It was 1996 when Petr Kovar first logged onto the internet from his parents’ home in the Czech Republic. Queue the dial-up sound; the long wait as a page steadily loads. Maybe he visited Kodak.com, which had grey chubby buttons lining the bottom of the page. Or maybe he went to Yahoo.com to ask a question, which was a list of blue hyperlinks and a vacant search bar at the time. It’s most likely that he visited the website for the movie Space Jam though, followed by Reebok and Adidas, and then Pepsi: he’d jump from page to page of whatever interested him most at the time, fascinated by the little, slow worlds rendered on the slightly curved PC screen.
“As I didn’t want to drain the family budget, I would only be connected for around an hour or two a day,” says Kovar. “I started to save screenshots of webpages that I found interesting in terms of design or technical execution, so that I could look at them when I was offline.”
Flash forward to 2005 (pun intended): Kovar had studied history—his thesis was on the history of computer technology in the former Czechoslovakia—and he’d begun experimenting with web design himself, eventually deciding to switch careers and become a web designer. After wondering how he might connect his training in history with his current profession, Kovar discovered an old hard drive of forgotten screenshots from his early days browsing the web. “That was the start Web Design Museum,” he explains.
Unlike Internet Archive, which since 1996 has archived websites and currently has over 287 billion entries, Web Design Museum carefully sorts around 900 purposefully selected sites—which are chosen from Kovar’s own screenshots, various submissions, or pulled from the Internet Archive. Its aim is to reveal web design trends and how they’ve emerged over time, especially between the years of 1995 and 2005, through a mix of web exhibitions and categories.
You can browse the site by year, by industry (including restaurants, corporate, magazines, fashion, and sports) or styles (including things like clean, gradient, funny, paper, ornamental, retro, grunge, and techno). “We have two main criteria for what goes in the museum,” says Kovar. “The first criterion is the quality of design, which has to be exceptional and original at the time of its creation. This category includes, for example Afterlab, Habbo Hotel, Halfproject, Designgraphik, and the PixelRanger websites. The second criterion is the significance of the website in the history of the internet, for example Yahoo, Facebook, ICQ, Altavista, Geocites, Lycos, and many more.”
A timeline also shows the development of major sites from the past 20 years—it includes the usual suspects Facebook, Google, Amazon, and then perhaps surprisingly to some, Lego. What’s interesting about browsing this section is that some pages have gone through huge changes since their creation, and their current look no longer reflects their original design at all. Other staples like Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, and to a certain extent Apple, have had a far more incremental development. Changes to design have been more gradual, responding to technology, and features that you saw 10 or even 20 years ago are still present. It’s curious to wonder to what extent it’s because these companies have had clear and solid strategies from the start, or whether their influence is so large that others have had to adapt to their strategies and design sensibilities accordingly.
“From a design point of view, it’s also interesting to mention the development of the SpaceX website,” says Kovar. “In 2002, the SpaceX web design was much more distinctive than the current version of the site, which rather resembles a generic template now.”
The founder highlights websites created by the 2Advanced agency as some of the most historically rich—2Advanced was one of the most important web design agencies of is time and legendary for throwing huge raves at the launch of a new version of its portfolio. “Its perfectly designed Flash websites were seen as a revelation at the beginning of the millennium, and in terms of design, they remain unparalleled in many ways,” says Kovar. “The websites of design magazines, for example K10k, PixelSurgeon, Design is Kinky, Australian Infront, Surfstation, which determined the design trends of their time, are also noteworthy.
“I dare to say that some websites were also ahead of their time (like Hasselblad in 2002, and Gap in 2000). Their design can still be considered very modern and could even work responsively on mobile devices today,” says Kovar.
After updating and running Web Design Museum for over 10 years now, Kovar determines that web design trends tend to follow the so-called “spiral model,” which means that aesthetics and techniques regularly come back, only with new technological improvements. Around 2000 for example, websites with Flash animations were hugely popular; these sites were extremely data-intensive though and took ages to load—we all remember watching spinning beach balls go round and round and round in frustrated anticipation. “Since then, Flash websites have become obsolete. Instead, they’ve been replaced by websites with HTML5 and JavaScrpit animations. However, the wait for these can still be long, although internet connection speed has become so much faster. In 2000, it didn’t occur to me that 14 years later I’d still be spending such a long time watching the pre-loader,” says Kovar. Another example of the “spiral model” that he highlights is the similarity between the table layout that first dominated web design at the turn of the century, and today’s emerging CSS Grid technology.
“In general, we can say that web design trends are mainly influenced by the arrival of new technologies,” says Kovar. “One of the revolutions in web design, for instance, was the full support of CSS in browsers, which marked the end of the table layout, or the beginning of the internet on mobile devices, bringing an era of responsive web design.”
This year, the Web Design Museum has been working on a new version of the site. It’s going to extend itself to include examples of banners, browsers, and animated Flash sites. “The aim of the museum is to show the users the forgotten trends in web design and pay a tribute to the pioneers of the form, without whom websites would not be what they are today,” says Kovar.
Ultimately, Web Design Museum hopes to cement the creative legacy of web designers from the turn of the century for future generations, and to curate a narrative from internet abundance. With that in mind, hopefully the resource will grow in context too, with more textural detail regarding the designers and studios behind different screenshots (though Kovar notes that accreditation is difficult to find, considering that a website is rarely “signed”). A trip through Web Design Museum is to spiral through terrible stock photos, a lot of Flash, sites constructed purely from text, and a tidal wave of skeuomorphism.
“In 2030, internet users will hardly know what the unique design of websites was in 2003,” says Kovar, emphasizing the central drive underpinning his commitment to the project. “It’s possible that in the near future the graphic trends of web design will be rediscovered, also thanks to our project, and we will witness a new wave of 90s and 00s-style web design.”
The site is also a trip through boxy layouts, bright blue hyperlinks, and a lot of illustrated female bodies spilling from the screen with impossible busts. Some things change, and some take a lot longer.