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Web Design: From the 90s to Today

This year marks the 25th anniversary since the first website ever was published online, something we can now look back on with a fuller appreciation of what it meant for our future. That first website, despite consisting entirely on text with no images, interactivity or other media content, meant the beginning of a whole new field of design. Let’s have a look back at the journey web design has taken since the early 90s right up until today.

Originally, constraints on web design were placed by the speed of the Internet we had access to. With the first dial-up modems, data transfer was so minimal that any attempt at an interesting layout or design scheme was nearly impossible. Sites had to be comprised of just text, links and a few tags that were supported by the earliest forms of HTML.

By around 1995, opportunities to make websites more structured and unique began to evolve. It became possible to organise content in tables, and graphics in highly compressed formats could be implemented. As soon as animated GIFs became possible additions, they exploded in popularity with most websites featuring rudimentary animations. This is particularly interesting when you look at social media today; GIFs have come full circle!

Another interesting point to note is that websites in the 1990s were forced to be functional and practical over anything else. Since flashy design was impossible, all the emphasis was placed on only including what information was necessary, and delivering it to people in the most efficient way. If someone had to leave their computer for a few minutes while your site loaded, you probably couldn’t reach your full potential audience. User experience was valued very highly with early web design, and it may never be considered so carefully again now that we’re much less limited by data transfer speed.

It was nearly a decade after the Internet was first launched that web design started to resemble what we know today. Known as Web 2.0, the phase we saw in the early 2000s brought in e-commerce to the masses, as well as much more complex overall designs that brought in their own challenges. New perspectives were needed to optimise websites – search engine optimisation, marketing and even psychology suddenly needed to be factored in, in order to stay competitive. This led to teams of people with different specialised skills being able to produce and maintain websites, with developers, designers and content creators becoming further apart.

Today we have to think about all this and more, so perhaps it’s not surprising that many people still make basic mistakes when it comes to web design. Recently the focus has come back to user experience for those who truly want to maximise their potential, with a major problem being the differences between all the devices we can now use to access the internet. Responsive websites are simultaneously optimised for the smallest screens and the largest, which presents entirely new challenges for designers. It seems likely that flexibility and accessibility will only grow in importance, so it will be interesting to see what becomes of web design in another decade.

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