Paul McGrath

Thoughts on Fourteen Years of Web Development

Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash

Andy Clarke recently wrote a fascinating comparison of Web Design practices between 1998 and 2018:

What struck me more than the gut-punch memory of spacer gifs, was how much has changed since I began Web Development, and how rapidly that still changes today.

Way Back When

In 2004 I became a Webmaster (a legit title) of our Scout troop’s site, which had been developed by a local web shop.

The site was a mix of the tech choices outlined in Andy’s article: HTML, CSS, tables, spacer gifs, and a custom PHP admin panel. It was also entirely left-aligned, as one of a few styles in vogue around then.

Landing page in 2004 from the Wayback Machine, sadly missing the header image.

As I had (some) creative licence, it was a wonderful opportunity for me to learn Web Development, while trying not to muck anything up too much.

There were plenty of sections that were very publicly being built (with under construction gifs) and even briefly a notice that read “this site is best viewed at a 1024x768 resolution”. I was clearly holding on to the 90’s.

In many ways it felt quite wonderful to be able to work in the open and make mistakes. Today’s web users are hyper-critical of even small nuance and subtlety, which raises the barrier quite a bit for new developers.

The site continued in that form for a couple of years, and I stepped away from it as I was focused on other efforts. Eventually in 2010, the group asked if I would build a new site from scratch, to which I gladly agreed.

One Art, Please

Many of the most visually impressive sites at that time relied on incredibly detailed and pseudo-realistic imagery to wow users.

This was the era of stitched leather and wooden iPhone app aesthetics, thanks to Scott Forstall’s ill-fated bet on skeuomorphism.

β€œIt’s like the designers are flexing their muscles to show you how good of a visual rendering they can do of a physical object. Who cares?”

β€” A former Apple user-interface designer.

Admittedly, I cared. Mostly because I was asked to build a stand-out showpiece site, and creating a design with that level of detail required a level of artistic talent that I was lacking.

To avoid aesthetic offence, I worked with the group leader to find a suitable base template. We decided on a simple nature themed, pre-sliced, Joomla template (my CMS of choice) which matched our requirements and gave me enough creative scope to enhance or modify for our needs.

Incredibly, only 8 years ago, Photoshop-based designs were still being cut up to be painstakingly reassembled, pixel by pixel, usually in fixed widths, with no mobile or tablet support.

Anyway, I built out the required functionality, created a group logo, section logos, asset bundles, and brand guidelines for the group, and launched in late 2010. The group were incredibly pleased, and it was viewed and used by Scouts nationally and internationally.

Landing page in 2012, as I don't have an older screengrab πŸ™ˆ

Constant Flux

Since launching that site, just as before, nearly everything has changed.

Load speeds are now so important that reducing your current loading times by 1 second can save your organisation hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Static site generators have become incredibly popular, and there’s a mile-long list of options available to suit any tech stack.

Joomla, Drupal, and Wordpress are no longer the only game in town, as many Content Management Systems are now optionally headless, and the Jamstack has replaced the LAMP stack.

Tools like Webpack’s Hot Module Replacement have eliminated manual page reloads, and any delay in rendering during development is now a very real annoyance.

Responsive Design is a widely accepted practice, and most design phases start with mobile, which has become one of the most important differentiators for modern web traffic.

Design trends have also totally changed, with skeuomorphism replaced with flat design, Material Design, brutalism and many others.

A 404 page that you won't see today.

Looking Ahead

With increased flexibility and improved speed of development have come significant complexities, although tools like Parcel, generators like Gatsby, and CLIs like Create React App are making a dent here, so I’m very optimistic.

JavaScript-based libraries and frameworks have taken over for building scalable web apps and look set to continue, with technologies like Web Assembly providing enormous potential for augmenting front-ends.

The community is also favouring smaller and more composable libraries over larger all-encompassing systems, leading to breakouts like Vue’s crazy explosion in popularity.

My own approach has changed quite a bit too, as today I favour small, light, and web-native technologies wherever possible. When it comes down to brass tacks, being a developer is really being committed to lifelong learning.

Overall, I’m still delighted to build front-ends in 2018, even if the simplicity of the noughties are a somewhat fond memory.