How I Stumbled into Design

Won J. You
7 min readOct 26, 2019

I remember the first time that I experienced the Internet in all its glory back in ’95.

It was a magical place where I could download all the Simpsons’ soundbites I could ever want and dive deeper into new passions I discovered at college like anime and real-time strategy games like Command and Conquer and Warcraft. I found myself lost in the vastness of the early web for hours.

My introduction to the World Wide Web came during my freshman year at college. As luck would have it, I was fortunate enough to be a student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), which happened to be the birthplace of the modern web browser. It might be hard to imagine, but in the early days, the primary way to navigate the web was through a terminal on systems like Unix. One such popular program was Lynx, and as you can probably guess, that was a bit of cumbersome experience.

A screenshot of the way Lynx looks.

It wasn’t until Marc Andreessen introduced the world to Mosaic at UIUC that people had a more intuitive way to experience the web. It cannot be overemphasized how transformative that really was.

Mosaic supported inline images and would later give birth to Netscape, which became the primary way for many people to navigate the web. I was lucky in that because Mosaic was born at UIUC, I was able to skip the doldrums of having to go through a text interface and move right into seeing it through a visual UI. If the web browser hadn’t been graphical, I don’t think I would have fallen in love as much as I did, because that’s really what changed the trajectory of my life.

Early Academic Career

Much like countless other Asian kids before me, I was strong-armed into majoring in STEM at college. My mother, in particular, wanted me to go into engineering, because it would provide an economically stable future. You can’t really blame them for wanting that, because they didn’t have the opportunity to even graduate from high school. They spent their entire lives working to earn a living, and so as immigrants, their entire hopes and dreams were for my sister and me to be financially successful.

Photo of the UIUC quad

To placate my parents, I chose to begin my collegiate career by majoring in general engineering at UIUC, both because the school was in-state and because it was known to have a strong engineering program. And yes, “general engineering” (GE) was a major at the University of Illinois. I don’t know if they still offer it, but I didn’t know which field of engineering like electrical or civil to focus on, so I chose GE because it would introduce me to all of them. However, secretly, I really wanted to be a History major instead. But as luck would have it, being at UIUC ended up giving me the right environment and opportunity to experience the wonders of the Internet.

Screenshot of the movie website for Space Jam.

1995 was the year of Windows 95 and dial-up modems. It wasn’t just that I was able to crawl through the web via a GUI that was transformational. It was also the fact that I was on a blazingly fast Internet connection, a T1 ethernet. Outside of college campuses, the main way that people got onto the Internet was through providers like AOL on a dial-up modem, which was at best 14.4 kbit/s. Just thinking of that dial-up sound makes me cringe. It was that painful and slow.

The classic sound of a dial-up modem.

The Beginning

It wasn’t long after visiting my first website that I started wanting to make a website for myself. Plenty of people were setting up personal homepages, and I thought it would be fun to have one of my own, so I taught myself HTML.

An image from Unsplash of HTML source code.

It might be hard for someone to appreciate this now, but back in ‘95 there were no classes or degrees for learning how to build a website. There were no new media design programs, no web design courses. There were only a couple of books at the time, and apart from that, you really had to learn by playing around and teaching yourself. Thankfully, you could look under the hood of people’s websites via their HTML source and see how they made things, but creating graphics and making layouts was a different story altogether. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was design. And this was where my career took a left turn.

One of the early books on designing for the web by Lynda.

More and more, I found myself spending all of my time building my personal websites instead of paying attention to my Engineering courses. I was so transfixed by all of the experimentation and growth that was occurring online that I felt myself becoming addicted to it. One such example was the rise of diarists who used their websites to tell personal stories in an interactive way.

This is a screenshot from archive.org of kia.net/maggy

I was particularly inspired by the websites of Magdalena Donea and Derek Powazek, who opened my eyes to the potential of the web as a medium for storytelling and personal expression. I always had a passion for poetry and literature, and their works really struck a chord with me. They were so prolific and intimate with their stories that it motivated me to be the same. I looked for ways to showcase my passions online just to have a venue to try out a new design idea.

Archive of powezek.com

Becoming a designer

Screenshots of my early personal websites.

Soon, I started becoming more adventurous with my layouts and introducing interactivity with Javascript effects, DHTML, and Java applets. It’s funny to say this now, but in those days, there was no bifurcation of roles like designer versus developer. You just had to do everything yourself, because you were the “webmaster”. I started teaching myself design, but honestly, it was a long journey. Photoshop was incredibly difficult to use as a beginner, especially in those days when Photoshop had just introduced their Layers feature. I really had to work backwards and reverse engineer the fundamentals of good design.

The first incarnation of a website that has stayed with me for over 19 years.

After eventually graduating from college with my degree in Math, my first job was at a B2B start-up called InsureTrade during the heyday of the first dot com boom. It was at this job that I learned how to use Flash and saw the power of motion to enhance the feeling and mood of a website.

Some of my early professional design work.

After the summer of 2000, I left the madness of the dot com boom to attend grad school for Computer Science at UCLA, but despite that detour, I found myself returning to design over after my graduation. The web was my first professional love, and as the web has continued to evolve over the last couple of decades, I found myself growing alongside of it.

Many people see my skills as that of a unicorn, because of my ability to do research, design, prototype, and code, but honestly, it’s just because I’ve had a long time to acquire all of those skills. I’ve been doing design now for over 20 years and it’s a love affair that has stayed with me to this day.

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Won J. You

I’m an over-caffeinated designer, information junkie, gamer, and educator.