Over the past two years, I’ve been studying the history of web design. I wrote an article about our work for The Conversation and wrote a post on this blog about some of that work, but I haven’t actually written about the history there yet.
The following is my 1500 word summary of the history of web design. How did we get from the first website to massive projects like Wikipedia, social media feeds and operating system emulators in the web browser? While I’m not writing a formal history with specific sources, I’m also not writing from my personal experience: I’ve done a lot of research via quantitative means and interviews I conducted with veteran web designers. Also, this is not the history of the Internet, or even of the web. I’m really interested in the external factors which have shaped the visual design of websites over its first 29 years.
The world wide web was proposed by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, and launched in 1991. Over that first decade (1991-2001), the first websites were under a lot of technical restrictions which shaped their designs:
During this period, there was a major diversification in the purposes of websites. In the early 90’s, websites were usually either a novelty or a tool to communicate information. However, in the late 90’s, the web had developed into a commercial platform in its own right: the dot com boom saw a huge amount of investment in nacent internet companies, which led to a lot of commercial websites. As virtual forums and blogs became common, the web also became a platform for more personal communication and online language and culture. Despite new uses for websites, web design was still mostly informed by graphic design and prioritized text and image content in a static document-like format.
Functional differences between web browsers posed a challenge to designers. The two leading browsers, Netscape Navigator (NN) and Internet Explorer (IE), adhered to different technical specifications for emerging concepts of style sheets and browser-based scripting. Many sites would either pick a browser to support, or build two versions, one for each browser. In the early 2000’s, IE and NN were pressured into adopting the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) recommendations by activists with the Web Standards Project. As the 2000s continued, NN fell out of use and new competitors to IE including Mozilla Firefox (a direct descendant of NN), Opera and Google Chrome emerged. While browser compatability continued to remain an issue, the W3C recommendations became the standard specification for web technologies from this point forward.
In the second decade (2001-2011), many of these restrictions were lessened as technologies developed.
As websites became both more economically important and more complex, their development became more specialized. While in the 90’s, all of the development and maintenance of a website may have been carried out by a single “webmaster,” that profession started to splinter: pages were now built by web designers and systems engineers and maintained by digital editors, systems and database administrators.
With the launch of Facebook in 2004 and Twitter in 2006, followed by the release of the iPhone in 2007, the fundamental interaction patterns between people and the web started to change. At the start of this period, Americans usually accessed the Internet in their home or workplace, primarily through a search engine homepage. At the end of this period, they increasingly accessed the Internet in other places, via mobile devices and through a social media feed. These changes meant that websites had to be designed under different assumptions. Since touch screens afford scrolling better than computer mice and social media sites embrased infinite scrolling pages, the older “above the fold” mentality faded. Mobile devices also presented a challenge for sites designed to be viewed on desktop because of screen size: zooming in and scrolling to read each line of a paragraph is more difficult than scrolling down a page and touch screens encourage larger buttons that could be easily tapped rather than hyperlinks. At first, web designers responded to this problem by creating separate mobile and desktop versions of websites, but much like having multiple versions for different web browsers earlier on, this design choice was difficult to maintain and proved frustrating for users.
This period also saw an influx of ideas from Human Computer Interaction (HCI) research into web design. Ushered in by a generation of authors and consultants, ideas like usability, accessibility and user experience, which had been developed in the 70’s-90’s to support the design of interfaces more generally started to find a home in web design, alongside existing graphic design principles. This influx of ideas from HCI gave web design its own identity, distinct from graphic design.
After 2011, years worth of development in frontend infrastructure started to shift web designers’ understanding of the webpage from a static document to a platform for dynamic software applications. Two frontend technologies were key in this transformation:
The explosion in complexity had a number of effects on design.
That mostly brings us to the present. There are several developments underway, like no-code tools and web assembly (wasm), which may have an impact on web design, but it seems premature to situate them within this history before we have more perspective on what role they may play in the next decades of the web.
This is obviously leaving a lot of historically important details out: there’s a lot of rich history in the origins of the Internet, the history of web standards, the development of e-commerce, Internet piracy, streaming and its effect on music, film and TV, and smartphones and the rise of social media. If you’re interested in seeing me write about any or all of those topics, let me know!