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Website Design History: A Look Back at 30+ Years of Website Design

What was your first ever memory of a website? Was it purely text-based? Maybe it was jam-packed with colours, images and buttons? Or perhaps it was more sleek and consistent?

Websites have certainly come a long way since the early 90s and like everything else, have been getting better and better as technology advances. But what did early websites look and function like?

The First-Ever Website

The first official ‘website’ was created by computer scientist and all-around clever man, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. This website was created by Tim as an information hub all about the world wide web. It contained information on how others can create their own web pages using hypertext and general instructions on how to navigate the site. The reason Berners-Lee made that website? Simply to just make life a little easier for others. What a thoughtful chap.

The 90s: Little Colour, Lots of Text

The 1990s. Pop culture was in its prime, fashion statements were perhaps more questionable and websites were very simple.

Websites in the 1990s were definitely not known for standing out or being pretty to look at. That commonplace coding language, HTML, was the building blocks for constructing a website. Early HTML could only stretch as far as creating text using <tags>, there was initially no way of adding images or media of any kind. As time went on, HTML began to develop in structure and layout. Sites would still be crammed with text, but now they could be formatted using tables for easier navigation.

The real advancement of websites began to develop during the late 90s when pages started to incorporate more colour and structure became a core design feature of websites. This being said, websites still had a long way to go. The concept of user experience and interaction hadn’t really begun to form and it was more about sticking everything and anything onto the page. Designers experimented with colours, layout and style, resulting in web pages that looked far too busy.

One common pattern you may have notice amongst these 90s websites was the typography. A majority of the websites that existed in the 90s had the same or similar fonts simply due to the limited options of typefaces that existed. Popularly used fonts included Arial, Courier New, Times New Roman and that dreaded Comic Sans.

Sainsbury, McDonalds, BBC &  Apple Websites From The 90s

The 00s: Out With the Old, in With the New

HTML was now being supported more with CSS, which allowed for a division between content (HTML) and design (CSS).

Pages were also being designed with a little less noise and designers were finally taking advantage of using whitespace. We’re still not at the point we are in present-day design (there was still a LOT of text on these websites) but at least there was a bit more coordination being built.

In the year 2004, came the introduction of Web 2.0. Now the ball was really rolling and websites started becoming more interactive, engaging and less noisy. Web 2.0 made data both readable and writable which was not the case beforehand and additionally allowed site content to be dynamic rather than static. Web 2.0 added a new layer of engagement to websites, the implementation of multimedia allowed websites to now add interactive components. Thanks to evolving styles and trends, a little more attention was being paid to interfaces, branding, typography and colours. Although, we must admit, websites still looked a little rubbish.

As the 2000s went on, the rise and popularity of Google meant that websites were looking at SEO with a more serious attitude. Search engine optimisation on websites was being honed over time to try and increase site traffic and audience engagement. Whilst this was the case, SEO still needed some perfecting. A lot of professionals that were practicing SEO techniques would absolutely stuff their websites with keywords, making copy sometimes a little difficult to interpret. Websites were also overloaded with content of all forms, both relevant and irrelevant, making it quite the challenge for users to locate anything they actually get value from.

Sainsbury, McDonalds, BBC &  Apple Websites From The 00s

The 10s: A New Era Has Dawned

We’ve reached the 2010s. The era of filters, influencers, viral videos and that one mobile app where you lined up sweeties of the same colours to make combos (you know the one).

The 2010s was when UX and UI really started to dominate the website design and development scene. The rise of technology meant that we were much more glued to our screens and subsequently our attention spans began to take a bit of a nosedive. So much so that our average attention span now is estimated to be roughly 7 seconds. That’s less than a goldfish’s. This massively impacted user experience and the way websites were designed. A sniff of messy layout, difficult to follow content or painfully slow loading times and people will bounce. Quite literally.

At the start of 2010, the term ‘ui’ was searched more than 5 times as frequently as its counterpart term, ‘ux’ (according to Google Trends). This just shows how little developers at the time thought about a user’s experience on a website. User experience only really started becoming polished as a concept during the mid-2010s. This was when the focus started shifting from making sure a website looked aesthetically pleasing to ensuring that a site functioned optimally.

Mobile technology forced web designers to completely rethink the way they built websites with over half of all website traffic worldwide coming mobile phones by the end of 2016. The big word floating around when talking about websites was ‘responsive’. The demand for websites that were suited for mobiles, meant that the demand for responsiveness also simultaneously skyrocketed. Nobody will visit your website if the menu does not open or the website loads too slowly.

Sainsbury, McDonalds, BBC &  Apple Websites From The 10s

Present-Day: Content is King

You’re probably more familiar with websites that are both visually and technically sleek, minimal and far easier to navigate.

A key feature of pretty much all websites nowadays is the content. The surge in content creation means a higher demand now exists for content creators, digital marketers, copywriters and other related roles. The introduction of these roles has allowed businesses to plan and publish content for their websites using marketing strategies. And likewise, websites are a key part of said strategies themselves.

Content such as blogs, e-books, podcasts, downloadable content helps a website retain engagement from its visitors and enables more usage. This is one small crumb of the overall biscuit called inbound marketing.

Our friends, UX and UI are a core part of content creation and allow websites to have an added layer of engagement to help retain users. Content must no longer just inform people but also drive a narrative. A good story is worth reading and this concept of storytelling is what content such as blogs and even website copy can incorporate to engage with users.

Nobody has time anymore to go digging into services and products. People want answers and they want them quickly. Both the website design and the content needs to be able to provide a swift solution to users’ problems and provide them with what they want right in front of their faces.

Sainsbury, McDonalds, BBC &  Apple Websites Now

Milk & Tweed: Our Website Through the Ages

We couldn’t leave you without a little personal example of how websites have evolved. Now, whilst Milk & Tweed’s first website didn’t exist in the 90s or early 2000s, our first website was definitely different to the beautiful and responsive one you see today.

milk & tweed website 2014
milk & tweed website 2022

One thing you may have noticed over the years is the branding. All of our website examples from McDonalds to BBC and even our site, has gone through it’s different phases. This just goes to show how much a website can reflect a business’ identity.

If you’re looking to start your website story, Milk & Tweed have a strong background of creating websites that are worth spreading the word about. We’re just a click away.

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