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Web design history: Breaking down the major milestones

web design history
By Drazen Vujovic. Last Updated February 2, 2024

If you’re up for a journey of innovation and creativity, perhaps you should learn about the history of web design. It’s a unique digital ecosystem that went through multiple changes in little over three decades. 

Much like the hairstyles of the 80s, the web designs of the past may make you cringe, but they were the height of fashion at the time. Read on for a brief history of web design, and learn how it evolved to the modern era of complex designs and interactive websites. 

The early days of web design (1990-1995)

Les Horribles Cernettes, the Internet’s first image (Source)

The history of web design truly begins in the early 1990s. Back then, the technology was limited, and web design was a relatively basic process. The first websites were text-based. They consisted of simple HTML code for headings, links, and paragraphs. 

There were no fancy graphics or multimedia elements — most sites were designed with functionality in mind rather than aesthetics. The layout used to be simple and without visual hierarchy, so the entire navigation came down to a few hyperlinks linking to other pages on the same website. 

Here’s a brief overview of key tech innovations that powered web design in the early 1990s: 

  • The World Wide Web was created by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989.
  • Berners-Lee also developed the first website ever that went live on August 6, 1991.
  • HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) was released in 1991 as the standard markup language for creating web pages.
  • The introduction of HTTP v0.9, the first version of the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, also took place in1991. It enabled the transfer of basic HTML pages over the Internet.
  • The first image on the Internet, Les Horribles Cernettes, was uploaded by Tim Berners-Lee in 1992.
  • Yahoo went live in 1994 and quickly became one of the most popular web portals of the era.
  • The establishment of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in 1994 helped develop web standards.
  • Web scripting languages JavaScript and PHP 1.0 made it possible to design more interactive and dynamic web pages.
  • The release of Internet Explorer 1.0 in 1995 popularized the World Wide Web among mainstream users.
  • HotWired published the first web banner ad in 1994, paving the way for online advertising as a business model.

Web development is on the rise (1995-2000)

As the 1990s came to a close, the limitations of HTML became more apparent. Developers and designers craved more control over the visual design of their websites, and the solution came in the form of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets).

CSS was introduced in 1996 as a way to separate content from presentation on web pages. This allowed developers to create more sophisticated layouts, opening up new possibilities for design. Thanks to CSS, designers could specify design elements like colors, fonts, spacing, and web layout.

At the same time, Macromedia Flash made it possible to create interactive animations and multimedia content on a web page. Flash allowed designers to make dynamic websites that could hold users' attention much longer. 

Other innovations that influenced web design in this period include: 

  • Dynamic HTML (DHTML) added to the interactivity of web pages by combining HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.
  • An open-source web browser, Mozilla (1998), introduced new features like tabbed browsing and pop-up blocking.
  • “Design is Kinky” became a popular online community that celebrated experimental and unconventional web design.
  • Macromedia Fireworks was launched in 1998. With it, a web designer could quickly create website layouts and graphics for the web.
  • The most powerful search engine of our era, Google, was created in 1998. Google greatly influenced how websites were designed and optimized for search engines.
  • The first favicons were designed in 1999. They’ve been used for website branding ever since.
  • DeviantArt used to be an extremely popular platform for showcasing digital art in the early 2000s. It inspired many web designers to experiment with new styles and techniques.

Responsive web design era (the early 2000s)

The early 2000s were a time of rapid development in web design. The basic website creation technologies had been established, but there was still a lot of work to do. But there was a problem — building sites that can work well on multiple devices with different screen sizes.

That’s why the responsive design era was a period of experimentation. By this point, we could already notice new trends like social media design. Here are some of the key developments in this period:

  • The first version of Internet Explorer 6 was released in 2001. It was a major milestone because the sixth version introduced CSS support.
  • WordPress, a content management system that now powers over 40% of the Internet, came to life in 2003. The platform quickly became the most popular CMS among web designers and developers.
  • In 2004, the first version of Firefox was released. This browser became a popular alternative to Internet Explorer thanks to its new features like tabbed browsing and add-ons.
  • The rise of social media platforms like MySpace and Facebook (2003 and 2004, respectively) influenced countless web design trends. Social networks were the main reason why many websites adopted a more community-focused approach.
  • The launch of the first iPhone in 2007 marked the beginning of the mobile revolution, but we’ll talk more about that in the next section.

Mobile web design (late 2000s and early 2010s)

One of the critical leaps in web design occurred in the late 2000s. As smartphones took the world by storm, every web designer had to prioritize mobile design in their website development efforts. In practice, this meant optimizing websites for smaller screens and touch navigation.

Although it sounds simple, mobile-first design actually required a huge shift in thinking for designers. Instead of building complex web content, they had to change the approach by keeping things simple because users started expecting an effortless and intuitive experience. 

Here’s an overview of key innovations in this period:

  • The biggest search engine launched Google Chrome in 2008. This web browser popularized minimalist design through the prioritization of speed and user experience.
  • Facebook introduced the "Like" button in 2009. Although simple, the feature revolutionized social networking by allowing users to engage with social media content in a single click.
  • One of the most commonly used search engines, Bing, has been active since 2009. This platform offered a visually rich search experience, with features like video and image search.
  • Typekit revolutionized typography on the web. It gave designers a simple way to find and use high-quality, licensed fonts.
  • Pinterest was launched in 2010, and it introduced a new way of organizing and sharing content on the web. Its main focus was on visual inspiration and discovery, while its grid-based layout quickly became an iconic feature.
  • Google Web Fonts made it easier for designers to access a vast library of free and web-optimized fonts. 

Modern web design trends 

New web design styles became inevitable with improvements in technology and changes in user behavior. One of the most popular trends of our era is flat design. It’s a web design style that appreciates minimalism above all. 

Flat design is dominant because it helps users to focus on the content of the website — they can quickly find what they need. But let’s not forget another major trend: material design. This style is all about using bold colors, shadows, and depth to create a more tactile and interactive user experience. 

Here’s a recap of some of the latest events that have impacted modern web design:

  • The launch of Instagram in 2010 changed the way we share and consume visual content. 
  • ReactJS, a JavaScript library for building user interfaces, was released in 2013. This program enabled developers to create complex and dynamic web applications.
  • Google's material design was a major innovation back in 2014. 
  • A cloud-based design tool Figma was a game changer in 2016 because it successfully combined two features — cloud accessibility and native app functionality. 
  • The end of Flash was a significant event in web design. It marked the end of an era, proving that responsive web technologies were the only way to meet the expectations of modern users.

What’s next for web design?

The history of web design shows that the industry constantly adapts to new technologies and user demands. So, while it is hard to predict the future, it looks like AI and machine learning have the greatest potential to influence web design.

These two technologies are likely to help designers create personalized web experiences for individual users. This means we’ll soon get endless responsive design possibilities, with the kind of versatility that seemed impossible just a decade or two ago.

Drazen Vujovic

Dražen Vujović is a journalist and content writer. More importantly, he is a father of two and a long-distance runner.

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