The Evolution of Web Design via the Wayback Machine

Website design has really evolved quite radically since the world first laid eyes on the first website ever built. These days, online users are treated to visually impressive websites that load fast across just about any screen size. In the past, however, it wasn’t as tech-savvy or as feature-rich as today.

Today’s generation of Internet users might laugh at the way we enjoyed (or should I say endured?) web design of yesteryear. But make no mistake: without the imperfections of the past, we couldn’t have graduated from the old and tired site designs to the aesthetically striking visuals that we see today.

The beauty of the Internet is that we have all kinds of services available online, and one of these is the Wayback Machine, a nifty site that periodically stores archived copies of billions of websites through the years. This powerful service is run by The Internet Archive (a non-profit organization based in San Francisco) and has been operating since January 1996. You can just imagine how many pages are stored in its massive archive!

Using the Wayback Machine’s archived pages, let’s look at how website design has changed through time. Join me as I venture into the annals of time and… well, you know the drill!

Pure text

The first generation of websites – which got launched into online space in the early ‘90s – was considered a breakthrough at that time, and people should generally be impressed to see the first webpage, even if it showed a simple “Hello.” Website design started with what we now know as minimalist design: pure black text on white background.

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The biggest reason behind this simplistic approach to web design was probably speed. Internet connectivity started with dial-up modems with speeds of a few kilobytes per second. Totally unimpressive, right? As a result, nobody bothered too much with imagery or layouts, and instead relied on pure text to send the message across.

Better design using table layouts

As web developers slowly became acquainted with HTML, together with the boost in Internet speeds, websites became more complex in terms of visuals. The mid-90s gave birth to website layouts made out of HTML tables, which allowed for better content organization and page element positioning. By this time, online users could now read content in rows and columns, much like a newspaper.

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The reign of GIFs

This period also saw the rise and domination of graphical interchange format (GIF) images, which allowed website designers to put graphic-based logos and animated images onto webpages. Not only did pictures come alive on screen, but some of them also moved! This gave websites much more life and excitement, sending site visitors in sheer delight when they saw the trendsetting animated image files.

Alas, this breakthrough discovery was prone to abuse. Some web developers were so excited they used this newfangled image file type to the point of going overboard. This style misstep gave rise to dizzying, stomach-churning, vertigo-inducing website designs. Check out this website from DPGraph, which surprisingly still exists online!

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Flash changes the animation landscape

Aside from being too heavy, animated GIF image files don’t run seamlessly. It’s like looking at stop-motion animation, with blatant split-second delays in between frames. Flash changed all that by introducing smooth animation in a lightweight package. The visual capabilities of Flash brought website design to new heights in the later part of the ‘90s.

Some of the best uses of Flash during this time included color-changing menu items, 3D buttons that changed attributes upon hovering, and splash pages. It’s the latter that has caught the Internet by storm, as millions of websites tried to copy what’s now known as a landing page. Some developers went to great lengths to use Flash, making their entire website using this multimedia platform.

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Flash also put the emphasis on user experience (UX), which is a very important tool in today’s generation of online marketers to ensure that site visitors enjoy browsing the website (and hopefully stick around for the long haul). Flash websites are carefully crafted to ensure that visitors put value in every image that they see and in every click that they do. Through Flash, developers could create websites that contain text, images (both static and animated), and sound.

CSS: The content savior

The complexity of coding old websites stemmed from the fact that design elements are integrated with textual content. Whether it’s based on HTML or Flash, building a website requires design and content to be fused together. As a result, modifications to the design may affect the content as well.

This unyielding marriage between content and design was split by cascading style sheets (CSS), a language that defines how site content is displayed. This allowed developers to write the rudimentary structure of the website, and assign style elements via a separate CSS code or file. In the same manner, content managers can add to the content without touching the design parts.

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More than the site structure, CSS highlighted the importance of visual appeal. By then, animated GIF backgrounds and neon colors were replaced by friendlier and more useful designs that put emphasis on content rather than just showing off.

Web 2.0 gives birth to the new Web

At the turn of the century, Web 2.0 was released in to wild, bringing a new age of website design. This modern take on websites increased the incorporation of multimedia files, more interactive content, and social media connectivity in website pages. A lot of websites that we now know and enjoy – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, among others – rose to fame because of their use of better web designs and deeper user engagement.

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Because of the advent of this style of web design, Flash slowly drifted behind, while web animation jumped in favor of HTML5, and CSS3 over GIFs. In other words, websites became more useful, but still visually appealing.

UX and mobile are of first importance

As I’m writing this, website design looks so vibrant and modern compared to the first website in history. These days, we’ve got more images presented in different ways – sliders, page backgrounds, menu icons – and there’s much more space to let the eyes breathe.

The gold standard in this generation of website designers includes the use of flat graphics, intelligent typography, huge background images, and minimalist appeal with lots of white space. One of the most important design elements on spotlight these days involves UX, which led to the birth of one-page design templates and infinite scrolling.

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Of all the improvements on web design today, what sets this generation apart from the rest is the focus on mobile web design. A huge chunk of the online population browses websites using their mobile devices, and so it has become an utmost priority for site developers to create mobile-friendly or responsive websites.

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I hope you enjoyed this historical review of website design. This article doesn’t end here; in fact, this piece will probably be updated in the future to include upcoming web design trends that we haven’t discovered yet. Aren’t you excited of the fact that web design will continue to evolve?