Is Brutalism the Future of Web Design?

08 Aug 2016

"Brutalism" is an emerging design trend that aims to disrupt the Web's predictable aesthetics—to use slap-dash, rough, almost "handmade" HTML structures to rebel against the cozy, flat, and unremarkable designs of most new websites.

Here's an example of brutalist design—a portfolio website for an artist and developer, Jacob Thompson:

Or perhaps you're more familiar with this, perhaps the grandfather of brutalist design:

So what is "brutalism," exactly?

"Brutalism" was first used to describe a trend in architecture popular in the 1960s and 70s, where buildings were "typically massive in character (even when not large), fortress-like, with a predominance of exposed concrete construction." (Wikipedia)

While most brutalist buildings appear in Europe, the trend showed up the U.S., including at the Rhode Island Community College campus, built in the early 1970s:

Brutal grey building with no color

In fact, Pascal Deville, the founding advocate of brutalist Web design, uses the language of brutalist architecture to describe this new digital version of the trend: 

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 webdesign [sic].

But brutalism is about more than the look of a website. As Pascal explained to the Washington Post:

It’s not only what you can see, it’s also how it’s built … In the code you can see if it’s really a streamlined application or it’s a very rough, handmade, HTML website.

In other words, brutalism isn't a particular set of aesthetic choices; it's a rebelling against the choices of the modern Web, where one site may be virtually indistinguishable from the next. Often, brutalism is a return to the Internet's early days, when connection speeds and technology prevented the kind of interactive, savvy designs we're used to in 2016.

Brutalism is, in essence, a big fat "No!" to sites laid out like this (courtesy novolume.co.uk):

First, the good...

As a guy who's been designing websites since 1995, I get it. I understand Pascal's desire to be different in a world of websites that are almost indistinguishable from one another. The "flat" design of so many websites can be frustrating—even boring—to creatives like me. 

Brutalism offers several great opportunities to Web designers:

Brutalism can inspire Web designers to think of new rules.

By grinding the prevailing "best practices" of Web design into dust, brutalist design shakes designers out of our comfort zones. It reminds us that the Web offers nearly infinite design options—and it's unlikely that the current popular design layouts are the pinnacle. We can do better.

Brutalism offers a new way of considering the user experience.

Web designers do much more than pick pretty colors, shapes, and fonts. We're constantly adjusting our designs to consider the user. After all, a website's primary purpose is (usually) to serve its users in specific ways. And designers who completely ignore the user experience (UX) won't get hired very often because their design, while pretty and interesting, are gimmicky and useless. 

Brutalist websites can actually be highly usable. Consider Craigslist. Its popularity has to do with its usability, not its gorgeous and engaging visual choices. 

Brutalist design can entice users to explore the unknown.

On the other hand, some brutalist websites are so ... mysterious ... that it's not clear what, exactly, the user can do. Is that clickable? Do I scroll here? And for some users, this mystery spurs investigation, pulling the user deeper into the site until they're rewarded with a clear explanation of what the heck is going on. The sheer novelty of brutalist websites—which exist in a sea of lemming sites—can be enough to achieve their goal (if there is one). 

Most organizations—at least those of a certain size or ambition—don't want their entire online identity defined by whichever WordPress or Squarespace themes are available at the time. But these organizations also have goals—social media integration, accessibility standards, mobile responsiveness, usability testing, etc. If Web designers focus on these needs, we should be willing to break a few design eggs along the way. 

Good artists know which rules to bend and which to break. 

Why brutalism will never work for most websites

As much as brutalism provokes my designer instincts, I don't think it's the solution for most organization's websites. Here's why:

Artfulness doesn't convert.

In other words, if your website has common goals—e.g., selling products or services, garnering donations or volunteers, or collecting contact info—brutalism is unlikely to be your solution. The user experience is simply too jarring. Internet users grow savvier every day, and they arrive at most websites with certain expectations. If you flaunt those expectations as brutally as brutalism does, you'll more often irritate your users than engage them. An irritated user is headed straight to your competitor's site.

Brutalism is too simple.

These days, websites simply need more tools, features, and interactions than brutalism can accommodate. They need to offer a great mobile experience, comply with internal styles or regulations, have complex interactions, and organize vast amounts of content, etc. In fact, it may be nearly impossible to even apply brutalist thinking to your website.

Trust is paramount.

Unless you're Radiohead—where your whole reason for existing is to create art—brutalism is unlikely to engender trust in your users. They may be intrigued, delighted, surprised—but they're not going to eagerly turn over their credit card number or email address. Brutalism, in its stark adherence to a seemingly amateur approach, doesn't carry much gravitas. If your goal is for users to take some particular action, brutalism is more threatening than a more modern design. 

The final word on brutalism (for now)

Take cues from brutalism, but don't throw the UX baby out with the bathwater. Be brave. Try bottom-anchored navigation or put your logo on the right side instead of the left. Mix things up ... somewhat. 

But be sure that your users' needs are your focus—and that any design muscle you decide to flex doesn't alienate them. The inherent flaw in brutalism is, more often than not, chaos. Chaos is fun to watch from a distance. But it's not where you want to live online. 

Brutalism is the anti-user experience. It's Web art, not Web design. 

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