Then and Now: Popular Websites and How Their Designs Have Evolved
Oct 17th, 2017
Websites are constantly evolving and adapting as new trends, technologies, and devices come to market. It’s an ongoing commitment and requires a considerable amount of resources and talent. It’s important to continue to push forward while improving user experience and maintaining the identity of the website.
Many of these changes are incremental over time. As a result it means users aren’t typically overcome with a whole host of new design elements and layouts. Instead, they are able to adapt slowly. Despite the positive effects of this on user experience, changes can be so incremental that we forget just how far the designs have come over a period of ten or twenty years.
In this article, we are going to analyse some of the most popular websites and how their designs have evolved over time. Some, like Craigslist and Reddit have changed very little. In many cases like this, the designs were so simple and well thought through that they have stood the test of time.
Others, like YouTube and Apple have iterated on the design frequently. These changes have been as much about user experience and flow improvements as they have been about improving visual design and marketing.
The Drudge Report: Minor changes over two decades
The Drudge Report is a simple news website which has been around for over two decades. In that time, the design has remained largely unchanged. At first glance it may seem like a throwback to the 90’s, and in many ways it is. However, there’s much more to the design than would first seem.
One of the earliest images of The Drudge Report gives us an indication of how little this design has changed. It uses a long list of hyperlinks inside a three-column layout. There are no distractions and even no imagery.
Ten years later, the site had maintained the same layout but introduced thumbnail imagery, improved text styling, and a featured news story in the header.
The current site is very similar to that of ten years prior. The overall design is almost entirely unchanged but for some minor tweaks.
The Drudge Report is instantly recognisable. Its simple WordArt style logo is synonymous, as is the ill-spaced three-column layout. It has done the exact opposite of websites like Bloomberg and the BBC who have changed the design time and time again. With The Drudge Report, they have stuck with a tried and tested design. It’s users are familiar with it and there is little doubt that its 10 million unique monthly visitors continue to return because of the design. Almost every news website in the modern era is littered with ads, breaking news banners and pop-ups, and flashy graphics and images. The Drudge Report strips this back and presents a design which is little more than a list of links and the odd thumbnail image.
The site’s lack of conformity in its design also has led to a number of other benefits. Firstly, it’s extremely fast to load. There are no fancy graphics or scripts; there isn’t even a content management system in place. This leads onto the next benefit which is that the site is incredibly low cost and simple to run, due to its simplicity in structure and design.
It goes to show that even popular websites do not have to be constantly evolving and redesigning. If a design is well thought through from the very start, it can leave very little reason to change it as time goes on.
McDonald’s: Frequent style updates and redesigns
McDonald’s is one of the world’s most famous brands and was one of the first companies to launch a fun and interactive website. Its design has slowly shifted away from the days of bright interactive Flash games and Ronald McDonald illustrations. It now presents a less ‘fun’ design but something which is more fitting as it looks to target everyone from kids to commuters.
One of McDonald’s earliest websites, this creative design used a menu board as the navigation. It incorporated interactive elements and beautiful graphics throughout. While the layout and background are questionable from today’s perspective, the design was very forward thinking at the time.
The McDonald’s site was using many Flash animations and graphics in 2007. The layouts were narrow but much more structured and contained than previous versions. The design language was more refined with greater use of simple typography and dark greys and blacks.
2017’s website is heavily photo-orientated. It’s a polished, very corporate example of modern web design. It’s a far cry from the earlier, playful examples which came across as being targeted towards a younger age demographic.
McDonald’s has always portrayed a bright and colorful atmosphere through its web design. Though its earlier designs were very playful and inventive, they were not so useful to someone simply looking for a menu or nutritional advice. Over twenty years it has become much more orientated toward showcasing and heavily marketing the food. It now uses some beautifully designed graphics and food photography to entice people into trying new products.
The navigation is now much simpler and easier to understand. The hero section is very typical and uses emphatic typography throughout. It feels somewhat ‘safe’ compared to their previous web experiments. However, it’s now a much more established brand looking to move away from an era defined by kid’s Happy Meals and health concerns. The new design is much more polished. It does everything it needs to do, and the user experience is much improved: typography is easier to read, it adapts to different screen sizes, and the layout is well considered.
It’s likely to continue to be refined in accordance to McDonald’s marketing teams and how they look to appeal to a larger customer base. This may mean a more professional and clean outlook as brands such as their McCafe hot drinks range become more popular with professionals and people who typically would not have considered the chain.
These two very different examples show how there is no one way to evolve in web design. There is the risk of looking dated, but conversely there’s also the risk of alienating a current user base. In each circumstance it’s incredibly important to consider the user base: why they use the website, what makes them keep coming back, and how easy the website is to use. By conducting even the most basic user experience research, it can significantly aid the evolution of a design and give it the utmost chance to succeed moving forward.