I’ve been a graphic artist, writer, and marketer for a long time. I’ve seen the industry go from phototypesetting, matte boards and waxers to digital presses and virtual proofing in a little under a decade. 20 years ago, most of my business was in print design, with just a smattering of work online. Today, I count myself lucky (and a bit nostalgic) if I get to do anything in print past a business card. In that same period of time, websites have evolved, too. And I think it’s worth talking about, both so we can see where we’ve been/where we’re going, and more importantly why we’re heading in a particular direction. 

In the beginning, there was text. The original World Wide Web looked like an even uglier version of the DrudgeReport.com site. No pictures. Ugly typography. Just data. But it worked. And people could see the potential. You can kind of think of this as the web in beta form – it really wasn’t ready for public consumption…just a “proof of concept” bunch of technologies thrown together. The only tools for building sites back then were things like Windows Notepad, and everything was custom-built…and hard-coded.

Before very long, images became an important factor in websites. (After all, if you buy off on the Chinese proverb, each one is worth a thousand words.) Then it quickly became not enough to simply have images and text on a page – formatting them became a priority…and a very frustrating exercise in futility. For those of us coming over from a traditional print background, cary website layout capabilities were laughably primitive. And the new tools – apps like Dreamweaver – didn’t really help a lot. Designing was a schizophrenic process – you used one tool to write code, and then had to upload it to a browser to see what you’d coded as it would look online. Frustrating.

But there was too much riding on the Internet for progress to stand still. Things changed and evolved virtually overnight. And when one company – Netscape – had the dominant (and free!) browser, sleeping giants like Microsoft quickly realized that the browser was the key to the online experience. Microsoft responded surprisingly quickly, with a new browser (Internet Explorer…less-than-affectionately known as “Internet Exploder”) to challenge Netscape’s dominance. Microsoft’s idea was to create their own “standards” – enhancements to the online experience that worked differently than the other guy’s browsers. It was their attempt to drive the standards train, and made the lives of designers like me a living Hell.

Gone were the days where you could write code for a page and expect to have it look pretty much the same on any device with a browser. Now coding required an encyclopedic knowledge of hacks and tricks to bend browsers to your will, and force it to display your pages in a more-or-less identical fashion. Enter Adobe Flash (nee: Macromedia Flash, nee: FutureSplash Animator). Flash was (at first) a lightweight, fast vector animation program for the web. (That’s a gross oversimplification, but it’s all you need to really know for the purposes of this discussion.) What Flash brought to the party was that you could do things with it that you couldn’t do with a regular website – great typography, animation, video, interaction, and best of all, if you did your entire website in Flash, it would look exactly the same on every platform. It didn’t matter if you were on a Mac, a PC or a Unix box, and the browser didn’t matter either. And a great cry of thanks was heard throughout the land, from designers everywhere. Finally, we could design once, play everywhere, and do the things we’d only dreamt of in HTML.

It would not last.

None other than Steve Jobs drove a stake through the heart of Flash, by banning it from his ecosystem of iDevices. No Flash on iPhones and iPads? What’s the point. But along around that time, new technologies like HTML5 were springing up like kudzu, that could finally do most of what you previously need Flash to accomplish.

At the same time the design side of things was getting fixed, developers realized that writing pages and pages of code for every web page was a sucker bet. First, they divorced content and style, using Cascading Style Sheets (a.k.a.: “CSS”). This was a clumsy solution, but one that’s worked, in some cases, in spite of itself. Then customers with database needs realized the web was the perfect, extensible platform for accessing their data. Thus, the idea of dynamic content that was generated on demand came to be.

The first attempts were crude, difficult to code, and not terribly robust. In cases where your site became suddenly popular, extensibility became a real issue. And solutions that worked for small numbers of users might not be able to adapt to larger groups.

Today, things have largely settled down. Most new websites are based on some kind of Content Management System (CMS) like WordPress or Joomla, making these sites a public face of a private database. Today, developers worry more about usability and optimization for search engines than they do with building elaborate HTML pages or interfacing pages with database code.

And that’s a very good thing.

The buzzword du jour is “responsive” as in “responsive design.” This is a fancy way of saying that your website can automatically reformat itself to look good and work well on computers, tablets and smart phones. That’s a good thing, because it means your site can be reached by more people, eliminating both friction and frustration.

So…where do we go from here? Well, the basic rules haven’t changed. You still need a site that’s easy to use – loads fast, with intuitive navigation, attractive graphics, and easy to access information. But now you need to worry about how people can reach your site, both from a platform point of view, and from getting the info on your site to those that need it aspect.

If you’re site is over a couple of years old, you should be asking yourself a couple of important questions:

  • Is it easy enough to update that I can do it myself?
  • Is it easy to find via a search engine (Google, Bing, etc.)
  • Will it work easily when accessed from any web-enabled device?
  • Does it reflect my brand, my products and my services?
  • Do I know (from site metrics) who my visitors are and where they’re from?
  • Am I doing everything I can to make my site more “sticky” to retain visitors?

If you answered “no” to ANY of those questions, it’s likely time to have a site checkup. There are lots of reputable companies on the web. We’re one of them. So rather than making this a plug for our own company, instead, let me suggest you find someone you can work with – someone that you trust, that can show you some other sites they’ve done that you like. Someone who creates a trust atmosphere, where you can get all your questions answered, and get your site updated so it works hard for you. We’d love to talk to you about your business. But if your site is more than two years old, do yourself a favor and call someone. We’re as close as your phone. But if not us, call someone. Otherwise, you’re wasting a great opportunity to increase your business.