90s Web Design: A Nostalgic Look Back

A nostalgic look back at 90s web design, and a warning to anyone whose website is an accidental anachronism.

Remember the days when every PC was beige, every website had a little Netscape icon on the homepage, Geocities and Tripod hosted just about every single personal homepage, and “Google” was just a funny-sounding word?

The mid-late 1990s were the playful childhood of the worldwide web, a time of great expectations for the future and pretty low standards for the present. Those were the days when doing a web search meant poring through several pages of listings rather than glancing at the first three results–but at least relatively few of those websites were unabashedly profit-driven.

Hallmarks of 1990s Web Design

Of course, when someone says that a website looks like it came from 1996, it’s no compliment. You start to imagine loud background images, and little “email me” mailboxes with letters going in and out in an endless loop. Amateurish, silly, unprofessional, conceited, and unusable are all adjectives that pretty well describe how most websites were made just ten years ago.

Why were websites so bad back then?

Knowledge. Few people knew how to build a good website back then, before authorities like Jakob Nielsen starting evangelizing their studies of web user behavior.

Difficulty. In those days, there weren’t abundant software and templates that could produce a visually pleasing, easy-to-use website in 10 minutes. Instead, you either hand-coded your site in Notepad or used FrontPage.

Giddiness. When a new toy came out, whether it was JavaScript, Java, Frames, animated Gifs, or Flash, it was simply crammed into an already overstuffed toy box of a website, regardless of whether it served any purpose.

Browsing through the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of nostalgia for a simpler time when we were all beginners at this. Still, one of the best reasons for looking at 90s website design is to avoid repeating history’s web design mistakes. This would be a useful exercise for the tragic number of today’s personal homepages and even small business websites that are accidentally retro.

Splash Pages

Sometime around 1998, websites all over the internet discovered Flash, the software that allowed for easy animation of images on a website. Suddenly you could no longer visit half the pages on the web without sitting through at least thirty seconds of a logo revolving, glinting, sliding, or bouncing across the screen.

Flash “splash pages,” as these opening animations were called, became the internet’s version of vacation pictures. Everyone loved to display Flash on their site, and everyone hated to have to sit through someone else’s Flash presentation.

Of all the thousands of splash pages made in the 1990s and the few still made today, hardly any ever communicated any useful information or provided any entertainment. They were monuments to the egos of the websites’ owners. Still, today, when so many business website owners are working so hard to wring every last bit of effectiveness out of their sites, it’s almost charming to think of a business owner actually putting ego well ahead of the profit to have been derived from all the visitors who hit the “back” button rather than sit through an animated logo.

Text Troubles

“Welcome to…” Every single website homepage in 1996 had to have the word “welcome” somewhere, often in the largest headline. After all, isn’t saying “welcome” more vital than saying what the web page is all about in the first place?

Background images. Remember all those people who had their kids’ pictures tiled in the background of every page? Remember how much fun it was trying to guess what the words were in the sections where the font color and the color of the image were the same?

Dark background, light text. My favorite was orange font on purple background, though the ubiquitous yellow white text on blue, green or red was nice, too. Of course, anyone who will make their text harder to read with a silly gimmick is just paying you the courtesy of letting you know they couldn’t possibly have written anything worth reading.

Entire paragraphs of text centered. After all, haven’t millennia of flush-left margins just made our eyes lazy?

“This Site Is Best Viewed in Netscape 4.666, 1,000×3300 resolution.” It was always so cute when site owners actually imagined anyone but their mothers would care enough to change their browser set up to look at some random person’s website.

All-image no-text publishing. Some of the worst websites would actually do the world the service of putting all their text in image format so that no search engine would ever find them. What sacrifice!

Hyperactive Pages

TV-envy was a common psychological malady in 1990s web design. Since streaming video and even Flash were still in their infancy, web designers settled for simply making the elements on their pages move like Mexican jumping beans.

Animated Gifs

In 1996, just before the dawn of Flash, animated gifs were in full swing, dancing, sliding, and scrolling their way across the retinas of web surfers trying to read the text on the page.

Scrolling Text

Just in case you were having a too easy time tuning out all the dancing graphics on the page, an ambitious mid-1990s web designer had a simple but powerful trick for giving you a headache: scrolling text. Through the magic of JavaScript, website owners could achieve the perfect combination of too fast to read comfortably and too slow to read quickly.

For a while, a business owner could even separate the serious from the wannabe prospects based just on how (un)professional their business websites looked. Sadly, the development of template-based website authoring software means that even someone with no taste or sense whatsoever can make websites that look as good as the most biggest-budget design of five years ago.

Of course, there are still some websites whose owners seem to be trying to spark a resurgence in animated gifs, background images, and ugly text. ‘ll just have to trust that everyone is laughing with them, not at them.

The Sonic Drowning Music Gave (And Still Gives) All Of The Anxiety

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I’ve mentioned this before, but it really can’t be overstated so I’ll say it here again and someday I might just shout it from the rooftops: THE MUSIC PLAYED WHEN SONIC WAS DROWNING IS TERRIFYING/PANIC-INDUCING. If Anxiety were a professional wrestler, its entrance theme would be the music played when Sonic is drowning. If there was a soundtrack to that moment when the waitress is walking over and you’re not sure what you want to order, this is would be the score playing in the background. If someone took the feelings felt during a panic attack and infused them into a melody, IT. WOULD. BE. THE. MUSIC. PLAYED. WHEN. SONIC. IS. DROWNING. This little tune will never not make me feel incredibly uncomfortable, and when my first gray hairs inevitably arrive some day, I’ll blame the music played when Sonic is drowning.

Encarta Encyclopedia Was Our Wikipedia

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Nowadays when you want to look something up, you type into a Google search box and there are billions of search results at your fingertips. Sometimes, before you even have a chance to finish typing the words, it correctly guesses what you’re seeking and autofills in the rest of the phrase for you. Finding information is a cakewalk nowadays, but that wasn’t the case in the ’90s.  Sure, near the end of the decade we had subpar search engines like AskJeeves, but throughout the ’90s, Encarta Encyclopedia was our most convenient resource for information. Whether you were writing a paper for school, or randomly felt compelled to know facts about volcanoes, Encarta was there to provide you with the goods.

Obviously the Encarta database wasn’t as extensive as Wikipedia, but it was still a step up from the ol’ thick and heavy, hardcover encyclopedia sets that folks used to have to thumb through for any little nugget of info. The Encarta era was great for its time, but much like any software from the past, it seems pretty ‘meh’ nowadays. Still, for its valiant effort and all of the 5 paragraph essays it helped complete, it deserves all of the respect.

R.I.P. Encarta Encyclopedia, 1993-2009 (yeah, believe it or not, they lingered around until 2009 somehow)

Let’s Re-Cast “Spider-Man” With ’90s Actors

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Does anything beat a child actor from the ’90s?

Obviously, no. Perhaps it’s because the ’90s were a golden era of kids’ TV, with Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel providing launchpads for countless actors and performers who are still working today. Or perhaps it’s just because, as ’90s kids, we’re biased. Either way, there’s always been a certain aura around childhood stars from the decade, and it’s always fun to look back on their work or see them popping up again today.

The fact that this aura wasn’t tapped when Sam Raimi and Sony first brought Spider-Man to the big screen in 2002 has always been frustrating. Sure, he was boyish enough to present a satisfying Peter Parker, but Tobey Maguire was 27 years old when he started playing Spider-Man! He was 32 when he finished! It’s pretty common for Hollywood to cast people a few years older than the characters they’re playing, but Maguire and the cast assembled around him were pushing it given that half the intrigue of the Spider-Man saga amounts to teenage drama.

Now that Marvel Studios has taken over Spider-Man, there appears to be a focus on presenting a younger superhero. Tom Holland (the new Peter Parker) is only 20 and has already made his first appearance in Captain America: Civil War. And on top of that, Chris Hemsworth says Holland is an athlete and a gymnast, which makes him considerably more spry than Maguire, who wrapped up his web-slinging tenure battling back problems. At any rate, kudos to Marvel for going with a younger choice.

But what if Sony had done this to begin with? What would an original Spider-Man movie built on ’90s child stars and popular actors have looked like? Sadly, we’ll never know. But we can imagine how it would have looked, which leads me to the following hypothetical casting possibilities….

Peter Parker

What do you need for a good Peter Parker? Actually, based on three actors who’ve presented decidedly different takes on the character, it’s hard to say. Maguire was boy-faced and pitiful; Andrew Garfield was somehow clumsy and smooth at the same time; and Holland looks to be witty but immature. I suppose the ideal Peter Parker would be somewhere in between all of them: a boyish, thoroughly imperfect character with a quick wit and an ability to hurl an insult or throw a punch as readily as he might put his foot in his mouth. So who fits the bill?

It’s pretty hard to think of a better candidate than Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Born in 1981, he’d have been about 21 when Raimi’s first Spidey movie came out, and at the time he was the quintessential ’90s child star, having moved from Angels In The Outfield to 10 Things I Hate About You with a few other roles in between. He was boyish but charming, sheepish but capable of being assertive, and had the perfect Parker look. Young Simba himself (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) would have been another interesting option, and even pre-LOTR Elijah Wood might have been an interesting choice.

Mary Jane Watson

Alright, so there’s an argument to be made that the Marc Webb Spider-Man series actually got it right, and that Gwen Stacy is Peter Parker’s primary love interest. But then again, Kiersten Dunst and Tobey Maguire shared the most iconic MTV Movie Awards moment of all time (it was once ranked as the 24th best “Best Kiss” ever, which is nonsense), and in a sense it’s hard to imagine a better Spider-Man love interest than Mary Jane. But who would play her?

This is actually a tough one, because a lot of the most memorable child actresses of the ’90s were legitimately children (as opposed to teenagers or young adults) during the decade. For instance, Hilary Duff obviously comes to mind, but she was born in 1987—probably a little too late to fit into Raimi’s Spider-Man. One interesting actress who comes to mind is Michelle Trachtenberg. It’s hard to be much more ’90s than the girl who starred in The Adventures of Pete and Pete and Harriet the Spy from 1994-1996. Plus, she often had the red hair typical of Mary Jane, and she would have been about 17 or 18 by the time Raimi’s film came out.

Norman Osborn/Green Goblin

Yeah, yeah. The Green Goblin has been tried and tried again and he’s always come across a little bit cheesy. But like it or not, he’s clearly a public favorite as a Spider-Man villain. In addition to multiple film roles, he’s even the subject of an online casino game that’s featured alongside Rocky, Gladiator, and other prominent characters. The game is “Attack Of The Green Goblin,” and though it’s just a slot reel, it makes the titular villain as much of a focal point as Spidey himself. The same can almost be said of a few more mainstream video games as well. Norman Osborn/Green Goblin, whether because of Raimi’s films or because of comic storylines, is the Spider-Man bad guy.

Choosing which ’90s standout could play him better than Willem Dafoe is tricky, however, because this isn’t a child role. Still, let’s take a shot at it. Gary Oldman was certainly an up-and-coming actor at the time, after starring roles in Air Force One and The Fifth Element. He’d have been a perfect pick for the mix of fatherly concern and criminal insanity at the heart of the character. Another fascinating but less likely choice might have been Jeff Bridges, who would have been only a few years removed from his career-defining turn in The Big Lebowski.

Harry Osborn

Hayden Christensen? Hayden Christensen! No, just kidding… not Hayden Christensen.

Harry Osborn is actually a difficult character, because he needs to be likable enough to be Peter’s best friend but ornery enough to give in to the power of the dark side (but seriously, not Hayden Christensen). James Franco has become a capable and entertaining actor, but even he was relatively miserable in this deceptively complex role. So who from the ’90s could have done it better? Maybe Richie Rich himself, Macaulay Culkin, Prince of the ’90s. Something about this guy became unlikeable over the years (maybe it’s that he blew it with Mila Kunis), but at the time he was a beloved star with just a hint of mischief in his face. He might have been a perfect fit.

That covers the key roles in a ’90s-ified Spider-Man. Put yourself back in 2002…. Wouldn’t you have wanted to watch frenemies Culkin and Gordon-Levitt fighting over Trachtenberg while Oldman cooked up evil schemes? I know… me too.