Two years from now, Adobe will finally stop updating and distributing the Flash Player plugin, a.k.a. Shockwave Flash. Flash will actually, finally, supposedly die. But before the nail goes into the coffin—in fact, before the nail even touches the coffin—let’s give credit where credit is due. Flash was miraculous. It enabled new possibilities on the web, helped bring video and video sharing to the internet, and most importantly, it got some people interested in designing for the web. I should know, Flash made me want to be a web designer.
As a college student in the 1990s, being a graphic designer mostly meant creating graphics, logos, magazines, books, posters, album art, T-shirts… printed things, you get the picture. But when the internet came along, and everyone and anyone seemed to need a website, many designers were stumped since this web thing required code.
Most designers never had to code and didn’t need to since Photoshop, Illustrator, PageMaker, Freehand, and QuarkXPress did the work for us. Import elements, place objects, move them around, scale them, change their color or size, it happened easily thanks to “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) software.
Why learn to code? Designers, including yours truly, left the web to computer scientists, computer engineers, and software developers. They understood the matrix of letters, numbers, and symbols that made up Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). They were also much faster typists—at least compared to me. A lot of graphic designers didn’t give a shit about HTML. “Let the coders deal with coding,” we thought, “and we’ll stick to print.”
Many of us did, until we saw new opportunities for our clients who had to be on the web and it became a matter of evolve or die. Fortunately, web layout software had arrived that promised to make getting a website designed quickly and easily. GoLive CyberStudio (later acquired by Adobe), Adobe PageMill, and HoTMetaL helped you design for the web since the software’s backend rendered the necessary HTML; imagine Microsoft Word, but instead of a page with images and text that you can print, it makes a page you can put on the web. (Fun fact, older versions of Word let you convert documents to HTML for the web, and today’s versions still let you do this.)
But even with those early web design tools, designers had mixed feelings. The typography! Oh, the horrors. One of my university professors was disgusted by the fact that you couldn’t layout a site with Univers or any other specialty font that a company might have as part of their corporate identity program.
And on top of the expensive software we already needed, if we did not want to learn coding we would have to pay for another tool? Art supplies, computer peripherals, digital camera equipment, etc., etc., it was already expensive and especially for those on a budget.
On the other hand, design educator Ken Hiebert, author of Graphic Design Sources and Graphic Design Processes, found software such as GoLive to be a real blessing. The story from Hiebert’s perspective: we had been using PostScript fonts on a daily basis as well as PostScript laser printers, but that didn’t require us to read and write PostScript. GoLive handled HTML in a similar way: design what you needed, let it spit out the code, and upload it when you’re ready, without really needing to know HTML. If you wanted to get on the web without knowing code, GoLive or PageMill were a small price to pay. And if you were a visual thinker, those programs were right up your alley.
By the late 90s, and despite the advances in web design, things were limited. Sure, software could take care of most of the work, but you still needed to have some basic knowledge of HTML to make sure everything was properly composed. On top of that, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) were on the horizon, and that was a whole new thing you would have to learn to make your site operable, as well as nicely designed.
To complicate matters, Browser Wars as well as download/upload speeds caused other challenges. But again, designers didn’t care. We wanted a better web, an experience that was designed rather than coded. Better typography!! Sound! Animation too! Why not? Well, for starters, it wasn’t easy to achieve. Even Macromedia’s Dreamweaver a program that promised a better web—Sites with Life was the catchphrase—had failed in our eyes.
But everything changed with Flash, first released as FutureSplash Animator, later acquired by Macromedia. Text, vector graphics, and images could be composed in a layout and uploaded to the web, with many if not all of the nuances designers had become accustomed to. For instance, if you wanted to use a particular font on the web, especially as a headline or button, you needed to make that text into a bitmap image that often looked quite awful. Today text as image is frowned upon, but back then it was the bee’s knees—even Apple did it.
When Macromedia acquired FutureSplash and released it as Macromedia Flash, a world of possibilities arrived. Yes, you had to pay for the Flash software to make a Flash site, but it was worth it. For starters, with tools like Director or Flash you could—as Ze Frank famously did—teach people how to dance properly. Visually, new possibilities emerged. Artists such as Joshua Davis (praystation), GMUNK, and James Paterson (presstube) pushed the web into new and unforeseen directions. Paterson himself began using Flash in 1997, and was in high school at the time. He got involved with Marty Spellerberg in the 1990s contributing to a website called Halfempty.com, which is still running.
For designer, developer, and curator Marty Spellerberg, Flash appealed to a certain audience, a creative one. “Flash was the internet that we thought we were going to get. Make things look more like Tron and less like documents. HTML and CSS websites were simpler then, but Flash was for visual artists, it was something you could relate to. With Flash, code was secondary, and the elements were visual.”
Lynda Weinman’s early website in 1998, captured here with the Wayback Machine, included all kinds of educational assets for the eager digital designer.
If you wanted to make your own digital art or online experiment or website, you could quickly and easily learn Flash by dabbling with it on weekends, reading a how-to book, taking a class or two or three, or you could learn with Lynda Weinman tutorials. I got my hands on every asset I could find, including sites like The Remedi Project that showcased stellar Flash work. I started making my own “amazing” Flash work, focusing on websites and corporate identity. When pitching to one prospective client decades ago, I showed them how I could animate their logo (using Flash, of course), and I was hired on the spot.
In the early 2000s, design was undergoing an identity crisis (isn’t it always?). Maybe long-ish animated logos weren’t needed? Maybe Flash is not the best way to go for the whole site? You could design your layout and slice it up using Macromedia Fireworks, with or without Flash content. Add all the gizmos and animation and sound and Flash headers you want after the fact. Or maybe not? The sky was the limit and many designers and clients wanted no limits.
“I want my website and I want it my way!” Creating unique, thought-provoking artistic experiments with Flash was one thing, but using Flash to make an eccentric website for users who wanted and/or needed something simple, well, that seemed unfair for users. But it happened. Approaching web design like a five-year-old, some would put every and any tasty ingredient into a bowl, mix it around, and offer it up as a super, special, flashy meal. Look what I made! So many flavors, so many textures! So much to look at and discover!! On the flip side, some designers thought it was their duty to challenge conventions, going so far as to “hide buttons” so the user had to work to find them. You might be thinking, “Seriously?!” Yes. True story.
In 2001 Apple didn’t require the Flash plugin to use their site, but they did use bitmap images to render type. Captured via the Wayback Machine.
As designers and non-designers packed more and more effects into their web content using Flash—or chose to hide web content in a wicked game of catch me if you can—sites became complicated and/or unusable. Some clients wanted the complex, but larger sites with more content meant longer load times, meaning longer wait times, especially if you had an animated logo that required 2-200 seconds of your patience before you even got to the actual website.
These website prologues, a.k.a. Flash Intros, became the norm. In order to let a site fully load in the background, a shortish introduction, animation, video, or game would keep users busy and/or entertained—actually, it really just pissed people off. But in time a solution would come in the form of a button. Users who didn’t want to wait and watch an intro could jump ahead by clicking Skip Intro. Saved by a button! Yes, there was a time.
On the plus side, Flash brought people from all walks of life to web design, but we had been led astray by glamour, wanting to create one shiny thing after another. Too much of too much, and it had to stop. We saw what the web could be, and what it shouldn’t be. Coming to our senses, many designers and non-designers realized that the medium didn’t matter as much as the content and the people, a.k.a. the users. Fancy sites shouldn’t corrupt the experience, being bombastic just for the sake of effect. Don’t design for you. Don’t design for technology or because of technology. It’s all about people and as Bert Bos wrote, usability matters—a lot. It’s a principle and belief that Jakob Nielsen had been preaching long before Flash had caught on.
Usability was (and for the most part still is) less about flashy sites, and more about function. Tone things down. Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS). Books like Skip Intro: Flash Usability and Interface Design by Duncan McAlester & Michelangelo Capraro taught readers to design for users. And if that meant learning code in order to be a better designer, better artist, and a better web developer, then so be it. Some Flash users, including James Paterson, did just that. As each new version of Flash gained abilities and ultimately ActionScript, Paterson learned more and more, easing himself into coding. “It was a great way to baby-step my way into what was a scary thing for me (code in general). I feel very grateful for Flash.”
Work by James Paterson, “DAVEY JONES’ LOCKER” (2005). Designed using two Flash animations, then layered into a single After Effects composition. Paterson had become known for his Flash art and experimentation, pushing the medium in new directions.
Flash was beginning to look especially outdated and outmoded—and threatened—when Steve Jobs lambasted it, keeping it off the iPhone. To make matters worse, Flash had become a pathway for evil doers who would use it to attack your computer, as routinely reported by security experts such as Brian Krebs. As far back as 2015, Krebs removed Flash from his systems and claimed that he really didn’t miss it.
Turns out, most of us don’t miss Adobe Flash, especially if you own an iPhone, iPod, or iPad. But personally, I’ll miss Flash when it disappears completely because it changed the way we look at web design and think about the web. At the very least, Flash was the original engine that helped make YouTube work. And who does not like funny cat videos? So before we finally kick Flash to the curb, doesn’t it deserve some respect? Some credit? Who really knows? Like the opening animations and videos that Flash spawned during its glory days, we’ll have to give it some time.