Webdesign changed

I have been doing HTML pages since 1994 when xMosaic 1.0 hit the FTP servers worldwide. The only really radical changes to webdesign for a very very long time had been a) JavaScript, b) tables and c) frames. I hesitate to include CSS, because it was kind of buggy and browser specific for a long time. There have been many other smaller things around but these I would not consider seriously because those brought only few advatages while the payoff was huge: you needed Plug-Ins or it was not working on any browser. Flash might be a small exception, because that worked well across browsers, but Flash itself was very useful for eye candy, little games and ads – not so much for content delivery or web apps (it broke the URL scheme so searching didn’t work and it hadn’t the performance required for user interfaces).

But in the last two years things have changed dramatically.


Got widely adopted pretty cleanly by anyone (but Microsoft). It actually took a long time to get CSS to be able to replace the TABLE-based templates designers used to trick layouts. But now it’s there. There are still some problems, but generally one could rightfully say that design with CSS is a viable path. (Having said that I admit that my own page here does still use tables. It’s on my ToDo list for month now!)

The XmlHttpRequest object (XHR/AJAX)

XHR is a browser native technology that allows to depart from the traditional interaction model of the web with an request/response cycle the user could physically experience (causing wait states after each click). In fact, I did something like this in 1998 with a frame that had a width of 0 (which essentially made it invisible). The visible page would reload the hidden frame and recieve a new JavaScript there which in turn manipulated parts of the content in the visible frame. From a user perspective this was pretty much like what AJAX is now. I didn’t do enough with that (it was IE-specific), but I speculate, that it had similar implications to the web design of a page. But AJAX is a far more elegant and quicker way to send and recieve data from the server without reloading.

JavaScript & DOM

Got more reliable in the last years. This is a big necessitiy for the DHTML stuff required to have dynamic pages (potentially using XHR). Because all this was flaky in the past designers did not consider designing much for “dynamic layout” and an interactive web interface. Thus it didn’t become a widespread practice. Good JavaScript skills were a plus for web designers and web developers. This probably is going to change: you need to know JavaScript.


The Standardized Vector Graphics format has been around for a long time now. It had also some cross-plattform issues to solve in the first implementations. Now SVG is going to be supported directly from the browser and it might be good to replace Flash where ever it is not necessary to author content but to have simple scripts that output the required XML data.

Web services and APIs

It has become somewhat of a habit for web application developers to offer programmable/hackable interfaces to their service logic. So other developers could build on that resource. In other words: if your web application does not offer an API it might not be interoperable enough to withstand competitors that do. Think of a Learning Management System that needs to be integrated into a larger Service Oriented Intranet. No API – no go! Well, sort of… / I remember a project once where we could have used a clever indexing system to automatically create category trees. It would have taken me few hours to attach our weblog system to that logic. But there was no API and the developers of the indexing system couldn’t care less about that (they were focussing on their indexing logic). End of the story: they have a system few people use and we don’t have automatic categorization yet.

The Canvas object (new!)

The upcomding Firefox/Mozilla releases (like Safari) will support a canvas object. Canvas objects can be used to create simple graphics with JavaScript within the client. It might remedy the problem to dynamically generating images on the server.

Greasemonkey (new!)

Right now Greasemonkey is rather exotic: It is a way to inject third party JavaScript applications into pages. A Greasemonkey script for instance could enhance the web application of a vendor with new functionality (for instance integrating Google Maps into Flickr wihtout having the need for a special provision or allowance by Flickr for that). This had been done before. But the technique used was to proxy pages and have the proxy server simply patching the HTML page to the needs of the service. ThirdVoice was once a way to stick little yellow notes to pages and make those visible to all other visitors of that page that used ThirdVoice. This technological design never really hooked people a lot because it required to call pages through a proxy server (and thus delaying the responses). I am not quite sure if that will spread out. There may be security concerns inhibiting users to install the Greasemonkey extension. But as a concept it is really a glue for “Web 2.0” applications.

If you think about these technologies, you’ll easily recognize the potential. It raises the bar for students and educators, because the possibilities are endless. People were staring at Google Maps and thinking this must have been very dificult to implement. But truth is, that it is not as complex as it seems. Actually these technologies straighten out disordered things from the past and add options for developers and designers at the same time. Things become possible that haven’t even been considered before.

It might seem so much easier to simply do the “rich interfaces” directly in Flash. But then you depart from HTML completely. With AJAX you can just add as much dynamic to an ordinary web page as needed. Flipping things here, getting rid of a reload there, save states without submitting a form, etc etc.

Essentially it will turn “web design” into “interaction design” thus the notion of “web design” might diminish one day. If you see a book in the store titled “web design”, you might think: “Oh, that is old stuff, I need the new ones…”






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