The World Wide Web is a glorious place where anything can be found. Endless hours, days or nights can be spent trawling through its database watching funny cat compilations, videos of how to boil an egg, and finding out everything there is about the history of turmeric – you name it, the web has got it.
But it wasn’t always this swish, tech-savvy thing that we know it as today. Looking back to its history and at the very earliest examples of the web, Taschen has released a new publication titled Web Design: The Evolution of the Digital World 1990 – Today – written by Rob Ford, founder of FWA, edited by Julius Wiedemann and designed by Collaborate, a London-based design agency.
It includes the first website to use surround sound, the first drag-and-drop navigation, the first use of seamless video integration, the first to incorporate a mobile phone, and much more. It brings together more than 200 websites across 21 chapters, decorated with quotes and insight from the creators – including the likes of Jonathan Gay from Adobe Flash Player, Gabo Mendoza from website Gabocorp, Yugo Nakamura from web design studio Yugop and Eric Jordan of interactive agency 2Advanced.
In celebration of its release, we’ve asked Rob Ford to select five landmark sites from the last 30 years of web design below.
1990-1997 – The early years
At the end of 1990, Tim Berners-Lee had the first web browser/editor and web server (info.cern.ch) up and running on a NeXT computer at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. The following year, in August 1991, he announced the WWW software on internet newsgroups and interest in the project spread around the world. Web design was in its infancy, overtaken by the excitement brought on by the ability to share information.
2Advanced Studios v3 Expansions
2001 – The website generation
Eric Jordan had already caught people’s attention with his company 2A, as it was known to the Flash community. As his site built, atmospheric original music accompanied a sequence of rolling clouds. This website was an inspiration to many, and was often copied, and sites with this layout were described as being “2Advanced” in their design; the phrase became accepted as almost a style of web design in itself.
2Advanced v3 Expansions is remembered for being the most copied website ever and for being voted “the most influential Flash website of the decade” in the official polls conducted by FWA for Adobe. Every future version of their website would see virtual queues of people waiting for the launch, often resulting in servers crashing and heated debates on online forums.
Get the Glass
2007 – The year full-screen video arrives, along with the iPhone
This website was a game designed to promote milk, where the objective was to break into Fort Fridge and get the Glass, while avoiding Milkatraz. The production values were utter perfection, with staggering 3D and video, while the game itself was great fun and highly addictive. Something as simple and obvious as being able to pick up a dice and roll it was still new territory for the web. This website would signal the absolute peak of creativity online and set the bar for many years to come. In 2017, ten years on, people were still singing its praises when reminded of this site.
The Wilderness Downtown
2010 – The death of flash
This was the first 100 percent HTML5 website that really shook Flash, tipping the balance in terms of innovation away from it. As an interactive short film for the Arcade Fire track “We Used to Wait”, it utilised Google Chrome’s browser, Google Maps, and HTML5. Users entered their zip code and address (current, or from childhood) and watched as an incredible personalised music video played out right in their very own neighbourhood. The site won the FWA Site of the Year and acclaim worldwide. It also sent worrying tremors to die-hard Flash designers and developers around the world, ultimately marking the end of Flash and a massive shift into developing websites and experiences that no longer required internet plug-ins.
Chrome Web Lab
2012 – The year Google Chrome redefined the web-design landscape
This next-generation project was a prime example of what the future of digital would hold, by amalgamating real-life experiences with those on the web. Users could visit the Science Museum in London and interact with five experiments there, or compare this by integrating with the same experience but live via the browser, 24 hours per day.
In 2019 we can clearly see how the terms digital and interactive no longer mean a world “online”. Digital is no longer confined to web browsers as it was for so many years. The future of web design within the browser itself is limited and could easily go right back to the first website by being purely informational. The interactive experiences that connect on a more emotional level are happening in our daily lives without even looking at the dinosaur that is the desktop computer and even smartphones. With Augmented Reality in particular, we will become the browsers of the past and the window to explore new virtual worlds where our physical bodies become the only hardware required.
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.