Web design has come a long way since 1999 when I started my first job as a web designer based in Nottingham. Since then I have worked as a web designer in Leicester, London, Barcelona and Auckland before setting up our web design agency Webfuel Ltd in Loughborough 7 years ago. Whilst many of the things I enjoy about web design, such as the client interaction and creativity have stayed the same so much has changed. This 15 year landmark and being back in Nottingham again, has got me musing over what the last 15 years in web design has held for web designers, web design companies and the users of the web themselves.
Let's take a stroll down memory lane and look at how web design has evolved (for better and for worse) over the past 15 years.
These first websites were very lightweight, and optimized for that slow internet connection we all remember. I entered the industry as websites were moving from simple text layouts to design layouts, allowing for more creativity. This did mean however that web designs and builds were plagued by on-site page builders and spacer GIFs. Table-based layouts were used to organize content which allowed for some design flexibility and creativity. Web sites were still quite text heavy, but this text could be divided into columns, rows, and other navigational elements. Graphical design elements also quickly grew in popularity. Page hit counters, animated text, and dancing GIFs are just a few of the graphical elements that mark this period in web design.
During this time Flash was also becoing popular. Flash opened up a world of design possibilities that weren't possible with basic HTML. It was the marriage of virtual graphics and interaction. Seeing as Flash has been deemed one of the biggest SEO sins of all time maybe we should take this time period as an example of what not to do.
New features such as color-changing navigations, tiled background images, neon colors, 3D buttons, and the ever-popular splash pages also started making an appearance. Web designers now focused on structure and navigation and had to take usability into account when producing their designs.
The early 2000s brought with it an increase of support for CSS, which allowed for the separation of content and design. This gave greater creative freedom to both web designers and content developers -- content could now be developed exclusively from design, and vice versa. This made websites easier to maintain (less code and complexity), more flexible (div tags are independent of one another), and quicker to load.
Better understandings of color also saw the increase of whitespace and the decrease of garish colors, like neons. Links began to be attached to icons rather than just text, resolution and pixilation became more important concerns, and considerations over the placement of content also grew. Overall, it was a period when usability started to become more important than other design elements.
People typically scan websites, looking only for the information they need -- so any site that makes this job easier as a user gets a giant check-mark. A savvy web designer is aware of the fact that most users don't read everything on a website, and understand how readers take in information. Therefore intuitively placed information, visually accentuated links, and a straightforward navigation are just a few best practices today's websites should adhere to. Always design with usability in mind!
A revolution in web design, which bought with it it's own design style (as responsive websites have today.) The term Web 2.0 was actually coined in 1999 but was popularisd as a concept in 2004 and is when things really begin to move towards what we know as the modern web. The growth of multimedia applications, the implementation of interactive content, and the rise of the social web are a few definitive features of this time. Moreover, these features largely dictated the way web design was ... well, done. Aesthetic changes included better color distribution, increased use of icons, and greater attention to typography. More importantly, design became about content and, apart from Flash, content became about SEO. With the user now firmly at the center of design, selling products (at least explicitly) became the secondary function of websites.
This time saw the growth of SEO as a consideration. While these techniques have obviously been adapted over the years, thinking about your website in terms of SEO is still central to people's minds today. SEO demands content, and content largely became the focus of web design during this era. Keyword optimization, inbound and outbound linking, authoring, tagging, and syndication technology such as RSS became natural design elements. While link spamming and keyword jamming soon exploited these techniques, these black hat methods are no longer effective and (I hope) have largely fizzled out.
Today, over two decades after the publication of the first website, web design has firmly established itself as an irreplaceable component of every good marketing strategy. In terms of modern aesthetics, we have seen the proliferation of minimalism, flat graphics (so long, 3D buttons!), blended typography, and large background images. In addition, UX has taken center stage, giving way to such design features as infinite scrolling and single-page design.
The explosion of the mobile web has been another important consideration for web site design and development. This recent digital revolution has given way to the popularization of responsive design and has called for a re-evaluation of the way websites are structured. This is one area of web design that still has a ways to go in its development, and I look forward to seeing how it evolves over the coming years.
Regardless, there is one factor that has informed every single one of these developments -- content. Every design element here has been adapted in such a way to bring the most relevant content to the user in the most efficient and effective way. Notions of accessibility, adaptability, and usability truly define this era of web design. Looking at how web design has progressed thus far, it's exciting to think about where it will be in the next 20-ish years.
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