Welcome to the Web
The internet’s infancy — with baby photos of websites that became online empires.
Whether working as an art director at a small magazine or a design director at a giant media company, I’ve spent most of my career navigating the space between design and programming. That has given me a front-row seat to the changes that created today’s digital media environment. As you can see here, it’s astonishing how innovation has quickly become expectation as readers acclimate to the technologies, patterns, and habits of the online world.
In the mid-’90s, newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal launched websites; online-only publications such as Salon and Slate popped up. These sites were designed for small screens and slow connections, so images were small and rare. The New York Times updated its content once a day, at midnight, and even the newly hatched Slate published an entire week’s worth of articles all at once, to mimic the production schedule of a weekly print magazine.
For the first decade, editorial design on the web tried to get as close to print as possible. Designers would use a familiar visual vocabulary, with gridded typography. Design decisions were driven by the idea of “the page,” and the notion that readers would want to finish all of one page before clicking on to the next. Just as radio initially followed the cues and rhythms of live theater, and television programs started out as extensions of radio shows, it took decades before publications approached the web as its own medium.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks, millions of new readers began going online for breaking news. By that time, most white-collar workers had access to the internet at work, updating web pages had become much easier for media organizations, and reporters were starting to embrace the idea of sharing news online before putting it in newspapers and television reports. They’d quickly learned that web traffic spiked every time a major story grabbed the public’s attention.
Finally armed with user behavior research, designers created better interfaces and fought widespread myths such as the idea that “users will never scroll” — a falsehood that kept type sizes impossibly small and packed into columns because stakeholders wanted to make sure important news was “above the fold.”
Most of the web’s significant design improvements during this time were powered by technologies that were always available, just hard to use. HTML supported web fonts as far back as 1999, but it wasn’t until font-distribution services like Typekit and Google Fonts were available — and users had sufficient bandwidth — that it was possible to break out of a handful of “web-safe” fonts like Times and Verdana. Designing sites to respond to the width of browser window was also possible for a decade before mobile-screen resolution improved, publishers tired of designing separate mobile sites, and “responsive web design” became the default mode for design on the web.
The rise of blogs and social media blurred the lines between news creators and consumers. The Iranian protests of 2009 and the Ferguson unrest in 2014 showed that social media could steer news coverage and even influence official responses. Live-blogging matured during this time, turning websites into broadcasts that wove in narratives from social media. Each breaking news event became an opportunity for reporters to innovate new ways to tell stories in real time. Meanwhile, live-streaming apps like Periscope and Meerkat allowed people on the ground to share their experiences.
By 2012, when the New York Times produced its “Snow Fall” feature, a multimedia article about an avalanche in Washington state, internet content had finally transcended the limitations of old media, offering interactive experiences that newspapers and television networks could never deliver. It seemed as if everything that followed would be a race to the top, as technology enabled richer media and better experiences no longer limited by readers’ computers and browsers.
In recent years, though, design technology has not determined the shape of online media — business models have. Broadly speaking, publications tend to go where the ad money goes. For a while, it was in ad networks like Google’s DoubleClick. Now Facebook’s and Snapchat’s advertising engines also have content creators excited. Publishers have traded control over design and identity for access to more readers and ease of publishing. Some have turned to distributed content models such as Facebook’s Instant Articles and moved their websites to Medium in order to use its suite of publishing tools.
Meanwhile, Facebook has been releasing statements indicating that as a company, it’s turning toward video instead of text, and toward person-to-person sharing rather than corporate broadcast and distribution. A live-streamed video from BuzzFeed that showed its employees destroying a watermelon by putting 686 rubber bands around it became an early success on Facebook Live. The live-video tool has since been used to great effect to capture everything from fatal police shootings to a woman laughing while wearing a Chewbacca mask.
This status quo won’t last long, however, and the next great evolution in online editorial could come at any time. Publishers have already started experimenting with virtual reality and content delivery through chatbots. After another 20 years of hardware, software, and the media business innovations, we may well look back at 2016 and similarly have a hard time imagining what it was like to consume media in such a primitive time.