A nostalgic look back at 90s web design, and a warning to
anyone whose website is an accidental anachronism.
Remember the days when every PC was beige, every website had a little
Netscape icon on the homepage, Geocities and Tripod hosted just about every
single personal homepage, and “Google” was just a funny-sounding word?
The mid-late 1990s were the playful childhood of the worldwide web, a time of
great expectations for the future and pretty low standards for the
present. Those were the days when doing a web search meant poring through
several pages of listings rather than glancing at the first three results–but
at least relatively few of those websites were unabashedly profit-driven.
Hallmarks of 1990s Web Design/p>
Of course, when someone says that a website looks like it came from 1996,
it’s no compliment. You start to imagine loud background images, and
little “email me” mailboxes with letters going in and out in an endless
loop. Amateurish, silly, unprofessional, conceited, and unusable are all
adjectives that pretty well describe how most websites were made just ten years
Why were websites so bad back then?
- Knowledge. Few people knew how to build a good
website back then, before authorities like Jakob Nielsen starting evangelizing
their studies of web user behavior.
- Difficulty. In those days, there weren’t
abundant software and templates that could produce a visually pleasing,
easy-to-use website in 10 minutes. Instead, you either hand-coded your
site in Notepad or used FrontPage.
- Giddiness. When a new toy came out, whether
crammed into an already overstuffed toy box of a website, regardless of
whether it served any purpose.
Browsing through the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine, it’s hard not to
feel a twinge of nostalgia for a simpler time when we were all beginners at
this. Still, one of the best reasons for looking at 90s website design is
to avoid repeating history’s web design mistakes. This would be a useful
exercise for the tragic number of today’s personal homepages and even small
business websites that are accidentally retro.
Sometime around 1998, websites all over the internet discovered Flash, the
software that allowed for easy animation of images on a website. Suddenly
you could no longer visit half the pages on the web without sitting through at
least thirty seconds of a logo revolving, glinting, sliding, or bouncing across
Flash “splash pages,” as these opening animations were called, became the
internet’s version of vacation pictures. Everyone loved to display Flash on
their site, and everyone hated to have to sit through someone else’s Flash
Of all the thousands of splash pages made in the 1990s and the few still made
today, hardly any ever communicated any useful information or provided any
entertainment. They were monuments to the egos of the websites’
owners. Still, today, when so many business website owners are
working so hard to wring every last bit of effectiveness out of their sites,
it’s almost charming to think of a business owner actually putting ego well
ahead of the profit to have been derived from all the visitors who hit the
“back” button rather than sit through an animated logo.
to?” Every single website homepage in 1996 had to have the word
“welcome” somewhere, often in the largest headline. After all, isn’t
saying “welcome” more vital than saying what the web page is all about in the
- Background images. Remember all those people who had their kids’
pictures tiled in the background of every page? Remember how much fun it
was trying to guess what the words were in the sections where the font color
and the color of the image were the same?
- Dark background, light text. My favorite was orange font on purple
background, though the ubiquitous yellow white text on blue, green or red was
nice, too. Of course, anyone who will make their text harder to read
with a silly gimmick is just paying you the courtesy of letting you know they
couldn’t possibly have written anything worth reading.
- Entire paragraphs of text centered. After all, haven’t millennia of
flush-left margins just made our eyes lazy?
- “This Site Is Best Viewed in Netscape 4.666, 1,000×3300 resolution.”
It was always so cute when site owners actually imagined anyone but their
mothers would care enough to change their browser set up to look at some
random person’s website.
- All-image no-text publishing. Some of the worst websites would
actually do the world the service of putting all their text in image format so
that no search engine would ever find them. What sacrifice!
TV-envy was a common psychological malady in 1990s web design. Since
streaming video and even Flash were still in their infancy, web designers
settled for simply making the elements on their pages move like Mexican jumping
In 1996, just before the dawn of Flash, animated gifs were in full swing,
dancing, sliding, and scrolling their way across the retinas of web surfers
trying to read the text on the page.
Just in case you were having a too easy time tuning out all the dancing
graphics on the page, an ambitious mid-1990s web designer had a simple but
powerful trick for giving you a headache: scrolling text. Through the
fast to read comfortably and too slow to read quickly.
For a while, a business owner could even separate the serious from the
wannabe prospects based just on how (un)professional their business websites
looked. Sadly, the development of template-based website authoring
software means that even someone with no taste or sense whatsoever can make
websites that look as good as the most biggest-budget design of five years
Of course, there are still some websites whose owners seem to be trying to
spark a resurgence in animated gifs, background images, and ugly text.
‘ll just have to trust that everyone is laughing with them, not at them.
About the author: If you want to avoid these mistakes in
your websitem Joel Walsh recommends you check out this HTML Editor.