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The Web was conceived as a way for researchers and scientists to share documents, not as a medium for visual expression.

The aesthetics of Web pages, such as they were, derived from computer screens and typewritten documents. Early Web users no more felt the graphical limitations of the hypertext markup language (HTML) than they had resented having only one golf-ball font on their old IBM Selectrics. They were so delighted with the Net that the look was irrelevant.

First functionality, then bandwidth, and finally search were the key characteristics of good websites. Because people used a variety of browsers and operating systems to explore the Web, pages had to be flexible. The width of the window, the type size, the fonts themselves–all could vary and often did. The Web was so new and interesting, no one cared if it was ugly.

For many publishers and designers, New Media was born when John Gage, the Sun Microsystems evangelist, showed off the Mosaic browser (which later became Netscape) at the Seybold Seminar in Boston in April 1995. But some of the designers in the room stared at the big screen with little enthusiasm. To them, the browser was software, and that reminded them of work, but not of their work. Their control of the details, the high resolution of the printed page, the saturated color of photographs, the great library of typefaces–all this was threatened by New Media.

Like singing a song or writing a story, designing a printed page is a craft that is fundamentally uni­directional, or one-to-many. The flexibility of Web structures confounded and then humbled many traditional designers as they started trying to make Web pages. The whole thing had been developed to let the readers–the users, software developers confusingly called them, as if they were addicts–have control. How could that be good?

For these reasons, and others, most magazines’ websites until very recently were dull, repurposed versions of their print editions. Thus, a new crowd took on the design of websites. These enthusiasts assumed that the print crowd didn’t get it, that what they saw as the “new paradigm” would last forever. The two-way flow of information, the Web’s flexibility, immediacy, and cheapness, deeply appealed to them.

But it was not as if these early Web designers were starting with a blank page. They had to work within the limitations of the graphical browser, which at first could not even be divided into frames. The Mosaic browser itself had to work within the clunky graphical-user-interface conventions of the Windows operating system.

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Credit: Nathaniel Welch

Tagged: Communications

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