The Web Designer Journey (History of the Web Design Career)

Today we will take a short trip down memory lane. We will go back some twenty (20) years and look at how the web design career has changed since the web was invented. We will look at the some of the notable web design trends of back then and how they affected the path web designers took afterwards. Without further ado, let us begin with some facts:

  • Web design has evolved so much over the last twenty (20) years.
  • The web was devised in the 1950’s to help American scientists to share information easily
  • In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist, invented the World Wide Web
  • The first website in the world was developed at CERN, where Berners-Lee worked and it was to the World Wide Wen project entirely

The future of the web back in those days was uncertain and web design wasn’t even recognized as a career choice. But then CERN released the World Wide Web software along with a library of code and a basic browser to the public, a move that allowed the web to flourish in great ways ever since. Flash Forward to 1993…

1993 – Oh Welcome, a New World

In 1993, the web was still a fairly new project that didn’t show much promise. As it were, many people were convinced the project would crash and burn to ashes. That was never to be; the project soldiered on and morphed into the World Wide Web 2.0 we use and love today. Back to 1993. It’s difficult to find websites that were built back in those days, but CSS wasn’t a reality. It never existed!

It was common to see websites that had cluttered information since they lacked in style. It was the web design dark age and knowledge was limited and web standards were as real as Santa. Anybody who could put together a simple web page came up with their own “web standards”. It was a mess, and yeah links were all blue and underlined. If you don’t mind the eyesore, you can use the Wayback Machine to see designs that reigned supreme back then.

1996 – Oh, What A Shame

People still didn’t have a clue how websites worked or why they were important in the first place. Web standards wasn’t a thing, and therefore, disarray was the order of the day.

Web designers from this era must remember the entrance of vibrant backgrounds that used colors such pink (oh yes, pink!), red and yellow amongst others. It was shameful and totally distasteful.

I mean, how long do you suppose you can look at a pink, yellow or red background before getting migraines? As if the vibrant backgrounds weren’t punishing enough, designers used font colors that were impossible to read. It was a difficult world back then but it was all part of the learning process. Can’t find anything from back then? Here is a great (and quite vibrant) example:


Yeah? You want to see another one?


You can’t even tell if this is funny or just too vibrant. How are you eyes? Headache much? Say no to vibrant backgrounds. The general rule of thumb when designing a new website is to use a white background and, preferably, black font.

Other than the weird color combos, 1996 saw the entrance of gif images. Do you remember that? Apparently, gif images were meant to liven up websites. What followed wasn’t exactly interesting. Web designers misused the gif images and the result was everything but tasteful.

People were still in the dark, skeptical or just didn’t know what to do with this new medium. Therefore, it was common to see many “under construction” pages. Font-wise, Times New Roman and Courier New ruled. Obviously, Google Web Fonts (or even Google) were unheard of. Hard times they were.

Late 1996 – Welcome CSS

Necessity is the mother of invention, CSS is born!

HTML coders noticed that they were retyping the same old tags again and again on the same page, leading to bigger HTML files and above all time consumption and frustration…

Then, someone had a great idea: have one file that defines all the values that those piles of tags would have done, and then have all your pages checking this file and formatting your pages accordingly. – Ross Shannon

Later in 1996, CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) was devised by the World Wide Web Consortium aka W3C. This new technology breathed new life into designs changing the future of web design forever.

Without CSS, organizing content on an HTML document was difficult. Web designers of that time even used invisible gifs for spacing! My oh my, that’s is sacrilegious. If you’re having a hard time forming a mental picture of how bleak the situation was, imagine building your website from scratch without CSS3. We are lucky folks. Lucky all the way 🙂

CSS quickly became part of HTML because of its many benefits. Then web designers started using logos as headers, a trend that has stuck around since then.

At about the same time, someone thought the idea of using buttons, boxes and icons would be cool. Boxes were predominantly used to surround blocks of content while buttons and icons were used in navigation menus or to draw attention. But alpha shading was still a dream, so graphics were edgy, so everything looked shaky. This is back in 1996:


It seems AOL were well ahead of others:


As you can see from the two examples above, web designers had learned a few things about adding images to their designs. However, they did not have much knowledge about image resolution or screen pixels. As a result:

  • Web pages did not fill up the screen, but left blank space that were ugly
  • Background images went repeat-crazy on everyone

Nobody knew what to do with all the extra space that was created when users viewed the websites on different computers. Extensive use of vibrant backgrounds, gifs, buttons and icons went on.  Web designers were learning, people were getting on the web – there was progress.

1998: Google was born

At first, it was extremely shy and nobody knew about it. But that never deterred them. The guys at Google have maintained a clean design that has worked effectively since then.

1999: We Want Glossy, And We Want it Now!

Web designers were tired of shady graphics, so they started experimenting with new visual characteristics. Color as an integral part of design was accorded the importance it deserved.

Web designers were beginning to appreciate the place of aesthetics and usability in web design. They started treating websites more as marketing tools rather than just colorful pages on a screen. Sadly, links were still blue and underlined. I guess designers weren’t bothered with links, color was the main issue.

Icons got a face lift and were mainly used to simplify navigation on many a website. Vibrant backgrounds might have given the entire world headaches for they were quickly replaced with white or black backgrounds.

Web designers felt measuring in inches was archaic and didn’t give them an edge when trying to improve the appearance of websites. They started measuring in pixels and ordering websites hence making information easily accessible. Google had everything figured out I suppose:


The above image looks better than all the others in terms of colors. Web designers didn’t stop at colors and pixels. They started experimenting with typefaces as well. They were bent on making the web colorful and interesting.

Still, we didn’t have responsive design figured out and “this site is best viewed in a certain browser” became the anthem. I recall using the same phrase a few years ago.

Icons were becoming even more popular and the use of animated gifs dropped significantly. Something else was making a buzz on the web; Flash.

2002: i, Web 2.0

The machine was evolving. Flash animations became popular all over a sudden. Intro pages were all over the place. At first, it was exciting but then patience isn’t something we all have. Flash took ages to load but we were all happy when web designers introduced the “Skip Intro” button. Well, you still had to wait for the button to appear but it was much appreciated.

More designers saw the importance of color in design. They were seeing the light per se. They started making more appealing websites. No, not flashy, just appealing.

Professionalism took a hold of every website owner and websites started claiming rights in the footer section. Forums, blogging platforms and email services started popping up all over the place.

Navigation links were animated and menus were introduced to other locations e.g. footer section. Enter pages were popular and color continued evolving. Image sizing using pixels was no longer an issue.

2005: Ten Years Later

The single page website was born. Let me explain. Web designers created a single page with links to other resources on the same page. The page usually had a table of contents at the top which linked to other sections on the same page.

The ‘Back to Top’ button was introduced to ease navigation. The background was getting a face lift as well. Web designers started using background images which opened a world of new possibilities. There was a typography rush as web designers experimented with various font sizes, colors, variations, weights, styles – name it.

2008: Now We Want Retro

Most people now had access to computers and the internet. Web design quickly became a widespread field of study and career possibilities keep opening up each dawn. Then pixel art made a debut paving way for retro design. The two played well together it became a widely-accepted trend.

2010, 2011, 2012: Minimalist Design and the Portrait

Everybody was on the internet now and if your site was not shiny, you are quickly forgotten – sent to oblivion. This ushered in portraits and simple text. Minimalist design became a trend. More colors were introduced, things were looking up everywhere. It was the age of light.

2013 – July 2014: HTML5 & CSS3

HTML has grown into HTML5 and CSS into CSS3. We now talk about responsive design on the breakfast table and we have more colors than we could ever use. Web design is a great career with so much promise. You can do things never imaginable before. It’s the dawn of a new era. To be continued…

Disclosure: This page contains external affiliate links that may result in us receiving a comission if you choose to purchase said product. The opinions on this page are our own. We do not receive payment for positive reviews.
About The Author
Freddy Muriuki
Freddy Muriuki

Freddy is a WordPress theme reviewer at WP Theme Raves, writer, web developer and founder of Vista Media Enterprises, a nice place dedicated to the online entrepreneur looking to boost conversion rates using effective web content.