Brutalist websites teach designers a brutal lesson

4 min read
Rebecca Huval
  •  May 30, 2018
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Cling to your outdated style for long enough, and eventually it’ll make a comeback. The 80s are reappearing in our bell sleeves, and the UX stylings of that most maligned website—Craigslist—are now en vogue.

Where designers were once poking fun of the classified site for its uber-basic design that never evolved, now they’re repurposing its aesthetics in sites as big as Bloomberg and Balenciaga.

Brutalist websites, as they’re called, first started popping up in 2014, according to Pascal Deville, Creative Director of Switzerland’s creative agency Freundliche Grüsse. So he made shortly thereafter to house examples of its growing popularity.

The site’s manifesto: “In its ruggedness and lack of concern to look comfortable or easy, Brutalism can be seen as a reaction by a younger generation to the lightness, optimism, and frivolity of today’s web design.”

Of course, brutalism in web design gets its name from the architectural movement in post-World War II that reacted to overdesigned, highly decorational styles. Often made from pure and honest concrete, brutalist buildings were low-budget and anti-bourgeois monoliths that owned up to their raw forms. They’ve been out of style in architecture for a while, too, despite the skilled craftsmanship required to mold such large blocks of cement.

Brutalism in web design shares plenty in common with the architectural movement. It’s marked by in-your-face straightforwardness and what you might call raw typography—large, bold, basic. Flatter than flat design, it has an almost a punk sensibility, with 2D elements and a what-you-see-is-what-you-get layout. Some of the sites look like they took an hour to build.

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That’s what inspired Fabricio Teixeira and Caio Braga to take a jab at the movement in their sarcastic website “First, I want to make sure it’s clear that ‘UX Brutalism’ is a made-up thing, a term that I came up with to poke fun at a design trend I was seeing in certain websites,” Teixeira explains to me.

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On his site, he outlines a “Brutalist UX Framework™” that shows a circle of arrows from a box that says “idea” to a box that says “execution.” As in, there are no steps in between the inspiration and the web design—just throw it up there without thinking! “Forget seamless experiences,” he writes beneath the diagram. “The Brutalist UX Framework™ creates rough edge moments that will make your users love you. A new type of experience based on neglect, and on user affinity caused by brutality.”

Ouch. Harsh words for any designers who were hoping to take UX Brutalism seriously. Teixeira says that, at first, many readers did.

“Launching a satire project like UX Brutalism was also a good reminder for us of how the internet is terrible at sarcasm,” he says. “We’ve seen people share our site honestly thinking that the framework was real, and sharing it as if they had just discovered the next big trend in design.”

However, brutalism in web design—at the visual, surface layer—is a real thing. Teixeira just wanted to see what it would look like if it were applied to a design process and a philosophy of the user experience.

“It’s a silly idea, but our goal was to invite some reflection,” he says. “UX design as a discipline is solely focused on ensuring people’s experience with a product is as seamless as possible, and the visual aspects of Brutalism—lack of clear hierarchy, disregard of reading order, etc.—go directly against that.”

With the user experience being held as the highest goal above all else, designers have clung to new dogmas, whether it’s flat design or Material Design or the navigational flow of Squarespace templates. Users everywhere have become accustomed to having it their way. They’re greeted by squeaky clean and welcoming graphics and the same hamburger menus, to the point where designers cling to the same visual language not because it establishes a brand or makes the most sense, but rather because it helps users get where they’re going. It’s simply what they’re used to.

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The style of brutalist websites can be viewed as a reaction to the polished, friendly, and shiny aesthetic you can find on so many design and tech industry websites. Teixeira explains, “The irony is: You mostly see brutalism in websites designed for designers. The aesthetic is becoming increasingly common in design studio websites, design portfolios, and websites for niche design events. It’s not because designers are lazy or anything; it’s more like an inside joke.”

Brutalism, then, is an arena where designers can loosen their ties and go wild, tossing out the flat design rulebooks as they speed away on a convertible fueled by edgy typography, black-and-white palettes, and nonsensical hierarchies.

“I think web brutalism was kind of a relief for some designers,” Deville says.

But it’s also making its way into corporate consumer-facing websites. The Dropbox redesign is one recent example that selectively chooses from the brutalism lookbook, mainly in the airy ease of its wireframes. Granted, that may be because the company is trying to speak directly to designers and get in on the in-joke, Teixeira says.

Bottom line: Like its style or not, brutalism is teaching designers something valuable.

“The best way of making a brand stand out might be to deliver—gasp!—a user experience where the seams are revealed.”

Writing in the blog of Portuguese design company Imaginary Cloud, Maria Grilo notes, “What these brands are taking from web-brutalism—and truly, we should all be learning something here—is that user-centered design doesn’t need to be monopolized by the same colors, same buttons, same photography and even same copy you see in pretty much every single website or product.”

There are other styles and typefaces and visual languages that can add up to a seamless user experience. Even beyond that, the best way of making a brand stand out might be to deliver—gasp!—a user experience where the seams are revealed.

What better way to look different from the norm, to establish a personality, than to teach an exciting, new way of doing things?

So brutalism as a style might not stick around forever, but hopefully its lessons will.

“I don’t think that the visual appearance will last, but the thinking behind it will,” Deville says. “At its core, web brutalism shows the true nature of web design: Code made visible.”

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