Here’s a thought that’s been nagging at me for the past few months: Over the last decade or so web design has become increasingly homogenous, attempting to ape the styles of other, older media and losing touch with what could make it new and unique.
First, let’s get this caveat out of the way: I’m not sure if the above statement is true. I don’t like to apologise in advance, but while my gut says it is true, and is annoyed and upset by what we’re losing, my head is more circumspect and wary. I may have missed something or confused the wood for the trees. I’m not a design guru. I don’t keep up with the hot design blogs. I haven’t been excited by a type catalogue for twenty years. But, possibly like you, I’ve been using and making websites most days for fifteen years. So there is, against all odds, a chance I’m correct, and the statement holds water; web designers are merely copying print design, and not being “web” enough.
Let’s step back a bit.
In the early 1990s websites were limited. There was almost no customisable design to speak of. Backgrounds were grey, text was black and a standard size, links were blue and underlined. There was little control over layout. But gradually things changed and the possibilities increased.
By the mid-90s there was more colour (216 of them!) and HTML tables allowed more complex page structures. It was possible to exert more control over a page’s appearance, to actually design it. Since then we’ve gained more fonts, more colours, better code, bigger screens, more bandwidth, more computing power, finer control over appearance. These days we’re starting to get access to a huge number of fonts and HTML and CSS keep improving and growing, year by year.
At any point in time, this process of improvement has seemed frustratingly slow, but in retrospect it’s amazing how much has changed, how many possibilities have been introduced in a relatively short amount of time. Web designers now have much, much more freedom than they did ten, fifteen, twenty years ago.
And yet, despite this freedom, it feels like web design is becoming more dull, not more adventurous. We’ve shaken off the restrictions of the early days, opened up all kinds of technical possibilities, but web design seems less exciting and less experimental than it did fifteen years ago.
There’s a chance this is purely nostalgia on my part. Of course things seemed exciting when the web was new and empty and we had no idea what was ahead. Despite myself, a little part of me does indeed want to go back to that, when being online felt more special. But that little part of me is misguided, in the same way that people who want to go back to the happy, simple “good old days” in the real world are misguided. Just as those people forget the diseases and hardship and lack of communication, education or civil rights in the “good old days”, the nostalgic part of me overlooks the early web’s lack of speed, services, information, friends, technologies, etc.
For example, I look at HotWired from 1995 and wonder what such a site could look like now if it had continued along the adventurous path it was setting out back then. These days all news and magazine style sites generally fit into the same broad template: Black text on a white background and a main column with one or two side columns. Big or small, they seem to aspire to a sense of tidy inoffensiveness.
Personal sites, too, have become more dull. I’m not holding GeoCities up as a fine example of web design, but there was something special there, something “of the web”. Look at these examples picked at random. Yes, they sure are ugly, but they don’t look like objects that would have been created before the web. These days, most personal sites are neater, more structured, more akin to the aesthetics of conventional print design.
I don’t, by the way, wish to excuse myself from this decline in adventurousness. My own early personal websites were much more experimental than the current one, which was even inspired by the tidy design of a magazine. I’m very much at fault too.
I can see why this change happened, both to me and the web in general. There are several contributing reasons, including:
More rules. In the early days people were still deciding what worked and what didn’t. There was less accepted wisdom about how different kinds of websites should look, and you could try more things without them being “wrong”. The downside was that every site worked differently, and some of them badly.
More mainstreaming. These days every company is online in some fashion. The web has, on average, become more mainstream compared to the time when it was only the most adventurous who set up websites. It’s perhaps inevitable that, on average, web design is more dull, more mainstream. But it feels like even the kinds of people and organisations that would once have been among those early pioneers are settling for conventional design.
More automation. I almost forget that there was once a time before Blogger, before Movable Type, before Flickr, before any kind of automated tool that made online publishing easier. Back then, if you wanted to publish something on the web you had to write, or copy and paste, every page’s HTML. The growth of these automated tools and services is a very good thing, enabling people to focus on writing, taking photos, whatever they want to do. But this has meant that most people use standard templates of some kind, and these templates generally seem to follow conventional design rules of what looks nice and neat.
It’s easy to see why web design has become more homogenous, but it’s a great shame. It feels like we’ve lost the “webness” of web design over an incredibly short period. There’s something fundamental about the technology that lies behind all web design — right back to those old grey pages with their blue links — that perhaps should inform our contemporary designs. It feels like we’ve rushed through a hugely compressed process, discarding old design tropes all too quickly as new technologies enable new features and new fashions render old styles awkward. It’s as if Johannes Gutenberg went from printing his first primitive page in 1439 and by 1459 was already churning out full colour, embossed, foiled, pop-up picture books.
There was a time when the huge number of restrictions on web designers fostered greater creativity than is achieved now with fewer restrictions. Although we have vastly more possibilities open to us now, it feels like we’re trying to make web sites that adhere to an aesthetic developed over centuries of print, rather than finding something new from a couple of decades of the web. We had a blank slate in the 1990s, but it feels like we’ve given that up for aping print, whether modernist or more classical (both of which examples I love).
None of these unfairly-chosen examples are bad, but… If I was standing in 1995 and looking ahead to 2009 and was told how all of those technical restrictions would be lifted, of what would be technically possible, I’d imagine 2009’s web to look a lot more exciting than it does. I’d expect it to look less like a magazine or a newspaper and to look more like what the web could be.