Life in 64 bits: lessons in creativity from the early – and forgotten – designers of the early web

Jim Boulton, self-proclaimed digital archaeologist and Aesop Agency’s digital director, is on a mission to preserve the earliest designs of the web. At his latest exhibition at London’s Here East, he has brought together a collection of digital artworks and early websites to make visitors remember those who were vital in molding the worldwide web that we know and use today.

Taking its names from a processor type, 64 Bits features 32 “bits” of artwork and 32 websites from the early web. It showcases design work such as the first emoticons, the Dancing Baby and the symbol-painted ASCII portraits alongside the less iconic – but no less important – sites such as the first ever web page, Pizza Hut’s first transactional site and Archie, the first search engine.

Boulton said he designed 64 Bits in homage to the web designers who have dropped out of the public memory, whether that be through time, indifference or the web’s imperfect archiving structure.

“The Internet Archive Wayback Machine started archiving sites at the end of 1996 but the first website appeared in 1991,” he said. “So the first five years of the web have just not been archived or documented very well.”

“I think a lot of the entrepreneurs who exploited the web have been recognised but the creatives that helped shape it and helped create the culture largely have gone unknown.”

Boulton believes the exhibit can offer inspiration to creatives today too, in the form of the web pioneers’ approach to design.

“There were no rules in the mid-90s, there was no best practice, so you were literally defining [web design] for the first time,” he said. “As a result, a lot of the websites were a lot more experimental. There was a lot more exploration involved and [the web] felt more like a space you had to explore rather than just a way of getting to the product or information as quickly as possible.

“Usability, accessibility and best practise obviously all have their place but I think we’ve lost a little bit of the fun and the discovery element that was so important in the early days.”

Katie Deighton

Katie Deighton is The Drum’s senior reporter - creative and video based in London. She produces, films, presents and edits the title’s editorial video output, including series such as On The Scene, Ad Breakers and Why I Left Advertising, and manages its coverage of the creative sector. She also reports on the intersection between politics and marketing, as well as the third sector and fashion.

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