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A Decade of Design

From skeuomorphic to minimalism, design has evolved rapidly over the last ten years.

Portrait for Envato By Envato
Posted 22 Aug 2016
Inside Envato

A decade ago, the internet was a very different place. The celebration of Envato’s 10th birthday has us feeling nostalgic, and so we’re taking a look at the 2006-2016 era of design.

From MySpace and the iPhone, to minimalism and material design, a lot has happened in ten years. We won’t attempt to fit every design trend and technology innovation into one article, but we wanted to highlight some key moments in design. Put on your favorite early 2000’s playlist and read about some of our favorite web trends from the past decade:

2006: The Year of Making Friends on the Internet

In 2006, YouTube and Facebook had barely launched, and MySpace was growing in popularity; we browsed these sites through Internet Explorer 6, on our Windows XP and Mac OS X Tiger operating systems. The phrase web 2.0 is often used to describe this period, which was defined in the early 2000’s as a turning point on the internet: from publishing to participation, and static pages to wikis.

A decade ago, MySpace was arguably the most visited website in the U.S., and sites like Facebook and YouTube growing in popularity. AOL’s instant messenger system, AIM, had been created almost a decade prior (to put it in the words of a recent (!) AIM logo, “OMG since 1997”), but it hit the peak of its success around this year.

The popularity of these websites indicated a shift; MySpace’s tagline, a place for friends, illustrates this idea. The internet: where you go to communicate with people.

2006 MySpace and AIM

2007: The Year of the iPhone

In January 2007, Steve Jobs announced the release of the first iPhone, which he called “a product that changes everything”. In his talk, he unveils three Apple products: a wider, touch-screen iPod, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough internet communication device – but JUST KIDDING, they’re all the same product (and the crowd goes wild!). With the release of the iPhone came the rise of native apps and mobile design.

iPhone Launch 2007

2008: The Year of Skeuomorphic Design

Skeumorphism is a design concept where the digital version of items mirror their actual, physical counterpart. Those lined-paper notes on your Macbook, the analog display on your date & time app, the trash can full of old files – it’s a designer’s way of saying, hey, this is familiar, here’s some context clues, you already know what this does!. There’s plenty of divided opinions on this trend – it’s hated, it’s dead, it will never go away – and it’s an integral part of the recent Apple Watch design.

Skeumorphism 2008
Spot the skeuomorphic designs.

Other things that happened in 2008: the first release of AndroidGoogle Chrome becomes available for download (and the announcement leaked via a comic book).

2009: The Year of the Grids

The rise of grid-based layouts can be traced back to 2007 – see this 150-page SXSW presentation, Grids are good – and with the release of the 960 Grid System in 2009, it’s a technique that dominated web design. The fundamentals of grid design are inspired by mathematics (symmetry), print journalism (magazines/newspapers), and photography (rule of thirds), and grids continue to be a starting point for many website layouts.

Grid Theory, NYT Home Page
Grid theory, as seen on the New York Times homepage. Photo: Tuts+.

2010: The Year of the Blog (sort of)

The word blog emerged from the diary-style ‘web logs’ of the 1990s, and by 2004, the idea of blogs was so mainstream that blog was named the 2004 Merriam-Webster Word of the Year. With new definitions of blogging, such as Twitter’s ‘micro-blogging’ and Tumblr’s ‘tumblog’, and innovations in technology, like RSS feeds (R.I.P., Google Reader), companies began thinking outside of the journal-like format of blogging. It soon evolved into a primary means of communication, and continued to evolve.

Does its writer work for a big website like BuzzFeed, crafting listicles, quizzes, reporting, and personal essays? Do they write a newsletter? Or have they fully abandoned HTML, and now they’re trying their luck with a podcast?

The Atlantic, What Blogging Has Become, 2015

With the release of WordPress 3.0 in 2010, and the changing face of the journalism industry, the ‘blog’ was repurposed over and over again. Today, ‘blogging’ means a different thing than it did ten (or even twenty) years ago, although ‘blog’ still remains a popular term – possibly because we’ve yet to find a better term for the state of web writing today.

2011: The Year of Parallax

Parallax scrolling websites were a top trend in 2011. Eye-catching, stylish, and visually pleasing, parallax designed popped up everywhere from corporate websites to personal portfolios. Whether you think parallax designs are confusing and annoying, or mind-blowing and beautiful, it’s a trend that’s still woven through today’s web design.

Parallax example
An example of parallax scrolling in 2016.

2012: The Year of Responsive Design

The concept of responsive web design kicked off in 2010. Instead of creating special website versions for different browsers – an ‘iPhone website’, for example – designers focused on creating a user experience that worked on all platforms.

Responsive design
Image credit: blackzheep

This is reflected in Envato’s top searches on Themeforest: in 2012, Envato’s top free-text search term on ThemeForest was ‘responsive’, and it hovered in the top 3 for the next few years. It dropped away in popularity as a search term in 2015 (perhaps because the responsiveness of websites became an assumption, instead of a standout feature).

This was also a banner year for flat design. Windows Metro (Windows 8) was released – the first truly flat UI – and Apple’s design made a full swing towards a flat aesthetic .

2013: Year of the Freelancers

A study in 2014 declared freelancing ‘the new normal’, with more than 53 million Americans (a third of the workforce!) engaging in freelance work of some kind. UpWork, a popular freelance website, was created in an Elance-oDesk merger in 2013; Microlancer was created in April 2013, and was turned into Envato Studio a year later. The freelance economy continues to grow today, as more workers embrace flexible schedules, and co-working spaces like WeWork rise in popularity.

2014: The Year of Material Design

Material design (Google code-named ‘Quantum Paper’) is Google’s attempt at making beautiful, consistent UI simple. It’s an almost-flat look, with light and shadows that add depth to a straightforward concept. It also has an entire section dedicated to ‘material motion’, which lends itself well to subtle animations and intuitive navigation.

Material design
Material design, animated.

2015: The Year of Minimalism

Okay, I know – any graphic designer will tell you that the concept of minimalism has been around for ages, and that this isn’t a new trend. However, I’d argue that the minimalist aesthetic is back in a big way, on the web and in real life. From websites and apps, to physical storefronts and interior designs, some even argue that the so-called ‘hipster aesthetic’ is taking over the world (and from the looks of the newest coffee shops in Melbourne, they might be right.)

A #minimalmood hashtag, on the minimally-styled Instagram homepage. (See also: #minimalism, #minimalist, #whiteonwhite, #whiteonwhiteonwhite.)

2016: A New Definition of Design

Image credit: Voysla

How is ‘design’ defined in 2016, anyways? It’s a term that has been expanded and repurposed: web design, graphic design, organizational design, UX design, design thinking.

When someone introduces themselves as a ‘designer’, what does that convey? ‘Designer’ is a job title – perhaps similar to my role as ‘editor’, or a software developer’s claim on the word ‘architect’ – that has shifted in meaning over the years.

At Envato, we’re exploring the future of design, in all of its meanings and new definitions.

Here are other blogs to check out:

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