Anna Debenham on how web design has changed the world

As part of net magazine's 20th birthday celebrations, the front-end developer reflects on the last two decades of the web.

Anna Debenham is a freelance front-end developer based in Brighton UK. She is a technical editor for A List Apart, co-producer of 24 ways, and was net magazine's Young Developer of the Year in 2013. Last year she wrote a book about front-end style guides, and when she's not playing on them, she's busy testing the browsers in game consoles.

As part of net magazine's 20th birthday celebrations, we've been asking the great and the good for their thoughts on the last two decades in web design. Here's what Debenham had to say – and to hear from industry leaders such as Jeffrey Zeldman, Eric Meyer and John Allsopp, don't miss the special anniversary issue of net magazine, on sale now!

What were you doing 20 years ago when net magazine launched?

I was four, so probably still shoving Lego bricks up my nose. I'd just started primary school, and there was one computer shared by all the junior classes. It didn't do a lot but it was always a very special treat to be allowed to use it.

What have been the landmark changes for you over the last 20 years?

The introduction of faster mobile networks and affordable data plans has had a huge impact on the reach of the web. It's turned the web from something that was restricted to a desktop screen to something we can carry round in our pockets. It’s exciting to see how that has shaped culture, journalism and politics.

What's the best things web design has brought the world?

Independence. I can go out and not worry about getting lost, because I can bring up a map wherever I am. I can do my work from wherever I choose. I can study for a degree without setting foot in a university campus. I can even have a conversation (albeit not a very intelligable one) with someone in a language I don’t speak a word of. And when I hear people with disabilities talk about what the web has enabled for them, it’s truly incredible.

Has it all been improvements, or is there anything we've lost along the way?

Although we have faster internet speeds than 20 years ago, many networks are still pretty slow. Page weight is creeping up every year, and I think we’ve forgotten a lot of optimisation skills that are actually just as relevant today as they were then.

What do you hope the web will look like 20 years from now?

It’s so great that governments are moving a lot of what they do to the web and making their processes more open, but I’d like to see it be done in a way that more people can contribute. Sites like GitHub are great tools for contribution, but they’re restricted to technologists. Even Wikipedia is intimidating for non-techies to contribute to.

To be truly collaborative, we need to make these tools much easier to use for the general public. Maybe in 20 years time, we can use them to help draft legislation, and write curriculums that are updated by industry professionals to stay relevant over time.

We also still have a long way to go in terms of delivering internet access worldwide, and that’s a massive problem. We need to find more ways to give people that access so they’re not cut off from developing. In 20 years, I hope that everyone will have access to an internet connection.

Buy the 20th anniversary edition of net magazine today!


Tom May is a freelance writer and editor specialising in design and technology. He was previously associate editor at Creative Bloq and deputy editor at net magazine, the world’s best-selling magazine for web designers. Over two decades in journalism he’s worked for a wide range of mainstream titles including The Sun, Radio Times, NME, Heat, Company and Bella. Follow him on Twitter @tom_may.