My One Claim to Internet Design Fame

Way back in 1997, long, long before HTML5, Ajax, DHTML, long before any kind of advanced javascript, and at the dawn of CSS (introduced in early 1997, but not really supported until 1999)… the introduction of tables to HTML markup language was the first real move towards being able to apply an advanced design to a website.

I dove into HTML tables as soon as a browser supported it (Netscape). I also dove deep into supercharged tables — the “nested table” design, where you would build tables inside of table elements. I spent literally hundreds of hours of playing around with it, learning the ins and outs of it, and refining it. At the time, there were very few available resources online to learn these kinds of things. You had to figure them out on your own for the most part.

In 1997, my main sources of income came from a) word processing services (I’d type resumes and essays for people), b) graphic design and desktop publishing services, and c) website design. I knew website design would take off, so I focused a lot of my creative energy there, using my background in desktop publishing design.

One of my “signature styles” in desktop publishing at the time was overlapping elements, sometimes with transparency effects. A box would overlap a circle; an image would overlap a text frame; a title block would overlap, at an angle, a content call out… that kind of thing. It was my signature and could be found in most of the paid and free graphic design work I did at the time.

I always wanted to bring that design effect to a website, and finally, nested tables allowed me to do that, after a lot of trial and error.

Now, while this kind of layout is super easy to achieve today with dHTML, dynamic positioning, CSS and the like, back then it the tools of HTML 3.2 weren’t even designed to achieve this kind of effect. In fact, I was the first person ever to do this kind of graphic design layout on a web page, way back in February, 1997.

Here’s a screenshot of one of the pages I designed with this effect.

Overlays in action, circa 1997

The layout tricks were achieved with nested tables, spacer.gifs, and a lot of use of html’s color and border effects. Also, a lot of rowspans and colspans were involved, if you know your old school html.

Word about the design trick got around quick. My design was ripped off by several websites within just a few weeks, including some popular “ezine” websites (that really made me upset, especially because one of them tried to claim it as their own inventiveness!).

This design effect got me interviewed by several of the up and coming Internet design magazines, including the biggest one of the era, net Magazine. The technique I devised was fully documented in several web design books published in 1997 (most gave me the proper credit lol!).

Ironically, I don’t recall a single paying job I got directly from inventing this design layout technique in HTML 3.2 and the publicity the technique got. I got no leads from the net Magazine article, none that I know of from the books; I do know that for a time, there were literally dozens of websites that had a little thank you credit to my old website for inspiring their design and showing them the technique. And I did get some web design jobs in 1997 because people liked the look I was able to apply to my own websites.

Anyway. The web did move on, and this was a minuscule, grain of sand in a huge beach of innovative web design, but looking back, I am proud that I at least had a part in defining good design and innovative coding techniques in the dawning era of web page design.

The WayBack Machine still has a few of these pages archived. You can see one of them here, and another example here.

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