The latest in web design? Retro websites inspired by the 90s

(NYTimes) - To navigate the website for Arcade Fire's coming album, Everything Now, users need to click through a cluttered cascade of Windows 98-style pop-ups.

Balenciaga's new website looks as stripped down as a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, with plain black boxes and no-frills Arial font.

And the DIY-looking home page for Solange resembles the desktop of a candy-coloured iMac, complete with QuickTime windows and rows of blue folders.

Web designs have come a long way in 20 years, but some are taking a step back to evoke a sort of hipster nostalgia for the early days of the internet.

Get The Straits Times
newsletters in your inbox

"They're tipping their hat to the 1990s," said Mr David Lee, the chief creative officer of Squarespace, a web platform company based in New York that has created millions of websites for clients. He said that he has seen a recent uptick in what he calls an "anti-design brutalism", with clients opting for more bare-bones, retro-looking sites.

Some websites are purposely cumbersome to navigate, with loud, clip-art-filled pages. Others employ a simplistic Craigslist-style utilitarianism that feels like a throwback to an era when web pages were coded by hand.

"There's a lot of animated GIFs and flames, but mixing it with something new," Mr Lee added.

While millennials and members of Generation Z - those born in the years from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s - may not remember what the web looked like in the era of AltaVista and GeoCities, the retro designs tap into the current cultural revival of all things 90s. (See the return of Twin Peaks, Will & Grace and concert T-shirts.)

For those who are older, these sites recall the improvised internet of their youth, in the days before mobile optimisation and beta-tested user interfaces brought a sleek uniformity to modern web design.

Nostalgic websites meant to mimic the days of dial-up modems are cropping up in artsy and tech-geek corners of the web.

Windows93.net, a web project by French music and art duo Jankenpopp & Zombectro, imagines what the Microsoft operating system would have looked like had it been released. (After a two-year development delay, Microsoft instead released Windows 95.) The site has had more than 8 million visitors.

Neocities, built in 2013 by Kyle Drake, 33, a web entrepreneur based in Palo Alto, California, is an to GeoCities, the early web hosting platform. (GeoCities, started in 1994, was acquired by Yahoo in 1999 for US$3.6 billion and went defunct in the United States in 2009.) "I really hate the modern internet," Mr Drake said. "My vision is to bring back making websites as a creative thing, not just as a business thing."

More than 140,000 websites have been created through his platform, he said.

Mr Paul Ford, 42, an instructor of interactive design at the School of Visual Arts in New York, agrees that the web today can feel disappointing to early adopters. "It's almost like if your indie band went on to be not the size of U2, but a $4 trillion industry," he said. "I think there's a sense of, 'How do we get back to that?'"

One way is to create a website the old-fashioned way: by enlisting a friend who knows basic HTML. That is what Billy Silverman, 40, a restaurateur, did in the harried final days before opening Salazar, his acclaimed Sonoran barbecue restaurant in Los Angeles.

He tapped his buddy Zack McTee, who runs a small production company in New York, to slap together something quick. The two decided that, if they didn't have the time or money to make the website good, they would at least make it fun.

The result recalls a personal website built by a bored teenager in the days before Facebook and Myspace, with flashing Comic Sans text, dancing MC Hammer GIFs and cheesy keyboard music. A banner declaring "now with working email" scrolls across the top.

Mr Silverman said that he regularly gets emails from customers who are confused. A common note: "'I love your restaurant but saw your website and think I can help you out.'"