2019’s best design book celebrates web design all the way from the ‘90s to now

A deep dive into the websites that made us – and how selfies have killed creativity.

What were the first websites you fell in love with? For me, it had to be Beck's website circa 1999 and the release of his seminal Midnite Vultures, that mad album's music mirrored in his homepage's bright and brash nature.

I can remember the first online game I fell for, the addictive, ambient techno-driven evolution of Viral Pursuit, as created by Globz aka Globulos (below.) There was also a Flash animation site that held me spellbound, filling the screen with a Fido Dido-like figure etched in white against a black background. I can't remember what that turn of the century website was, but if anyone knows, it'll probably be Rob Ford, whose Web Design: The Evolution of the Digital World 1990-Today is our best design book of 2019 (book link here via publisher Taschen.)

An illustrated guide to influential web pages from the moment Tim Berners Lee switched on the internet to our current era of apps, VR and Pokemon Go, the Taschen release is almost 700 pages long, with a different highlighted website per every two page spread. An insane amount of love and dedication is obvious; you'd expect countless diddly screenshots and little amount of context, but instead you get high-res versions of ancient imagery accompanied by insight from the influential makers behind the very websites that made us.

We reached out to Rob for an interview by email, finding out whether the old days of the internet were the last time you could make serious money as a fledgling designer, and which supposedly 'creative' powerhouse is behind the blandest designed website ever made.

Thanks for writing our design book of the year Rob! Which one or two sites would you say were - or are - wonderful feats of art and design?

"Wow, too kind! In fact, it’s every author’s biggest dream to hear those words :) 

"In 2003 Fantasy Interfaces created a portal for Time Warner’s Road Runner service, one of the most beautifully designed and intelligent information portals of the decade. Groundbreaking in many ways as it provided content at a click in the selected area of the site, without needing a total page refresh.

"It also had many customisable features too. In fact, in the last 16 years we haven’t seen anything on this level."

"Coincidently, also in 2003, Tokyoplastic gave us a truly unforgettable wow moment in web history with their absolutely unique website that was all about the visuals and animation (below.)

"As you loaded up the site, the sound effects were powerful and the loading animation totally original. On clicking to enter, a giant mouth opened up and swallowed the website in front of your eyes to finally reveal an interface like we’d never seen before.

"This level of art/originality is almost never seen these days and we have to ask ourselves why people are not being so personally expressive online anymore... maybe too much time trying to get a good selfie."

What entertainment institutions (shows, characters, creatives etc) of today would you say are here solely because of their impact during the early days of the web?

"Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and all that will follow in the experiential world all have their roots in the early experimental web. For example, in 2008, we experienced The Outbreak, a streaming online movie where the user’s decisions determined the outcome of the zombie movie they found themselves in.

"Augmented Reality experiences, face filters etc all have their roots in early Flash web development, like the first upload your face in 2005 for the film Wedding Crashers, where you got to upload your face for the first time ever and star in the movie trailer.

"Finally, Flash allowed Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim to create YouTube at a time when the only ways to incorporate video in a website was with Apple’s Quicktime or the likes of Realplayer, both a big headache and neither of which allowed for seamless integration and streaming. 

"So, the summary here is that the early days of the web was the pathway to everything we see today and not just online but all around us and even your smart, er, fridge."

What have been the biggest changes in online user experience over the years?

"The biggest change in online is that online no longer exists. We are not plugging a phoneline in to connect to a 33.6kb modem and waiting for our mums to get off the line so we can connect and become 'online'. We don’t wake up and wonder if we are breathing, we just are and we just are 'online' all the time. It’s life now."

What would you say is the worst designed site in the history of the web?

"This is a question I would always refuse to answer as heaping such negativity on anyone or any company is not my style. However! WPP.com, a company that employs over 130,000 people as of 2019 and owns some of the most creative agencies in the world had a website that barely changed from 2006 until 2018(!) I was always astonished how such a huge company with the best creative minds in the world, all the resources and all of the tools could be falling so short with their own website.

"As for today and terrible examples of web design, the answer is THE ENTIRE INTERNET. Crazy statement but what on earth have we done? Legislation has crippled the web, especially for Europeans who have to suffer cookie policy, Terms and Conditions screens covering all content on many sites and, worse, on mobile.

"Couple that with way too much advertising on many big websites and I find the current web appalling. I actually feel sorry - and I don’t mean to patronise here - but I really do feel sorry for people who are just coming to the web or who have in recent years and this is the norm for them.

"They missed the golden era, IMO, of beauty, fun and personality. No rules, no goalposts and this was the web Sir Tim Berners Lee invented, not what we have now."

Recent years have seen a homage to Internet 1.0 through throwback sites such as the one for the Captain Marvel movie, and a sort of fetish for retro design in movements like the vaporwave scene. What do you think about these nostalgic odes to the past?

"I love them but feel the generation gap is so wide that we’re only stroking the nostalgic sensors of middle-aged folk who were there 20-30 years ago, much like lots of recent TV advertising that are going big time nostalgic with 1980s and early 1990s music. Makes me wonder how many ad folks are having a midlife crisis and are tapping into mine as well!

"Having said that, if I was fresh out of education and looking to make my mark on the web, I would be tempted to recreate some of the early Flash websites from around 2001-2003 as I feel that style of work is ready for a renaissance as well."

Would you say the internet has had any impact on art and illustration, swaying creators to make everything 'digital ready' for the small screen?

"I think the honest answer here is that all fields have lost their category status. We don’t need to talk about the internet or the web anymore, this is the real world. Much like The Industrial Revolution touched all aspects of life and everyone, I’m sure they didn’t say, oh look at that wonderfully Industrial Revolution inspired bridge. A bridge was still a bridge."

Would you say the online boom of the 1990s was perhaps the last Gold Rush moment to be a designer, especially now in our age of lowly-paid creatives? 

"Yes, I would but it doesn’t need to be the last.

"If I can end on this… every person reading this can stop following the latest cookie cutter web template-style designs today. Personality is the unique thing we all have and it can be easily translated in our work, whatever that is.

"It’s what the early web was all about, people showing their personality online, so let’s own our personalities once again."

Buy Web Design: The Evolution of the Digital World 1990–Today in hardcover from Amazon for £26/$44.38.

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