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Throughout the Years: The Evolution of Website Design

How Website Design Has Evolved


From humble beginnings and large aspirations, a new ‘information superhighway’ dubbed the World Wide Web was born. By the end of 1993, there were 623 websites, by mid-1994 there were 2,738 websites, and by the end of that same year, there were more than 10,000 websites. In 1995, the Internet had a user base of fewer than 40 million users. Comparatively, Facebook today is 15 times larger than the entire Internet was back then. Fast-forward to 2000 and 40 million Americans (48% of US Internet users) had purchased a product online. Today, there are a staggering 1.74 billion websites on the World Wide Web.

Accelerating its growth were a number of factors. Firstly, programming languages and technologies such as JavaScript, HTML and multimedia progressed throughout the years resulting in more sophisticated website design and development. Furthermore, the invention of broadband Internet which surpassed dial-up Internet provided users with much faster and more efficient access to the Internet. But over-and-above this, there is the innate need for humankind to learn, create and connect with others. The World Wide Web revolutionised this. Here, we explore the evolution of website design…


Inventor(s) of the Internet

Although it is not possible to credit the invention of the Internet to one singular person, the spawn of the Internet is said to have begun in the 1960s. The concept of a “Galactic Network” was foreseen by MIT’s J.C.R. Licklider who envisioned a globally interconnected system where a multitude of data and programmes could be accessed by anyone. It was also around this time that MIT’s Leonard Kleinrock published his first paper on the ‘packet switching’ theory which suggested that digital data could be transmitted via ‘packets’ instead of circuits. Together with the idea of making computers communicate amongst one another via low-speed dial-up Internet, thus modern-day Internet was born.

It was not until 1989 that the World Wide Web was introduced to the public, an invention that would revolutionise the way in which the world communicates. Invented by Tim Berners-Lee, the World Wide Web was a new refined information system on the Internet which connected various documents via hypertext links, enabling the user to search for information by moving from one document to another. This provided users with an easier and more accessible way to access information and documents on the Internet – known as webpages.


The History of Website Design


Web resources identified by URLs, interlinked by hypertext and accessible over the Internet could be tapped into by anyone. A 1992 version of the world’s first website can still be accessed online which contains plain text, some links and an explanation of the World Wide Web.

The early websites from 1990 to 1994 were entirely text-based with single columns, hyperlinks and no images or set structure. Websites during this era were created using HTML and looked like a series of text-only documents.

Some of the earliest websites which significantly contributed to the history and development of the World Wide Web included:

  • 1991: CERN, World Wide Web Virtual Library and Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.
  • 1992: Ohio State University Department of Computer and Information Science, Fermilab and The Exploratorium.
  • 1993: Bloomberg, The Internet Movie Database, MTV and Wired
  • 1994: BBC Online, IBM, Microsoft, The Simpsons Archive, Telegraph, Yahoo! and Pizza Hut.

The World’s First Website | © World Wide Web



In 1995, Netscape dominated the web browser market and with the launch of its IPO ignited the start of the ‘gold rush’ of web start-ups. With the release of web browser Internet Explorer 1, Netscape experienced its first strong competitor. In 1998 Google Search Engine was created which utilised a mathematical algorithm to find relevant search results. The algorithm, later called PageRank, analyses relationships between individual webpages based on their cross-references, thus assessing their importance.

From 1995, websites took on a more complex form with the arrival of table-based websites and online page builders. Table-based layouts opened the floodgates to providing website designers and developers with more options to create increasingly visual and powerful websites. With multiple column layouts, table-based sites gave more structure to websites – something that was not achievable with the first version of HTML. During these early stages of website design, aesthetics were often favoured over good markup structure. Furthermore, spacer GIFs were introduced to control the whitespace of website layouts and background images were often sliced up and inserted into tables. Additionally, frame pages became popular to distinguish the body of the website from the side-bar navigation.

The period from 1995 to 1999 saw the prevalence of the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) HTML editor. Essentially a system where editing software allows content to be edited in a form that resembles its appearance when displayed as a finished product.

Flash was launched by Macromedia, being widely installed and utilised on desktop computers to display interactive web pages and play video and audio content. Furthermore, PHP gained popularity as a dynamic design language with PHP3 being released in 1998. Other notable web achievements include the launch of web hosting service GeoCities and the invention of the Favicon, first appearing on Internet Explorer 5.0. This era also saw the advent of SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) – a set of techniques and rules that are applied to provide a better position of websites in search results for selected keywords.

Some notable websites and web services launched during this period include Amazon, eBay, Hotmail, Netflix, Google and GoDaddy.


Google’s First Homepage in 1998 | © Pingdom



In the early 2000s, Mozilla released Firefox – a powerful web browser that grew in popularity over the years. Firefox’s installer base was primarily obtained through striking deals between other sites such as Google to direct traffic. During this era, Internet Explorer was the market leader with 92% market share. In 2003 and contributing to Apple’s success, its web browser Safari 1.0 became the default on the MAC OS X 10.3 operating system browser.

From 2000, websites generally took on a more structured and dynamic form. CSS (cascading style sheets) increased in popularity which allowed website designers to incorporate website design elements in style sheets instead of the HTML itself – separating design from content. Another notable shift within this era was the increased uptake of JavaScript and the decline of table-based design. Website developers increasingly dropped Flash for JavaScript to achieve a variety of functions such as animated menus. Some website design norms that were established between 2000 and 2004 included locating the menu at the top of the page and implementing drop-down menus.

Furthermore, user-created content became increasingly popular. This was evident in the prevalence of Wikipedia, Myspace, Facebook, LinkedIn and Flickr. Other achievements during this time included the world’s first partially responsive website (www.audi.com) and voice-over-IP calling and instant messaging service, Skype. Moreover, WordPress was released in 2003 as a blog publishing system. Today, WordPress is an open-source content management system that is used by 30.8% of all websites.


Facebook’s First Homepage in 2004 | © Wikipedia




From 2005, Safari grew in popularity with the release of Safari 2,3 and 4 available on Macintosh. And in 2007, the first iPhone was launched with the iOS system using a version of the Safari web browser. Between 2006 and 2009, Microsoft released both Internet Explorer 7 and 8. Google Chrome, a cross-platform web browser developed by Google, was released in 2008 and would fast become a top web browser contender.

Another feat during this time was broadband (also known as high-speed Internet) which surpassed traditional dial-up Internet. A catalyst for further website innovations, DSL and Fibre enabled web browsing to be much faster and more efficient.

In terms of website design, websites started taking on a preference for interactive content (without having to refresh the page) and website applications. During this period, developers began relying heavily on asynchronous JavaScript and XML for smooth transition and application development. Another advancement during this time was the uptake of studying analytics to measure, collect and report data of users to understand and optimise efforts. In 2005, Google launched Google Analytics which is now the most widely used analytics tool. Website owners can track traffic, analyse user behaviour and record conversions.

Some notable websites and web services launched during this period include YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, Bing and Behance.


YouTube’s First Homepage in 2005 | © Version Museum



By 2012, Google Chrome was the most popular web browser and has remained dominant ever since. In 2014, the fifth and latest version of HTML, HTML5, received an official W3C recommendation.

During this half-decade, the term the ‘Mobile Web’ came into being. As of 2013, 56% of Americans owned a smartphone and in 2014, mobile Internet use exceeded desktop use in the US. This led to website designers and developers creating alternative mobile versions for websites. Typically, mobile websites are stripped-down versions of regular websites – delivering users top content and mobile features formatted for display on devices. Some key elements of designing for mobile include a key focus on portrait mode (holding the phone vertically) and minimal navigation with only the most essential areas of the site accessible. Furthermore, it is commonplace that mobile websites communicate with the user’s hardware to determine location and other important data.

For the most part, mobile websites utilise lightweight pages using Extensible Hypertext Markup Language (XHTML) or Wireless Markup Language (WML). Some considerations for designing for mobile include the small screen size, lack of windows, navigation, lack of JavaScript and cookies, types of pages accessible, speed, broken pages, compressed pages, size of messages, cost and the location of the mobile user.

During this era, desktop website design also saw several new developments. Due to the increased use of hand-held devices, responsive website design became an essential element for building and designing websites. If this was not considered, website traffic would notably decrease. Other website design trends included longer website pages with vertical scrolling and centralised content, minimalist layouts, parallax scrolling, large background images, Pinterest-style grids, infographics and dynamic typography.

Some notable websites and web services launched during this period include Pinterest, Instagram and Quora. In 2012, Facebook reached 1 billion monthly active users, making it the most widely used social media network in the world.


Amazon’s Homepage in 2012 | © Version Museum


2015-Present Day

In 2015, Microsoft released Edge to compete with the other major web browsers such as Chrome and Safari. Today, Chrome has a 69.19% market share followed by Safari at 16.76% with the other major web browsers at 4% and under. In May 2017, Google announced a version of Chrome for augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) devices.

As a measure of prioritising mobile users, Google released its Mobile-First Index that ranks websites higher depending on speed and mobile suitability. As a result, websites have become increasingly simplified and clearly structured. Furthermore, website designers began embracing multimedia, combining written content, bold imagery, animations and videos in response to users’ increasing need for visually impactful websites. (After all, 90% of the total information transmitted to our minds is visual). Data-storytelling was another emerging trend during these latter years which involves taking complex information and conveying it to audiences using visual, dynamic and striking graphics. Other notable features include new navigation patterns, flat design, irregular grid layouts, and scroll-triggered animations (to name a few).

Perhaps the most anticipated trend of late is the advancement of AR/VR. These revolutionary devices provide personalized, accessible and optimally designed experiences (such as AR glasses with LTE capabilities which are expected to overtake mobile phones). Currently, many websites are making use of machine-learning and are constantly optimising efforts to increase advancements. The term coined in 2013, is defined as ‘a subtopic of natural language processing in artificial intelligence that deals with machine-reading comprehension’. This has assisted with several modern-day website features which you may have already encountered such as live chatbots.

Going into the next decade, several AR/VR trends are anticipated to emerge. This includes the likes of AR/VR shopping, remote assistance and augmented reality steered by machine-learning. Apple’s ARKit 3.0 and Google’s ARCore are already rapidly growing their installed user bases.

Apple Watch Homepage in 2020 | © Apple