Web design is still a young design discipline, even though the history goes as far back as 20 years. In the beginning, web design wasn’t about visual presentation, but the ability to share information globally. The technological foundations for web design was layed out in late 80s and early 90s, when Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web and the HTML language. The first website was released 6th of August 1991, on the address info.cern.ch, at the time looking like this: World Wide Web. This was nothing but plain text and hyperlinks – the basics of a functional website. In the years to follow, the demand to present the content in a better way pushed the technology forward. Designers needed more tools, and less obstacles when designing for the web. This lead to the invention of CSS, a simple way for designers to style the content in the HTML file. Finally, design became the important factor on the web, and web design was born.
1996, known by designers as “the year to remember, but not to repeat”. Design pushed the technology forward, giving designers a playground of vibrant colors, animated GIF images (remember “Under Construction” animations?) and default system fonts. To understand why design seemed so unconsistent at that time, you must understand how it was to design on a completely new platform, without any guidelines or best practices. Therefore I got hold of Mignon Khargie, named web designer of the year in 1996.
How did you get into webdesign all the way back in 1996, and which web designs earned you the title of web designer of the year?
I was a founder and the art director of Salon.com when it launched in November 1995. I created the prototype for the site which got us funding to begin work on the publication. So it was a body of work on Salon which garnered us attention for that Webby award.
Who were the inspirations for you? Since web design was quite new, did you seek inspiration from other creative fields?
Of course. We looked to everything, print, web, video. The people doing the most innovative work were at sites like Hotwired, Feedmag.com and Word at the time. HotWired had a extraordinary staff of developers and they made the site their playground. It was an experimental and very fun time for being on the web.
In the birth of the web, who designed for the web? Graphic designers, or those who knew how to code?
In the very early days I'd say developers and designers who were lucky enough to be able to team up with creative developers. And of course there were the hybrid designers, who understood enough of the coding language to produce outstanding work. Derek Powazek comes to mind (Fray.com, before it was a print edition), Yoshi Sodeoka, Barbara Kuhr & John Plunkett, and many more.
What tools for making websites were available in 1996?
Oh, hands. At least from my perspective. It was all new and we were all figuring it out.
How was a typical design process of a website in 1996?
Yowch. I can describe how it was at Salon. Salon grew exponentially. During 1996-2000, we redid the site each year. In 1996 we were a daily publication, with a sizeable art/production/technology staff. But it all never seemed enough. There were 100 needs to be met and never enough hands/time. In 1996 everything was being coded by hand, so all the artists knew some amount of code. We relied mostly on what we'd learned from the readership about what was working and what was not, with some amount of testing (again, never enough), and invariably each redesign was always met both with howls of protest and an equal amount of approval. The nays always registered first, though, they were the loudest. And we'd sweat through it all, making tweaks along the way, then readers would get used to that round of changes and things would settle down.
Many websites from the middle of the 90s suffers from usability and accesibility issues. Did designers at that time look at web design as something entirely different than graphic design, so there were other rules and principles when designing for the web?
I'm sure! I know at Salon we didn't have enough developer time to go around, so we relied on readability: making pages that looked good and could be easily digested. We were doing daily illustration back then. Photography was relatively expensive and not as accessible as it is now. I don't know that you can say "suffer from," since this was the days of the Wild Web. It was experimental. It was new.
Is it right to assume that web designers in the 90s were inspired by the technolgy aesthetic and digital idealism? Was web design influenced by for example early Wired Magazine’s aesthetic and their belief of a technological utopia?
I love this question. Yes! And no. You have to understand that we were working in the early days of the web and it was a playground. We were all peeking over each other's shoulders. HotWired blazed a trail but I don't think you could say that many of us were Wired acolytes. What we envied was their development team and, seemingly, the time they had for their projects. And the purity of their concept. It worked for their audience. They began an aesthetic conversation that others took up.
So, to what extent did technology dictate the design?
Insofar that sites were lucky enough to have those kinds of resources. At HotWired for instance, and Word, technology supported design (that's an important distinction). As it should: we were on computers, digested on backlit monitors. This wasn't print.
Why is it extremely hard to identify specific stylistic trends in the 90s and early 00s?
I think that would be hard if those pages no longer exist. I haven't looked lately for examples of HotWired, Word or Feed and if those are gone it's a real void. At Salon we do have an archive of early pages but it's a little tedious to find things since you have to hunt and peck. It was all archived by hand. HotWired made the web palette smoke.