This article originally appeared on the Prime Design Solutions website.

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The Internet was and is one of the fastest evolving technologies of all time. At the Internet’s beginnings in the mid-90s with dial-up service, users would have been hard-pressed to imagine the web’s current state, and the way it has become an essential part of our daily lives. Because of this rapid evolution, it’s extremely easy to date a website based on its presentation — including its design, content, and code. Today we’ll take a look at how web design has evolved, and what the future holds.

When the Internet first started out, connection speeds were so slow that design wasn’t really a factor. Content was mostly presented in text format. It wasn’t until the mid-90s that it became apparent that the web wasn’t just for conveying content in text format — design could be part of the equation.

The mid-90s

Mid-90s web design was characterized by:

  • Awareness that web content could be presented in different ways
  • Background images
  • Copy could be divided into columns
  • Increased understanding that things could be made to look a certain way, but not sure how to best use that knowledge — there was a novelty to using, say, a repeating background, but that wasn’t necessarily the best design
  • Web designer was not a job title yet — the title web master was used sometimes
  • Designers knew how to make great print, but the potential of the web was not realized
  • Web medium was new and a novelty

This gave birth to some trends that are not looked upon highly today. Some of the early trends were:

  • Novelty graphic elements
  • Hit counters, which would tell everyone how many people had visited your website in real time
  • Scrolling marquees, which would make text scroll across the screen
  • Animated gifs, which are still rather popular but considered pretty hokey as a design element today

Occasionally you’ll still come across a website with a hit counter, and you instantly know that it hasn’t been updated since the 90s.

The late 90s

In the late 90s, a software program called Flash came along that was a bit of a game-changer. Although a lot of the web has been moving away from Flash more recently, it was instrumental in the evolution of web design.

A lot of cringe-worthy elements came about in this time, but designers started thinking about creating user-centered websites. That is, designers began to focus more on how people would be interacting with the sites they were making, and more people began to focus on designing specifically for the web.

The early 2000s

In the early 2000s, people started to use something called cascading style sheets, or CSS. CSS is basically the coding language that decides the overall visual look of the website. HTML contains the content, with text, links, forms, and so on — but CSS determines how it will be laid out on each page. This separates the information in the website from how it is visually presented, which was a major innovation. It also meant websites could be fast loading and easy to maintain.

Also around this time graphic design and the Internet really came to terms with each other. Designers started to realize that the web was no longer a novelty and was something to be taken seriously, leading to better designs across the Internet.

But many designers still didn’t fully understand the web — there was a learning curve. Many tried to replicate print design concepts on the web, where they didn’t really work as well. For example, not all fonts can be used on the web. In order to use a certain font in their navigation, designers would sometimes create an image of the word using a design program, not realizing that doing so would prevent search engines like Google from being able to read and index the word, which would in turn mean that users wouldn’t be able to search for that information. Using images of words rather than static text also increased the website’s load times, because the file size of an image is much larger than text.

Current web design

We’ve finally reached a point where designers and developers understand the full potential of the web and have a greater concept of the overall picture. Today, a web designer not only understands good layout and color principles, but how search engines work and how code and images affect page load times. Designers also want to know how code works, what makes a website usable, and how search engine optimization works– they design sites to make the most of these factors, rather than trying to force a print design to work on the web.

The most recent factor thrown into the mix, however, is the ever-increasing array of Internet-ready devices. Today people are surfing the web with smartphones and tablets as well as desktop computers, and new devices are constantly being released.  The idea of a fixed size page has to be completely thrown out, which was not something that was ever a big issue in print design. Web design has to be a lot more flexible.

Responding to the challenge of designing for many devices

The initial response to this challenge was to create different versions of a website designed to look good on different devices — typically, a smaller version of a website was created for mobile use. This approach isn’t bad, but has its disadvantages:

  • Websites become harder to update because there is more than one version of them — essentially, all updates have to be made in more than one place
  • Alternate versions often leave out information from the desktop site

To get away from these problems, the idea we’re pushing towards is “one web” — the concept that there is one set of information no matter what device you’re using. Concepts like adaptive and responsive design use CSS, which is the coding language we talked about earlier, to shift and re-position the content of a website to adapt to the device automatically. This way, the same content is being presented, only in a way that is easy to use on any device.

The future of web design

Smartphones are already influencing the way websites are designed, and this trend will increase. There will be a lot of pour-over from the way apps work. Websites will start to be thought of less in the sense of a series of pages, and more in terms of interactions — resulting in an improvement in the user experience. For example, when a user clicks on a news article, the article will open on top of the current page rather than on a completely new page. Screens will slide over to reveal a menu underneath.

Content will also become a lot more personalized. Despite increasing concerns about privacy, the reality is that the technology we use knows a lot about us. The content we access will become more personalized based on things like our browsing habits, our location, and the interests of our connections on social media networks.

How can you prepare your website for the future?

The most important thing is to invest in responsive design. The mobile takeover is already a reality, so this isn’t just a future thing. Again, the idea of responsive design is that the design will adapt to literally any size device, not just those that are currently available. Eventually, all websites will likely be responsive.

Seek the advice of your web designer or developer. The web design community is great at sharing ideas and staying current on the latest and greatest, and good designers work hard to stay ahead of the curve. The bottom line is that making antiquated design or functionality decisions can put an immediate date on your website, and an outdated website has been shown to negatively affect the trust that a user places in your brand.