Web Design in the 1990s: A Nostalgic Look Back

A nostalgic look back at the web design of the 1990s, along with a warning to anyone whose website is inadvertently out of date.

Remember when every computer was beige, every website had a Netscape icon on the homepage, Geocities and Tripod hosted virtually every personal website, and “Google” was just a funny-sounding word?

The mid-to-late 1990s were the playful youth of the worldwide web, a time of high hopes for the future and low expectations for the present. In those days, conducting a web search necessitated sifting through several pages of listings rather than glancing at the top three results; however, relatively few of those websites were blatantly profit-driven.

Web Design Traits of the 1990s

Obviously, it is not a compliment when someone says that a website looks like it was created in 1996. You begin to imagine obnoxious background images and “email me” mailboxes with an endless loop of incoming and outgoing messages. Just ten years ago, the majority of websites were amateurish, silly, unprofessional, arrogant, and inaccessible.

Why were websites so poor in the past?

Knowledge. Prior to authorities such as Jakob Nielsen evangelizing their research on web user behavior, few people knew how to create a good website.

Difficulty. In those days, there was a dearth of software and templates that could generate a visually appealing, user-friendly website in 10 minutes or less. You manually coded your website in Notepad or used FrontPage.

Giddiness. When a new toy was introduced, whether it was JavaScript, Java, Frames, animated GIFs, or Flash, it was crammed into a website’s already crowded toy box, regardless of whether it served a purpose.

When perusing the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine, it’s difficult not to feel a twinge of nostalgia for a time when we were all novices. Still, one of the best reasons to study website design from the 1990s is to avoid repeating the web design mistakes of the past. This would be a useful exercise for the unfortunate number of personal homepages and small business websites that are retro by accident.

Cover Pages

Around 1998, websites across the Internet discovered Flash, a software that made it simple to animate images on websites. Suddenly, you could no longer visit fifty percent of web pages without enduring at least thirty seconds of a rotating, glinting, sliding, or bouncing logo.

These opening animations, known as “splash pages” in Flash, became the internet’s equivalent of vacation photos. Everyone enjoyed displaying Flash on their website, but loathed having to view someone else’s Flash presentation.

Few of the tens of thousands of splash pages created in the 1990s and the few that remain today have ever provided useful information or entertainment. They were monuments to the website owners’ egos. Still, in this day and age, when so many business website owners are striving to squeeze every last drop of efficiency out of their sites, it’s almost endearing to imagine a business owner putting ego ahead of the profit that would have been generated from all the visitors who clicked “back” rather than watch an animated logo.

Textual Problems

“Welcome to…” In 1996, the word “welcome” was required on every website’s homepage, frequently in the largest headline. After all, isn’t it more important to say “welcome” than to explain what the page is about?

Background visuals Remember all those people whose background on every page was a mosaic of their children? Remember how entertaining it was to guess the words in the sections where the font color and the image color were identical?

With a dark background and light text. My favorite combination was orange text on a purple background, although the ubiquitous yellow-white text on blue, green, or red was also quite attractive. Obviously, anyone who makes their text more difficult to read with a silly gimmick is doing you the courtesy of letting you know they could not have written anything worth reading.

Center entire paragraphs of text. In the end, haven’t millennia of flush-left margins simply rendered our eyes lazy?

This site is best viewed with Netscape 4.666 and a resolution of 1,000×3300. It was always amusing when site owners believed anyone other than their mothers would alter their browser settings to view a random person’s website.

Publishing consisting solely of images, with no accompanying text. Some of the worst websites actually provide a service to the world by encoding all of their text as images so that search engines will never find them. What a price!

Pages with Hyperactive Content

In the 1990s, TV-envy was a prevalent psychological disorder in web design. As streaming video and even Flash were still in their infancy, web designers resorted to making page elements move like Mexican jumping beans because these technologies were in their infancy.

Animated GIF images

In 1996, just prior to the introduction of Flash, animated gifs were in full swing, dancing, sliding, and scrolling across the retinas of web surfers attempting to read the page’s text.

Scrollable Text

In case you were finding it too easy to ignore all the moving images on the page, an ambitious web designer of the mid-1990s devised a simple but effective method for giving you a headache: scrolling text. Through the magic of JavaScript, website owners could achieve the ideal balance between too fast for comfortable reading and too slow for quick reading.

For a time, a business owner could distinguish between serious and want tobe prospects based solely on the (un)professional appearance of their websites. Unfortunately, the development of template-based website authoring software has made it possible for anyone, regardless of taste or common sense, to create websites that look as good as the most expensive design from five years ago.

There are still some websites whose proprietors appear to be attempting to revive animated GIFs, background images, and ugly text. They will simply need to have faith that everyone is laughing with them, not at them.

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