Was early web design ever good?

May 30, 2019

When I first began my career as a web designer, it was at InterPow. The year was 1996. The "World Wide Web" was in its infancy. 56k baud modems were the latest craze in turtleback Internet access. And as a web designer, that speed, or lack thereof, dictated that every image be unapologetically compressed and reduced into a small yet discernable pulp suitable for EGA graphics card "interpretation". An elegant and methodically thought out design was reserved for print only. In this day, your lowest common demoninator was running Windows 3.1 with maybe the not most updated version of Netscape, or worse, Internet Explorer.

This is where my web design career began. And even in the year that followed, any effort to push the envelope was met with fierce opposition consisting of a barrage of incoming tech support phone calls complaining that our website was loading too slow. The user experience always required immediacy! I remember responding to the allegation by decreasing the size of the InterPow logo, so the page would load faster! The calls stopped.

Since InterPow was initially an Internet Service Provider, our clients were largely dialup users reaching the company website only as a starting point to advance into the unknown world that is not InterPow. If they couldn't successfully get through our website, the assumption was they couldn't get to the vast Internet beyond. Google? Sorry, it didn't exist.

Many website designs in the 1990s retained this distinctive character: small tightly compressed images, with Times New Roman or Arial content hovering loosely and sometimes unpredictably over an often distracting patterned image background. But this new medium was different, new! It took a few years before Internet speeds allowed web design to flex its muscle. This initial period of web design was so hindered by the limits of the technology, that today, it seems inconceivable that anything produced from this period could stand the test of time. Could one argue this era of web design was artfully executed given these extreme limitations?

It would be easy to judge early web design as crude, or just bad. But perhaps someday it will be appreciated as an art bound by severe restraints, much in the way 8-bit art has enjoyed a resurgance. Or perhaps, the trials of seeking a way forward, are forever cast as school children drawings by inspiring artists, web designers and future CEOs. Internet historians will have to be the judge.

Mike Hetman