So… I’m a millennial.
Depending on what scale you look at, I’m the oldest possible millennial.
There’s a term for it that I’m not particularly a fan of—geriatric millennial. But as my friends would say… I’m the Gandalf of millennials.
But that means I’ve been around long enough to some things, and one of those things has been the entire history of design on the internet as we know it.
Every other Saturday, my dad would have friends over to eat pizza and build computers in the kitchen. I grew up in the computer hobby culture.
This is because the history of the internet only dates back to three decades ago. But that short space of time has played a key role in how we do everything—from shopping to networking with friends.
A huge portion of our daily routine can all be assisted with an internet connection.
So, how did we get so far so soon? And which key points in web design history gave us the chance to have access to the world in our back pockets?
Here’s a brief history of web design, and how specific periods influenced modern design:
1989: The World Wide Web begins
Let’s start back in 1989, when the World Wide Web was created by Al Gore (that’s a joke – but it’s also kind of true). Tim Berners-Lee created the WWW using the NeXTSTEP operating system (later purchased by Apple.)
“Creating the web was really an act of desperation, because the situation without it was very difficult when I was working at CERN later.
Most of the technology involved in the web, like the hypertext, like the internet, multi-font text objects, had all been designed already. I just had to put them together.
It was a step of generalising, going to a higher level of abstraction, thinking about all the documentation systems out there as being possibly part of a larger imaginary documentation system.”
Since his invention, which was released in 1990, Tim Berners-Lee has become the director of the World Wide Web Consortium (WC3). This is an organization which develops software, tools, and specifications to constantly improve the internet.
The early 90s: The first ever HTML website
The first website ever created was CERN—the place of work for Tim Berners-Lee.
Website design wasn’t anything game-changing back then. The World Wide Web wasn’t anywhere near as complex as it was now, and computers were still fairly new. Design software wasn’t a “thing.”
The first time a website was created, design wasn’t a huge factor. It was only created for researchers, so the design used a sans-serif font, plain white background, and blue links to highlight text that was clickable.
(In fact, these design elements are something we still use today.)
Websites at this time were made using private access to Hypertext Markup Language (HTML.) Tim Berners-Lee actually published a document called “HTML Tags” later in 1991, which included the first 18 known HTML codes used to build a website.
Berners-Lee also created the first WWW Virtual Library at this time. This page used hyperlinks to point visitors to other pages on the WWW:
1994: The birth of Netscape
To access different websites, we need internet browsers. We use tools like Google Chrome and Internet Explorer these days. But the first web browser, Netscape, was created in 1994 by Jim Clark and Marc Andreessen.
The internet browser was later rebranded as Mosaic Netscape 0.9, and Netscape Navigator.
It became the most popular browser at the time, boasting an 80% market share towards the mid-90s.
1995: The introduction of CSS
By the mid-90s, more HTML websites were being created. But the capabilities of HTML started to fall short at a time where technology was beginning to pick up.
Enter: Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), a new programming language developed by Håkon Wium Lie.
CSS was designed to help site owners have more control over how their website looks. Layouts, colors, and fonts were all changeable—a huge change from bog-standard HTML sites that all previously looked the same.
Late 90s: Flash galore
Businesses began to create websites by the late 90s. And with websites becoming increasingly popular, the need for a unique web design became more of a priority.
Animation was the first port of call for the majority of web designers at this age. They’d use GIFs (still images that moved in a sequence) in a bid to stand out, followed by Macromedia Flash—which we now know as Adobe Flash.
The introduction of Flash meant that site owners could add high-quality images, interactivity, and audio to their websites.
Needless to say, it was a huge moment for web designers.
1998: The SEO world begins
By this point in web design history, there has been a ton of testing on search engines:
- 1990: The first search engine, Archie, was created by three computer science students at McGill University in Montreal. It’s a play on the word “archive.”
- June 1993: The World Wide Web Wanderer, another web-based search engine, is launched. This was the first known bot-powered search engine, later known as ‘Wandex.’
- December 1993: RBSE spider, World Wide Web Worm, and JumpStation are created. These are three more search engines known to use robots when crawling websites.
- January 1994: Yahoo launched their search engine, which became the first popular online directory.
- September 1998: The most frequently-used search engine, Google, launches.
…But despite the history of search engines spanning almost 10 years by the late 90s, it wasn’t until 1997 that SEO started to come into fruition.
This had a major impact on how businesses would design their website. Search engines like Google and AskJeeves were using robots to crawl sites. People started to figure out how they’d convince them robots to place their site on the first page, and SEO was born.
2004: Web 2.0
Websites started to become increasingly popular by 2004.
It’s when the first social media sites started to appear; Myspace and Facebook—originally created for Harvard students—both launched.
That meant website owners needed an even fresher way to stand out, and help internet users move from site to site more easily. That’s when the introduction of Web 2.0 started.
The exact definition of Web 2.0 is unclear. But generally, designers refer to it as the later generation of the World Wide Web. It’s the time where sites moved away from basic HTML-powered websites in favor those that were easy to access.
(Again, this influenced modern website design and SEO. Google still places sites with a better user experience above those that don’t.)
2007: The death of Flash
The first iPhone release might not sound much to do with web design history, but an announcement by Steve Jobs changed everything. He said that the new device won’t support Flash—a design tool that 75% of videos on the web relied on before the announcement.
Why? Jobs’ letter says they banned Flash because:
- Flash products are 100% proprietary, and completely controlled by Adobe
- Apple products can use alternative video applications (like YouTube)
- Flash for had one of the worst security records, and didn’t perform well on mobile
- Flash videos had poor battery life
- Flash videos rely on “rollovers” to play, but Apple devices don’t use mice
Over 146,000 iPhones were activated on the AT&T network within the launch weekend.
This meant that site owners had a reason to ditch flash in favor of modern video: Because their audience were ditching it, too.
2019: Mobile internet usage overtakes desktop
When you need to do a Google search, what device do you use? I wouldn’t be surprised if you said the answer is your smartphone. (You might even be reading this on a mobile device.)
As of August 2021, mobile devices (excluding tablets) accounted for 57% of web page views worldwide. More people are using mobile devices than traditional desktops to access the internet.
Again, this heavily influences modern website design. It’s crucial for web designers to think about mobile users when designing their layout, and create a responsive design.
…They could be alienating over half of their traffic, if not.
What’s next for web design in 2023 and beyond?
New technology is being released weekly, and there’s no telling what the next decade holds for web design.
Consumer preferences are changing by the month. Just like the list of “best practices” that worked in the late 90s won’t be suitable for a modern website, the web design trends we’re seeing today will be much more advanced in the years to come.