Following on from the birth of the web in our blog last week, the late 90’s heralded the true arrival of the Internet in the popular conscious, and the birth of something approaching web design as download speeds improved and businesses and the general public started to take control of the webs evolution from the scientists. Website designers stopped being computer researchers and started to become something more akin to a graphic designer, with a sense of layout, colour and style.
In design style terms this was very much the age of the table. HTML has a function to create tables of data, scientists made this function to make it easy to present information in multiple columns and rows within a web page. Designers realised they could make really big tables that the entire web page fitted into, making it possible to have multi-column layouts for the first time, and the beginning of the web design staple of a stand out navigation menu, separate from the rest of the text and images. It became commonplace to see websites in two or three column layouts, usually with the menu isolated on the left hand side of the screen.
So essentially, early website designers were effectively hackers, finding ways to improvise very basic tools into doing all sorts of useful things for the visual presentation. They used images the same colour as the background to create space on-screen between chunks of text and pictures, played around with the effects that could be created with tiny animated images and a variety of background colours and textures.
It wasn’t long before a lot of people were interested in being a web designer and pushing forward this new frontier, or just claiming their stake within it. Unfortunately, most of these people couldn’t really be bothered to learn how to code in HTML so the first “wysiwyg” software (What You See Is What You Get) emerged, called Frontpage.
Using Frontpage you could drag and drop images and bits of text onto a website page and the software would work out all the code to present your layout for you. Being the first of its kind the software was incredibly buggy, producing endless pages of complicated code to produce even very simple layouts making download times really drag. This was rapidly followed by a slew of similarly poor products and the emergence of services like Angelfire and Geocities which offered free web hosting and a free online wysiwyg tool so anyone could make a website, for free, in just a few minutes.
It was all fantastic in terms of making the web accessible to everyone, a core concept behind its creation, but an unexpected side effect was the discovery that even fewer people are good at web design than are good at graphic design, and given this amazing opportunity of being able to broadcast anything to anyone for barely a penny people largely squandered it on conspiracy theories and porn.
The web became littered with DIY websites which rejoiced in using every colour, font and text size available all within the same paragraph, pages busily swarmed away with animated images and background and foreground colour clashed in vomit inducing ways. It was the 70s of web design, common sense went out the window and the world rejoiced in crimes to taste for many years.
Just like the 70s, some good stuff came out of it all though. Wysiwigs were often a stepping stone to creative individuals who felt a bit threatened by working in a medium of typed code and numbers rather than pencils and paper. Plenty of talented young and undiscovered artists discovered the web was a fantastic way to share their writing, poetry, music and films with a vast potential audience they could only dream of reaching a few years previously. Whilst web design was in its difficult ugly duckling phase, the big ideas behind the web as Tim Berners-Lee had conceived it were really getting soaked into the wider conscious and revolution was just around the corner.