26 Years of Web Design: Lessons Learned

There are many things we take for granted nowadays, but the top of the list must be internet access. A few years ago, the internet was still in its infancy, and web design consisted of arranging blue links on a page as efficiently as possible.

To understand how much both the internet and web design have grown, I’m going to take you on a journey back in time, through all the blue links, awkward color schemes and ill-chosen typography. The goal is to see how web design has changed the face of the internet and what it can teach us after 26 years.   

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To understand the impact of this evolution we have to go way back to the first website that appeared in 1991. I’ve added the maximum number of active websites and internet users for each step.


1991-1994 – The World Wide Web

Active sites by 1994: 2,738

Internet users by 1994: 25,454,590

The internet was conceptualized in the 1950’s, by American scientists researching ways to send information over vast distances. By 1989, Tim Berners-Lee created the first ever website and browser.

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The World Wide Web – circa 1991 – Source

The World Wide Web, as it was called, went live in 1991 and by today’s standard, there wasn’t much to see. The reason for the limited design and emphasis on the text was the slow internet connection. Back then the only type of connection available was the dial-up, and it was painfully slow. For that reason, websites back then were limited to headers, paragraphs links, and tags. Design was not the main concern at that point. As such, websites were single columned text documents kept together by inline links.


1995-1997 – HTML, GIFs, and Colors

Active sites by 1997: 1,117,255

Internet users by 1997: 120,758,310

By the mid 90’s, enough advances in internet connection speed had been made to improve Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). Internet had become much more affordable for the average consumer. Web designers now started working on appearance as much as on functionality.

They started incorporating tables and simple navigation panels alongside the much-used text layouts. Images and animated text also became popular as websites became more cluttered. Good design principles were set aside for anything that looked more advanced. Some designers, for example, thought it a good idea to insert multiple animated  Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) images into web pages. Another notable practice was the usage of frames on pages. The framed content was easier to read and more distinguishable from the navigation menus.

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Lego website – circa 1996 – Source

Although incorporating tables and making the text more easily readable was the norm; mistakes were still made. McDonald’s 1996 site (pictured below) used their trademark colors in a way that few people would regard as beautiful. The finished result was nothing more than an eyesore.

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McDonald’s website – circa 1996 – Source

Takeaways: Vibrant colors work well on websites, as long as they are offset by different color tones and a balanced visual weight. Nowadays this is easily achievable with bigger loads of white.The design breathes and allows users to spend more time on the page without worrying about eye health.


1998-1999 – Google and Flash Animations

Active sites by 1999: 3,177,453

Internet users by 1999: 280,866,670

In the late 90’s web designers got better and better. They already had a variety of tools and programs at their disposal. With the rise of Flash, designers could incorporate graphics into their designs much easier. This, in turn, offered a much more visually appealing interaction for the customer.

HTML and Flash took the forefront. The most common design practice was using table-based layouts with flash elements for spice. No more colorful GIF chaos.

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Angelfire website – circa 1998 – Source

Web sites now featured Flash based navigation that expanded upon user interaction. Flash animations of logos and site text were common design elements. The clutter was still there, but elements could be made more prominent through the usage of Flash. This helped the user focus on specific elements or information.

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Google website – circa 1998 – Source

In 1998, Google went online and showed that a clean and simple design is worth its weight in gold. The company has changed its logo since then many times over. The overall principle of simplicity, however, remained the same.

Takeaways: Experimenting with varied design practices and trends is the lifeblood of web design. Simplicity and structure, however, will always trump visually heavy and cluttered designs. It’s better to use focal points (Flash animations and GIF banners) only to attract attention to specific high-value information on the page.


2000-2003 – Web 2.0, CSS and Javascript

Active sites by 2003: 40,912,332

Internet users by 2003: 778,555,680

The year 2000 marked one of the biggest turning points in internet history. Widespread use of Cascading Style Sheets and other design tools gave birth to Web 2.0. Designers could easily change backgrounds and colors across entire websites. The benefit was that they did not need to change individual pages to add or remove pieces of content or design. CSS made web pages much easier to maintain and much faster since there was lesser code involved.

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Opera Software website – circa 2001 – Source

Alongside CSS, Javascript grew in popularity constantly. It eliminated the need for table based layouts, instead offering a more customizable structure. Soon after, the drop down menu came into heavy usage as did the usage of online forms.

With almost 50 million people using the internet, designers were focusing more on experience and ease of usage. They experimented with color combinations and styles. By the end of 2002, color was an important and complementary part of web design.

The main focus of web design in this period was creating more approachable sites. Colors and design elements started to convey both brand style and vision. Websites were viewed as much more than sources of information. They started to become outlets through which customers could engage with their favorite brands.

Takeaways: Color schemes are an integral part of solid web design. Good usage of color combinations is pivotal in establishing a brand image and feel. The subsequent designs derived from this principle are more engaging and relatable to visitors.


2004-2007 – Long-Page websites and The Semantic Web

Active sites by 2007: 121,892,559

Internet users by 2007: 1,373,327,790

The mid-2000’s were marked by exponential growth in the number of internet users. Simplicity and ease of use were the most important principles to follow. Multi-page websites we’re now compressed in single long-page formats. Navigation was simplified so users could reach the important sections of the web page with ease.

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Opus1 website – circa 2005 – Source

At this point, web designers were looking into ways to cater to as many user needs as possible. Enter the Semantic Web. This web design movement aimed to allow machines to understand websites the same as a human would. Online machines would understand human requests and do the tedious tasks necessary for completion.

The concept was quite advanced and futuristic. Unfortunately, the semantic web encountered many issues in its attempted implementation. Nonetheless, it remains one of the biggest breakthroughs in internet technology. At the time of its launch, experts said the semantic web would become the future of the internet. That never happened. Today we are in constant contact with spinoff programs like Apple’s Siri and Google’s language processing apps.

Takeaways: Although the Semantic Web was not adopted as the go-to web framework, it showed its usefulness in other internet services. Today’s uses of the Semantic Web can be seen in the form of  Apple’s Siri and Google’s language processing apps. Its usage is said to reach new heights with the appearance of the Internet Of Things.


2008-2010 – HTML5, Social Media, and SEO

Active sites by 2010: 206,956,723

Internet users by 2010: 2,045,865,660

Designers used Javascript and XML heavily to create smooth content transitions and develop applications. Interactive content and web applications became more and more important. Websites received content that could change without the page refreshing. Many powerful applications dedicated to processing videos, content, photos emerged. This became possible with the widespread adoption of HTML5. It became a more reliable alternative to FLASH for advanced graphics and media usage.

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Flickr website – circa 2008 – Source 

The focus of design was now publishing content, not just selling products. Social media websites like Facebook and Twitter emerged and engaged users in sharing content. At this point, designers started to understand the value of frequent content.  Search Engine Optimization also became an important part of the internet. People realized that publishing content frequently would optimize their rankings and increase their standing.

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Facebook website – circa 2008 – Source

Based on this trend, designers experimented heavily with different types and sizes of typeface. The experiments even encompassed color, direction, and alignment. The later typography boom led to a new understanding and placement of fonts in the web design hierarchy of elements.

Takeaways: As the number of Internet users expands, sites become simpler to accommodate all those visitors.  Fonts can be used make important information stand out and add to the visual aspect of a website and draw focus to content, exactly where it is needed.


2010 – Present – Mobile Websites, UX, and Fluidity

Active websites by March 2016: 1,008,232,859

Internet users by March 2016: 3,338,153,856

Since 2008, mobile internet access has exceeded desktop access. As a result, more than 60% of internet users have gone mobile. In the U.S. for example, 90 percent of adults have mobile phones and of that percentage, 58 percent have a smartphone. Web designers started creating alternative mobile versions for their primary websites. And they are right to do so. From 2014 to 2015 the number of users on the mobile internet has gone from 800 million to 1.9 billion.

Given the advances in connection speeds, designs are now geared towards user habits. For example, users now take 0.5 seconds to form an opinion about a website once it has loaded. 88 percent of users do not return on websites that have given them a bad experience. Conversely users are reluctant to return to a web page that loads in more than 3 seconds.  To address this exact issue web designers are actively looking for methods to decrease page loading times. One such solution is the Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) Project. The service aims to create lighter and faster loading mobile pages by using a modified version of HTML called AMP HTML.

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Visit California website – circa 2015 – Source

Designers also felt the need to make web pages as easy to read as possible. That is why nowadays, websites are formatted tall rather than wide. Navigation options are minimal and reduced to the most important parts of the website. The interesting part is that we value good, clear content more than we did in the beginnings of the internet. The speed at which users assimilate, information has skyrocketed. In turn, the craft of creating valuable content is at an all-time high. Designers now use clear, crisp and condensed content that is easy to read on mobile screens.

To keep the users on web sites as much as possible, designers have resorted to researching and understanding User Experience (UX). To this end, they employ a mix of accessibility, great content, and fluid design tactics. Great attention is given to the small details and interactions the user performs on the site. This means pages are as minimal as possible with content dusted on exactly where it is needed. Advancements in HTML5 allow insertion of video and animated content. Everything is supposed to blend seamlessly with the feel of the page, and once this is achieved, designers study the best UX formula and try to replicate it. The most used tool, in this case, is HTML5, which can integrate both static and dynamic elements ( sounds, videos, etc.).

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Seven Digital Deadly Sins website – circa 2015 – Source

Takeaways: As the number of mobile internet users continues to grow, speed and fluidity are the main interests of web designers. Designers have learned to tap into insights provided by UX and now create much more niche websites. These websites cater to the short attention spans and high expectations of internet users everywhere.

Looking back at all these years of web design, it is interesting to see what the future holds. We might become more connected with our surroundings, or the semantic web will make a comeback.

Given its evolution over the years, one thing is certain, though, web design is sure to constantly improve in usability, adaptability and accessibility for many years to come.


Tell us in the comment section below what you found interesting about our brief web design history. What do you think will be the next step in the evolution of web design?


Editor’s Note: “This article was originally published in February 2016, it has since been checked to ensure complete correctness and accuracy of the information presented”


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