Web design at the origins of the Web

First published on Norma.

The progress of browser technologies is continuous and unstoppable. A few years ago smooth transitions were possible only with specific languages and often limited to Chrome and Safari only: today it has become a widely used standard.

The ongoing update to the “materials” that the Web uses is however comparable to the innovations in the buildings possibilities available for architecture. In both cases, using the latest technological discoveries is not automatically synonymous with good work.

A home is primarily a place where people will live, showing off exotic materials in unnecessary. Likewise, a website is a virtual place where people are expecting to find informations and products: adding sensational animations and transitions soon leads to narcissism.

Chris James (1) wrote an article adequately named “The web I want” about the fact that the goal of most of the websites is giving informations, and to give informations you need nothing more than pure html text.

Wyse 100, a terminal computer from the early 80s that was able to display only text

The pages of this website follow exactly that philosophy. The code is so clean to be perfectly accessible to blind people through a text browser like Lynx.

We have witnessed another phenomenon in the last few years on the Internet, a completely digital one. The centralization turned a heterogeneous network of small sites into a series of satellites that now orbit around a few big players: facebook, youtube, instagram, etc.

What happened to the blogs? (2) asks Oliver Reichenstein in an article about the centralization of content and possible solutions to that. Creating links, useful content, doing business outside of the usual suspects.

This shift in the use of the Internet is reflected in the formalization of the Web itself.

Huge stock photos bought for a few cents, centered text slowly fading in and hamburger menu in the top right corner. “The cargo cult” (3), a turn towards homogenization of layouts perpetrated by the ever increasing use of pre-made themes and templates.

Too many contemporary websites are now empty of links. Due to the need of converting users in profits, just like on Facebook people are forced to stay as much as possible within the website. The adventurous exploration of the Web no longer exists, from one link to another.

St. Imier middle school, Switzerland. Architect: Frédéric Brugger.
The simple forms and the raw exposition of the materials are the vocabulary of brutalism.

Although too much of the brutalist web design (4) is based on exaggeration and kitsch, many websites in the midst of that chaos have an important concept in common: going back both through content and form to a simpler, more open and more varied Internet.

The visual aspect is secondary: we want to be judged and distinguished by the content we propose. The possibility that two blogs share the same layout with black Times New Roman and blue underlined links as it was common at the end of the 1990’s is irrelevant, provided both offer a valuable and interesting service. There are thousands of websites set up with a similar typography, just as there are thousands of people who look alike — but some are empty, others have ideas.

As far as navigation is concerned, a non-linear approach is favored through the absence of a classical subdivision of contents in a header and by the relatively inaccessible position of the content index. A network of linked pages, hypertext, is the concept on which everything was born, and we shouldn’t loose that idea.

More words are worth to be spent on the decentralization of the web in separate articles.

(1) Chris James, "The Web I Want" [dev.to]

(2) "Take the Power Back", iA [ia.net]

(3) "Step outside the cargo cult" [practicaltypography.com]

(4) Brutalist Websites