In the words of the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, “I got another confession to make”: I don’t feel like a web designer. Although my initial title here at Workshop Digital was Web Designer (which we changed to Graphic Designer), I have basically no formal web design training.
The course wasn’t concerned with best practices for user experience, or optimizing your site for search. It was about making an interesting and compelling place to display your work, and manipulating the medium of a “website” in a unique way.
Over the past five or six months, the Workshop Digital Design team (read: me) and the Workshop Digital Development team (read: Matt) have been redesigning and rebuilding our company’s website. If this isn’t your first time visiting our site, you might have noticed the complete overhaul. I make the above confession not as a disclaimer or to excuse any flaws in our new website, but to give some context to my interest in the topic of this post—a trend in web design called Web Brutalism, or Brutalist Web Design.
When we started redesigning our website, I paid more attention to which websites I enjoyed, and why. I noticed a commonality in websites that I enjoyed, specifically portfolio sites of artists, designers, and animators that included:
- bold, harsh lines and colors
- bizarre reactions to mouse activity
- references to web trends of the early 1990s
- and a general lack of concern for usability in favor of uniqueness.
I’ve always been enamored with this kind of site but didn’t know it had a classification until I discovered Pascal Deville’s BrutalistWebsites.com, which listed my friend Joe Letchford’s portfolio as a featured site.
Deville’s “Brutalist Web Manifesto” says the following about Brutalist Web Design: “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.”
The term Web Brutalism is in reference to the Brutalist architecture movement that surfaced in the mid-twentieth century as a “quick, economical solution to the urban destruction wrought by World War II.” The phrase derives from the French béton brut, or “raw concrete,” due to the movement’s use of concrete as primary material. These buildings featured harsh, rugged lines and stark, cold forms that are unconcerned with blending into the architectural styles of neighboring structures.
Much in the same way, today’s Brutalist Web is unconcerned with UI/UX trends and best practices. As Brutalist architecture moved to supplant architectural norms of the mid-twentieth century, Brutalist websites react against the homogenization of web practices through things like Google’s Material Design principles.
In a blog post on Equator, Euan Leopold sees this standardization as negative, arguing that “the Internet is becoming an increasingly homogenised space. Bland and inoffensive. The Internet is Coldplay.”
which one of the two possible websites are you currently designing? pic.twitter.com/ZD0uRGTqqm
— Jon Gold (@jongold) February 2, 2016
While I agree that websites are becoming more and more homogenized, I don’t see that as inherently negative. Layouts like those mentioned in the tweet above have proven to work well and give site users a positive experience. Most websites exist to serve a function—to get a user to click, call, buy, or read, not to make a grand reactionary statement about the state of web design as art.
But this is exactly why I find Brutalist websites so fascinating–their relationship to Leopold’s Coldplay web. In the same way Hans Richter believed the Dadaist movement was “anti-art,” Brutalist websites are “anti-sites.”
In an interview on Brutalist Websites, Ryan Honeyball of Henn+Honeyball spoke about designing the site of Johannesburg architecture firm Counterspace. They wanted to create a user-friendly web experience for potential clients but also to “avoid the usual slick, glossy websites that dominate the corporate world, the kind of websites that are gentrifying the web.” Honeyball also notes the “similarities between planning a building and planning a website, how you have to anticipate movement from one space or page to the next.”
I find these sites endlessly fascinating and exciting, but they don’t work for everyone. Workshop Digital shouldn’t have a Brutalist website, and I don’t think any of our clients should either. I’m not advocating for a universally Brutal Web. Besides, once the rejection of trends becomes the new normal, the cycle begins again.