The last two decades have seen immense changes in web design. One of the design trends in the 1990’s was to fill in every piece of a webpage not occupied by text with animated gifs. We don’t see much of those anymore. Likewise gone are most of the sites with the long scrolling pages, jammed with a novel’s worth of text and unassociated images (and, of course, the requisite animated gifs).
The disappearance of elements like these was brought on as a result of advancements in technology, research findings, or simply because of changes in style and taste. Technology allowed new and different methods to be used. Hence, animated gifs were traded for Flash-type animation. And research demonstrated that information able to fit on a single screen–;with less content and a balance between useful images and text–;was easier for a reader to access than were five thousand lines of information on a single, scrolling page.
And why not? After all, web design has much in common with other types of design, like product design, or fashion. Each of these trades either follows or creates trends in the design of their respective products. Fashion designers will try to catch the latest trends in style through the clothing they create. Product designers, likewise, are influenced by trends in popular culture when creating everything from furniture to automobiles.
Present in these other disciplines–;fashion and product design–;is the influence of previous styles and trends–;the retro movements. Designers will often turn to what was popular in the past when creating future designs.
Web design elements of the recent past are exactly what appeals to retro design. In fact, retro is concerned more with the recent past than it is other periods. And technology, especially technology greatly influenced by culture, is perfect for resurrection twenty years later. We see t-shirts with old video game slogans, like the Oregon Trail t-shirt (“You have died of dysentery”), or shirts featuring Atari 2600 game characters.
Think of the spinning 3-d ampersand, the animated gif eternally present next to most every “email me” link on pages made in the early 90’s. Today it’s considered out-of-date, clunky, and tacky. The ampersand itself is already a part of the common vernacular, so it’s not that far of a leap to see this particular element as retro.
Or what about flashing banners? They used to exist as headers, footers, and even vertical skyscrapers. As a page was loading, they pulsed in brilliant shades of neon green, orange, and pink. Designers assumed that since they were flashing, and since they were loud, users would automatically be drawn towards them. In the late 90’s, however, researchers coined the term, “banner blindness,” the tendency for viewers to ignore these banners because they quickly understood they held no relevant information, and so users became blind to them.
There were also many random elements that dropped from use over the years. There were the black and yellow construction icons displayed when a page was not yet completed, and yet was still published. There were the image swaps that surprised users with a clever graphic playing hide and seek. There were also the image-maps that linked to pages relevant (sometimes) to the portion of the image being linked. Elements such as these were common in the recent past, but haven’t been used (with purpose and by professional programmers) for a number of years.
And yet at the same time, these elements are very much a part of current web design trends, but just in different forms. We don’t see animated gifs anymore, but we do see Flash images, which spin or vibrate or pulse in some distinct way. They look more refined perhaps, more professional, but they are a new way of doing what the animated gifs had already done.
Flashing banners are also often seen in today’s websites. The advertisements, like the animation elements, look significantly more polished, but they are still in use. Gone are the bright pulsating headers, footers and skyscrapers, replaced by short videos, animation, or static, high-quality images. But what these banners have today that those of the past did not was context. Many advertising programs populate pages by drawing on the information of the content, and then produce and display ads contextually relevant. Thus, when in the past users became blind to ads because they knew the ads did not contain relevant information, they now read the ads because the information is relevant.
As for the rest of the items, they exist in one form or another (except for the “under construction” signs: we’ve become smart enough to not publish incomplete pages). The image swaps were an early interactivity mechanism, which gave the user the illusion of physically manipulating the site. A simpler method lives on when using onMouseover in CSS: changing the color of links or the appearance of images and menus when hovering a mouse over the items. And more interactive versions of image maps are still seen in some Flash animations.
But the true spirit of retro is not simply in the use of elements with past ancestry, but in the bringing back of those ancestors. After all, any type of design can look back to some origin. Cars today are loosely based on cars of the 1950’s. They all have some things in common. It’s when the designer purposely draws on those older designs when creating contemporary designs that retro occurs. It’s when designers try to make something look like something older.
What retro does not do, though, is use the older design techniques. Retro, after all, is not an appreciation of the recent past, but the reclamation of the recent past. In the Southwestern United States, architecture similar to pueblo or adobe style architecture is very popular. But architects don’t use adobe or vigas in their building; they use frame and stucco. Similarly, a fashion designer basing a dress on the designs of the roaring 20’s wouldn’t use cotton, wool or silk, but instead would utilize nylon, spandex, or a combination of synthetics and natural materials.
So while past web design elements have evolved and transformed, they haven’t yet been used. And why and where would they be used anyway?
Previous web elements–;retro elements–;point to the time in which they were used, and to the age of both the users and the technology. Just as t-shirts with characters from Atari 2600 games remind current “gamers” of their roots, these past elements remind us what the web used to be: a simpler place with a lot of potential. They help us relive or remember the period when it was okay to not only use tables, but to display table borders.
Further, retro design is used to create a feeling of detached nostalgia. This is often laced with a dark sense of humor about the serious or complicated episodes of the time we’re recalling. The true and serious threat of nuclear annihilation in the 1950’s was repackaged as “atomic cocktails” in later decades. It wasn’t that the threat did not exist, but it doesn’t exist now. So, drawing on lessons from other types of design, we can assume that the tossed aside elements of the past will be used again, but they will be a different instantiation than before. The animated, 3-d ampersand will appear, but not as an animated gif. Instead we will see a new version of the old design (maybe a flash animation of a twirling, 3-d @?). It may seem tacky and cheesy, but that cheese is the very reason to use it. The designer will choose to spurn convention for an amusing throwback.
Likewise, maybe flashing banners could be once again implemented. While still unattractive, flashing neon could provide kitsch to the proper website. And if users are expecting such kitsch, the banners become relevant and banner blindness will no longer occur.
There are dozens of elements to point to as examples of what we’ve left behind while watching the web evolve: horizontal rule lines, hit counters, large rainbow-colored font, etc. Not all of them will be brought back, but if web design is anything like its counterparts in other trades, some will be brought back. At the very least, it seems somehow important that we remember where we came from, because these elements become a link to where we’ve been and at the same time suggest where we’re going.