The “404 Not Found” error message has been befuddling visitors to broken links and web pages since the inception of the Internet. 404 dates back to the 1980s, when Tim Berners-Lee began creating the HTML protocol, using the error message to indicate that a file in the database couldn’t be found.
As the web grew in popularity, so too did lore around the 404 code’s origins. The most common legend has it that the code was named after room 404 at CERN, which housed the servers that would eventually become the World Wide Web. Wired says the real history is more mundane: the error code was randomly assigned, “according to the whims of the programmer”.
Regardless of its origins, the 404 page has evolved and developed into a creative space for designers to show off their chops and their sense of humor. Here are some of the best instances of websites putting a personal spin on the classic, whether they approached the issue with macabre humor or silly self-effacement. These are a few ways to do it:
The Andy Warhol Museum in Warhol’s hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has a 24-hour 7-day-a-week livestream of Warhol’s grave site as their 404 page. It’s just one piece of a collaborative project, entitled Figment, between the museum, EarthCam, and the St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church, which came together to create a series of interactive “cradle-to-grave experiences” of Warhol. The camera also captures Julia and Andrej Warhola, his parents, right next to him.
The Natural History Museum in London takes their 404 as an opportunity to show off a very important piece of their collection: a Stegosaurus named Sophie, the world’s most complete skeleton of this Jurassic-era herbivore. In case the image alone wasn’t a tip-off, the error page indulges in some requisite punning: “Sorry, that’s a dead link (404): That page may have evolved or become extinct,” reads the copy on the error page. Since 2013, you can see Sophie in real life in the Earth Hall.
Gymbox, London’s trendy fitness emporium, has an error page that indulges in the internet tradition of John Travolta memes. The GIF-able clip portrays Travolta hypnotically gyrating in aerobic-wear. If you’re interested in seeing more, the clip comes from the 1985 flick Perfect in which Travolta plays a journalist writing a story on LA fitness clubs, falling for his instructor (Jamie Lee Curtis) in the process.
The Democratic candidates are in a race not just for the presidency, but also to see whose error page can cause the greatest stir. Senator Warren’s 404 strikes with a one-two punch, featuring an Obi-Wan Kenobi reference—“This is not the page you are looking for”—followed by an SNL clip of Kate McKinnon as Warren on Weekend Update.
The Android website rewards your poor typing skills by letting you play an adorable maze game of donuts, marshmallows, and jelly beans. Just rotate the glass pipes to make sure the treats end up in the pipe of a corresponding color—and not on the ground. Once you get over 400 points, the game turns into a big party, replete with a disco ball:
The film studio does on its 404 what it does best: show us movies. 20th Century Fox has a rotating error page, featuring clips from the studio’s films like Napoleon Dynamite, Young Frankenstein, and Revenge of the Nerds. “What you’re looking for might have been moved,” reads one page, “unless you’re looking for Office Space.” The greatest irony is that you should be able to click the text and then be sent to a page where you can buy a copy of the movie, but for some reason that service is down, so you just end up at a blank error page.
NPR’s 404 is sneakily a homepage for radio pieces on other lost mysteries of the universe, and trips gone awry. There’s a story on the discovery of what archaeologists think is Amelia Earhart’s shoe, a piece on the continuing hunt for Atlantis, and a first-person account of what to do when you’ve lost your luggage.
Flaunt Your Design
For Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, it’s all about the typography—even the error page. The typeface was designed by Chester Jenkins, who runs the foundry Constellation (formerly the Village), and has been in use by the museum since their 2014 redesign by Eddie Opara of Pentagram. The best part: the font is free, and available for download on the 404 page itself.
Figma, the cloud-based tool for designing interfaces, lets you create your own 404—and test out their capabilities at the same time. The 404 is made of vectors that you can move around to your heart’s content, reshaping the numbers until they’re barely discernible.
The Italian photographer and graphic designer Matteo Vandelli brings his keen aesthetic sense to a captivating interactive 404. The simple blue 404 in the center of the white page responds to a hovering mouse as if they were repelled by it, like oil and water. And the more quickly you move your mouse across the numbers, the more wild and fleeting the response.