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90s Web Design: A Nostalgic Look Back

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A nostalgic look back at 90s web design, and a warning to anyone whose website is an accidental anachronism.

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

The mid-late 1990s were the playful childhood of the worldwide web, a time of great expectations for the future and pretty low standards for the present. Those were the days when doing a web search meant poring through several pages of listings rather than glancing at the first three results–but at least relatively few of those websites were unabashedly profit-driven.

Hallmarks of 1990s Web Design

Of course, when someone says that a website looks like it came from 1996, it’s no compliment. You start to imagine loud background images, and little “email me” mailboxes with letters going in and out in an endless loop. Amateurish, silly, unprofessional, conceited, and unusable are all adjectives that pretty well describe how most websites were made just ten years ago.

Why were websites so bad back then?

Knowledge. Few people knew how to build a good website back then, before authorities like Jakob Nielsen starting evangelizing their studies of web user behavior.

Difficulty. In those days, there weren’t abundant software and templates that could produce a visually pleasing, easy-to-use website in 10 minutes. Instead, you either hand-coded your site in Notepad or used FrontPage.

Giddiness. When a new toy came out, whether it was JavaScript, Java, Frames, animated Gifs, or Flash, it was simply crammed into an already overstuffed toy box of a website, regardless of whether it served any purpose.

Browsing through the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of nostalgia for a simpler time when we were all beginners at this. Still, one of the best reasons for looking at 90s website design is to avoid repeating history’s web design mistakes. This would be a useful exercise for the tragic number of today’s personal homepages and even small business websites that are accidentally retro.

Splash Pages

Sometime around 1998, websites all over the internet discovered Flash, the software that allowed for easy animation of images on a website. Suddenly you could no longer visit half the pages on the web without sitting through at least thirty seconds of a logo revolving, glinting, sliding, or bouncing across the screen.

Flash “splash pages,” as these opening animations were called, became the internet’s version of vacation pictures. Everyone loved to display Flash on their site, and everyone hated to have to sit through someone else’s Flash presentation.

Of all the thousands of splash pages made in the 1990s and the few still made today, hardly any ever communicated any useful information or provided any entertainment. They were monuments to the egos of the websites’ owners. Still, today, when so many business website owners are working so hard to wring every last bit of effectiveness out of their sites, it’s almost charming to think of a business owner actually putting ego well ahead of the profit to have been derived from all the visitors who hit the “back” button rather than sit through an animated logo.

Text Troubles

“Welcome to” Every single website homepage in 1996 had to have the word “welcome” somewhere, often in the largest headline. After all, isn’t saying “welcome” more vital than saying what the web page is all about in the first place?

Background images. Remember all those people who had their kids’ pictures tiled in the background of every page? Remember how much fun it was trying to guess what the words were in the sections where the font color and the color of the image were the same?

Dark background, light text. My favorite was orange font on purple background, though the ubiquitous yellow white text on blue, green or red was nice, too. Of course, anyone who will make their text harder to read with a silly gimmick is just paying you the courtesy of letting you know they couldn’t possibly have written anything worth reading.

Entire paragraphs of text centered. After all, haven’t millennia of flush-left margins just made our eyes lazy?

“This Site Is Best Viewed in Netscape 4.666, 1,000×3300 resolution.” It was always so cute when site owners actually imagined anyone but their mothers would care enough to change their browser set up to look at some random person’s website.

All-image no-text publishing. Some of the worst websites would actually do the world the service of putting all their text in image format so that no search engine would ever find them. What sacrifice!

Hyperactive Pages

TV-envy was a common psychological malady in 1990s web design. Since streaming video and even Flash were still in their infancy, web designers settled for simply making the elements on their pages move like Mexican jumping beans.

Animated Gifs

In 1996, just before the dawn of Flash, animated gifs were in full swing, dancing, sliding, and scrolling their way across the retinas of web surfers trying to read the text on the page.

Scrolling Text

Just in case you were having a too easy time tuning out all the dancing graphics on the page, an ambitious mid-1990s web designer had a simple but powerful trick for giving you a headache: scrolling text. Through the magic of JavaScript, website owners could achieve the perfect combination of too fast to read comfortably and too slow to read quickly.

For a while, a business owner could even separate the serious from the wannabe prospects based just on how (un)professional their business websites looked. Sadly, the development of template-based website authoring software means that even someone with no taste or sense whatsoever can make websites that look as good as the most biggest-budget design of five years ago.

Of course, there are still some websites whose owners seem to be trying to spark a resurgence in animated gifs, background images, and ugly text. ‘ll just have to trust that everyone is laughing with them, not at them.

Joel Walsh, who has no affiliation with Amazon.com, writes on web content and business marketing. Contact Joel to discuss your business web content copywriting: http://www.joelwalsh.com

90s Web Design: A Nostalgic Look Back
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