Digital Archaeology: 12 Forgotten Designs That Changed The Web

A brand new exhibit shows just how far we’ve come since the internet was invented 20 years ago.

Twenty years from now, will anyone look back at the the explosion of touchscreen and tablet designs and marvel at what we thought we knew? Let’s hope so, because history is a difficult thing to hold onto in the digital age. Luckily, an art exhibit called “Digital Archaeology” has artfully excavated some highlights of the last two decades of website design to give us some perspective on where we’ve been, where we are, and hopefully where we’re going next.

The web was invented in 1991, yet many of the early sites can’t be seen.

The exhibit is the brainchild of Jim Boulton, Deputy Managing Director of “post-advertising” agency Story Worldwide, and just opened as part of Internet Week New York. Ever wonder what the world’s very first website looked like? Wonder no longer as you look at Tim Berners-Lee’s 1991 document-sharing utility for CERN. Or Word.com, one of the web’s first influential e-zines. (Let’s hope Suck.com makes an appearance too.) The World Wide Web was invented in 1991 and over the last 20 years it has totally transformed the way we live our lives, yet many of the early sites can no longer be seen. In fact, no copy exists of the very first web page, not even a screenshot,” Boulton tells Co.Design. “I am not saying the sites in the show are the only 28 sites that need archiving. They are a collection of some of the most significant sites over the last 20 years, but the purpose is to raise the profile of archiving websites [in general].”

“Digital Archaeology”‘s selections, unsurprisingly, skew heavily toward interactive advertising. But by pointing out the technologies that made these early experiments possible — like Flash (shudder), HTML2.0 (you may have heard we’re up to 5 by now), and PHP (they mention it in The Social Network if you pay attention) — the exhibit paints a valuable portrait of the truly blistering pace of design innovation online.

The Project (HTML 1.0)

In 1990 Berners-Lee realized The Project by creating a browser-editor that ran on the now obsolete NeXTStep Operating System. He called it the WorldWideWeb. The first website, describing The Project, was published the following year in 1991. The original website no longer exists and no screenshots were made. The earliest copy available, shown here, is from 1992.

Photograph courtesy of Story Worldwide

Word.com (HTML 2.0, Director 5 [Shockwave], Real Audio)

Launched in 1995 by Editor Marisa Bowe and Creative Director Jamie Levy, Word.com was one of the earliest and most influential e-zines. Unlike many web publications of the time, which simply re-created the print magazine format online, Word.com was a true multimedia experience, incorporating games, audio, and chat. Its DIY ethos and first-person conversational style immediately appealed to its audience of “underachieving sub-geniuses,” and the site was soon receiving 95,000 page views a day.

Photograph courtesy of Story Worldwide

K10K (HTML 4.0)

Also known as “The Designers’ Lunchbox,” the K10k site (1998) was the result of a chance meeting online between Toke Nygaard and Michael Schmidt. A clear homage to Apple’s iconic ’80s interface designed by Susan Kare, Nygaard and Schmidt’s iconic pixelated design, together with their commitment to content, non-profit ethos, not to mention sheer stamina, has led K10k to become one of the web-design industry’s most beloved sites.

Photograph courtesy of Story Worldwide

YUGOP.com (Flash 4)

When Yugo Nakamura unveiled his MONO*crafts site at yugop.com in 1999, it made an entire industry stop and draw a breath. One of the first designers to embrace and exploit the potential of ActionScript, Nakamura’s interactive environments were very fluid, calming, and natural. Previously a gardener, he quotes an old Japanese saying: “Rather than beautifying one’s own creation, make better the environment that surrounds it” — in other words, better to make a beautiful user experience than a beautiful website.

Photograph courtesy of Story Worldwide

MTV2 (Flash 8, Vectra 3D, 3D Studio Max, Swift 3D)

Digit’s BAFTA Award-winning website for MTV2 in 1999 is notable not only because of the flawless creative execution, but also for marking the first time the web creative led the TV and print campaigns. The site is reminiscent of first-person shooter games like Doom or Quake, and there are more subtle culture references to classic video games and science-fiction movies throughout. At one point, a faceted block rises and exits the screen in homage to the Millennium Falcon; in another, a landscape is reminiscent of a pared-down cityscape from Blade Runner.

Photograph courtesy of Story Worldwide

Barneys.com (Flash 4)

Criticized by some for a lack of usability, digital agency Kioken was resolute in its belief that audiences raised in the video game era were practiced in deciphering interfaces and in fact, they took pleasure in the experience. Taking their cue from TV and video games, Kioken’s websites had a depth and emotional quality absent from their counterparts. Full-bleed images, parallax movement, and floating palettes were used with great effect, all coming together beautifully on Barneys.com in 2000. According to Na, it’s simple: “You have to think beyond the limits of a page.”

Photograph courtesy of Story Worldwide

Requiem For A Dream (Flash 4.0)

Hi-ReS! broke out as an agency in 1999 following the launch of their experimental website soulbath.com, “an exhibition of anti-banners.” Twelve million page views later, the site caught the attention of the film director Darren Aronofsky, and he gave founders Alexandra Jugovic and Florian Schmitt their first commercial project, building the website for his new film Requiem for a Dream in 2000. Like all Hi-ReS! film websites since, the result is much more than a trailer: It’s a cinematic gem in its own right. Requiem for a Dream is about addiction, compulsion, and inevitable descent. The website investigates similar web-based behaviors, particularly online gambling and the “morbid patterns the medium is able to create in its users.” As the user descends deeper into the malfunctioning website, it gradually deteriorates and finally falls apart, ejecting the visitor in its death throes.

Photograph courtesy of Story Worldwide

VODAFONE FUTURE VISION (Flash MX)

When Vodafone commissioned North Kingdom to develop a website that depicts a vision of the future of mobile communications, it did so with an open brief. North Kingdom was not only involved with the design and execution of the site, but also collaborated on what the future might look like. And it did so with remarkable foresight for 2004, predicting the prevalence of geo-location technology, electronic paper, foldable screens, tablet devices, and the dominance of touch-screen interfaces, three years before the launch of the iPhone.

Photograph courtesy of Story Worldwide

Subservient Chicken (Flash MX)

When ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky wanted its creation for Burger King brought to life online in 2004, it turned to long-term collaborator The Barbarian Group. Its response was to create an interactive video-based site that allowed visitors to control the chicken via their keyboards. Playing on transgressive webcam culture, more than 300 different clips were tagged with all manner of commands, and, a year before YouTube existed and six years before the Tipp-Ex bear, a much-imitated format was born.

Photograph courtesy of Story Worldwide

IKEA DREAM KITCHEN (Flash 8 )

Forsman & Bodenfors’s groundbreaking website for IKEA in 2005 consists of six kitchens frozen in time and space. In one, a champagne bottle erupts and the bubbles hang in midair. In another, steam suspends inanimately above a frying pan. As visitors explore the 3-D panoramic views of each kitchen, they are treated to Matrix-style special effects. Combining “bullet time” and kitchens is about as ambitious as it gets, and the IKEA Dream Kitchen website has rightfully received the plaudits ever since.

Photograph courtesy of Story Worldwide

HBO Voyeur (Flash CS3)

Voyeurism is part of human nature: We are fascinated by other people, and the web has given us the unchecked ability to spy on others without censure. The HBO Voyeur advertising campaign plays on this shared guilty pleasure. Created by BBDO in 2007 to demonstrate the evolution of the HBO brand across multiple platforms, the campaign consisted of a four-minute film projected onto the side of an apartment block in New York and original content distributed across the social web. All held together by a highly sophisticated website developed by Big Spaceship, this is a master class in multichannel storytelling.

Photograph courtesy of Story Worldwide

Agent Provocateur (Flash 8, HTML 4.01, PHP 3)

Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, the 2007 website by Story Worldwide was based on one of the most neglected areas of popular culture, the trashy novel. In the early 20th century, pulp fiction was churned out in every imaginable genre, and their covers and titles were intense, exploitative, sexy, and graphic featuring some of the most provocative imagery of the time. Rory McHarg reimagined this cover art for Agent Provocateur, retaining the intensity but ensuring women were portrayed in positions of strength. In the words of Joe Corré, “The website does more than sell; it’s about telling a story, taking people on a personal adventure.”

Photograph courtesy of Story Worldwide
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