Previously in web history…
After the first websites demonstrate the commercial and aesthetic potential of the web, the media industry floods the web with a surge of new content. Amateur webzines — which define and voice and tone unique to the web — are soon joined by traditional publishers. By the mid to late 90’s, most major companies will have a website, and the popularity of the web will begin to explore. Search engines emerge as one solution to cataloging the expanding universe of websites, but even they struggle to keep up. Brands soon begin to look for a way to stand out.
Alec Pollak was little more than a junior art director cranking out print ads when he got a call that would change the path of his career. He worked at advertising agency, Grey Entertainment, later called Grey Group. The agency had spent decades acquiring some of the biggest clients in the industry.
Pollak spent most of his days in the New York office, mocking up designs for magazines and newspapers. Thanks to a knack for computers, a hobby of his, he would get the odd digital assignment or two, working on a multimedia offshoot for an ad campaign. Pollak was on the Internet in the days of BBS. But when he saw the World Wide, the pixels brought to life on his screen by the Mosaic browser, he found a calling.
Sometime in early 1995, he got that phone call. “It was Len Fogge, President of the agency, calling little-old, Junior-Art-Director me,” Pollak would later recall. “He’d heard I was one of the few people in the agency who had an email address.” Fogge was calling because a particularly forward-thinking client (later co-founder of Warner Bros Online Donald Buckley) wanted a website for the upcoming film Batman Forever. The movie’s key demographic — tech-fluent, generally well-to-do comic book aficionados — made it perfect for a web experiment. Fogge was calling Pollak to see if that’s something he could do, build a website. Pollak never had. He knew little about the web other than how to browse it. The offer, however, was too good to pass up. He said, yes, he absolutely could build a website.
Art director Steve McCarron was assigned the project. Pollak had only managed to convince one other employee at Grey of the web’s potential, copywriter Jeffrey Zeldman. McCarron brought the two of them in to work on the site. With little in the way of examples, the trio locked themselves in a room and began to work out what they thought a website should look and feel like. Partnering with a creative team at Grey, and a Perl programmer, they emerged three months later with something cutting edge. The Batman Forever website launched in May of 1995.
When you first came to the site, a moving bat (scripted in Perl by programmer Douglas Rice) flew towards your screen, revealing behind it the website’s home page. It was filled with short, punchy copy and edgy visuals that played on the film’s gothic motifs. The site featured a message board where fans could gather and discuss the film. It had a gallery of videos and images available for download, tiny low-resolution clips and stills from the film. It was packed edge-to-edge with content and easter eggs.
It was hugely successful and influential. At the time, it was visited by just about anyone with a web connection and a browser, Batman fan or not.
Over the next couple of years — a full generation in Internet time — this is how design would work on the web. It would not be a deliberate, top-down process. The web design field would form from blurry edges focused a little at a time. The practice would taken up not by polished professionals but by junior art directors and designers fresh out of college, amateurs with little to lose at the beginning of their careers. In other words, just as outsiders built the web, outsiders would design it.
Interest in the early web required tenacity and personal drive, so it sometimes came from unusual places. Like when Gina Blaber recruited a team inside of O’Reilly nimble and adventurous enough to design GNN from scratch. Or when Walter Isaacson looked for help with Pathfinder and found Chan Suh toiling away at websites deeply embedded in the marketing arm of a Time Warner publication. These weren’t the usual suspects. These were web designers.
Jamie Levy was certainly an outsider, with a massive influence on the practice of design on the web. A product of the San Fernando Valley punk scene, Levy came to New York to attend NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. Even at NYU, a school which had produced some of the most influential artists and filmmakers of the time, Levy stood out. She had a brash attitude and a sharp wit, balanced by an incredible ability to self-motivate and adapt to new technology, and, most importantly, an explosive and immediately recognizable aesthetic.
Levy’s initial resistance to computers as a glorified calculator for shut-ins dropped once she saw what it could do with graphics. After graduating from NYU, Levy brought her experience in the punk scene designing zines — which she had designed, printed and distributed herself — to her multimedia work. One of her first projects was designing a digital magazine called Electric Hollywood using Hypercard, which she loaded and distributed on floppy disks. Levy mixed bold colors and grungy zine-inspired artistry with a clickable, navigable hypertext interface. Years before the web, Levy was building multimedia that felt a lot like what it would become.
Electric Hollywood was enough to cultivate a following. Levy was featured in magazines and in interviews. She also caught the eye of Billy Idol, who recruited her to create graphical interactive liner notes for his latest album, Cyberpunk, distributed with floppys alongside the CD. The album was a critical and commercial failure, but Levy’s reputation among a growing clique of digital designers was cemented.
Still, nothing compared to the first time she saw the web. Levy experienced the World Wide Web — which author Claire Evans describes in her book, Broad Band — “as a conversion.” “Once the browser came out,” Levy would later recall, “I was like, ‘I’m not making fixed-format anymore. I’m learning HTML and that was it.’” Levy’s style, which brought the user in to experience her designs on their own terms, was a perfect fit for the web. She began moving her attention to this new medium.
People naturally gravitated towards Levy. She was a fixture in Silicon Alley, the media’s name for the new tech and web scene concentrated in New York City. Within a few years, they would be the ushers of the dot-com boom. In the early ’90’s, they were little more than a scrappy collection of digital designers and programmers and writers; “true believers” in the web, as they called themselves.
Levy was one of their acolytes. She became well known for her Cyber Slacker parties; late-night hangouts where she packed her apartment with a ragtag group of hackers and artists (often with appearances by DJ Spooky). Designers looked to her for inspiration. Many would emulate her work in their own designs. She even had some mainstream appeal. Whenever she graced the covers of major magazines like Esquire and Newsweek, she always had a skateboard or a keyboard in her hands.
It was her near mythic status that brought IT company Icon CMT calling about their new web project, a magazine called Word. The magazine would be Levy’s most ambitious project to date, and where she left her greatest influence on web design. Word would soon become a proving ground for her most impressive design ideas.
Levy was put in charge of assembling a team. Her first recruit was Marisa Bowe, whom she had met on the Echo messaging board (BBS) run by Stacy Horn, based in New York. Bowe was originally brought on as a managing editor. But when editor in chief Jonathan Van Meter left before the project even got off the ground, Bowe was put in charge of the site’s editorial vision.
Levy found a spiritual partner in Bowe, having come to the web with a similar ethos and passion. Bowe would become a large part of defining the voice and tone that was so integral to the webzine revolution of the ’90’s. She had knack for locating authentic stories, and Word’s content was often, as Bowe called it “first-person memoirs.” People would take stories from their life and relate it to the cultural topics of the day. And Bowe’s writing and editorial style — edgy, sarcastic, and conversational — would be backed by the radical design choices of Levy.
Articles that appeared on Word were one-of a kind, where the images, backgrounds and colors chosen helped facilitate the tone of a piece. These art-directed posts pulled from Levy’s signature style, a blend of 8-bit graphics and off-kilter layouts, with the chaotic bricolage of punk rock zines. Pages came alive, representing through design the personality of the post’s author.
Word also became known for experimenting with new technologies almost as soon as they were released. Browsers were still rudimentary in terms of design possibilities, but they didn’t shy away from stretching those possibilities as far as they could go. It was one of the first magazines to use music, carefully paired with the content of the articles. When Levy first encountered what HTML tables could do to create grid-based layouts, she needed to use it immediately. “Everyone said, ‘Oh my God, this is going to change everything,’” she later recalled in an interview, “And I went back to to Word.com and I’d say, ‘We’ve got to do an artistic piece with tables in it.’ Every week there was some new HTML code to exploit.”
The duo was understandably cocky about their work, and with good reason. It would be years before others would catch up to what they did on Word. “Nobody is doing anything as interesting as Word, I wish someone would try and kick our ass,” Levy once bragged. Bowe echoed the sentiment, describing the rest of the web as “like frosting with no cake.” Still, for a lot of designers, their work would serve as inspiration and a template for what was possible. The whole point was to show off a bit.
Levy’s design was inspired by her work in the print world, but it was something separate and new. When she added some audio to a page, or painted a background with garish colors, she did so to augment its content. The artistry was the point. Things might have been a bit hard to find, a bit confusing, on Word. But that was ok. The joy of the site was discovering its design. Levy left the project before its first anniversary, but the pop art style would continue on the site under new creative director Yoshi Sodeoka. And as the years went on, others would try to capture the same radical spirit.
A couple of years later, Ben Benjamin would step away from his more humdrum work at CNet to create a more personal venture known as Superbad, a mix of offbeat, banal content and charged visuals created a place of exploration. There was no central navigation or anchor to the experience. One could simply click and find what they find next.
The early web also saw its most avant-garde movement in the form of Net.art, a loose community of digital artists pushing their experiments into cyberspace. Net artists exploited digital artifacts to create works of interactive works of art. For instance, Olia Lialina created visual narratives that used hypertext to glue together animated panels and prose. The collective Jodi.org, on the other hand, made a website that looked like complete gibberish, hiding its true content in the source code of the page itself.
These were the extreme examples. But they served in creating a version of the web that felt unrefined. Web work, therefore, was handed to newcomers and subordinates to figure out.
And so the web became defined, by definition, by a class of people that were willing to experiment — basically, it was twenty-somethings fresh out of college, in Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley, and everywhere in between who wrote the very first rules of web design. Some, like Levy and the team at Grey, pulled from their graphic design roots. Others tried something completely new.
There was no canvas, only the blaring white screen of a blank code editor. There was no guide, only bits of data streaming around the world.
But not for long.
In January of 1996, two web design books were published. The first was called Designing for the Web, by Jennifer Robbins, one of the original designers on the GNN team. Robbins had compiled months of notes about web design into a how-to guide for newbies. The second, designing web graphics, was written by Lynda Weinman, by then already owner of the eponymous web tutorial site Lynda.com. Weinman brought her experience in the film industry and with animation to bring a visual language to her practical guide to the web in a fusion of abstract thoughts on a new medium and concrete tips for new designers.
At the time, there were technical manuals and code guides, but few publications truly dedicated to design. Robbins and Weinman provided a much needed foundation.
Six months later, a third book was published, Creating Killer Websites, written by Dave Siegel. It was a very different kind of book. It began with a thesis. The newest generation of websites, what Siegel referred to as third generation sites, needed to guide visitors through their experiences. They needed to be interactive, familiar, and engaging. To achieve this level of interactivity, Siegel argues, required more than what the web platform could provide. What follows from this thesis is a book of programming hacks, ways to use HTML in ways it wasn’t strictly made for. Siegel popularized techniques that would soon become a de facto standard, using HTML tables and spacer GIFs to create advanced layouts, and using images to display heading fonts and visual backgrounds.
The publishing cadence of 1996 makes a good case study for the state and future of web design. The themes and messages of the books illustrate two points very well.
The first is the maturity of web design as a practice. The books published at the beginning of the year drew on predecessors — including Robbins from her time as a print designer, and Lynda from her work in animation — to help contextualize and codify the emerging field of web design. Six months later, that codification was already being expanded and made repeatable by writers like Siegel.
The second point it illustrates is a tension that was beginning to form. In the next few years, designers would begin to hone their craft. The basic layouts and structures of a page would become standardized. New best practices would be catalogued in dozens of new books. Web design would become a more mature practice, an industry all of its own.
But browsers were imperfect and HTML was limited. Coding the intricate designs of Word or Superbad required a bit of creative thinking. Alongside the sophistication of the web design field would follow a string of techniques and tools aimed at correcting browser limitations. These would cause problems later, but in the moment, they gave designers freedom. The history of web design is interweaved with this push and pull between freedom and constraint.
In March of 1995, Netscape introduced a new feature to version 1.1 of Netscape Navigator. It was called server push and it could be used to stream data back and forth between a server and a browser, updated dynamically. Its most common use was thought to be real-time data without refreshes, like a moving stock ticker or an updating news widget. But it could also be used for animation.
On the day that server push was released, there were two websites that used it. The first was the Netscape homepage. The second was a site with a single, animated bouncing blue dot. This produced its name: TheBlueDot.com.
The animation, and the site, were created by Craig Kanarick, who had worked long into the night the day before Netscape’s update release to have it ready for Day One. Designer Clay Shirky would later describe the first time he saw Kanarick’s animation: “We were sitting around looking at it and were just […] up until that point, in our minds, we had been absolutely cock of the walk. We knew of no one else who was doing design as well as Agency. The Blue Dot came up, and we wanted to hate it, but we looked at it and said, ‘Wow, this is really good.’”
Kanarick would soon be elevated from a disciple of Silicon Alley to a dot-com legend. Along with his childhood friend Jeff Dachis, Kanarick created Razorfish, one of the earliest examples of a digital agency. Some of the web’s most influential early designers would begin their careers at Razorfish. As more sites came online, clients would come to Razorfish for fresh takes on design. The agency responded with a distinct style and mindset that permeated through all of their projects.
Jonathan Nelson, on the other hand, had only a vague idea for a nightclub when he moved to San Francisco. Nelson worked with a high school friend, Jonathan Steuer on a way to fuse an online community with a brick and mortar club. They were soon joined by Brian Behlendorf, a recent Berkeley grad with a mailing list of San Francisco rave-goers, and unique experiences for a still very new and untested World Wide Web.
Steuer’s day job was at Wired. He got Nelson and Behlendorf jobs there, working on the digital infrastructure of the magazine, while they worked out their idea for their club. By the time the idea for HotWired began to circulate, Behlendorf had earned himself a promotion. He worked as chief engineer on the project, directly under Steuer.
Nelson was getting restless. The nightclub idea was ill-defined and getting no traction. The web was beginning to pass him by, and he wanted to be part of it. Nelson was joined by his brother and programmer Cliff Skolnick to create an agency of their own. One that would build websites for money. Behlendorf agreed to join as well, splitting his time between HotWired and this new company.
Nelson leased an office one floor above Wired and the newly formed Organic Online began to try and recruit their first clients.
When HotWired eventually launched, it had sold advertising to half a dozen partners. Advertisers were willing to pay a few bucks to have proximity to the brand of cool that HotWired was peddling. None of them, however, had websites. HotWired needed people to build the ads that would be displayed on their site, but they also needed to build the actual websites the ads would link to. For the ads, they used Razorfish. For the brand microsites, they used Organic Online. And suddenly, there were web design experts.
Within the next few years, the practice of web design would go through radical changes. The amateurs and upstarts that had built the web with their fresh perspective and newcomer instincts would soon consolidate into formal enterprises. They created agencies like Organic and Razorfish, but also Agency.com, Modem Media, CKS, Site Specific, and dozens of others. These agencies had little influence on the advertising industry as a whole, at least initially. Even CKS, maybe the most popular agency in Silicon Valley earned what one writer noted, was the equivalent of “in one year what Madison Avenue’s best-known ad slingers collect in just seven days.”
On the other end, the web design community was soon filled by freelancers and smaller agencies. The multi-million dollar dot-com contracts might have gone to the trendy digital agencies, but there were plenty of businesses that needed a website for a lot less.
These needs were met by a cottage industry of designers, developers, web hosts, and strategists. Many of them collected web experience the same way Kanarick and Levy and Nelson and Behlendorf had — on their own and through trial and error. But ad-hoc experimentation could only go so far. It didn’t make sense for each designer to have to re-learn web design. Shortcuts and techniques were shared. Rules were written. And web design trod on more familiar territory.
The Blue Dot launched in 1995. That’s the same year that Word and the Batman Forever sites launched. They were joined that same year by Amazon and eBay, a realization of the commercial potential of the web. By the end of the year, more traditional corporations planted their flag on the web. Websites for Disney and Apple and Coca Cola were followed by hundreds and then thousands of brands and businesses from around the world.
Levy had the freedom to design her pages with an idiosyncratic brush. She used the language of the web to communicate meaning and re-inforce her magazine’s editorial style. New websites, however, had a different value proposition. In most cases, they were there for customers. To sell something, sometimes directly or sometimes indirectly through marketing and advertising. In either case, they needed a website that was clear. Simple. Familiar. To accomodate the needs of business, commerce, and marketing online, the web design industry turned to recognizable techniques.
Starting in 1996, design practice somewhat standardized around common features. The primary elements on a page — the navigation and header — smoothed out from site to site. The stylistic flourishes in layout, color, and use of images from the early web replaced by best practices and common structure. Designers drew on the work of one another and began to create repeatable patterns. The result was a web that, though less visually distinct, was easier to navigate. Like signposts alongside a road, the patterns of the web became familiar to those that used it.
In 1997, a couple of years after the launch of Batman Forever, Jeffrey Zeldman created the mailing list (and later website) A List Apart, to begin circulating web design tutorials and topics. It was just one of a growing list of web designers that rushed to fill the vacuum of knowledge surrounding web design. Web design tutorials blanketed the proto-blogosphere of mailing lists and websites. A near limitless hypertext library of techniques and tips and code examples was available to anyone that looked hard enough for it. Through that blanket distribution of expertise, came new web design methodologies.
Writing a decade after the launch of A List Apart, in 2007, designer Jeffrey Zeldman defined web design as “the creation of digital environments that facilitate and encourage human activity; reflect or adapt to individual voices and content; and change gracefully over time while always retaining their identity.” Zeldman here advocates for merging a familiar interface with brand identity to create predictable, but still stylized, experiences. It’s a shift in thinking from the website as an expression of its creator’s aesthetic, to a utility centered on the user.
This philosophical shift was balanced by a technical one. The two largest browsers, Microsoft and Netscape, vied for market control. They often introduced new capabilities — customizations to colors or backgrounds or fonts or layouts unique to a single browser. That made it hard for designers to create websites that looked the same in both browsers. Designers were forced to resort to fragile code (one could never be too sure if it would work the same the next day), or to turn to tools to smooth out these differences.
Visual editors, Microsoft Frontpage and Macromedia Dreamweaver and a few others, were the first to try and right the ship of design. They gave designers a way to create websites without any code at all. Websites could be built with just the movement of a mouse. In the same way you might use a paintbrush or a drawing tool in Photoshop or MS Paint, one could drag and drop a website into being. The process even got an acronym. WYSIWYG, or “What You See Is What You Get.”
The web, a dynamic medium in its best incarnation, required more frequent updates than designers were sometimes able to do. Writers wanted greater control over the content of their sites, but they were often forced to call the site administrator to make updates. Developers worked out a way to separate the content from how it was output to the screen and store it in a separate database. This led to the development of the first Content Management Systems, or CMS. Using a CMS, an editor or writer could log into a special section of their website, and use simple form fields to update the content of the site. There were even rudimentary WYSIWYG tools baked right in.
Without the CMS, the web would never have been able to keep pace with the blogging revolution or the democratization of publishing that was somewhat borne out in the following decade. But database rendered content and WYSIWYG editors introduced uniformity out of necessity. There were only so many options that could be given to designers. Content in a CMS was inserted into pre-fabricated layouts and templates. Visual editors focused on delivering the most useful and common patterns designers used in their website.
In 1998, PBS Online unveiled a brand new version of its website. At the center of it all was a brand new section, “TeacherSource”: a repository of supplemental materials custom-made for educators to use in their classrooms. In the time since PBS first launched its website three years earlier, they had created a thriving online destination — especially for kids and educators. They had tens of thousands of pages worth of content. Two million visitors streamed through the site each day. They had won at the newly created Webby Awards two years in a row. TeacherSource was simply the latest in a long list of digital-only content that enhanced their other media offerings.
Before they began working on TeacherSource, PBS had run some focus groups with teachers. They wanted to understand where they should put their focus. The teachers were asked about the site’s design and content. They didn’t comment much about the way that images were being used, or their creative use of layouts or the designer’s choice of colors. The number one complaint that PBS heard was that it was hard to find things. The menu was confusing, and there was no place to search.
This latest version of PBS had a renewed design, with special attention given to its navigation. In an announcement about the site’s redesign, Cindy Johanson referred to the design’s more understandable navigation menu and in-site search as a “new front door and lots of side doors.”
It’s a useful metaphor; one that designers would often return to. However, it also doubles as a unique indicator of where web design was headed. The visual design of the page was beginning to recede into the background in favor of clarity and understanding.
The more refined — and predictable — practice of design benefited the most important part of a website: the visitor. The surfing habits of web users were becoming more varied. There were simply more websites to browse. A common language, common designs, helped make it easier for visitors to orient themselves as they bounced from one site to the next. What the web lost in visual flourish it gained back in usability. By the next major change in design, this would go by the name User Experience. But not before one final burst of creative expression.
The second version of MONOcrafts.com, launched in 1998, was a revelation. A muted palette and plain photography belied a deeper construction and design. As you navigated the site, its elements danced on the page, text folding out from the side to reveal more information, pages transitioning smoothly from one to the next. One writer described the site as “orderly and monochromatic, geometric and spare. But present, too, is a strikingly lyrical component.”
There was the slightest bit of friction to the experience, where the menu would move away from your mouse or you would need to wait for a transition to complete before moving from one page to the next. It was a website that was mediative, precise, and technically complex. A website that for all its splendor, contained little more than a description of its purpose and a brief biography of its creator, Yugo Nakamura.
Nakamura began his career as a civil engineer, after studying civil engineering and architecture at Tokyo University. After working several years in the field, he found himself drawn to the screen. The physical world posed too many limitations. He would later state, “I found the simple fact that every experience was determined by the relationship between me and my surroundings, and I realised that I wanted to design the form of that relationship abstractly. That’s why I got into the web.” Drawing on the influences of notable web artists, Nakamura began to create elaborately designed websites under the moniker yugop, both for hire and as a personal passion.
yugop became famous for his expertise in a tool that gave him the freedom of composition and interactivity that had been denied to him in real-world engineering. A tool called Flash.
Flash had three separate lives before it entered the web design community. It began as software created for the pen computing market, a doomed venture which failed before it even got off the ground. From there, it was adapted to the screen as a drawing tool, and finally transformed, in 1996, into a keyframe animation package known as FutureSplash Animator. The software was paired with a new file format and embeddable player, a quirk of the software that would affirm its later success.
Through a combination of good fortune and careful planning, the FutureSplash player was added to browsers. The software’s creator, Jonathan Gay, first turned to Netscape Navigator, adapting the browser’s new plugin architecture to add widespread support for his file format player. A stroke of luck came when Microsoft’s web portal, MSN, had a need to embed streaming videos on its site, a feature for which the FutureSplash player was well-suited. To make sure it could be viewed by everyone, Microsoft baked the player directly into Internet Explorer. Within the span of a few months, FutureSplash went from just another animation tool to an ubiquitous file format playable in 99% of web browsers. By the end of 1996, Macromedia purchased FutureSplash Animator and rebranded it as Flash.
Flash was an animation tool. De facto support in major browsers made it adaptable enough to be a web design tool as well. Designers learned how to recreate the functionality of websites inside of Flash. Rather than relegating a Flash player to tiny corner of a webpage, some practitioners expanded the player to fill the whole screen, creating the very first Flash websites. By the end of 1996, Flash had captivated the web design community. Resources and techniques sprung up to meet the demand. Designers new to the web were met with tutorials and guides on how to build their websites in Flash.
The appeal to designers was its visual interface, drag and drop drawing tools that could be used to create animated navigation, transitions and audiovisual interactivity the web couldn’t support natively. Web design practitioners had been looking for that level of precision and control since HTML tables were introduced. Flash made it not only possible but, compared to HTML, nearly effortless. Using your mouse and your imagination — and very little, if any, code — could lead to sophisticated designs.
Even among the saturation that the new Flash community would soon become, MONOcrafts stood out. It’s use of Flash was playful, but with a definitive structure and flow.
Flash 4 had been released just before Nakamura began working on his site. It included a new scripting language known as ActionScript, which gave designers a way to programmatically add new interactive elements to the page. Nakamura used ActionScript, combined with the other capabilities of Flash, to create elements that would soon be seen on every website (and now feel like ancient relics of a forgotten past).
MONOcrafts was the first time that many web designers saw an animated intro bring them into the site. In the hands of yugop and other Flash experts, it was an elegant (and importantly, brief) introduction to the style and tone of a website. Before long, intros would become interminable, pervasive, and bothersome. So much so, designers would frequently add a “Skip Intro” button to the bottom of their sites. Clicking that button as soon as it appeared became almost a reflex for browsers of the mid-90’s, Flash-dominated web.
Nakamura also made sophisticated use of audio, something possible with ActionScript. Digitally compressed tones and clicks gave the site a natural feel, bringing the users directly into the experience. Before long, sounds would be everywhere, music playing in the background wherever you went. After that, audio elements would become an all but extinct design practice.
And MONOcrafts used transitions, animations, and navigation that truly made it shine. Nakamura, and other Flash experts, created new approaches to transitions and animations, carefully handled and deliberately placed, that would be retooled by designers in thousands of incarnations.
Designers turned to Flash, in part, because they had no other choice. They were the collateral damage of the so-called “Browser Wars” being played out by Netscape and Microsoft. Inconsistent implementations of web technologies like HTML and CSS made them difficult tools to rely on. Flash offered consistency.
This was met by a rise in the need for web clients. Companies with commercial or marketing needs wanted a way to stand out. In the era of Flash design, even e-commerce shopping carts zoomed across the page, and were animated as if in a video game. But the (sometimes excessive) embellishment was the point. There were many designers that felt they were being boxed in by the new rules of design. The outsiders who created the field of web design had graduated to senior positions at the agencies that they had often founded. Some left the industry altogether. They were replaced by a new freshman class as eager to define a new medium as the last. Many of these designers turned to Flash as their creative outlet.
The results were punchy designs applied to the largest brands. “In contrast to the web’s modern, business-like aesthetic, there is something bizarre, almost sentimental, about billion-dollar multinationals producing websites in line with Flash’s worst excess: long loading times, gaudy cartoonish graphics, intrusive sound and incomprehensible purpose,” notes writer Will Bedingfield. For some, Flash design represented summit of possibility for the web, its full potential realized. For others, it was a gaudy nuisance. It’s influence, however, is unquestionable.
Following the rise of Flash in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the web would see a reset of sorts, one that came back to the foundational web technologies that it began with.
In April of 2000, as a new millennium was solidifying the stakes of the information age, John Allsopp wrote a post for A List Apart entitled “A Dao of Web Design.” It was written at the end of the first era of web design, and at the beginning of a new transformation of the web from a stylistic artifact of its print predecessors to a truly distinct design medium. “What I sense is a real tension between the web as we know it, and the web as it would be. It’s the tension between an existing medium, the printed page, and its child, the web,” Allsopp wrote. “And it’s time to really understand the relationship between the parent and the child, and to let the child go its own way in the world.”
In the post, Allsopp uses the work of Daoism to sketch out ideas around a fluid and flexible web. Designers, for too long, had attempted to assert control over the web medium. It is why they turned to HTML hacks, and later, to Flash. But the web’s fluidity is also its strength, and when embraced, opens up the possibilities for new designs.
Allsopp dedicates the second half of the post to outline several techniques that can aid designers in embracing this new medium. In so doing, he set the stage for concepts that would be essential to web design over the next decade. He talks about accessibility, web standards, and the separation of content and appearance. Five years before the article was written, those concepts were whispered by a barely known community. Ten years earlier, they didn’t even exist. It’s a great illustration of just how far things had come in such a short time.
Allsopp puts a fine point on the struggle and tension that existed on the web for the past decade as he looked to the future. From this tension, however, came a new practice entirely. The practice of web design.