By Tobias van Schneider Published December 1, 2017
While most of us can’t imagine our lives without it, the internet in its more accessible form is just a few years older than Justin Bieber. The World Wide Web hasn’t been around that long, but it’s come a long way since its inception.
Web design has come a long way too, as my friend Rob Ford can tell you. Rob is the founder of FWA, which has showcased the internet’s most creative and innovative work since its infancy.
Today we’re time traveling with Rob through the FWA archives to look at the early days of web design, featuring FWA award winners from 1997-2002. These were the days when everyone was experimenting and web design felt new and exciting, like anything could happen. These were also the days of Flash, as you’ll see in a moment.
1997 - Gabocorp.com
You are about to enter a new era in website design. This is the new standard for all things to come. Welcome to the new Gabocorp.
“If anyone led you into their website today with such a slogan, they would be doomed,” says Rob. “Yet back in 1997, hitting that glowing GO button raised your heartbeat.”
Your heartbeat increases even more after pressing GO, assuming your sound is on. And you'll want to keep your sound when viewing most of these websites. Unnerving background music was sort of essential to the experience back in the day, as you might recall.
Side note: This site feels like some early version of a Prezi, and we’re OK with that.
EYE4U is one of the first amazing websites many remember. Gabocorp was slightly more underground in 1997, while EYE4U quickly hit the mainstream. With its bright colors, uplifting music and Flash intro, this site spread across forums like wildfire.
Clearly, these web designers did not have to worry about optimizing for mobile.
“Balthaser created the most talked-about Flash intro ever,” Rob explains. “It took off at warp speed with high impact, fit-inducing images.”
This visual experience, according to Balthaser, is the company’s soul, its “essence.”
If you can keep up with the text that follows, you’ll learn Balthaser is a web design studio that makes your customers “scream for more.” Sites like these either whipped you through the experience like a careening rollercoaster ride, or used blatant navigation cues to make sure you got where you needed to go. They were not exactly intuitive, but they were fun.
It’s been almost 20 years and we’re still playing that intro on loop. We saw Balthasar’s soul. We are screaming for more and/or suffering an epileptic seizure.
Kim Dotcom’s Megacar was a Mercedes Benz Brabus S58 converted in 1998 with Data Protect, a German company that specialized in data security. The website was as cutting edge as the car itself with a Flash intro, progressive interface and voiceovers / sound effects that made you think this car might actually be a spaceship.
“The website would have more longevity than the physical Megarcars, though,” says Rob.
Rob recalls when he first visited this site, seeing the “Click Here Now” banner and immediately closing the page, believing it was another poorly created website with banner advertising that promised to make you rich.
“It was weeks later when I saw the forums blowing up about the site that I went back to find it,” says Rob. “I clicked and my mind was blown.”
We’ve evolved only slightly since the days of Click Here Now banners. Now we expect more of a story to it, a headline that builds intrigue. Instead of getting rich quick, we want to know "what happens next." And then we click, still hoping our mind will be blown.
This was the ultimate teaser site from Marcus Bussejahn, a 35-year-old German who made waves in a German Flash forum (FlashForum.de) with his new agency and high impact Flash style. THE PORTAL opened with a loading screen and a door handle. Once fully loaded, the site revealed two locked doors.
“This teaser was talked about for years,” says Rob.
Flash sites of this time seemed to be all about the teaser, mostly to distract from loading time. Now, what you see is what you get.
2Advanced v3 Expansions would be remembered for two things: Being the most copied website ever and “the most influential Flash website of the decade.” Forums like Flashkit (with a 52-page thread about the site’s launch), Were-here and Ultrashock lit up with love and hate for this website, remembers Rob.
"I clicked on a link and the hair on my neck stood on end. I had goose bumps all over."
2001 - Starbreeze
“In October 2001, I clicked on a link and the hair on my neck stood on end. I had goose bumps all over,” Rob says. “Starbreeze changed everything as I knew it at the time.”
The site took ages to load, which made it even better. The anticipation was immense. As the site loaded it offered a fairy to guide you around the site. At a time when some designers were just trying Flash for the first time and would get excited about moving a circle from one side of the screen to another, this website was years ahead of the game.
When winners were announced in the 2002 May 1st Reboot, Rob says the Who’s We Studios Flash site stood out as the true definition of eye candy.
On the splash page you were greeted with an intriguing intro — “Do you feel lucky punk? Well, do ya?” — as their logo orb morphed into massive arsenal of weapons pointing right at you, kindly asking if you wanted to enter the broadband version of the site. When you clicked on a button that said "Who Are We," a UFO flew across the screen and produced a giant rock which read "THE BEST.” If only I had such confidence.
This would be the first ever incarnation of the effect that mimics turning a page in a book. It was perfectly executed, making it an instant success, and before long everyone wanted a script for the “Page Turn Effect.” One company even started to sell a book template and some believed they were the originators. For the record, says Rob, this site was the first.
"Neostream Interactive delivered 50,000 volts of animation heaven that shocked the world upon launch," says Rob.
The site oozed personality and character right from the splash screen as the Neostream mascot shook his finger at the user. On entering the site users were able to quite literally slap the mascot around by moving their mouse across him.
Here ends our Web Design Flashback; please exit to your right and tip your tour guides (Rob accepts PayPal).
Really though, Rob – thank you for this fun and insightful look back in time!
What I found most interesting is how boldly these websites claim their work is the future of web design. Because at the time, it was. This was the beginning, “the standard for all things to come.” When everything is new and no standards exist, creativity and confidence abounds.
In our current mobile-first era, when websites are designed in neat grids, with videos in the header and social links in the footer, it’s more rare to meet the unexpected. Progress feels more gradual and less explosive now, but perhaps we’ll know the future when we see it.
Until then, look out for “The History of Web Design,” Rob’s new book covering over a quarter of a century of web design from 1991-2017, to be published by Taschen in Spring/Summer 2018. And be sure to follow Rob on Twitter and Instagram @fwa and #TheHistoryOfWebDesign. You never know how the past might inspire you to change the future.
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the author of this blog, nice to meet you!