Teddy Blanks | Essays

Olia Lialina & Relics of the Lost Web

"Under Construction" animated gif, designer unknown.

Before the early years of this century, when the arrival of higher screen resolutions and faster modem speeds made the internet an easy and engaging destination, the web wasn't considered terribly appealing to serious graphic designers. In their absence, the original aesthetic conventions of the web were necessarily developed by amateurs; those early users who had their own ideas about how the web should feel and look. Today, this comparatively prehistoric graphic vocabulary has either been forgotten, or is simply regarded with the facile mockery that comes of 20/20 hindsight.

Net artist Olia Lialina recently published Vernacular Web 2, an illustrated web essay, and a follow-up to her 2005, A Vernacular Web: The Indigenous and The Barbarians. In the two texts, Lialina, Professor of New Media at Stuttgart's Merz Akademie, dissects the common graphic language of early web sites — "Under Construction" signs, shimmering bullet-points, redundant 'back' and 'forward' buttons, midi background music, and collections of animated gifs.

Her essays, enthralling and clearly written (despite English as a second language), should be required reading for anyone who routinely designs for the web.

Like many others working in net art — a genre Lialina helped to pioneer — she uses these familiar, but quickly diminishing artifacts of the early web in her work. Lialina isn't simply fetishizing tacky graphics; she wants to preserve them. In Vernacular Webs, she reminds us that these objects have rich meaning, are an important part of internet history, and have, intended or not, a strange beauty.

Starry Night background, tiled, designer unknown.

When Lialina writes about what she calls the "Starry Night Background," a popular web design conceit of the mid-90s, it's hard not to feel a tinge of nostalgia. I haven't seen a web page use a tiled jpeg of outer space as its background image in years, and, seeing one again helped me remember how excited I was about the internet when I first started to use it, how limitless it seemed. Still, as captivating as it may be, Lialina reminds us that it is basically impossible to put type on such dense constellations, and points out that these backgrounds aren't, in fact, really appropriate for anything. "Scientific texts, personal home pages, cinema programs, pathfinder image galleries, it's always wrong." As the web became more 'serious' and 'designed', starry backgrounds began to disappear.

But why? Graphic designers relish the constraints and pre-existing rules that govern most off-line mediums. Typically, too, they share a deep engagement with vernacular typography, from painted signs to punk flyers. So why did we so willingly annihilate the clumsy, yet oddly charming (and pervasive) graphic language that came built-in to the early web? If anyone is equipped to solve the problem of how to effectively use a starry night background, it's graphic designers.

Clearly, this is not to say that CNN.com should look like a Star Wars fan site. There are, of course, places where usability experts and smart, boxed-in content management are the right choice. But, strangely, as the web becomes increasingly populated with a broad, pluralistic variety of ideas and viewpoints, it has started to look more boring, repetitive and generic: it's like finding yourself at a party with a collection of diverse, interesting people, but everyone is wearing the same outfit.

It's easy to see how this has happened. Earlier this year, I worked at a web design firm where the guy who drew the "wireframes," which are basically blueprints for site navigation, worked in one room, the designers worked in the room next to him, and the programmers worked on the other side of the office. This set-up, which I imagine is fairly typical, virtually assured that all of our sites would emerge with a consistent (read "boring") look and feel.

"A good web designer," Lialina wrote to me in a recent email, "needs to be an art director, developer, coder, designer, and needs to know the true history of the medium you work with." There are a few sites I can think of that uphold this admittedly far-reaching ideal. The site for the Yale School of Art is a wiki, editable by anyone who can log in. Brilliantly, it uses a Web 2.0 technology as a means to an early-web aesthetic end. It feels chaotic and personal, but also smart and considered. There's also a rising trend of what I like to call "fuck you, here's my portfolio" sites, which span from bargain-basement html galleries to old-school frame driven sites to scrolling image collections with almost no type or commentary. 'Default' pages that evoke the early web may be the most practical way to show design work online. Ironically, many graphic designers themselves have taken a back-to-basics stance not in their work for clients, but on their personal web sites.

A collection of random shimmering bullet points, designers unknown.

Seeing and reading about early web graphics I had all but forgotten makes me nostalgic, but I know we'll never really go back. And, actually, I don't advocate a full retreat to what Lialina calls the "bright, rich, personal, slow and under construction" aesthetic of the early web. I'm not even sure I'd encourage the mining and re-appropriation of these vernacular graphics by web designers (although it would be great to see it done well). But I would argue that the vernacular web deserves respect, not ironic derision, from the design world — and that many of the relics of the early web should be considered an important part of design history.

Teddy Blanks is a senior designer at Winterhouse Studio, and a contributor to the online film magazine, Not Coming To A Theater Near You. His band, the Gaskets, has released two albums.

Comments [14]

The time that I had the most fun was the time of "cool" repeating textured backgrounds (I liked the wild colors from the AlienSkin Photoshop plugins), text that bordered on semi-unreadable, and stuff like that. I liked that you could truly just explore back then... I would start sitting in front of my computer during holidays, and at the end I would have a page or two about my favorite band tweaked to perfection. Heck, I even remember putting Mosaic on disk and installing it on my home computer so I could play around with it.

I'm fairly certain that the reason everything has become as generic as it is now is the money involved. Before, when I was making a website for a band I loved, I was working because I loved it. Now, between Amazon, AdWords, and online portfolios, everything has to look a certain way to remain "professional." A good counter example would be myspace... many of the sites have been created from only the personal love of the work itself, to share among friends. Thus, it looks like someone's binder from middle school.

While graphically, I don't really consider these old animated gifs, etc to be good style, I do think they are important historically. They demonstrate the collective style of amateurs working for the love of the work. While not professional, it has a certain purity, and that is worth preserving.
Eddie Welker

My first recollection of "wow" as far as computers were concerned was the Flying Toasters screensaver by Berkeley Systems.

(And remember it's buddy "Bad Dog?" Ha!)

Joe Moran

Graphics of this type are quickly becoming the next '8-bit' in terms of nostalgic design- in this sense their use is evocative of a period of time, but not much deeper than that.

It is certainly striking, though, how sites that seemed very sophisticated in the mid-90s now appear crude and dated. I experienced this recently when browsing the now defunct Word magazine through the Wayback Machine. This effect is partly caused by the fact that our lenses have changed: browsers now render things differently, we have nicely antialiased text, and our screens are higher resolution and display more colors. Of course, our standards have changed as well, and we now expect a more tightly constrained and 'responsibly' designed web.

What I think is more important, though, is that we have lost the optimism of those times. Despite all the talk we hear these days about empowering users - talk which does have some truth behind it - we are now in many ways less empowered than before. Non-professionals now have their hands held completely by software (and 'professionally designed templates') when creating content for the web, and as such they are not encouraged to think about construction anymore, but only 'content'. The sense of experimentation has faded.

As designers, we may not have a problem with that: we tend to think the user is often better off without too much power. I think that's kind of perverse, but I can understand the sentiment. The problem is that by constraining the user you tend to lose a lot of the good as well as the bad.

One more point, about the 'fuck you, here's my portfolio' type sites: I think people often overlook the fact that basic html (that is, 90s web design without the blink tags and animgifs) is actually a very effective means of communication. It's more like a book of text than a magazine, but that's OK: why does my book have to look like a spread from Vogue? I think the web has definitely forced us to think more often about dressing up for dressing up's sake - to an even greater extent than we did before - and although all those sparkly stars are partially to blame for this, I think it's also due to our forgetting that the web was conceived as an information medium and not as a television, a mirror, etc. Conveying information in a straightforward manner does not necessarily imply a vernacular reference.

Early web vernacular came out of a shortage of the very thing Lialina acknowledges as making for good web design: the fact that web designers need to know it all. I would add one more to the mix: the good web designer also needs to have regular conversations with the site's specific userbase.
Which is where I think the current back-to-basics movement must have been set off: paying close attention to users and their footpaths, in combination with trying to get to good code practices in a medium with as many rapidly-changing and open-ended variables as ours.

I like the comment about the 'fuck you, here's my portfolio' type of web site. It's something I have noticed but not seen named until now. I think there is a correlation between the simplicity of these portfolio web sites and the quality of the work contained within. You want people to see your best work so let them access it immediately. Why waste time with an all-singing flash interface if it degrades your other work?

In a similar way, I am always wary of design companies with super-polished web sites; they're obviously not busy enough. They probably have very tidy desks too.
Adam Poole

that link to those nasty nets people is blowing my brains out.
adrian pulfer

I can appreciate the nostalgia of these early designs. There's something rather 'folk-artsy' about them. But have we really come so far as to say "That was then. This is now."? Yes, the web has grown and changed considerably since spinning gifs and the Blink tag, but there is still so far to go. Not to say that the web has as destination or ending point, but we've barely scratched the surface. It's like boarding an airplane, looking out the window and marveling at the cracks in the tarmack. "Wow. Remember when we were on the ground? Yeah. That was great, with the concrete and the shoes!"

While I agree with much of what is said in the article I take issue with the staement that the web "has started to look more boring, repetitive and generic". That's like going to the library and complaining that all the books are printed on white paper.

It's not the way the internet looks that holds the greatest possibility. It's the way it allows people to interact, connect, share, and speak that holds the greatest potential. It's as much about sociology, and anthropology as it is about graphic design.

Oh, and I still think Flying Toasters is one of the best screensavers ever.
Nick Zdon

Interesting post. Thanks.

why did we so willingly annihilate the clumsy, yet oddly charming (and pervasive) graphic language that came built-in to the early web? If anyone is equipped to solve the problem of how to effectively use a starry night background, it's graphic designers.

I think the answer to that question has to be context. I may be able to figure out how to use a starry night background, but like most vernacular type/graphics it would probably be to use it in an ironic fashion. And most people wouldn't get it.

When I see punk/Xerox fliers for a band hanging on a light pole, I get it. When I see packaging at Restoration Hardware using "old timey" typefaces, I get it. And when I get an engraved invitation in the mail, I get it. It seems to me that whether it's on your office PC, on your laptop at Starbucks, or on your iphone, context is difficult to come by. Does that make any sense?

That being said the folks that post to ytmnd.com site do a great job.
Mark Kaufman

hey, iam new to this blog and its become one of my favorite.
African American Directory

Gosh, I remember all the way back to the Design Observer dark gray background. Are we seriously supposed to start waxing nostalgic about such recent history?

One of our IT guys was talking about replacing his "old, first gen iPhone" today. You know... the one he bought 6 weeks ago.

remember when dreamweaver had a timeline? ...
Kevin Lo

Andrew, Kevin,
I think you've missed the point.
It's not just my nostalgia; the internet has changed in the past ten years, and examining the visual culture that shaped it is a worthy venture because unlike printed works, which can be rediscovered and re-appropriated at any time, images on the web disappear and are gone forever.
Teddy Blanks

I don't understand the subject here - is it about the origins of the web as expressed in this rather basic analysis of some of its visual expressions? Or is it about the contributions of Olia Lialina. Some rigour please, if the former, my god, is that ALL it takes for you designers and related co. to enter into compliments on an archeology of a field or area? This is basic grad student stuff whose overall analysis wouldn't make the grade in most fields that have worked to define themselves - even future-based. As for the actual "net art" contributions of Olia Lialina, well, like most of that world, it belongs to a time when one just transposed cinema and theater 4th wall issues onto monitors, and other rather... limited gestures. Sorry, it isn't possible to compare such a "visual essay" and history with the gamut of material and analysis and practice that occurs in relation to the term "script", the website, the net, and so on.

But if you need to talk about the good old days, go ahead, sure...

Lots of the early stuff was done by students in universities. I remember, when we all got our homepages, we were so exited. There were no webdesigner then, this profession didn't exist. It was just a bunch of physics students. We handcoded the stuff in emacs and html. There weren't even books about html. I puzzeled out most of it myself. So that is were a lot of scientific tiled images came from. It was normal to use a picture that corresponded to your work. Maybe even something out of your paper. It was just a primitive facebook, a way to let people know what you worked on and a way to find peoples preprints.
Oh and for the longest time we had to use Lynx, because our monitors were text only, green on black.

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