Web design has come a long way from the sites of old.
It may raise a wry smile among younger readers, but once upon a time having a website was considered cutting-edge. In the mid-1990s, small businesses didn’t generally have their own websites, and those that did were quite happy to cobble together something very basic. Written in limited HTML, these early sites look remarkably primitive by today’s standards thanks to their garish backgrounds and minimal artistic value.
Web design has changed a great deal over the last two decades. Today’s audiences expect bespoke fonts and dynamic graphics, with rapid download times on desktop or mobile devices. This latter attribute is perhaps the most important factor when creating a website here in 2016, with most web traffic displayed on portable devices and search engines penalising sites that take a long time to download over limited 3G/4G connections. File compression and monochrome backgrounds are in in the same way that dancing GIFs and blue hyperlinks are out.
At the same time, simplicity has become increasingly vital as attention spans drop and the volume of rival online material continues to expand at unprecedented levels. Key content needs to be positioned front and centre for maximum effectiveness, with easily-operated navigation menus in the same place on every page. The reliance on text meant many older sites sprouted numerous sub-pages, while others offered a stripped-down mobile version of the main site, but these page-heavy portals and redirects are increasingly unpopular nowadays.
Looking back at early websites, it’s interesting to note how static they were. That’s true not just of the text-based content (with no graduated Flash transitions or YouTube embeds to tax dial-up modems), but also of the written content. Most sites would launch and then remain unaltered for years, with new content often thin on the ground. This was an age before the importance of regular updates was adopted by webmasters keen to bolster their SEO rankings, when search engine results were often paid for and lacked today’s ubiquity.
Another unexpected phenomenon in web design has concerned the explosion in social media activity, and the way it has changed everything from marketing to complaints handling. Web-building platforms like WordPress are packed with social media plugins that enable recent tweets or Facebook posts to be displayed on homepages. Linking social media activity to a website in this way can duplicate the publicity for each post and update, maximising reach. Being able to share an image on Instagram or retweet a well-observed comment has become essential for any visual website, or brands that rely on audience engagement.
Sites should also work on any platform or device, without issue. That’s a step change from early sites that were often festooned with clickable links to download Internet Explorer and Acrobat Reader, or the days when video files came in a dozen incompatible formats. Universal accessibility is the mantra among modern web designers, so an ecommerce website should be as stable on a Safari-powered tablet as on a four-inch Chrome smartphone display.
One final difference between today’s websites and their Nineties and Noughties ancestors involves the historic reliance on tables to break up a page into separate articles, menus and adverts. Tables are visually inconsistent and require lots of rendering, whereas a single scrolling page provides a far slicker interface and can resize to suit the output device. Fads like neon tab buttons and 3D graphics have given way to crisp and understated interfaces that actually hark back to the simplicity of those early, pioneering websites.
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