Articles, General

The evolution of web design

August 7, 2009 • By

The internet is now more than 25 years old, and the least you could say about is that the art of designing websites has evolved a lot over that time. The way pages are designed changed is tied to the evolution of technology, let’s take a look at how it evolved.

From 1993 to 1996: The web is a boring place for designers

Trends: Plain text and blue underlined links.

Mosaic was the first web browser to display images inline with text. It could support gifs and webforms, which was a huge step forward for that time. Design wasn’t very elaborate due to browser constraint and limited bandwidth, so websites were pretty much designed by programmers and nerds, not by designers.

Websites at that time look quite boring: simple text, links and a few small images. However, keep in mind that there was only a few hundreds websites until the end of 1993.

From 1995 to 1998: browsers war

Trends: “Optimized for” buttons, animated gifs, blinking text.

In the middle of the 90s, Netscape was the leading web browser, but it was quickly competed by Internet Explorer, the browsers war was on. At that time, layouts started to get a little more complex with the use of tables or frames. Animated gifs were used to create cool buttons and javascript was slowly starting to appear on websites. For a live example of a 1996 website, take a look at Jacob Nielsen’s website.

Netscape's website in 1996

Netscape's website in 1996

From 1998 to 2000: Designers get serious about creating websites

Trends: Frames, rigid layouts with tables, gif image menus with hover effects,…

Web developement tools like Dreamweaver or GoLive start to get more popular, giving to more people the access to web pages creation. Designers were getting more offers for website creation and had to improve their skills in that field. Some people also picked up the Flash technology, but even though some people had great websites with it, it lead most of the time to annoying intros. Websites of that period still look quite square, based most of the time on HTML tables and sliced images.

"A List Apart" website in 1998

"A List Apart" website in 1998

From 2000 to 2004: the rise of web standards

Trends: transparency, corporate websites standardization,…

The Internet bubble’s burst of 2000 probably stopped the investors for a while, but it didn’t stop the W3C to develop web standards and designers to promote it. Tableless designs began to spread and designers learned a constantly evolving CSS technology. Some hacks are also allowing to get png transparency and CMS start to gain popularity among web designers.

A 2003 design from CSS Zen Garden

A 2003 design from CSS Zen Garden

From 2004 to 2007: the era of Web 2.0

Trends: Glossy buttons, shiny colors, gradients, widgets, rounded corners,…

Popularized by Tim O’Reilly, the expression web 2.0 is used to talk about the new type of websites that were more community oriented. Websites with bold typography, rounded corners and shiny gradients spread at the speed of light (almost). The websites get more functionalities and need better user interfaces to be simple to use. Widgets are used everywhere, on blogs to integrate social networks, or on social networks to integrate external feeds or content.

carbonmade 2006

Carbonmade's homepage in 2006

From 2008 to now: moving to other devices

Trends: mobile web apps, air apps, grid-based designs.

Out in 2007, the iPhone definitly gave a strong push to mobile web design. Many websites create mobile websites optimized for it and created apps. Big social networks create widgets to go on your blog and websites create widgets to go on social networks. In terms of design, good typography and grid-based designs are gaining ground.

facebook iphone

Facebook on the iPhone

About the author: Mirko Humbert is a freelance designer from Switzerland. He shares his thoughts about his passion on his design blog. To connect with Mirko, you can follow him on Twitter.