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What Has Changed With Web Design?

Last week, a page flew around the internet called the “Geocities-izer.” For those who’ve been around the internet for a while, you’ll remember Geocities as being like the MySpace of its day. Anyone could put together a site, and usually everyone did. Most everyone made garish-looking pages with cheesy music, ugly graphics, and weird animations all over the page.

What the “Geocities-izer” does is take any page and make it look like it sprung from one of those anonymous users in 1996. For example, here’s youtube.com’s real page:

And here it is run through the Geocities-izer:

What you can’t hear by looking at that image is the tinny-sounding MIDI version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Deep Blue Something playing in the background.

Clearly, web design has come a long way. You could say that it’s because web design moved out of the hands of personal users and into the hands of professional website design companies, but there’s more to it than that. What’s changed? Why are web pages much more aesthetically pleasing now?

1) More speed. In the late 90’s you more than likely had a dialup connection, unless you were lucky enough to be one of the first people with high-speed internet. Either way, most pages had to be made of text and repeated graphics because that’s what most people’s internet connections could handle.

Also, that computer that you purchased back in 1997 for three grand more than likely has less than 1/20th the strength of the computer you own now. It probably has less strength than your cell phone, to be honest. That matters, since the vast majority of computers can handle anything you throw at them, and the internet speeds are able to keep pace as well.

What does that mean? Instead of repeated graphics and mountains of pure text, you can now enjoy a page with a real, actual background, lots of images to frame the page well, and good design principles being put in place.

2) Better expectations. When web pages first started springing up, most designers felt like they had to design their pages to look like a web page. That meant spinning graphics and colors everywhere. If you didn’t have them, then the page was just as boring as print media.

Now we have a better understanding of what a good web page should and shouldn’t look like. The answer: It should look like a real page should. The more complex and wacky it is, the more unreadable it is.

3) Better typography. One of the scourges of the internet is the font known as Comic Sans. Comic Sans is the default font for parties and crazy inter-office memos, but it looks awful on a website that purports to be professional.

However, it wasn’t too long ago when real, professional websites would have this and other crazy looking fonts. Not only that, but they would be difficult to read or merely look like they were put together like that MySpace user. Don’t just take my word for it. Click on this link to go to McDonalds first real website. Warning: Retina-searing.

By applying basic typographic principles, web design firms have been able to make pages pop in a way that was unimaginable not ten years ago. They’ve learned not to reinvent the wheel, but rather have bold and interesting word layouts that grab attention for the right reasons and not because of the seizure-inducing backgrounds of yesteryear.

4) Better style sheets. This is a feature most casual web users aren’t aware of, but it’s a big deal. A style sheet is a file that tells pages across the website of what features they should and shouldn’t use, what things they should show and what they shouldn’t. They first started becoming standard in 1995, but merely told the computer what fonts and colors were going to be used on the page. Beyond that, they didn’t really give a lot more information.

The next revision is what most of us use online today, and it’s helped to standardize media types and thrown in new font properties like shadows. The third revision is on the way, and it promises to give us even more features, like semi-transparent colors and new styles and borders. All of this helps pave the way for cleaner, more exciting pages.

5) Web-standard compliant browsers. Web browsing was a wild place in the late 90’s. There weren’t real standards as to what was good coding and what wasn’t, and even when they would try and put some standards in place, browsers like Internet Explorer would walk all over the standards, rendering them useless.

Now, though, browsers like Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, and, yes, Internet Explorer 8 are adhering to these standards, which make it easier for web design firms to make complex, interesting pages that will work no matter who is using them.

Certainly, web design has made some enormous strides, but there’s still more to come. Where does your web site sit? Is it closer to the Geocities sites of yore, or is it modern? Does it capture your audience’s attention for the right reasons? Make sure that your web design company knows about the recent changes to their field, and if they don’t, it’s time to switch.