Form versus Function in the History of the World Wide Web

According to an article in the Atlantic Monthly, the World Wide Web had its beginnings in 1945. Another documented source credits the invention of the web to much earlier times and attributes it to having its roots in the telephone and telegraph industry.

History of the Web

History of the Web ©

But the consensus is that the official year is 1989 when its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal for managing the communication and sharing of information. That is credited for being the beginning of the World Wide Web.

History of the Web 2

History of the Web 2 ©

The beginnings of the World Wide Web as we know it became a reality with the invention of the four necessary building blocks: HTML, the Web protocol HTTP, a Web server and a basic browser.

History of the Web 3

History of the Web 3 ©

Out of the necessity for establishing some sort of guidelines and protocols, a volunteer organization called the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was established in 1994. It made its home at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and had the responsibility for developing and maintaining common standards.

History of the Web 4

History of the Web 4 ©

“They set HTML as the standard for marking up web pages. This discouraged any single company from building a proprietary browser and programming language, which could have had a detrimental effect on the web as a whole. The W3C continues to set standards for open web markup and programming languages (such as JavaScript).”1

The first web page

The first web page ©

This type of protocol was not new to the design industries. They had long histories of standards that went back centuries. But design had not come on the scene yet. That was to take a bit more time.

W3C (1998)

W3C (1998) ©

The changes that have taken place in the 20-year history of the World Wide Web are staggering. The original database was composed of huge amounts of information and its success was based upon that information being accessible to others. At that point, the web belonged to the scientists, academia and industry.

W3C (2009)

W3C (2009) ©

Design, designers and developers had no part in it, as its function required no visual information only listings and sharing of data. Additionally, even to this day there are still those who feel that design, visual imagery, and typography are superfluous to the Web.

Yahoo! (1996)

Yahoo! (1996) ©

But that was all to change when it became apparent that much more could be done with the web than simply storing and sharing data. “Perhaps the single most important technological development in the history of the web, besides the creation of the web itself, was the development of graphical browsers in the early 90s.”

Yahoo! (2002)

Yahoo! (2002) ©

“Beginning with NCSA’s Mosaic and its evolution into Netscape’s Navigator and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, these programs allowed users to browse the resources on the web in an extremely user friendly environment. This made the web a “fun” place and marked the beginning of the true web revolution.”2

“Soon the Web took on a commercial flavor, as cybermalls opened and closed, Yahoo became the major directory of Web sites and Inc. started selling books and music CDs.”3

With the evolution of the web and its growing functions, it became essential to create systems of organization or tables that allowed for visual material as well as all the additional technology that had become part of the mainstream of the web. Table-based designs grew in complexity, incorporating sliced-up background images, often giving the illusion of a simpler structure than the actual table layout.

Design over Structure

Design over Structure ©

“This era of web layouts paid little attention to semantics and web accessibility, often opting for aesthetics over good markup structure. This was the same era where Spacer GIFs were popularized to control whitespace of web layouts. Some major companies even educated designers about the Spacer GIF; see Introducing the spacer GIF for use in HTML tables on”4

Yahoo! (2009)

Yahoo! (2009) ©

“The development of the first WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) web design applications, all of which used table-based layouts, increased the use of tables. In addition, some of those programs created tables so complex that many designers would never have created them from scratch (such as tables with rows only 1-pixel high and hundreds of cells). Designers had to rely on tables if they wanted to create designs that were even mildly complex (such as multi-column designs).”5

HTML5 & CSS3 Readiness

HTML5 & CSS3 Readiness ©

But as time went on, the technical aspects of a site’s development started to take a front seat again. The requirements that web design and web development had filled again needed to include programming. Features like search engine optimization, shopping carts, and a myriad of other tools that required the use of complex coding began to overshadow the reign of the web design and returned the focus to the web’s internal wiring.

Design Perfectionism

Design Perfectionism ©

Web designers, who had primarily been graphic designers before the advent of the web, found that much of what web developers, the coders and computer programmers were doing was unappealing visually and was lacking in what they understood to be good design.  Just as the W3C set standards for web language, standards in graphic design had long and deep traditions for the protocols of good design.

Not Web Design

Not Web Design™ ©

The web changed all that. Good design alone could not stand on its own when it came to the web. If a site did not do the job it was intended to do, it did and does not matter how visually attractive it is. As one firm puts it, “ Web design is not good web design if the visitor has to ‘think’ about it.”6

A site needs to flow; it needs to be navigated without having to ‘think’ about it. It is like riding a bicycle. Once you learn how, you just do it. You do not ‘think’ about doing it.

Michael Graves, teakettle by Alessi for Target

Michael Graves, teakettle by Alessi for Target © MIA

There can and needs to be a reasonable meeting ground where form and function co-habitate. This has been the challenge with many other fields of design, to create something functional that is also a thing of beauty. This point can be clearly illustrated by the increasing numbers of extremely successful designers who have carried over their individual brand to everyday products in superstores frequented by everyday folks rather than the wealthy for exclusivity.

Missoni for Target

Missoni for Target ©

Architects like Michael Graves, fashion designers like Vera Wang and Jaclyn Smith, furniture designer, Cindy Crawford, textile/fashion designers like the Missoni Family, and the queen of home making herself, Martha Stewart have all lent their talents to create usable, tasteful, sometimes even works of art that are sold at affordable prices in the American Heartland’s superstores such as Target, Kmart, Wal-Mart and even Kohl’s.

The Battle between Apple and Adobe

The Battle between Apple and Adobe ©

The web is the next frontier where form and function initially collided but have learned to coexist. Although it is not always a happy marriage, it is just another day in the world where designers and programmers battle it out to see who has the upper hand for the moment. On some days, it is a standoff and in certain cases, a balance is struck. It is then that the music of the World Wide Web can be heard.

Web Awards ©

1. The Evolution of Web Design
2. History of the Web
3. The Story So Far: History of Web Sites
5. The Spacer GIF
6. Web Design vs. Web Development

Web Design & Development Guide: Spacer GIF
History of the Web and HTML

Things That Shaped the Web Design Industry in 2010
Several Articles about the Web
Practicing Perfectionism as a Web and Graphic Designer
Top fashion designers go down-market
Missoni for Target
From Towers to Teakettles: Michael Graves Architecture and Design
Target’s Newest Designer: Justin Timberlake!



  1. Alison,
    I’ve seen you wearing a few hats over the years; you do the digital age storyteller hat credit!

  2. This is an e-mail that I, author of the above blog post, sent out after I posted my story. The Missoni/Target™ marriage became so huge that the Target site reportedly crashed as buyers overloaded it. In addition, some of their purchases were seen mere hours later on eBay for triple the price.

    “Did you hear about the latest Target™ news? Once again high fashion and a world famous brand, this time Missoni, the famed, exclusive Italian knit wear family owned empire, is now in the ranks of the exclusive gone mainstream, in all kinds of industries, with the likes of architect turned housewares designer, Michael Graves, homemaking magnate, Martha Stewart, fashion famed, Vera Wang, home furnishings designer, Cindy Crawford, fashion designer, Jaclyn Smith and many, many others. They are all part of the recent trend of exclusive, high end designers becoming household names in America’s heartland by selling their wares in megastores like Target, Walmart, Kmart and Kohl’s.

    This particular story hit the news this week in the traditional and digital media including, The Chicago Tribune, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The NY Daily News, USA Today, The Boston Globe, The LA Times Blog, NBC News-Cincinatti, CBS News, The Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal, Money.CNN and likely dozens of other venues. It was also top news on sites that sell their wares including, Amazon, Outnet, Target Home, and Target Fashion.

    The reason I am writing to you about this is that coincidentally and without any knowledge of my beloved Missoni fashions going in this direction, I wrote a blog post this week as a contributing author to Digital Brand Marketing Education. It is on a seemingly totally different topic, the history of World Wide Web. It took on a life of its own and segued into a discussion about form versus function relating the web design industry to other design industries. I happened to feature the Missionis as an example of high end form functioning in a mainstream venue. Low and behold, Missoni has been the hottest news on the fashion scene this week having made their mainstream debut at Target.

    Please take a look at this blog post. I hope you will have the opportunity to glance over it if not read it and even pass it on to others who may be inspired by the connection of two seemingly unrelated topics. I would like very much to hear what you think (in the comments section at the end of the blog) and have you rate it (the stars at the top of the page). Looking forward to hearing from you.”

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