facebook in particular has been a constant game changer for web designers, with other social media channels and indeed websites often following in the footsteps. The Share Button was introduced in 2006, and has seen it become a staple on every website on the internet, allowing us to share articles, videos, and infographics via Facebook itself.
We have also witnessed the advancement of SEO and websites which put the user firmly in control. While selling a product or service might still have been the most important element and the main purpose of a website, the user experience was now the focus of the design.
Due to advances in technology, websites are no longer limited to set page sizes, but we see infinite scrolling and designs which have all their content on a single page. Of course, the popularity of the mobile web has called for more responsive designs and this area of web design is still very much in its infancy. Regular web sites and mobile sites (via native apps or simply mobile browsers) so that the urge to be connected at all times can be met. This means that the designs must be equally aesthetically pleasing for both platforms.
Of course, we’d be naïve to think that we’re now at the peak of web design, but in just a short space of time we’ve already seen such drastic changes that we certainly can’t predict the future. One thing is for sure: with the advent of new technology, web designs will continue to evolve so that they can bring the most relevant content to the user in the most efficient and effective way.