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Web Pages are Canvases

Published by on under the Web category.

The web page may be the most versatile canvas in the world. Unlike a regular canvas, you can erase any content from a web page with ease. If you make a mistake, it’s easy to fix the problem. A regular canvas can only be used to paint one picture, then you need to buy a new one. All it takes to create a new web page is to open a new file and change its file extension to “html”.

The old web understood that web pages were canvases, and I think we’re losing a lot of the creativity that we once had on the web.

Call me a nostalgic techie, but I liked the way that things were on the internet. As I have argued before, modern developments have helped the web get closer to its goal of democratizing information, but not all the trends that have taken place have been positive. I lost sight of how simple the internet can be because I’ve spent so much time learning about complex technologies.

In my high school web development class, I was bored when I was learning about HTML. I already knew HTML, and I had moved onto what I thought were bigger things. I was learning React. I wanted to learn more about React because it offered so many features HTML didn’t have. I could easily build components in React. Writing modular code was easy. In HTML? Not so much. When I think back to those days, I feel like I was missing out. I should have listened more to what I was being told, and not let my interest in bigger and better technologies take me away.

HTML may be a simple technology, but it’s one that we cannot do without. React, Vue, and all those other frameworks still rely on the good old standards of HTML and CSS. I may write styled components for many features on this site, but those are still built on the same rules.

As the internet has become more corporate, businesses have been able to set the tone for how websites appear. Companies like Apple and Google have a lot of sway in how our websites are designed. Google controls Google Fonts, which is a massive repository of typefaces that is widely used around the internet. I used to use it for this site, until I realized that there was no good reason for me to be accessing a Google resource on this site. I care too much about your privacy. Apple sets out guidelines about how you should style fonts on their applications. Best practices are always appreciated, but I think we’ve failed to ask ourselves whether the “best practices” that we are using today are really the best practices available to us.

Corporate design

Who said that black text is not a good idea on websites? It turns out that a lot of people think this way. You’ll see a lot of gray text on this site because when I started building it I thought that gray text was trendy. While I’m not ready to make any changes yet, I am starting to rethink this. I’m considering whether I should change all of my text to black. I was reading an article in WIRED earlier today about we accessibility, and it highlighted how black text seems to have been lost on many sites. We need to bring it back.

Businesses have different needs than individuals on the internet, and often those needs are related to profits. Web design has become another conduit through which businesses can acquire a competitive advantage. The site with the nicest design is likely to win. Design isn’t everything, but consumers have come to expect certain trends on the sites they view. That’s why so many social media sites look similar. If you compared Twitter before their most recent user interface overhaul with Facebook, you’d see that the sites are largely indistinguishable. Twitter may have usernames and hashtags, and Facebook may have statuses, but the layouts were uncanny.

What I want to see is more people who are designing sites how they see fit.

The raw web

I’ve been going through a lot of blogs lately, thanks to my discovering the Indie Web ring. You could call some of my discoveries procrastination, but it’s taught me an important lesson about individuality on the web. Many of the sites that I encountered had their own unique identity. Some sites were built using CMS tools, but even then the authors took their own creative liberty. I came across sites that showed everything the webmaster had bookmarked. I found sites with blogrolls (which I only recently found out were still a thing). I uncovered a website with a site counter (which I’d love to build, but I am not exactly sure how to track this information in a privacy-respecting way).

The defining characteristic of the early web was that it was raw, and that’s what I love so much about looking back at old sites. Some people may look today at a site with a dark gray background and blue text for hyperlinks as something that is from the ’90s. Why does it need to be that way? Why can’t we recognize those featues as something that is part of the modern web? I certainly do. I want to see more sites that embrace their own unique design.

I want the internet to be weird again. Where are the fan sites? I mention this because last night I thought about what it would look like to start my own. I don’t really watch much television so this idea may be out of reach, but it’s something that I would be open to doing. I do love the television show Billions, even if I haven’t watched it in a few months. I could design a fan site to talk about how much I love the new partnership between Axe and Chuck. (I haven’t seen the latest season yet. No spoilers in my Webmentions!)

Writing that last sentence makes me realize how much doing weird things is important to me. I just said that you shouldn’t leave spoliers in my Webmentions. That’s the first time I have ever seen that phrase used. I’m not sure if it is a thing; well, it is because I just wrote it, but it’s not a trend that I have come across while surfing the net. Webmentions may not be the most exciting web feature in the world, but I take great pride in the fact that my site now supports them. Nobody may ever use my Webmentions feature, but it’s there for anyone who wants it.

Reasons for the change

One big reason why we’ve lost a sense of weirdness on the internet is because we’ve come to expect that modern solutions are faster and more effective than their predecessors. It’s ironic that we may never see a faster technology on the internet than plain old HTML and CSS, but I’m not going to go too far with this point because modern technology has helped out the web in myriad other ways. Because we expect speed and effectiveness, it’s easy for us to develop an image of how a site should look. When I think of a modern website, I think about gray text. I think about smooth contrasts. I see gradients or a white-and-gray theme. That’s just my take, but it seems to be an aesthetic shared by many modern websites today. Think Apple. Or Google. Or GMail.

This cannot be the only reason why the internet is, at least to me, not as weird. A few other potential reasons include: companies setting design standards that people don’t question (as I mentioned earlier); the fact that many people growing up today didn’t see the web as it was (I am too young to remember the web of the early ’00s). Another one that interests me is that the old web was one where people weren’t expected to do anything.

My ask for you is that if you’re designing a website, you should ignore any design trends that you don’t think apply to you. Instead ask yourself: what are the design trends that I want to see on my site? Do you want to have blue text appear on your site? Go for it. Click here to change the color of text on this page. Do you want to have a button that makes all the headings on your site disappear? Make one. Here’s an example:

I came across an article yesterday on why we need to make the internet weird again. In this article, the author added a textbox to their article where you could change the style of their website. You could write any CSS rule that you wanted and it would be applied to the site. How can I best describe this? It was a great act of creativity. The old web was filled with these sorts of discoveries. It’s the reason why I have a guestbook. It’s weird and last I checked only one person has used it, but it’s something that I think is cool. Websites should be about sharing what you think is cool with the world.

Modern web design is not inherently better than how the old web was designed. I like the interfaces on sites like Google (and I’ve actually just switched to DuckDuckGo, which I’ll probably write about in more depth later), but they’ve lost their sense of character. It’s up to all developers and designers to take back control and build websites that have their own styles. Who cares about the perfect rounded corner radius for your site? Who cares about the exact font weight that you are using for your text that’s too light (seriously, make sure your text is readable)? Just build something that you love.

In the aforementioned article, it was made clear that Myspace allowed you to write your own HTML for your page. That’s something we have lost in the modern web. Writing your own code isn’t seen as an essential feature for many sites. Do you think Twitter would ever let me write my own profile page? No, they probably never will. It’s too risky for them. Or they’ll see it as them losing control over their site. Maybe that’s another reason why we don’t have as many creative sites on the web today that are easy to find: we’ve lost sight of the fact that anyone can publish on the internet.

As I’ve remarked before, you can create your own website quite easily. All it takes is a HTML file. Here’s a website:

<h1>This is my website!</h1>

Create a file called “index.html” somewhere on your computer and paste that code in. Open it in your browser. There you go. You’ve just created a website. To host your site you’ll need a web server or to use a platform that allows you to host your own website. There are a lot of great services out there where you can do it for a very low cost. But that doesn’t matter. Your site is in the HTML file. Do you want styles? Here’s a style rule:

<style>h1 { color: blue; }</style>

I haven’t even asked you to create a separate CSS file for that code. Just add it into your HTML file. When you reload the page, you’ll notice that all your text is blue. I’m so happy that I learned how to code in HTML and CSS because it makes me realize just how little you need to get started on the web.

The web is your own. It’s not owned by anyone; it’s very nature is that it is a decentralized platform. This should apply to designs as well. One of the things that made me hesitant to get involved with web development was that I didn’t think I was a very good designer. I now realize that I don’t need to be. It’s the content that matters. Everything else is extra. I’d happily publish this site in plain text for you, my loyal readers, but I am having too much fun building out different features of my site.

Do you want to know how this web page works? Are you curious about how I built the buttons that appeared above? Check out the code on GitHub. That’s another thing we can do to bring back weirdness on the web. When you build something cool, tell people how you did it. Did you add glitter text to your site? Help other people do the same thing.

The web is a canvas. It’s a place for you to be creative. I am going to use this canvas to create weird things, because that’s what the internet is all about. You don’t have to be weird if you don’t want to. It’s up to you. You may really like modern design, and so that’s what you should add to your site. This site has a few gray headings because I liked the color scheme (although I’m thinking about changing them). But this site also has a guestbook. And a web ring. All because those are things that I thought were a good idea. That’s the beauty of the web: you can make mistakes and be free. Don’t take the internet too seriously. Have some fun.

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