What is Web Design?

Web design is the design, production, and maintenance of websites. As such, it encompasses a number of skill sets, including graphic design, HTML, CSS, Javascript, Php and related coding languages. The requirements for web design vary greatly depending on its use and purpose. It may include front-end design (graphic design), database programming, responsive website design (for mobile compatibility) and other forms of web engineering.

A Brief History of Web Design

For small businesses, a basic website may include HTML coded pages with visual design features, and possibly a Content Management System (WordPress is a popular choice) that allows for easy content editing, updates, and additions. Larger businesses may need more complex database programming for e-commerce, multiple authors, and industry-specific features. Web Design technology is always developing and advancing. Web designers need to stay up-to-date with both current web design technologies and search engine standards.

The History of Web Design

Web design, as a profession, is just over two decades old. As consumers and businesses began to use the Internet in the mid 1990's, the need quickly grew for designers to use graphics, typography, and HTML coding standards to create visually appealing web pages.

Prior to 1993, the Web was mostly text. Mosaic 1.0 was the first Web browser that could show images and text on the same page. It was the brainchild of a team of University of Illinois students (headed by Mark Andreeson and Eric Bina) looking for a way to make default Web pages more visual (prior to Mosaic you needed to click on a link to see an image, it could not be embedded in a Web page). This browser made possible the rudimentary beginnings of website design.

History of Web Design - HTML Tables Web Design

However, we can say that web design became a serious commercial endeavor with the introduction of the Netscape web browser in 1994. This browser enabled budding web designers to display their visual craft for the first time. Primarily it was through the use of HTML tables that web design had its first real breakthrough. Tables were HTML elements originally intended for formatting tabbed text. By cutting up .gif images and adding them to tables, web designers could create visually rich web pages that matched their imaginations. The Netscape Web browser became immensely popular because it used an updated version of HTML coding that allowed for many of the editing features budding web designers craved. Web design exploded on the scene as a commercial industry.

The Netscape Browser Made HTML More Web Design Friendly

Important Web Design Software Trends

Along with the design flexibility that tables and .gif images gave to web designers, Adobe PageMill, the first commercially successful web design software, opened web design to the masses. This WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) software allowed designers to create pages in a visual interface for the first time. Prior to this, you wrote HTML code and tested the results in a compatible browser like Netscape. My first website, a travelogue about Paris, France (shown above), was designed with this easy-to-master program. PageMill was a low-cost introduction to the basics of web design that started the careers of many early web designers.

The next major web design software was Dreamweaver. Introduced by Macromedia and later purchased by Adobe, Dreamweaver was very popular for developing 'brochure' style websites for small businesses. More sophisticated programming languages were developed for commercial websites such as Cold Fusion and ASP (developed by Microsoft). Javascript (developed by Netscape) and PHP are among the popular programming languages used currently along with HTML5 scripting for modern commercial websites.
History of Web Design - Website #3

Early Technical Advances that Advanced Web Design

The next major development to benefit web designers was the advances in Internet access speed. Web pages were becoming more visual, and many loaded very slowly in the dial-up modems that were the standard for Web access in the mid 1990's. As modem speeds advanced, web designers looked to make more visually rich web pages with animated gifs and javascript functions. It was a never-ending search for balance. How could we design web pages that are both fast-loading and visually rich?

Flash Animation Becomes the New Fad

In 1996 a new animation tool named Flash was developed that enabled clever online graphic animations and drawing/motion tools that went beyond the capabilities of standard .gif animations. This was the new craze for web designers, and we took to it like moths to a flame. It was not without its issues in the early days of the Web. Flash-enabled pages required a special plugin that was not compatible with many older web browsers. It made web pages slow... very slow in fact. It was not uncommon to wait 45 seconds or more for a Flash animated web page to load just to see a twitching logo or cartoon character. Web designers loved Flash because they could charge a premium for its development. However, after a brief period of infatuation, consumers grew tired of constantly waiting for Flash animations to load on commercial websites.

History of Web Design - Standards

How Web Design Benefits From Standards

As web design progresses and becomes more complex, standards become more important. International web coding standards ensure that compatibility with different browsers and devices is maintained. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the main international standards organization for the World Wide Web. Over the years, it has released upgrades and enhancements to HTML (currently in version 5), Cascading Style Sheets (CSS, the markup language for styling web pages) and other coding standards used for designing web pages. Of these, I would consider CSS to be the most significant development of the past decade for web design. This paved the way for complete control of font choices and typography settings, giving web pages a visual sophistication equal to print design.

Web Design Trends Come and Go

Web design has always had its fads. We've been through periods when garish background tiles, drop shadows, blinking text and Flash intro pages all had their moment in the online limelight. Increasingly, web design itself has become more standardized. This is largely out of necessity. Web design is a universal communication medium. Its visual language must be understood by people of diverse backgrounds and cultures. For that reason, we have seen a simplification of web page layouts and navigation menus to make them readily understood by the widest possible audience. Within those constraints, web designers can often do great work. A recent development that has brought about the need for more standardization is Mobile Web.

How Mobile Devices Have Transformed Web Design

Mobile devices such as smartphones, iPhones and tablets are reshaping the future of web design. For the past four years or so, Mobile friendly web design has become essential, especially for business-to-consumer websites. Formerly, we would design web pages that fit the standard widths of desktop and laptop computers. Generally, a 1000 pixel width (SVGA) was the standard for compatibility with most modern desktop/laptop monitors. The wide range of mobile devices of varying screen sizes demands a flexible solution that can fit all devices on the fly. Responsive web design is the standard for meeting this needs. Some opt for creating a separate mobile website. However, responsive web design is the most economical and efficient way to meet the needs of Mobile users.

Mobile Has Redefined Web Design in Recent Years

The History of Web Design - Responsive Websites

What is Responsive Web Design?

Responsive web design is one website that automatically reformats its web pages and navigation to fit the Web-enabled device of the viewer. Whether that device is a smartphone, iPhone, iPad or tablet, the web pages will adapt to fit its screen dimensions (hence the term responsive). It can safely be said that the vast majority of website design in 2016 and beyond must be Mobile-friendly. Responsive design is arguably the best solution for most web design applications. It must also be said that responsive websites are more complex than standard HTML, requiring a greater investment in time. One way modern web designers are keeping costs competitive is by using pre-made themes and layouts that are responsive. The most popular platform currently for developing flexible, theme-based responsive websites is WordPress.

What Is WordPress?

WordPress is a flexible, open source (free) Content Management System (CMS) that allows non-technical users to easily grow and manage their website content. It powers nearly 80 Million websites and is without question the most popular application of its type today. With its plugin architecture and universal support, it provides a great way to develop powerful and full-featured websites on a low-budget. It is also popular because the wide availability of free and low-cost pre-made themes. These themes are pre-made web designs that are added to WordPress and can be quickly customized to meet the needs of just about any website owner. Most modern web designers are also doing varying degrees of WordPress design due to its enormous popularity.

A History of Web Design - WordPress

What Does The Future Hold For Web Design?

Web design has become more standardized and uniform, especially in the past decade. This is for good reason. Just as all automobiles have essential controls in the same place for ease-of-operation, more websites are being designed to standards imposed by Mobile technology and user expectations.

Technology drives design. As Mobile technology matures and morphs, web design will also adapt. The world is choosing Mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets as the technology of choice for browsing the Web. That creates a demand for websites to be faster loading and simpler to use. That is a key trend shaping the future of website design.  Beyond that, we can be certain that the evolution of personal and computer technology will introduce new forms of interface design that extend beyond the Web. We can't wait to see what awaits us just over the horizon!

Has Web Design Become Boring?

Oh, the early days of web design! It was so full of compromises, limitations, and inventive ways of getting around them. There was the 256 Web Safe color palette, mud-slow dial-up modem Internet access, and the design-adverse clunkiness of HTML. Yes, those were the days... But early designers delighted in finding ways to cheat these limits to create inventive and appealing web design.

Has web design become boring?

That was then... Now the are limits of another kind. The web design tools we use today are more complex, clever and powerful than ever. However, much of the wildly diverse creativity that defined this craft in the early days is no longer there... Adobe Flash (formerly Macromedia Flash), an animation design tool that jump-started the creative options available to web designers is a dying beast at present.

Thus Spoke Gabo...

Perhaps the best example of what Flash designers aspired to was the revered 1997 Gabocorp website (see the sample video below featuring a screen capture of the Gabocorp website ). Web designers salivated uncontrollably when seeing this showcase of online animation purely for the sake of animation. We all sought ways to use whirling gizmos on websites of every kind. For many web designers, Gabocorp was our online Leonardo da Vinci and Flash our entry into a new Renaissance. Those were the days! When web designers look back with some sentimentality to the early days of web design, this is typically what comes to mind. Click on the Gabo screen grab for a sample of what enthralled us all in 1997.

gabo flash animation

What about now? The current web design tools (such as Bootstrap and WordPress) seem to encourage conformity of design. All web design is starting to look the same, they say... The creativity is gone... Some may make that claim, but is it really true?

Early Web Design Was Pretty Awful

The unvarnished truth is that web design in the infancy stage of the Internet was pretty awful. It was a glut of garish colors, cartoonish images, and confusing functionality. Anyone who says that web design was better "in the old days" is simply expressing a sentimentality that reality does not support.

There were no real standards, and the look of the Web was defined by coders infatuated with the technology, not true designers.

There were a few good designers (very few) online, but most good designers stuck with other creative trades that did not require so much boring code to master. Here are a few of the signature design tricks of 'old-school' web design to jog your memory of how bad it really was:

1. Paragraphs of text imposed over patterned or wildly colored backgrounds. Remember that? Hard to read and ugly as sin.

2. Tiny text. The standard Web fonts years ago looked awful at any size, so web designers often used tiny, barely legible text that hid the crudeness of standard typefaces. We were all trying to mimic the look of print design and it simply did not make for legible online copy (yes, I was guilty of this too).

3. Streaming music or audio on web pages that could not be turned off. Nothing told your coworkers that you were browsing the Web on company time quite like an unexpected blast of badly digitized music from a slow loading website.

4. Boring generic stock photography and 'clipart'. How many times would you see the same stock photo or image used by half of the websites visited on any given day? Early online stock photo sources all had the same awful images.

5. Flash animation intro pages. Now, be honest. How many of you enjoyed waiting three minutes for a Flash animated intro page on a website to load just to see a twitching logo or waving cartoon mascot? Maybe it was fun to watch the first time. But it became annoying pretty quickly. We designers loved it because it paid well to create these needless animations. Consumers hated it, and rightly so. Consumers also made it clear what they really want from websites. Information, fast and simple. As a result, Flash intro pages began to disappear en masse.

Have I brought back enough bad memories? Let's move on.

The Potential for Good Web Design Is Better Than Ever.

The modern tools used by web designers are by necessity somewhat conventional in the results they produce. However, there is sound logic behind that. For example, all automobile manufacturers put the steering wheel, brake pedals, speedometer, and other driver aids in predictable locations. This ensures that you can drive any vehicle from any manufacturer with a high degree of familiarity and safety. Everything is where you expect it to be. Modern tools for web design are programmed for a similar function. Most people expect website navigation and page layouts to conform to certain standards. They expect your website to operate much like every other website online. It should if it is to effectively serve the widest possible online audience.

Good Designers Can Work Within Limits

Creativity can thrive within the realistic limits imposed by current Web standards and tools. All design mediums have standards and limitations. Good web designers can create a mood, tell a story, and build a memorable online presence with the tools we now use. Have the limitations of oil paint and canvas ever stopped fine artists from creating great work? Web design is no different. We can find ways to use the tools to create good, and even great web design.

web design is not boring

Web design is still in its infancy. Give it some time. If you are a web designer, don't allow your thinking and work to become perfunctory. Do not consider the limitations of your tools a hindrance. Rather, see it is a creative challenge. -Don Peterson

Hopefully, you will not be bored by my freelance web design portfolio!

A Brief History of Web Design