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10 Popular Web Designs From The 90s That Would Never Fly Today

Kevin Whipps March 31, 2021 · 7 min read
The 1990s were a good time, and I remember them well. I got my first email account back then once I started my freshman year in college, and even experimented with some of the first chat rooms. In fact, that may have even led to the first catfishing experience ever. But I probably shouldn’t talk poorly of Wanda, may she rest in peace. But octogenarian ex-girlfriends aside, the Internet in the 1990s was a time for experimentation with a new and burgeoning medium with tons of limitations. Dial-up modems, tiny bandwidth and small (and expensive) hard drives made it a tough place to take a hold, and yet some of these sites did prosper. So what was popular back then, anyway? And would any of those ideas work today? Well if you’ve read the title of the piece, you probably know the answer: no. Let’s dissect them.

1. Repeating Patterned Backgrounds

Remember that old Toast screensaver from back in the day with the flying toasters? Almost every site in the 1990s used some form of that as their background, and since their real estate was limited, they had to create patterns out of 64X64 pixel designs — sometimes smaller. Take a look at the still active(!) Space Jam site, for example. Gotta love those stars, right? And on another note, this is my favorite part of that whole page: That 7.5 mb file will eat up your dial-up for sure, but trust them, it’s worth it.

2. Animated and Patterned Navigation

Look, I don’t mean to pick on Space Jam, but, I mean, I’ve gotta do this. Look at that website navigation — not on the main page, although that’s pretty rough — the sidebar. The patterns are back, of course, but the animation? That’d never work today, not in such a pixelated manner, anyway. Plus, the scrollbar on the side is rough, too. Just creating a mess of stuff to work with. Now maybe the worst part is how tiny it is on the screen. This may be a byproduct of me using a newer display than was ever intended back then, but I’m not even using anything fancy compared to today’s standards. Still, it’s not a good look.

3. Too Much Text

Here we have circa 1995, and boy, that’s a doozy. There’s no way that you could get by with an all-text site today, particularly if those were the fonts of choice. Now sure, you could make the argument that sites like Medium have mostly text, but I’d counter with their usage of pull-quotes and the large splash images at the top of almost every page. On top of that, Medium looks a ton better than in 1995 (which is a pretty low bar to hit), and if your web page looks like this today, you might want to make some phone calls. Unless you’re Craigslist. And if you’re looking at Craigslist for your design decisions, you’re probably the same person that’s trying to scam my sale of limited edition M.A.S.K. toys. Come on, that stuff is priceless!

4. Skeumorphism

What you’re looking at here is a web page for the film Jurassic Park: The Lost World, and one of the first attempts at viral marketing. Did it work? I don’t know, I don’t have an actual time machine — I swear I don’t, just please don’t look in my basement — but it’s not technically for the film itself. Instead, it’s for the InGen company, one of the groups from the movie, I suppose, and yeah. This is it. Now look, skeuomorphism — the concept of taking a real-world object and using that design as an interface for a digital device — took off with Apple and the iPhone, but then got dumped later on because people don’t like leather stitching on their virtual notebook. But this was a bad idea back in 1997, and frankly, anything that reminds me that dot matrix printers were a thing makes me want to wash my eyes out with steel wool and whatever acid they used to make the Joker. When done well, skeuomorphism can work, but more often than not, you should move on.

5. Too Much Content

First off, this website is still active, so soak it in while you can. A lot of sites in the ’90s looked like this — some combination of the Penny Saver ads and image vomit splattered on a page with no concept of layout or structure. Thing is, this is still a problem today. People try to cram 10 lbs of, well, junk, into the proverbial 5-lb bag, and that doesn’t work, right? Of course not. So don’t do it.

6. Looping and Overdone Animations

I don’t know who discovered or created the GIF, but whoever did, they used the heck out of it back in the ’90s. And in this case, we’ve got a repeat offender, because not only did they put the animation all over the place, but they packed it into a pattern on the background. You know how video games have all of those warnings about flashing lights and epilepsy? That was a legit concern every time you logged on back then. Frankly, I may need to step away from this image right now before I start … too late.

7. Hit Counters

If there’s one thing that truly exemplifies 90’s web design, it’s the hit counter. These things lived at the bottom (or sometimes the top) of everyone’s websites, as an archaic form of Google Analytics. See, back then there was no other way to know who visited your site, so you had to put this design pimple on your home page so that you had some kind of data to work with. Did they suck? Sure they did. But I know my websites had them back in the day, and when I hit 100 visitors for the first time I almost peed myself. Fine. I’ll be honest. I did.

8. Guestbooks

This is a weird one. Back in the beginning of the web, people used to equate websites with hotels or a bed and breakfast, which meant that, naturally, they had to have a guestbook. You’d write down all of your pertinent info, and then, at some point, you’d leave a nice note telling them how nice their website was. It’s what they had before anybody knew what a comments section was, so I suppose in some weird way, we have the guestbooks to thank for YouTube trolls. So thanks, 1990s web designers, for giving us that.

9. Animated Cursors

Remember these? Anybody who had a MySpace page in the mid-00s had one for sure, but they started out in the late ’90s, which fits them in nicely with our theme. The best part is that when you had one of these on your site, and combined it with animated repeating backgrounds, you’d slow your 500 MHz Gateway down to a standstill, but it was still kind of awesome. And there were so many options — glitter trails, hot rods, flames — it was amazing. OK, so maybe I kinda want a magic wand cursor on my site. Sue me.

10. Adobe Flash

At the trail end of the decade, Adobe Flash came into play and next thing you know, everybody was using it. Back then it was the way to show video on the web, so — surprise! — it became a standard. Not so much anymore, but in 1999, that was the thing to do. Of course, more often than not you’d have some kind of browser issue with one of your visitors, but that’s no biggie, right? Nah. Who cares? Flash will rule forever!
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About the Author
Kevin Whipps

Hi! My name is Kevin Whipps, and I'm a writer and editor based in Phoenix, Arizona. When I'm not working taking pictures of old cars and trucks, I'm either writing articles for Creative Market or hawking stickers at Whipps Sticker Co.

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