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Evolution of Web Design

In the beginning (1990), there was HTML and it was good. It was simple, minimal, and used to semantically markup user visible data (text) and share it on the World Wide Web.

Then came the browser wars (1994-1999) where dominant browser manufacturers took their turns introducing "innovative" presentational tags, giving the typical web author/designer what they wanted: a semblance of control over the presentation of their webpages. The result: HTML 3.2 "standardized" these defacto presentational innovations.

The introduction of CSS1 (1996) and the semantically richer HTML4 (1998) brought a glimmer of hope, but it wasn't until years later (2000-2001), with the introduction of fully compliant (or almost) implementations of CSS1/HTML4 (IE5/Mac, IE6/Windows, Netscape 6) that it became practical for web designers to depend on CSS in their web pages. Leaders in the community began to furiously adopt and promote CSS (even if it took a hack or two) and the efficiencies and enhanced productivity that separating presentation from markup brought them, yet remained a small vocal minority.

The introduction of the Wired News redesign in 100% CSS, and the beautiful CSS Zen Garden (2002-2003) was CSS's tipping point. With the clear and obvious presentation of visual beauty and broad creativity, designers world-wide "got it" and realized that this was the future of web design. The presentational markup of <FONT>, <TABLE>, and spacer.gif were tossed aside by any and all self-respecting web designers, who discovered the near infinite flexibility of <div>, <span>, and the 'class' attribute. A few in the community even began adopting some of the more semantic elements in HTML: <p>, <h1>...<h6>, <ol>, <ul>, <li>, <em>, <strong>. Leaders in the community exercised the semantic limits of strict HTML4 (experimented with XHTML) and documented best practices.

As the community followed rapidly in the footpaths they had worn, the leaders began to run into the limits of semantic (X)HTML. Other subcultures were attempting to rewrite the world in their own language(s) (RDF, "plain" XML, SVG), yet not having much of an impact on the World Wide Web, which required human presentable data, compatible with the browsers people already used. Social Software and Blogs, written by this new generation of web designers and programmers, began to take off.

Natural patterns emerged from the way people used blogging systems, putting things into lists, for example lists of other bloggers (known as blogrolls), and annotating them with information representing relationships such has having met, friends, family, etc. The first microformat, XFN, was designed to match these behaviors, and introduced to the blogging community (2003-2004), who adopted it within weeks. The GMPG was formed as a home for XFN, and documented a few key design principles later adopted for microformats. The key notion, that semantic (X)HTML could be extended, had been introduced and accepted by the community.

By understanding, using, and combining semantic (X)HTML building blocks, as well as determining that semantic (X)HTML could be validly extended via new rel, meta name, and class values, defined in (X)HTML profiles in the XMDP format, the community began to design and develop many more microformats (2004-2005). More patterns emerged from the blogging community, and each aggregate human behavior drove the design of simple, adaptive microformats to meet its needs. Creative Commons licensing became popular and rel-license was proposed. Outlines and lists: XOXO. Contact info: hCard. Calendars and events hCalendar.

Using these new found building blocks, the web design and information architecture communities were no longer limited by the predefined semantics of HTML4 (nor did they have to compromise human presentation and ease of authoring which other attempts sorely lacked). 2005 may well be the year that microformats became the next step in the evolution of the web.

web-evolution was last modified: Friday, October 6th, 2006