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Brutalism in Design: why sometimes less isn’t more

Here’s what a brutalist website might look like.


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Malavika Doshi

3 years ago | 4 min read

Brutalism in digital design, is a movement that started quite recently as a reaction to web minimalism, it’s lightness and the sense of ‘superiority’ that it carries.

As a movement, it meant to help stray away from the almost stale, painfully similar templates that are widely used while incorporating minimalism: UIs, and otherwise.

Here’s what a brutalist website might look like.

Source : https://brutalistwebsites.com/ Website link : http://embassyofinternet.org/

Just like minimalist design, it descends from the Brutalism movement in architecture that came to be between the 50’s and 70’s as a reaction to decorative, ornamental buildings. The word Brutalism comes from the word b`eton, brut in French which means raw concrete.

Boston City Hall. Photo courtesy of Cliff via Creative Commons (artsy.net)

The buildings that came as a result of this movement were massive, solid structures that had it’s raw concrete exposed. They were meant to be honest and unpretentious structures.

It was a way to denounce the modernist sense of aesthetics that had a superior, almost ‘bourgeoise’ air to it.

As a visual style, brutalism isn’t very different in terms of boldness or how raw and stripped down it can look like or even function.

It’s loud, haphazard, and quite in your face. There’s large text, loud colours, randomly placed elements that can sometimes even overlap(!)

This description might almost hurt to visualise, but web and visual brutalism is taking off, and while your immediate reaction might be to reject it, it’s important to bring in a few relevant points to explain why it seems to work, and how it’s moving from something edgy to something mainstream and even commercially viable.

A brutalist e-commerce store. Website link https://workwork.kr/shop/new

Let’s first understand how minimalism in UIs took off and almost seamlessly made its way into branding, graphic design and even illustrations.

It is important to note that while minimalism as a movement started in the 1970s, it came to dominate UIs predominantly for other reasons. This domination also seemed to make its way into visual systems as well.

Source : https://www.theverge.com/2020/9/1/21410281/apple-google-coronavirus-exposure-notification-contact-tracing-app-system

As a style, digital minimalism is extremely dictated by the visual language that was brought in by Google and Apple. The fonts picked, colours chosen by them etc were in close coordination to the user experiences they offer in the technological world.

This coordination made sense for their apps, and was quickly picked up by multitudes of other UI/UX designers in the space. After all, for a product to succeed, it must fit into what already exists, (or does it?)

But here’s what happened as a consequence. Almost every UI and website incorporated these guidelines into designing apps and websites.

A sense of homogeneity came in, leaving limited possibilities to establish a distinct, recognizable visual identity. Nothing about a brand struck it’s viewers differently.

They all seemed clean, supposedly superior, but the same. Now, this is dangerous territory. Minimalism almost became an excuse for lack of effort that was put into designing visual systems.

In an age where a user has multitudes of information thrown at them, from numerous sources, it’s important to be able to stand out. While brutalism defies certain rules and intends to be irreverent, if applied rightly, brutalism could work wonders.

At this point, it’s important to understand what anti-design is as a concept and how it’s different from brutalism. While anti-design is often referred to as brutalism, it serves different purposes and intends to put forth different messages.

Here’s what an anti-design website might look like.

WEATHER IS HAPPENING website.

Anti-design involves deliberately designing ugly user interfaces. Having overlapping elements, colours that almost burn the eye, distracting animations, weird cursors and horribly complex pages. Anti-design pages are usually designed that way to come off ironically, and as humorous.

It’s almost like an inside joke within the design community.

Alot of designers even use it in their portfolio websites, majorly because it serves well as an inside joke.

While it works well for a joke, or even provides entertainment, implementing it beyond that will most likely not work.

A user might be stuck on your page for too long, and while that will give them time to look around your page, they won’t want to revisit it, and that’s exactly what might happen. So in an attempt to boldly capture the user, you just might lose them.

Brutalism however, when implemented along with the right principles of design, can help attain unique visual identities that also sit well with the user experience, without in fact overwhelming the user. A good UX or visual doesn’t necessarily have to be minimal or somber.

Most importantly, it shouldn’t reek of lack of effort.

Source: https://rozebunker.nl/

Essentially, as long as your key principles of design aren’t compromised and you’ve taken into consideration what the average user will perceive your piece of visual or website like, you’re good to go.

I’ll be covering how brutalism can be implemented right in a later article.

To conclude, brutalism as a design approach is here to stay. UI and even otherwise. In an age where information goes out in bounties, being distinct in your visual language is key. Brutalism can help with just that.

After all, no one dislikes a little confidence in a website.

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