Click here, if you dare. Then click here, here, and here. The web design of these articles is, objectively, insane. OK, OK — I might be using “objectively” incorrectly, but still.

Especially when you consider they appear on the website of one of the world’s most prominent business publications… owned by Michael Bloomberg, one of the world’s richest men. (To be fair, the website for Berkshire Hathaway — owned by Warren Buffett and the 5th largest company in the world — is perhaps even more unbelievable. But that’s neither here nor there.)

When Bloomberg Businessweek — it has since ditched the “Businessweek” — re-designed its website in January 2015, it was met with the kind of reactions that only truly radical ideas elicit: strong ones. Most people hated it, a vocal minority loved it… look up “polarizing” in the dictionary, etc etc.

Joshua Topolsky, the lead creative in charge of the redesign, was ultimately fired — or, more kindly, agreed to part ways — after clashes with Michael Bloomberg over the negative feedback. And Bloomberg, unsurprisingly, has scaled back some of the more subversive changes to the front page.

More surprising? Headlines like this:

Is this type of web design really the future? Maybe. Partly because it blends the buccaneering, nonconformist ethos of Web 1.0 with the reality of today’s web like mobile browsing and the need to monetize.

But perhaps also because what is happening in web design today fits into a larger cultural shift from the era of postmodernism to metamodernism. (Or post-postmodernism… or hypermodernism… or digimodernism… they are still working on the name.)

More on that later.

Quick: In your head, imagine a modern website. A nice one that looks as good on a mobile phone as it does on a desktop. It doesn’t matter if it’s website for a Thai restaurant, a new app, or your cousin’s wedding.

Chances are, you’re picturing something like this: large image overlaid with a sans serif font above a box of solid color with centered text above three short columns with icons set above. Oh, and infinite scrolling.

More precisely, this:

No doubt, there is a growing homogeneity in website design.

I’m not exactly breaking new ground here. Are there think pieces about this issue? Oh yes, there are think pieces. (See bibliography below for LOTS more.)

And if you were to read all those think pieces — like your intrepid author did — you would come away with myriad explanations, all of which contribute to the current state of design monoculture.

It’s also important to note that there’s not anything wrong with these sites — they are popular and widespread for a reason. They look nice, they are easy to navigate, and they have proved themselves as capable templates for everything from small businesses to ad agencies.

That said, they are everywhere, and like that one Rob Thomas and Carlos Santana song, it’s only human nature to grow tired of things that are pervasive. (Sorry, Rob… if only it were so easy to “forget about it.”)

Why the ubiquity? Here are three main reasons.

1) Responsive design

The rapid emergence of mobile browsing is widely seen as patient zero of the current glut of same-looking sites. No longer can websites rely on a fixed width and go to town with an elaborate design. Grids determine how content appears based on the size of the browser, and the site adjusts accordingly.

According to a 2015 study by SimilarWeb, 56% of web traffic to top sites comes from mobile devices.

And speaking of mobile browsing…

2) SEO

For companies, where their sites appear on Google’s search rankings can be the difference between big profits and closing up shop. As such, search engine optimization (SEO) is a big business in and of itself.

In April 2015, Google rolled out the so-called “mobilegeddon” update that tweaked its algorithm to favor mobile-friendly sites. Sites that do not utilize mobile design see significant hits to their SEO, something that is intolerable for many businesses. This forced many sites that previously had an older, more custom look to redesign.

Which leads to…

3) Templates

Today, a website is a must for any business.

And it’s not just businesses. Personal branding is now a thing, leading to a surge in portfolio websites. Cheap DSLRs have led to boom in amateur photographers that want to feature their pictures. Everyone has a podcast now, and podcasts need websites too. Some people even still blog, and they need sites too. And on and on and on.

There is a huge need for websites. Cheap websites.

Enter stage left platforms like Wordpress and Squarespace, which offer easy-to-implement templates (many based on Bootstrap — a popular mobile-first framework) that make professional websites easily accessible to anyone.

And the current trend is for these templates to feature a minimalist look and flat design, which are mobile-safe and look good on small screens.

But as with any internet trend, there is a vibrant counter trend that is challenging the hegemony — Bloomberg is a prominent example, but far from the only one. Web 1.0, dismissed and forgotten more than ten years ago, is making a comeback. Sort of.

Before I get to the Web 1.0 revival, I will posit that the move from Web 1.0 to our current template-driven era parallels the larger cultural and artistic shift from postmodernism to metamodernism.

In attempting to understand how we got to where we are now, it’s important to ground conversations about the internet in a space that extends beyond simply discussing technology. Because while of course things like HTML5 and mobile phones have caused a tidal change in the look and functionality of websites, those technological developments alone cannot fully explain why the free-spirited Web 1.0 world has been so tamed and constrained.

Postmodernism

Though postmdernism is an inscrutable term that resists easy categorization, it is perhaps most easily defined as both an era of time (roughly from post-WWII until 2000) and a worldview framed by distinct artistic and philosophical movements.

After two world wars showed that the utopian ideals of modernism were not able to improve the human condition, postmodernism surfaced as the dominant approach.

Key components of postmodernism include the blending of different styles and ideas; the concept that “nothing is new” and an emphasis on mixing and matching previous styles; the embrace of the “outsider” instead of conformity; and the rejection of a divide between “high” and “low” culture.

Thus postmodernism acted as something of a democratizer. Determining artistic value was no longer the domain of cultural elites. The re-mix culture was born. Cliché and pop culture were viewed as containing artistic merit. “Anything goes” became the ethos, as did an ironic detachment from and suspicion of those in power and anything considered “mainstream.”

As technology advanced and the internet grew, another crucial aspect of postmodernism became a fascination with the virtual and a questioning of what “real” means in a time and place when everyday existence can be so fully mediated.

Generationally, GenX — labeled in the 80s and 90s as being ironic, insular, cynical, disaffected, and anti-establishment — was the generation that came of age at the height of the postmodern era.

Metamodernism

Metamodernism evolved in the 21st century as a response to the irony, cynicism, and nihilism of postmodernism.

Sincerity, engagement with the power structure, nostalgia, and a preference for the “real” over the virtual (think the booming DIY culture and demand for all things artisanal) are hallmarks of metamodernism.

Metamodernists seek to positively impact their communities, and prioritize ideas like inclusion, equity, and accessibility. Where postmodernists looked to deconstruct society, metamodernists look to reconstruct it.

Yet as postmodernism eroded the differences between “high” and “low” culture and all things were recognized as having potential artistic merit, profit emerged as the primary way to determine value.

“The public can give or withhold approval measured in sales… increasingly, artistic success has become about nothing except money; and, increasingly, artists have come to judge their own success that way, too.” (Source)

This trend can also be seen in the emergence of the “influencer” and people becoming celebrities based on social media followers, Vine loops, and YouTube views rather than the more traditional “talent-based” methods like acting, singing, dance, etc.

Generationally, millennials — described today as idealistic, optimistic, inclusive, and entrepreneurial — have come of age during the metamodern era.


The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. - David Foster Wallace

So what does any of this have to do with web design?

Web 1.0 can be seen as an offspring of postmodernism. It was democratic, with sites like GeoCities and AngelFire allowing anyone to create their own website. There was no “right” way to do things — user experience, information architecture, and visual styles were mixed and matched and constantly experimented with. Niche groups of “outsiders” flourished in UseNet groups and message boards. Priority was placed on net neutrality, free speech, and an “anything goes” attitude. And since people didn’t have access to pre-fab templates, websites were often garish, hard-to-read, and difficult to use. User-friendliness was sacrificed in favor of personal expression.

Similarly, it’s easy to see metamodernism in modern, template-driven websites. Minimalist design echoes pre-internet eras. Large, beautiful imagery is idealistic. Mobile-friendly websites and clean, simple navigation is a sincere effort to make the web user-friendly, inclusive, and accessible. And as more and more people rely on websites for profit, the styles and designs that are “best practiced” to make the most money naturally emerge as the most successful.

Though counter-intuitive, in many ways the Web 1.0 revival can also be seen as an offshoot of metamodernism. Nostalgia for the past is one of the key facets that defines metamodernism, and the endless “You know you’re a 90s kid if…” Buzzfeed lists and Tumblr memes show that 90s nostalgia is a major part of contemporary internet culture.

You know you’re a 90’s kid if…

And given the metamodernist preference for authentic and artisanal, it is perhaps not surprising that the DIY-ethos of Web 1.0 websites is appealing.

Finally, it is fitting that the Web 1.0 pioneers were largely GenX (the postmodern generation), while today it is millennials (the metamodern generation) who are driving trends in web design.

Given all that, do you believe now that the shifts in web design mirror — or, at the very least, echo — larger cultural and artistic shifts? I hope so. Because otherwise I just wasted a lot of words. OK… on to wasting a few more.

What has helped spur the Web 1.0 renaissance? Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post has written several articles about it (here, here, and here). She highlights several reasons, but the most thought-provoking is this:

The Internet has become a conspiracy to get people to consume,” said the computer programmer Kyle Drake, who — with anthropologist Amber Case — just wrapped a sold-out two-day conference on the glories of the early Web. “There’s a shift from creation to consumption … Frankly, it’s become oppressive.”
Drake likely wouldn’t put it this way, himself — he’s pretty grandiose in conversation — but when he says “oppressive,” he actually means big. Big tech, big data, big business: Where Web 1.0 was niche and intimate, the domain of certain tech-savvy nerds, Web 2.0 is a massive capitalist endeavor with no less an ambition than to monetize every last person on Earth.” (Source)

Not to be outdone by Dewey, Gizmodo’s Kyle Chayka wrote a landmark web 1.0 revival article in October 2014, focusing particularly on niche communities that have sprouted up around the web that embrace Web 1.0 and the modern internet.

“We’re tired of being told what to do, what to see, and how to interact online by platforms that resemble rat mazes more than sandboxes. We’re nostalgic for the close-knit, DIY nature of the early web, where everything was smaller, from the communities to the design itself.”

But while nostalgia for the niche, creative, and intimate web of yore is all well and good, a strict adherence to web 1.0 today necessarily means not taking advantage of some of the great advances in web design and capability that have taken place over the past twenty years, and does nothing to address the fact that mobile browsing now accounts for such a huge percentage of overall web traffic.

So the needle that sites like Bloomberg are trying to thread is trying to mimic the look, feel, and ethos of web 1.0 while also utilizing the full capability of the modern web. And looking good on a phone. And still be a profitable site that drives traffic and encourages readers to increase their “attention minutes.”

Easier said than done.

Bloomberg’s now infamous web design was launched in January 2015. It was bright and garish, and filled with so many gradients and gifs that it looked and felt unlike any other major modern website.

But for all the attention-grabbing colors and fun Web 1.0 touches, the redesign was far from simply aesthetic.

Joshua Topolsky, who spearheaded the redesign, said that their goal was to change the paradigm of what a news website was “supposed” to look like. He wanted to build a site that was not beholden to a grid (e.g. four featured articles with one main image and three smaller ones with lots of links below, etc.) and could quickly adapt and change at a moments notice. Crucially for a ad-supported publisher, this approach also allows for unique ad placement in places that — theoretically, anyway — will receive more user attention and command higher prices.

The web redesign was in no small part inspired by and related to their outlandish and subversive print design.

In many ways, the wild design of Bloomberg’s web features mirrors the freedom afforded by print. Where technical limitations and templates once constrained web articles, now designers have a much broader canvas on which to paint and be creative. The website now regularly features bespoke, interactive design on stories in ways that used to be impossible with article templates.

Which helps explain the mixed response to the web redesign — readers are accustomed to risk-taking and wide variation with print design, but the sameness of modern websites has dulled users into expecting things to look and feel a certain way.

What Bloomberg has achieved is something that, up until now, had always seemed like a stretch: creating a digital version of a magazine that feels as appealing and engaging as holding the paper itself in your hands. (Source)

In this way, Bloomberg’s site is re-capturing some of the independence, creativity, and “anything goes” nature of Web 1.0. It hearkens back to a time when things didn’t have to look the same on the web, and users were habituated to expect the unexpected. Every link a surprise.

Will it last? It’s hard not to think that, eventually, more sites will gravitate toward a more visually interesting and less constricting model than what is currently en vogue. And personally speaking, the more the Web 1.0 ethos can inform contemporary web design, the better. We all benefit from creative people taking risks and pushing boundaries, and it should be OK for the internet to look a little weird, a little wacky, and a lot of fun.

But it really should look good on a phone. And it really will need to work for businesses. And it should be very user-friendly. And…… oh heck, let’s just use Squarespace. Or Medium, like your hypocritical author.

Bibliography

Why modern websites looks the same

Web 1.0 renaissance

Bloomberg Redesign

Postmodernism

Metamodernism