Thoughts

Thoughts #9: How Web Design Has Changed

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Believe it or not, but I’ve been running websites of some kind since I was thirteen years old. My very first website was a Lord of the Rings fansite (it ended up being purely an awards site for Lord of the Rings websites), which is where I met many good online friends, and through that I got into developing graphics and eventually opened up a graphic website and portfolio, and even a Jack Black fansite. I’ve had various other small sites too, and at one point I was seriously into designing and coding, and when I was about sixteen I decided I would go to university to study graphic design.

Obviously, things changed, because I’m an archaeology graduate, not a graphic design graduate. I lost interest as I moved on to A Levels, which pretty much ruined my passion for any subject except history, and over the years I have forgotten all of the more advanced stuff. However, it was a big part of my life for some time – and obviously now, though I’m not quite as big on the design side, I’m more about the content these days. That’s why I’m using one of Ashley’s brilliant customisable WordPress themes, rather than attempting to remember everything and make my own from scratch. My mind is now full of ancient dates, pottery types and still trying to not get terminus post quem and terminus ante quem mixed up. There’s no room for knowledge of PHP and CSS, and I lack the inspiration for designing nowadays!

So in today’s Thoughts post, I wanted to discuss how web design has changed in the past ten years or so – at least to my eyes. And perhaps scorn my teenage self. I’ll even illustrate it with screenshots of my old websites… *prepares for embarrassment*

1. ‘Splash pages’ were all the rage

I will never understand why. But I remember all my friends had them, so I made one. It generally consisted of an image that you clicked to get the site itself, along with recommended ways of viewing the site: resolution, browser etc. And the image typically lit up when it was hovered over with the mouse cursor. I don’t even know why we used them, it probably put so many people off because splash pages for those kind of websites were totally, totally useless. Plus I didn’t test my site on every browser, resolution etc, so how on earth did I know what was best?! I rarely encounter them on websites these days – the main exception seems to be for things like video game websites, where they’ll often show a trailer or promotional image before entering.

How has it changed today? We rarely see splash pages on non-commercial websites.

2. As were iframes…

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Two of the early layouts of my first website, A Elbereth Gilthoniel. Equally hideous. And both equally reliant on iframes! I don’t know why it seemed like a good idea to put all the content in that little frame, and have so much open space. Especially considering that I liked making desktop wallpapers, which started at the regular 800×600 resolution (at that time anyway), so only stretched the frame out when viewed. And as you can probably see by the title bars on both websites, for some reason it was cool to add lots of symbols and spaces into the website title. I’m embarrassed already, and this is two screenshots in!

How has it changed today? Websites tend to be big, the layouts make the most of the space, rather than all the content crammed into a tiny little frame. Thank goodness.

3. Award & review sites were EVERYWHERE

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A Elbereth Gilthoniel started out as a Lord of the Rings fansite. And somewhere along the way, I decided there were plenty of those and not enough awards or review sites. And I was most definitely expert enough in the ways of design and coding, with years and years of experience to judge the websites of others. Yeah… And people within my little Tolkien based community knew exactly who the ‘harsh’ judges were, and who the ‘nice’ ones were. Which of course meant loads of people submitted their website to the nice judges, who gave out lots of awards and praise, and no-one bothered with the ‘harsh’ ones, who were the actual professionals giving constructive criticism. I do occasionally see awards for book blogs today, but not on this scale. The rounds were generally once a month or every weeks, whereas the book blog awards I’ve seen tend to be yearly (and much more carefully thought out!)

How has it changed today? I rarely (if ever) see websites dedicated just to giving out awards and reviews.

4. Everyone had a billion different layouts

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Maybe a year or so after I started, I become aware of something known as ‘skins’ – basically your website could have several layouts, and the visitor could choose their favourite one to browse the site with. Which was just the coolest thing ever and I had to work out how to do it! So I learnt the basics of PHP (don’t ask me about it now) and how to ‘skin’ my website. This meant that indecisive little me didn’t have to keep switching the layout every two weeks – I could have several on the site at once! I also have no idea why I referred to my designs as 1.something – why not just the actual number? I don’t get my teenage self…

How has it changed today? I rarely encounter a website that allows you to pick the layout these days. Or if you have the option, it’s often related to the colour scheme and not the actual placement of various elements.

5. Affiliates were the most important thing EVER

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Note how the updates concentrate on adding affiliates. Affiliates were basically people you traded links with: you displayed their link/badge/button on your site, and they did the same for you. Ideally, that would encourage conversation. It rarely did, unlike today’s book blogging community, where one of the most important things is interaction between the bloggers. Affiliates were more about getting word of your website out there than actually being interested in the site you were advertising or being advertised on.

How has it changed today? There is much more of a focus on interaction between the people behind the websites. Affiliates aren’t really a done thing – I’ve noticed that most book bloggers just tend to list the blogs they like to visit most regularly.

6. The tagboard/shoutbox was where it was at

We all had one of these – a tiny little place for leaving messages, like a guestbook but a bit more interactive, and sometimes we actually used them for real time conversations. Anyone who was anyone spent hours logged onto one of them, refreshing the page every few minutes for new replies. Oh, those were the days…

How has it changed today? I don’t see many tagboards about, plus it’s a lot easier to use the comment system, Twitter etc for conversations!

7. The mini ‘About’ and ‘Currently’ sections

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Another feature that everyone included on their blogs, and we all obsessively kept it updated. I’m not sure why a random visitor to my website would be interested in what I was currently eating when I wrote that blog post, but I guess it was the predecessor of mundane Twitter posts in a way… And the trend in the ‘About’ section was one word sentences. Really. Stupid. Idea.

How has it changed today? Well we can use Twitter to inform everyone of any nutritional changes… but in all seriousness, I’m not sure. Many bloggers still create ‘About’ pages to give their readers a little information about themselves, I just hope no-one goes for the one word method to cover an entire page…

8. Designs went through phases of being ‘fashionable’

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There was the clear-cut two column design, the everything-over-to-one-side design, the everything-really-small-and-squashed-over-to-one-side design and the rounded corners design… and so many more. I remember I always wanted my websites to have the newest ‘style’ – which is probably why it changed so much, along with me working out how to do more and more.

How has it changed today? Nowadays, it’s nice to see how so many bloggers have completely different styles – even with lots of people using the same theme, so many manage to make it their very own.

And that pretty much concludes the tour through my webdesign history… and how web design has changed in my eyes over the past ten years. I suppose in some ways it’s hard to compare with what I know now, since I’m comparing two different ‘groups’ of website owners, but the basics remain the same (or not, apparently!). Even if you know nothing about HTML, CSS or PHP, so many tools now exist to help you to create a sleek looking website. When I first started I was working with Microsoft Frontpage (just no), then when I picked up HTML etc I just wrote it all from scratch using Notepad. Now I use the HTML editor on WordPress, which gives me a lot more flexibility and control than the visual editor.

How long have you been running your blog or website? What changes or trends have you noticed over time?