A guide to designing and building websites in 1997

11 July 2022

It’s 1997 and you want to build a website, a history of the early days of website development, by Jay Hoffmann. The first version of disassociated went online in 1997. I even held a small launch party. We went to an internet cafe so I could see disassociated on a third-party device that was not mine, nor anyone I knew.

They were the good old days of web design. Designers would stay up all night working on a new website, only to pull it apart, and start all over again when some new trend came along, which seemed to be all the time. Javascript image rollovers, anyone? TV lines? Some of the best experimental web design was to be found in the late nineties. Partly because there was a new-frontier exuberance, and the rules were few.

Despite this, I worked to the HTML 3.2 standard — a non-proprietary specification for building websites to — published by the W3C. My desire to use standards was two-fold: they promised to make the web a little more accessible, and hardly anyone else was working with them. It made me feel like some sort of counter-culture rebel.

When the HMTL 4 spec came along in April 1998 though I quickly adopted it, because, you know, it was shiny and new. I only talk about standards because they were the only paper resource I referred to when coding — sorry, marking up — a website. I didn’t rely on text books to teach myself web design, but rather the online tutorials of the time. Plus a little, actually considerable, trial and error.

I worked at some big-end-of-town company for a short time in 1998, where I furtively printed out the HTML 4 spec, twenty pages at a time, here and there, throughout the day, for several weeks.

Why I needed to waste all that paper — once printed the spec was almost the size of a telephone directory — when I could’ve referred to the document online (via dialup), eludes me now. I think having the spec, bound in a ring-binder, sitting on my desk at home, validated my then fledgling web design aspirations.

For somebody surfing the web in 1997, a book might feel a bit… 20th century. If you already knew the basics of getting online, why not poke around some sites that might help, right there in your browser.

Hoffmann’s article also mentions a bunch of early-on-the-scene web design agencies, including Razorfish, who were behind the production of This Girl, the monthly serialisation of the life of a fictitious twenty-something living in New York, called Phoebe. The work of Razorfish, and the exploits of Phoebe, were one of thousands of web influences I absorbed.

I wonder what became of Phoebe. And that print out of that HMTL 4 spec.


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