The internet is often seen as a realm of innovation, constantly moving from trend to trend — and hopefully creating a better online experience in the process. For this reason, older layouts are typically derided as outdated and stale, more amusing than an effective method of drawing users. However, a number of web developers are drawing attention for their 90s-inspired designs, which they claim invoke a sense of community largely absent from the modern internet. In a world that seems to desire nostalgia and modernity in equal amounts, could the way of the future mean a return to the past?
In early October, author and web developer Paul Ford launched Tilde.club, an experimental hosting provider he claims has quickly gained thousands of users, as well as financial donations and technical help. While the hosting expenses and expected returns are nominal, Ford presents his endeavor as less of a business and more of a return to a web he calls more “personal”: so far, Tilde.club is filled with pages that range from intentionally old-fashioned to extremely modern. For his part, Ford says he is trying to create a return to inclusiveness: in an email to users, he reminded them that regardless of the site’s demographics, “the only binary that’s real is the one that we use on our microchips,” a welcome sentiment given a number of recent complaints about the lack of diversity in many online communities.
This retro approach to web design and development has spread to a number of websites, apps, online games, and more: for example, Make Pixel Art, an app created by software design and development company XOXCO, features a lo-fi, pixellated look sure to remind users of Microsoft Paint. The company’s CEO and co-founder, Ben Brown, cites nostalgia as a major source of their inspiration, but also says the “raw digital natures” of 90s design are better suited to creating online communities of users interested in the web than more ubiquitous modern sites. In contrast, Kyle Drake, the creator of another web hosting provider, Neocities, says a return to 90s design promotes more creativity and experimentation than today’s social media accounts or blogging platforms.
However, no other online industry has begun invoking this old school style in the same way as online games: after the popular game Minecraft essentially proved that younger users weren’t driven away by simple graphics, a number of game developers have found that lo-fi design saves time and money, and also allows for better storytelling and other features. Moreover, using the simpler aesthetics in the modern age also creates better games: developers have pointed out that 20 years ago, most games couldn’t even save a user’s progress on a console.
Despite this success, some web designers are hesitant to embrace the trend.
As more web developers embrace a nostalgic return to the early days of the Internet, will more websites begin implementing 90s design? Though only time will tell, a persistent sense of innovation and improvement might make this trend nothing more than a passing fad. However, this focus on creativity, community, and experimentation might be just what the internet needs, in a time when surfing the web has become nothing more than an everyday task.