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Modern-Day Web Design Lessons from the Internet of the 90's

This day in 1991, the very first webpage was published to the brand new World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee. It’s easy to see just how much webpages have morphed  and changed over time to give us the internet we know and love today.

However, just like an awkward teenager trying to find their style, the web went through its very own awkward phase. And, just like a teenager growing into adulthood, we’d like to think that there were plenty of lessons to be learned from the days of the early internet.

So with help from the Wayback Machine, take a trip with us back to the early days of the internet, where some major companies made some hilariously bad design decisions. And hopefully, just like a 90s sitcom, we’ll all learn some lessons in the end.

HBO in 1996


A black background and medium-tinted text can be really taxing on the eyes. Thankfully, this trend has been mostly retired. And while that picture at the top may just look like a static image, it was actually designed so that clicking on each section brought you to a separate specific page. It may seem like a cute idea at first, but this leaves the visitor guessing at which objects are clickable and which are just part of the design. Luckily for HBO, the individual pages are also listed in a table of contents below, but many websites of the same era did not offer that alternative, making site navigation a guessing-game.

Takeaways: Make sure you don’t have to strain to read text, and keep site navigation clear and simple.


Fox in 1996


So many 90s trends in one spot! The fox logo itself is actually an animated GIF with a spinning, flashy letter “O”, and the whole site is on an outer space background. It seems pretty obvious why this design was impractical. The navigation here is image only, leaving the visitors to first figure out that the images ARE navigation, and then try to decipher what each image represents. Not to mention that the spinning Fox logo and the juggling dog GIF would be a total distraction from important content (if there had been any!)

Takeaways: Use animation carefully, as your eye will be drawn to it.


Best Buy in 1997


There are definitely improvements in navigation compared to the last two websites. We’re impressed that the navigation is clear and broken down into subsections, making it pretty easy to get to where you’d like to go on this page. This is all overshadowed by the insanely busy, brain-hurting background Best Buy chose to use here. These types of wallpapers have been, for the most part, phased out, and it’s obvious why. It’s difficult to actually read the body of the site. Any attempt to read is snubbed by crazy electric-blueish stripes.

Takeaways: Anything that is more distracting than your page’s content is no good! We're beginning to notice a theme here… are you?


Pepsi in 1996


Oh, Pepsi. This is an example of everything that was wrong with the previous sites mashed into one page. Crazy background, flashy animation (literally, the “what’s new” button flashes red), and navigation made of text and buttons that are skewed at an angle.

Takeaways: Don’t do any of these things. 


Hudson Fusion, formerly known as Penchina Web Design, in 1996


So of course I had to sneak a little shameless self-promotion in here. If we’re talking about early internet, then we really know our stuff since we were actually building websites for clients during this very same time period. It’s hard to pick on our own design, but in comparison to our peers I don’t think we have much to be ashamed of. That type of navigation menu has certainly gone out of style since the 90s (but so have bedazzled jean jackets and fanny packs, and we bet you had one or the other!), and we wouldn’t opt for any text that was tilted 90 degrees today, but I think our lack of crazy backgrounds, animated distractions, and difficult text really sets us apart from our other 90s contemporaries.

We’re happy that most of these trends have gone out of favor and enabled us to look back at the past and laugh at ourselves a little. A visit to any of these companies’ current websites shows that we’ve all come a long way. So happy 23rd birthday to the web page, and here’s to hoping that we don’t look back in 23 more years and laugh!

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