Nineties nostalgia is already a thing.
Companies and advertisers are catering to Millennials with retro mascots and products (Surge, anyone?) as the youngs reminisce about the good old days.
Even if your audience is made up entirely of under-35 customers, there are some things about the ‘90s that are best left in the past—like these awful design elements from the heyday of Prodigy and CompuServe.
1. 1990s style website welcome pages
In the ‘90s, many website landing pages were weird, pointless digital vestibules featuring a bland background, a notice that you had reached the website, and an “enter here” button you had to click to see the actual site. This seems pointless today, but in the 1990s, navigating to a website (as opposed to browsing around on a portal like AOL) was a new experience for many users. Welcome pages reassured them they were in the right place.
Today: Don’t force visitors to do extra work to see your pages. Welcome pages, autoplay videos, or any other barrier between the guest and your site’s content can reduce conversion rates.
2. Cluttered ‘90s-style page backgrounds
The ultimate ‘90s web design trope was a tiled-image nightmare of a background that distracted visitors from the site’s message and, in hardcore cases, created a sense of visual vertigo as your eyes scanned the page. Background photo tiles were the very worst, because the color variations in the images guaranteed that no matter what color the text was, some of it was bound to be unreadable.
Today: Web page backgrounds should be neutral and definitely not tiled. Let the background frame your message instead of obscuring it.
The 1990s wacky font sampler
Forget readability. One of the joys of having a website in the 90s was using as many fonts as you could on a single page. If that meant a header in all-caps lime green bold PAPYRUS or a huge block of text in purple 10-point Brush Script, at least they stood out a bit from all that tile behind them.
Today: Readability should be the number one consideration when you choose fonts. You can use free preview tools like MobiReady to see how your pages will display on large and small screens. If your chosen fonts don’t scan well, change them.
The number-one rule of 1990s font choices
You had to use Comic Sans somewhere on your site. It’s hard to explain why. You had to be there.
Today: Don’t use Comic Sans.
Keyword stuffing and link building, ‘90s-style
What’s a meta tag? In the ‘90s, you just included all of the keywords and every possible permutation of those keywords on each page, in plain view—usually in a big, ugly block of text at the bottom or in a sidebar. Bonus points if you used white text on a white background.
Another popular black hat SEO tactic from the 1990s were buttons, badges, and visit counters that included hidden links.
Today: Be selective about including keyword phrases in your text so you don’t incur Google penalties for keyword stuffing. Never display a block of keywords on your pages. Use meta tags to include the most important keywords for search engines without displaying them on every page. Be choosy about who you link out to.
‘90s websites were like Spotify, but with prehistoric MIDI technology
A surprising number of ‘90s-era websites autoplayed terrible, dinky-sounding MIDI-file music. Never mind that you could be using a library terminal, working in a crowded cubicle farm, or browsing at home while your baby finally napped. Unless you remembered to keep your system volume set to zero, you might have to jolt into noise-control mode when you landed on a new site. A lot of these sites didn’t include guest controls for the tunage, either. It was up to you to mouse to your volume control, slap the keyboard mute button, or navigate away as quickly as you could at 2400 bits per second.
Today: Keep your site quiet. If music is central to your business, make it easy for visitors to play tracks if they wish, but leave the choice to them.
Scrollin’ through the ‘90s
Site text moved around a lot in the 1990s. Sometimes it scrolled in a loop like the signs in Times Square, sometimes it slid back and forth across the screen in homage to Pong. Visitors had to keep up and chase content as it zipped by. It was the ‘90s. People made site text move because they could.
Today: Don’t try scrolling designs at home. There are ways to scroll text and other elements to make your site dynamic and visually appealing without freaking users out, but they’re advanced-level moves best left to experienced professional designers.
1990s websites offered an array of content choices
Forget sidebars and navigation tabs. Many site designers threw all their content links into big, bulky arrays that were as ugly to look at as they were tedious to navigate. In many cases, you had to return to the array from each content page because there was no way to click through.
Today: Arrays have their purposes. Organizing site content is not one of them.
Every 1990s website needed 37 pieces of flair
Badges weren’t just for scouts in the ‘90s. Thanks to the magic of Windows Paint and JPEG files, the websites of the era were festooned with tchotchkes – maps of the country where they were based, small awards most people had never heard of, and web ring logos.
Web rings actually served a purpose for a while, by making it easy for visitors to find similar sites instead of having to dig through Yahoo’s directory categories. Mostly, though, these pieces of digital flair were early types of social proof and community-building tools.
Today: Unless it’s relevant, there’s no need to fly your national colors on your web site. Too many visual distractions keep your visitors from focusing on your message. Design with your message in mind.
Still not sure if your site is stuck in the 90s?
Compare it to the mother of all bad examples, The World’s Worst Website. Just be sure to put on your sunglasses before you click the link, and maybe mute your system volume. Then check out some inspiring design ideas and start building your site!
Images courtesy of the WayBack Machine.
Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelancer who enjoys writing about business development and marketing, e-commerce payments and fraud prevention, and travel.