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June 29, 2005 11:14 am

David Bowen: Makeovers and transformations

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I wonder if we will ever see a website makeover programme on TV. You know, take a jaded site from circa 2002 and turn it into something oh-so-2007. It is not such a silly idea: fashion is an important though little noticed, element in all websites.

Is this any business of the technologist? It is, because as the web has developed, technology has often led the look and feel. We’re in an anti-technology phase now, but we will surely emerge from it. If you haven’t already, try the Wayback Machine in the Internet Archive (www.archive.org). You can put in a web address and get to see sites from as far back as 1996. It is a fascinating way of spotting trends.

The earliest corporate sites – up to about 1997 – were an unlovely but practical bunch. Home pages tended to be dominated by links, with the odd illustration to add variety. Roche (www.roche.com) had a montage of photos in the centre, but was otherwise a simple list of pages. Type www.siemens.com into the Wayback Machine, and you will find a page from December 1996 headed ‘Welcome to the World of Siemens USA’, with an outline map and a page full of links. A ‘reduced graphics’ version is very little different.

This was the world of slow internet connections, low expectations and basic web technology. It was also a world when Sites were almost by definition accessible – that is, they were so simple that they could cause few problems for people with poor eyesight– ah, a simple and pleasing place.

Then the technology started getting cleverer. Frames arrived, allowing different parts of the page to scroll independently. For a while, they were everywhere. But if you saw a framed site now, you could guess it was built between 1997 and 2000 – they just don’t make them any more.

I remember seeing an early piece of animation – it was on the White House site (www.whitehouse.gov). The all-text 1996 site(‘Search White House press releases, radio addresses and web pages’ is the main headline) gave way to a photo, a ‘Good Morning, Welcome to the White House’ message and – what excitement – two American flags that actually rippled. We had had crude flashing words and signs before then, but large organisations generally had the taste to avoid them.

It all got much more exciting with the arrival of Flash. I was amazed when I first saw the New Beetle site around 1998 – images changed smoothly across the screen, and danced to the music. Corporate sites joined in, and by 2000 Flash animation was a sign of the new, and the hip, essential on every home page. Then it went out of fashion. It is still used where it makes sense, mostly on brandbuilding sites, but if you see a corporate home page with Flash you can be pretty sure it was built before 2003. And that is a long time ago in the web world.

In each case, technology was driving the look. That has changed: the current trend is anti-technology. Take two sites that have been launched in the last 18 months. General Electric (www.ge.com) has a simple look, with no animation, little colour, but an unusual choice of fonts. The Bank of England (www.bankofengland.co.uk) has abandoned its frames (admittedly elegantly implemented), and has what I call a newspaper look: busy and news-driven. BP (www.bp.com) is also a static site, but careful use of the corporate colours and high-contrast photos make it stand out. On both sites, old fashioned graphic design skills have been placed ahead of technology.

I think these sites look good, though I may be sub-consciously influenced by their fashionability. For fashion has surely not stopped developing – and I am fairly sure that technology will rise again as a driver.

I suspect that 2004 to 2006(say) will be seen as the ‘static years’, partly in reaction to the unsubtle previous use of technologies, but more because this is the time when site owners and designers became of nervousness about accessibility legislation. No-one quite knows whether it is OK to use frames, or Flash, or even minor twiddles such as dropdown menus, so the default reaction has been to go minimalist.

What next? Well, the doubts about accessibility will be resolved, perhaps by test cases, more likely by discussion and the production of clear guidelines. That will open the door for more innovation. Despite all I have said, there will be a role for more animation – broadband will become the standard in the developed world, allowing the much-discussed convergence between web and television finally to be delivered. Look at From Cow to Cone at www.benjerry.com where animated cartoons are mixed with video. Look at Nasa’s ‘Return to Flight’ presentation at www.nasa.gov – but only if you have broadband. These are both It is Flash-driven, but other technologies will surely emerge to provide similar ‘rich media’ experiences. They are fun, they are useful, they are certainly different.

Or other technologies could emerge, as Flash did before. Maybe music will become more important. Maybe someone will make 3D work (remember virtual reality websites – what happened to them?). Maybe … well, it’s up to technologists to spot what is out there. Then they can get on with triggering the next great round of makeovers.


David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs (www.bowencraggs.com). dbowen@bowencraggs.com.

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