Website Design Evolution: 25+ Years of Innovation

In 1991, the magic began to happen. On August 6, 1991, Tim Berners-Lee published the world’s first modern website. The website outlining how to create more web pages, thus starting a website design evolution. This would begin the modern era of the internet.

To be fair, TCP/IP was first adopted in 1983. The first workable internet prototypes were created much earlier, with ARPANET using packet switching as early as the 1960s.

Website design has evolved numerous times over the past 25+ years for a variety of reasons. The reason behind these changes, however, is the same in any era. A better internet allows us to communicate more accurately with one another.

Here is a look at the journey we have taken with the internet since that fateful day in 1991.

Low-Speed Websites: The Early 1990s

Dial-up internet connections were available through public providers in the 1980s. It would not be until 1992 when a commercially-viable dial-up connection was offered by Sprint, that homes began to think about having internet access.

In these first days of the public internet, speeds were super slow. In 1991, a 300-baud modem was state-of-the-art. By the mid-1990s, we were still operating at modem speeds of 28.8 kbps. That meant websites had to be designed in a way to be responsive at those speeds.

For that reason, most landing pages on websites were basic text only. There were limited menu structures. You could click on specific links to reach images or other text-heavy information.

Even the HTML was very basic in these early days. There were tags for the titles, headers, and paragraphs, and that was about it. Designers had a cutting-edge website if they used a different font than everyone else.

That’s assuming you were on the internet to surf, anyway. There was a good chance that you were logging into America Online, or a similar provider, to chat with others from around the world.

This would be the first steps toward designing a website which thought about the user experience.

Website Design Evolution to 56.6 kbps Websites: The Late 1990s

Website Designers then forgot about the user experience completely for a few years.

Through the middle of the 1990s, internet speeds slowly increased. In 1996, the first 33.6k modems were introduced. In 1998, the first 56k modems began reaching the market.

This was an important step in the evolution of a website. Although websites still incorporated large blocks of text, designers could begin adding visual elements to their sites as well. Businesses could begin adding logos and branding. Text could be divided into columns that made information easier to process.

Designers began to explore the first plugins and widgets during this time. Just about every website began to incorporate traffic counters. Animated text became a graphic design option. The first GIFs were included too.

This was a difficult era in website design. Many designers abandoned the concept of creating a positive user experience, opting for websites that looked “cool” instead. That led to some users, still on the older, slower modems, being unable to access certain websites because of the included visual content.

We discovered during this time period that information positioning is a foundational element of web design principles. Even text-based websites still loaded slowly, which meant internet users began to demand relevant information immediately.

Then FutureSplash Animator became popular. It would change how we all thought about website design forever.

The Era of Flash Websites: 1998-2002

Animator eventually became Adobe Flash. During this period of website design, there was also Macromedia Shockwave. These two tools allowed web designers to begin creating menus, multimedia content, and interactive websites.

Suddenly, HTML was not the only set of options available in the designer’s toolbox.

We were able to re-imagine what the internet could be. At first, this transition was extremely awkward because designers were still in their “if it looks cool, let’s make it” phase. You’d find neon colours, splash pages, and tiled backgrounds everywhere.

At the same time, however, some designers began bringing back the element of the user experience into their creations. Users were demanding relevant information with louder voices. Websites began to feature numerous linking structures because Google’s backlinking search structures began to show promise.

As more websites were added to the internet, it became important for designers to incorporate elements that made it easy for visitors and search engines to find the site. In the first days of this era, that meant a physical request had to be sent to have your site crawled.

Through this process, we began to learn that people found visually-based content was better to use because people were still scanning websites. In the past, they would read the text as it downloaded onto their screen, line-by-line. After 1998, website visitors began looking at the visual elements of a site as the scanned for value.

That would eventually lead to the CSS revolution. With less code to maintain, websites became faster and more flexible. The strange colours began to disappear. Now resolution was a top priority.

Usability finally became a top priority.

Evolution of Early SEO and Online Community Development: 2002-2008

Once website designers figured out that there was value in providing relevant information within a usable design, the focus landed on how to be found. Search engines were being used more frequently every year. How could this process become automated?

That was when the content developed a focus on optimisation. It started with website text, moved to tags, and eventually incorporated all forms of media.

The early days of SEO were a major struggle for designers. Remember the websites which had numerous pages of mutually-exchanged links? Or the websites which discovered that if you said the exact same phrase repetitively, you could rank on that search term?

Thankfully, as search engines have upgraded their definitions of value, the emphasis on creating content with real value has come along with it.

Website designers also discovered that link farms on individual websites were an ineffective way to promote a brand. To optimise designs, links began to be associated with icons instead of only text. Navigation included more than a basic drop-down menu.

The homepage began to be a true landing page that introduced people to the story every brand wanted to tell. Whether it was a major corporation or someone starting a blog, it is during this developmental era of the internet that we all discovered the value of sharing our own stories.

The Design Evolution of Mobile Web: Today and Beyond

More than half of all internet traffic today originates from a mobile device. For website designers, this created an initial problem. How could you create a website that looked good on a computer and a phone at the same time?

The first solution was the mobile web page. If you wanted to target these users, you would run a mobile website version and a “regular” website version simultaneously, each optimised for the correct user.

Then the development of responsive websites optimised this process. The website design structure determines the device and browser being used. Then it displays the information published to the website in the most effective manner possible for each specific user.

Internet speeds are continuing to rise. Communities have moved from DSL speeds to gig-speed internet. The importance of 1 gigabit per second cannot be overstated. Even if gig-speed is compared to a broadband speed of 50 Mbps, we have internet speeds that are 20 times faster than just a few years before.

That means the potential exists for even more website design ideas to evolve in the future.

Over the past 25+ years, website design has seen some growing pains. We have seen innovative ideas become industry standards. We have also seen some trends thankfully fade away.

What will the next decades bring us with the internet? Let’s find out together.