My Personal Principles on Web Design
When I first created the Library of Babel section, in the primeval era of two months ago, I had put up a rant bemoaning the terrible rot of normiefication and how it has brought ruin upon many once wonderful things. I touched upon the decay that this caused to the World Wide Web, but not nearly as much as I wanted to. Today, I want to touch on what my personal principles are in regard to what constitutes good web design, and some things that I miss about the old World Wide Web that I experienced back in the 90s and 00s before it was ruined by the final Eternal September caused by smartphones giving every last ignorant troglodyte Internet access.
When pondering elements that it is important for websites to have, nothing seems as important as having a Links page. In fact, this is something that I automatically check for any time I discover a new website, and I tend to judge those that do not contain one very harshly. To paraphrase what a very dear friend of mine, Drac0, once said, because I lack the wit to come up with a better analogy than this: old websites are like meeting a cool person at a bar and being introduced to their cool friends by them, while new websites are like someone slipping drugs in your drink, locking you in their basement, and screaming advertisements in your face all night long.
I am certainly no hypocrite in regard to this - as of this writing, the Dock
(Links page) on this site contains over 100 links, and I am still steadily adding yet more. Links pages on personal pages, and directories such as the one Yahoo! used to contain back in the bygone days when they were still good for something, used to be the most useful method for locating interesting websites. This was especially true in the "dark era" of the 90s when Altavista (R.I.P.) and Yahoo! were the only game in town when it came to search engines.
As mentioned on my Links page, we have entered a new dark era triggered by the dilapidation of mainstream search engines - notably Google. Between the ultra-Orwellian privacy issues, the comical levels of censorship
, the objectively useless search results aimed at shartphone users with the attention span of a toddler on cocaine, and the previously useful "advanced search" features no longer working at all; Google has become an objectively useless tool for finding anything other than quick, bite-sized answers. And only if the answers fit their agenda.
DuckDuckGo, Yandex, Bing, and StartPage are more useful but all of them have their own issues that make it hard to find good sites reliably. Most annoying of all is that Google's cancerous trend of ignoring any attempts to use advanced search functions seems to have corrupted all of them to some extent. The whole point of those functions was to specify to the search engine that you want to, say, search for an exact word or phase; not to be utterly ignored by some impudent algorithm that thinks that it's more intelligent than you. Sad!
So far as I remember it, the decline of Links pages on websites seemed to coincide with the rise of the walled gardens created by Fakebook, Google, and other social networks, wherein feedback loops were formed between social networks and large, corporate websites in order to corral users in and ensure that all of their online browsing time was spent within this walled garden to maximise advertising revenues for said corporations. With the majority of Internet users (normalcattle) being groomed into using big social media sites as their content feedbags, and said sites having no reason to risk losing revenue by letting any smaller sites in on the fun, the Web 1.0 web of personal sites was effectively shadowbanned for most people.
I have much to pontificate about in terms of actual website design, but one of the greatest things about the web of olde that is largely missing from its modern equivalent was the lack of bloat. There is an article called The Website Obesity Crisis
that tackles this issue in much more detail than I care to, and I highly recommend reading it either now or after you finish this article. In summary, the web has becoming more and more atrociously bloated with time as incompetent web designers continue to
exploit increasing Internet speeds and computer processing power to continue packing more and more useless crap into every single webpage.
Beyond the legions of tracking scripts recording your every move and the sea of obnoxious advertisements trying to use every corner of your screen to sell you crap (or at least, any mook who still doesn't use Adblock,) you also have to deal with giant pointless images and a school library's worth of pointless scripts and frameworks burning through your computer's resources in order to display content that could be communicated equally well in Notepad. I am flabbergasted how no one ever looks at their web browser's resource consumption in Task Manager and ponders why in Bast's name their computer is using more resources to display some text on their screen than would be needed to run a state of the art 3D video game 15 years ago.
On that note, it is worth mentioning that while the average website's resource consumption has increased like that of a tribe of savages developing into an industrial state, website design has paradoxically actually been getting less
aesthetically pleasing with time. Regardless of how one may feel about more controversial things such as background MIDIs and tiling backgrounds, the web of old, much like many Neocities page, featured countless unique and creative sites that all had a personal touch. The average website of today in comparison has less soul than an Excel spreadsheet.
Every site is either an ugly minimalist piece of crap (not to imply that there is anything wrong with actual bare bones minimalist sites) that somehow still takes more resources to load than an entire operating system in my day would (Fakebook or Twatter for instance,) or is a glorified Fisher-Price toy whose design is aimed entirely at drooling phone-using nincompoops who suffer panic attacks at the mere glimpse of a command prompt and need smooth cartoon shapes everywhere to feel safe. The aforementioned Website Obesity Crisis has some excellent visual examples of these sorts of offenders in the "Interface Sprawl" section.
Tailouring a website design to mobile users is another massive no-no in my book and is what brought me to create the "Best viewed on a real computer" button at the bottom of (almost) every page on this site. Phone users are the web equivalent of physically disabled people - there's nothing wrong with providing a ramp for them, but don't tear down the stairs and make everyone else spend more time walking because of them.
That's actually an unfortunate analogy because having a physical disability doesn't imply anything negative about a person's mental faculties. Phone users on the other hand are largely simpletons who do nothing but pollute and rot the Internet with a constant stream of inane blathering. It's woeful that the exact type of person who least deserves access to the Internet is also the kind that is perpetually glued to their phone. For the sake of civility, I won't elaborate except to urge the reader to look around the next time they're in a store or any other public space if they're unsure of what I mean.
Website templates are another irritating fixture of the modern web that absolutely needs to go. The overlying issue with shartphones is of course, as I covered in my rant about Normiefication, that it offers Internet access to the absolute lowest common denominator, thus poisoning the well and lowering the quality of content and discorse online. In the same vein, website templates and services and programs that make website design as easy as playing with blocks poison the well by allowing people to create a website with no intellectual effort whatsoever.
The infuriating thing is that it's not even difficult to design a website. HTML and CSS are very easy to learn; the latter is not even a strict necessity. HTML especially is basically just giving the web browser simple commands like "start a new line here," "include a link to X here," "put the image at the url Y here," and so on. It's Microsoft Word but you have to use tags for formatting instead of keyboard shortcuts. If someone is too intellectually lazy to even figure something this basic out, then perhaps it's better for everyone if they don't get to have a voice in cyberspace. Templated and service/program-designed websites are essentially as lazy of an online presence as social media pages, but deserve extra criticism because unlike social media pages, you can't avoid these websites by simply staying off social media.
"But Koshka, I don't have time to figure out how to design a website! I have a life!
" No, you're just a lazy person who wants the privilege of standing on a soapbox and ranting without the effort required to even
clamber onto said soapbox.
I was going to wait until the end of the article to start showing examples of excellent website design, but in the interests of demonstrating how little effort and know-how is required in order to construct a memorable website, I will now present a link to the glorious official website of the band Sisters of Mercy.
This website was apparently created entirely by the band's singer, Andrew Eldritch, probably in regular Notepad. It is nonetheless the most memorable and entertaining website that I have ever seen for any band or artist. It's hilarious, informative, aesthetically pleasing, and contains absolutely no bloat whatsoever.
That said, while I have nothing against (true) minimalist web design, there is something to be said for the goofier web design styles that used to be dominant back in the glory days of Angelfire, Geocities, and Lycos. It seems like somewhere along the line, creativity and soul became viewed as something childish. Something that we should make fun of and put behind us. There's a widespread sentiment now that having thousands of completely unique and memorable personal websites was a negative thing, and that a web dominated by bland social media pages and a sea of identical-looking, soulless templated websites and blogs is "progress." Utter hogwash. This is the same kind of diseased mindstate that considers modern "art," which can be something as vulgar and simple as someone smearing feces on a piece of paper, as a sort of progress over the genuine artworks of the past.
My increasing dissatisfaction with the once wonderful Microsoft Windows over the decades is a topic that will surely get its own rant in the future, but I want to briefly mention that this exact same nonsense had infected it before it even started to reach the web. Back in the days of Windows 95 and 98, the operating system was your oyster and you were free to customize just about anything. You were free to modify any and all of the colours to your liking, you could customize folders with backgrounds, and so forth.
Windows 98 even came with something called Plus!, which offered a myriad of high quality themes that featured custom wallpapers, screensavers, icons, cursors, and sounds. Fans of the operating system created and shared countless creative themes of their own, many of which you can still view at ThemeWorld
if you missed that era and want to know what was stolen from you.
Flash forward to XP, which was still great, and you only had four themes that you could ever use. The 9x theme could still be tailoured to one's heart's content, but the other three were static. I am currently on Windows 8.1, which does not have a 9x theme at all, only allows one to modify a single colour, and which considers a wallpaper change and said colour change to be a full-blown "theme." I never imagined I would live to see the day when my (backlit) keyboard was arguably more customisable than my operating system. Bast forbid anyone actually has any fun and gives their work/play environment a silly appearance! Everything computer-related apparently has to be boring and stale now.
Personal websites are one's home in the sea of cyberspace, and people should be encouraged to decorate them to their heart's desire. Animated GIFs, background MIDIs, backgrounds, and so forth all help to make websites memorable and amusing. Even when they're used in tacky or garish ways, I daresay this is still preferable to some Fakebook-esque website that could easily be mistakened for a water bill at first glance.
Speaking of which, my main peeve about HTML5 is that it introduced official support for background music, yet somehow did not think to include support for background MIDIs. Granted, background MIDIs were exclusively supported by Internet Explorer and (old) Opera in the past, but they were such an integral part of the web in the past that to not include any support for them represents a grievous insult to Internet heritage. Both of the two aforementioned browsers have since been deprecated in favour of objectively inferior ones, and unless one is targeting their website exclusively at people still using them, there appears to be no avenue towards including a background MIDI on a website anymore.
Neocities helpfully provides a social media-ish page for every website on here that automatically makes a post whenever someone updates their website. This does indeed have some uses, namely providing a RSS feed to let people follow your website without making a Neocities account, but in my mind, nothing is better than an old-fashioned updates page. It serves as a fun little historical record, and it's something that, to me, is often interesting to re-read for websites that I have been following the growth of for years.
About Me pages are another common staple of the old web that I wholeheartedly approve of, with some important caveats. I support the idea both because it gives some background about the person behind the website and helps one understand where they are coming from, and because it makes it easier to find and befriend compatible people online. I've had a number of rewarding friendships that formed the basis for a long-lasting niche IRC community, and it all blossomed from simply e-mailing a really cool guy to compliment his website back in 2002 or 2003.
The main caveat with About Me pages is that giving out personal information online should be avoided as much as possible. I went into this in the Normiefication rant already so I'll spare another tirade on the subject and merely repeat that this is common sense and was traditionally treated as such in the past even by big privacy violators like Microsoft and Google. Yet in the modern era, where entire communities of rapists and paedophiles gather in the darknet, and people get arrested or fired from their jobs for Fakebook posts, we're led to believe that it's perfectly safe to attach our real life identities and activities to everything that we say and do online. One can certainly dive unprotected into a pool full of sharks without getting mained or killed, but it is obviously not a wise course of action.
This article has already gone on for much longer than I intended it to go, so I will go ahead and move to the final part: the examples.
First and foremost, I realise that I have made a number of remarks that make it sound like I harbour serious disdain for minimalist websites and presumably think the web should be an overflowing fountain of animated gifs and MIDIs. This is not so, and there is most certainly a time and a place for even the most bare-bones designs.
Quite a few university professors have personal websites related to their areas of expertise, and these are typically as bare as can be design-wise. Two excellent examples that come to mind are the websites of Dr. James Schombert
and Dr. John Baez
. Over here on Neocities, lolwut
has put together an objectively entertaining website with naught but text, basic formatting, and buttons. DigDeeper's website
, while not nearly as bare as the previous examples, is a stellar example of an aesthetically pleasing website created with little more than basic HTML and CSS.
In the end, as Bill Gates once said: "content is king," and as such it does not necessarily need any pretty decorations tacked on in order to do its job.
On the exact opposite side of the spectrum, there is the M J Doom Page
, which is one of my absolute all-time favourite examples of web design excellency. Each page has its own unique theme and features its own background, set of animated gifs, and background MIDI (that you need IE to hear.) The decorations are used just right so that they spice up the page, without getting in the way or making it hard to read.
It also uses an image of the world map of Doom Episode 3 as an image map, turning each location on the map into a clickable link to the website section that is assigned to it. Tragically however, its entire Links page is a bunch of broken links. Unsurprising since it was abandoned in 1998, and as such was probably cobbled together by an Anomalocaris
Some top tier examples that straddle the middle of the spectrum between minimalism and full-on Geocities
include Zandor 12's Den
, which features a nice and relaxing tiling background, cute animated penguin gifs, and a sidebar utilising frames to good effect. Also very worthy of mention is the supremely fancy ZZT Heaven
Some more examples worth looking at (and learning from) are Per-Bast
, Shrine of the Forgotten Goddesses
(this one features a lot of different themes but the one on Bast's page
is especially worth taking a look at,) Digger.com
, Doom Underground
, Perilous Crystal Caves
, Castle Cyberskull
here on Neocities, and Draconcat
There's a large amount of other excellent websites that I remember visiting in the 90s and 00s that are lamentably long gone, one big example that comes to mind is Billy Bear 4 Kids (anyone else remember that one?!) Some of them appear to be gone without a trace, while some exist on Archive.org but are missing all of the content aside from the html. I do still harbour some faith in the future of the web, however. Neocities has been quite a boon in allowing people to recreate that bygone era of creativity, and as of this writing, Angelfire and Tripod and all of the websites hosted on them do still exist (*knocks on wood aggressively, nmiaow.*)
I have also seen many sentiments about the issues with the modern web being expressed on 4chan and other *chans over the past few years. People are sick of the stale, privacy-less shithole that is the modern web and social media, and are hungering for the creative web of the past. Wiby
have shown themselves to be excellent tools for exploring the otherwise obscure Web 1.0 portions of the Web. Between the plethora of people with passions that they want to be able to freely express, and the heroes working to maintain the aforementioned websites and services, I do believe we have a real chance to Make the Web Great Again.