Five Things I Miss from Building Web Sites in the 90s

A few days ago I read a tweet by the fabulous Emma Bostian that got me thinking about my 20+ year journey in web development.

This statement rings very true. To take it a step further, that list of things you are expected to know is actually an everchanging list. The things I had to know 20 years ago when I started my career is vastly different than it is today. The languages, frameworks, tools, techniques, trends, security standards, and so many other things change with the times and technological capabilities of the users and the machines used to consume the web.

I look back at my early development career with both fondness and dread. I think the web development landscape now is infinitely better in almost every aspect. I can’t help but to think back at some of the stepping stones along the way and smile. The styles, tools, and technology of the early internet are unforgettable. Here are five of my favourite things from early in my web development career.

1. WYSIWYG Editors

Long before we have such lovely tools as Visual Studio Code, Webstorm, or even Atom. We had a slew of WYSIWYG (Pronounced wizzy-wig) or, more verbosely known as _What You See Is What You Get_, editors. These tools allowed you to edit your html pages both visually using a graphical editor or through code.

Macromedia Dreamweaver was my tool of choice. I particularly like the FTP server integrations. I could easily sync my code with the FTP server, make my edits, and then push it back up.

Dreamweaver for Mac

If you were working on something that had visual basic scripting or specific Internet Explorer integrations, you might have preferred to use Microsoft Front Page.

2. HTML Image Maps

This was a technique that used to be super common on websites. You would set up a single image as a navigation or splash screen. Then you would define clickable coordinates inside the image. You could set up rectangles, circles, or even custom polygon shapes to fit your clickable action to just the perfect part of the image.

1998 was one big image map

While technically they are still valid html, you don’t see these too often anymore. They are a bit trickier to pull off with responsive images. Not to mention, they are one big accessibility issue.

3. HTML Tables with CHONKY borders.

One of the hallmarks of early website design was the gratuitous use of html tables for damn near everything. With these early tables we didn’t have a lot of css options to style them. Instead we had to rely on the tag attributes like border, cellspacing, and cellpadding. These attributes in combination with an often questionable sense of style resulted in some of the chonkiest tables you’ve ever seen. Just seeing that 3d border popping out of the screen evokes a strong sense of nostalgia for me personally.

I’m so happy to see that modern browsers can still render tables in the same way.

4. Frame Sets

Back before we had flex layouts, fancy css positioning, and other modern layout tools in the browser, we had frames and frame sets. These, now obsolete in html5, tags allowed you partition your page into different areas and load a different HTML page into that frame. They were a great way to set up sidebar or header navigation. I see them as sort of the original single page app. Famesets allowed you to change the content of any frame by loading a new html page into the frame, all while leaving the containing page in place. No need to reload the whole page!

The 1996 Space Jam site makes use of the frameset and image map tags in various parts of the site. Blast from the past! Also, try not to think about how 1996 was 25 years ago… sigh.

The 1996 Space Jam Website made gratuitous use of frames.

5. Web art

This is probably my favourite and the most nostalgia evoking item on this list. Every so often the topic of those old hosting sites like Angelfire, Tripod, or Geocities comes up. If you visit these old sites you are often greeted with tiled background images, graphical horizontal rules, animated email gifs, and the ubiquitous visitor counter.

Today we are so used to polished sites, clean gradients, and often very well thought out user experiences. We have left behind the messiness and creativity of the early internet. When someone says animated gif today, you immediately picture your favourite short clip from a tv show or movie used as a reaction today. You don’t think of that animated under construction cartoon or that spinning button CTA.

I have collected a handful of retro art over the years and recently published them in my github. Have a look, and if you use any on your own site please let me know!

Tori is a professional web developer and a hobbiest Unity developer living in Amsterdam, NL with her wife and their dog Laney.