Everything is a web page

Let’s start with the internet

When was the internet invented?

1969 or 1989?


The “Harvard Computers” in the late 1800s.

Before this time, the term computer usually referred to a person, not a machinesomeone who would compute (solve) math problems.

It is worth noting these were often women, and they were underpaid compared to men in their fieldand many would go on to operate the early mechanical/electronic computers. We’re going to have to talk about a lot of men, herebut know that women have been present from the start.

Univac, the first commercial computer in the US.

By the 1960s, computers were room-sized, institutional electronic machinesused by governments (the military), businesses, and universities. They were used to solve complex math problems and sort data, but were still very slow and didn’t communicate with one another.

A catalyst in the formation of the internet was the Cold War. The threat of nuclear conflict spurred the US Defense Department to consider decentralized and distributed networksto disseminate orders and information in the event of an attack (and ultimately, for retaliation).

It was necessary to have a strategic system that could withstand a first attack and then be able to return the favor in kind. The problem was that we didn’t have a survivable communications system, and so Soviet missiles aimed at US missiles would take out the entire telephone-communication system […] that was highly centralized. Well, then, let’s not make it centralized. Let’s spread it out so that we can have other paths to get around the damage.

Paul Baran

The original sketch of ARPANET.

By 1969, computer nodes connected the Stanford Research Institute, UCLA, UCSB and the University of Utahdeveloped by the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA).

The growth of ARPANET into the 1970s.

Over the following decade, ARPANET would grow to include other cities in the US. It had its first expansion outside the States in 1973, with connections to the UK and Norway. Slowly, similar commercial and academic networks were developing alongside, each with their own communication protocols.

The core of TCP/IP is routing bundles of data called “packets.”

In 1974, Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf (two ARPA scientists) developed the Transmission Control Protocol and the Internet Protocol (TCP/IP). By the 80s, it became the standard network communication formatand still underpins the internet we all use today.

What about the web?

When was the web invented?

1969 or 1989?


Our guy Tim.

Tim Berners-Lee, a British academic and scientist, invented the World Wide Web (WWW) with his team while working at CERN in 1989. It was developed on top of TCP/IP as a standard way to connect documents, living on different computers in different places, via hypertext links.

The cover of the original proposal, visualizing the idea of “hypertext.”

Their proposal had four components:

How it looked for Tim, back then.
How it looks for us, now.

By 1991, the first web page was up and running and began to take off.

Mosaic was one of the first widely-available browsers. It introduced support for images.
Netscape, the first browser that I ever used.

The 1990s then saw more-affordable home computers bring internet access to many more peopleescaping the government (military), business, and university settings it had been siloed in before. Early web browsers like Mosaic and Netscape (1993) helped evolve what was possible onlineadding color, images, and interactivity.

And the web exploded from there.

1994. Before search engines, there were web directories like Yahoo.
1995. GeoCities brought web design to the masses, for better or for worse.
1995. They used to sell books, if you can believe it.
1998. We eventually got search engines.
2004. And social networks.

The dream behind the Web is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished.

Tim Berners-Lee

So what are web pages?

Obviously, this is a web page. Think about how many other web pages you have visited in the past day. Dozens, even hundreds?

Ultimately, a web page is a just text file on a computer. It is written in a special format, the aforementioned HTML, which structures the content of the document and also links it to other resourcesother web pages, images, computers, really almost anything. Think of the web as type with instructions.

These all started as simple, hand-typed documents. Then as the power of computers grew, and the languages of the web evolved alongsideweb pages expanded almost inconceivably in complexity and capabilities. Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) gave them marvelous abilities to be customized and designed. JavaScript (JS) gave them remarkable, newfound interactivity and function. Websites (collections of web pages) today are built on top of an incredible stack of technologynetworks, servers, databases, libraries, browsers, devices.

An ever-present visual medium

If you’re looking at a glowing, 16:9 rectangle somewhere (and it isn’t just playing video), nowadays it is very likely a web pagebuilt with the exact same HTML, CSS, and JSweb technologiesthat are behind this page, and every other.

In its openness, connectedness, and ubiquity, the web has come to dominate over other forms of technology. Its advantages in compatibility, cost, scale, and inertia are continuing to snowball, and the advance of these web technologies shows no sign of slowing down. It is the water that we are swimming in, both as humans and as designers.

And in that latter role, we’ll need to learn how to swim. Our path into design then is to understand how these things are made and how they function. Their technological construction both empowers and constrains our work. You can’t separate the design from this foundation; the medium is inextricable from the end product.

Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneerthat the designers are handed this box and told, “Make it look good!” That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

Steve Jobs

These days, apps are often web pages too

We’ll be using a couple of these.

All these desktop “apps” are built in Electronand so are really just web pages inside a slim, platform-native wrapper. (Essentially, a single-website browser.)

The core application only has to be written once, instead of rewritten for each platform. And why design it all again? (Designers are expensive!) Why hire Windows and Mac devs when you can just hire web devs? …then why hire iOS or Android devs, either? (Developers are even more expensive!) So many companies take approach, for cross-platform development.

These mobile “apps” are all built with React Native, following a similar paradigm. The app is really just a web view, and every screen within is a web page.

It’s increasingly just JS, behind the scenes

JavaScript began as a client-side (on your computer), front-end language running in the browser. But now with engines like V8 and environments like Node, JS has moved to server-side (on the remote computer) functionality previously dominated by scripting languages like ASP, Perl, PHP, Ruby.

This means that JavaScript doesn’t just run in a webpage you’re looking atit often now actually builds the page itself. It might even send you the packets. More and more, JS isn’t a part of the stack so much as it really is the stack.

This “javascript everywhere” movement means that the tendrils of the web can encompass many non-web-page uses. Maybe it is in an app, maybe a headless data API, maybe a hardware integration, maybe it is even something entirely offlinebut it is still web technologies, most of the way down.

Even things that aren’t web pages are web-page-like

In the coming weeks we are going to dive properly into HTML, CSS, and JSthe fabric of web pages. Let’s try and also think of thesemore conceptually and semanticallyas content, form, and function. (Or in another way, skeleton, skin, and muscles.)

With this understanding, the same model exists in nearly all software. (For example, Resources, Views, and States in Mac/iOS development, though the lines are being blurred.) So we can say that software that hasn’t yet been eaten by web technologies is often still web-like. And the web is likely coming for them, eventually.

Our lens

Learning good, effective design in any medium necessitates knowing it thoroughly and completely, and we’re going strive to do that by truly understanding the web.

In your careers, the software, languages, and platforms might be different, and to some extent, are ever-changingbut the design ideas and considerations are analogous and universal. To understand design for the web is to understand interactive design. And in our lives today, to understand interactive design is to understand all design.

All I know is that if you are a fish, it is hard to describe water, much less to ask if water is necessary, ethical, and structured the way it ought to be.

Abigail Disney

A hat-tip to friend-of-the-program Tuan on this lecture.