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15 Years Ago in ALA: Much Ado About 5K

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15 years ago this month, a plucky ALA staffer wrote “Much Ado About 5K,” an article on a contest created by Stewart Butterfield that challenged web designers and developers to build a complete website using less than five kilobytes of images and code. Hundreds did, and their work far exceeded what any web professional could have reasonably expected:

Halfway through the judging, we hated this contest. Not because the work was bad. But because so much of it was so very, very good. Arguably, more great work was submitted to this contest than to many of this year’s big-time awards shows. It was nearly impossible to pick a clear winner from among so many instances of sheer creative excellence.

And we couldn’t help feeling unworthy, as one artist after another did more with their 5K than we typically pull off with 50.

Having learned once again the importance of constraint and the empowering creative influence it can have on design, our community high-fived itself…and promptly forgot everything it had learned as we started building heavier and heavier sites.

Soon, driven by fear that apps would make the web irrelevant, we began relying on frameworks that made even the simplest website act and feel like a mind-blowing application. Serving reams of code we didn’t need because, hell, it came with the frameworks, and abandoning principles like progressive enhancement because, hell, everybody uses JavaScript, we soon fell in love with high-resolution, full-screen background images, then fell even harder when those images quadrupled in weight thanks to Retina.

And still the little article memorializing the little 5K contest sat online, its lessons forgotten in an arms race wherein the average home page now weighs over 2MB. Put that in your Edge network and smoke it.

Ah, but what goes around (performance) comes around (performance). Beginning in 2013, conversations about responsive web design “shifted from issues of layout to performance” as leading web designers and data sifters came to realize that, even on speed and bandwidth-limited networks, users expected sites to render as fast on phones as they do on the desktop—if not faster. That if your site didn’t render as quickly as users expect, they would abandon it, perhaps forever. That a traditional, desktop-first approach to responsive web design guaranteed user disappointment and site abandonment; that, performance-and-bandwidth-wise, at least, a “mobile first” approach made far more sense—and not just for mobile users. That you could no longer give high design marks to a site (however innovative, however visually arresting) if it took forever to load over constrained mobile networks. Because performance was part of design, and always had been.

As one group of web makers embraces performance budgets and the eternal principles of progressive enhancement, while another (the majority) worships at the altar of bigger, fatter, slower, the 5K contest reminds us that a byte saved is a follower earned.

For more on performance:

9 Reader Comments

  1. That’s why the advent of mobile has been a breath of fresh air in Web development. The renewed importance of site performance and file size emphasizes the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript skills of a front-end developer who has the ability to write custom code. Slapping together a bunch of jQuery plugins into a generic framework is not real Web development, despite what many clients believe.

    But, my goodness, does this bring back memories. Working with a friend who was a Web designer, we spent many hours trying to create something worthy of entry into the 5K contest. We didn’t win, but we were one of the finalists, I believe. And it still works: Pixel Doodle 5120.

  2. I’m surprised that there weren’t any elegant typographic entries in the winners list… was that not a thing yet?

    And +1 to Giel, I’d like to see a new 5k contest as well.

  3. The 5k contest was originally to design a single webpage in under 5k, but at the time web designers like myself took it to the extreme and decided to try and create an entire, self-contained website in under 5k. My entry (Seven Wonders – https://web.archive.org/web/20050216072822/http://www.the5k.org/description.asp/entry_id=409) didn’t win or make the finalists, but that was the best time of the early web, where nothing was impossible and innovation in web design was the norm.

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