The latest in Web design? Retro web sites inspired by the ’90s

TO navigate the web site for Arcade Fire’s album Everything Now, users need to click through a cluttered cascade of Windows 98-style pop-ups.

Balenciaga’s new web site looks as stripped down as a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, with plain black boxes and no-frills Arial font.

And the DIY-looking home page for Solange resembles the desktop of a candy-colored iMac, complete with QuickTime windows and rows of blue folders.

Web designs have come a long way in 20 years, but some are taking a step back to evoke a sort of hipster nostalgia for the early days of the Internet.

“They’re tipping their hat to the 1990s,” said David Lee, the chief creative officer of Squarespace, a Web platform company based in New York that has created millions of web sites for clients. Lee said he has seen a recent uptick in what he calls an “antidesign brutalism,” with clients opting for more bare-bones, retro-looking sites.

Some web sites are purposely cumbersome to navigate, with loud, clip-art-filled pages. Others employ a simplistic Craigslist-style utilitarianism that feels like a throwback to an era when Web pages were coded by hand.

“There’s a lot of animated GIFs and flames, but mixing it with something new,” Lee added.

While millennials and members of Generation Z—those born in the years from the mid-1990s to the early-2000s—may not remember what the Web looked like in the era of AltaVista and GeoCities, the retro designs tap into the current cultural revival of all things 1990s. (See the return of Twin Peaks, Will & Grace and concert T-shirts.)

For those who are older, these sites recall the improvised Internet of their youth, in the days before mobile optimization and beta-tested user interfaces brought a sleek uniformity to modern Web design.

Nostalgic web sites meant to mimic the days of dial-up modems are cropping up in artsy and tech-geek corners of the Web., a Web project by the French music and art duo Jankenpopp & Zombectro, imagines what the Microsoft operating system would have looked like had it been released. (After a two-year development delay, Microsoft instead released Windows 95.)

The site has had more than 8 million visitors. Neocities, built in 2013 by Kyle Drake, 33, a Web entrepreneur based in Palo Alto, California, is an ode to GeoCities, the early Web hosting platform. (GeoCities, started in 1994, was acquired by Yahoo! in 1999 for $3.6 billion and went defunct in the United States in 2009.) “I really hate the modern Internet,” Drake said. “My vision is to bring back making web sites as a creative thing, not just as a business thing.” More than 140,000 web sites have been created through his platform, he said.

Paul Ford, 42, an instructor of interactive design at the School of Visual Arts in New York, agrees that the Web today can feel disappointing to early adopters. “It’s almost like if your indie band went on to be not the size of U2, but a $4-trillion industry,” he said. “I think there’s a sense of, ‘How do we get back to that?’”

One way is to create a web site the old-fashioned way: by enlisting a friend who knows basic HTML. That is what Billy Silverman, 40, a restaurateur, did in the harried final days before opening Salazar, his acclaimed Sonoran barbecue restaurant in Los Angeles.

He tapped his buddy Zack McTee, who runs a small production company in New York, to slap together something quick. The two decided that, if they didn’t have the time or money to make the web site good, they would at least make it fun. The result recalls a personal web site built by a bored teenager in the days before Facebook and Myspace, with flashing Comic Sans text, dancing MC Hammer GIFs and cheesy keyboard music. A banner declaring “now with working e-mail” scrolls across the top.

Silverman said he regularly gets e-mails from customers who are confused. A common note: “‘I love your restaurant but saw your web site and think I can help you out.’”