Brutalist web design: back to basics

Is web design becoming too complex for its own good?

Source: David Bryant Copeland, November 6, 2018,

(Update 29 July 2019: The website referred to below is dead. Meanwhile, here’s another excellent example of [extreme] digital brutalism:

Is web design getting out of hand?

As web technology evolves, it’s easier and easier to introduce new web design elements to websites; all types of scrolling, animation, diagonals, fonts… And the more that can be done, the more websites become a cornucopia of visual effects.

Yeah, sure, some of them are pretty good. But sometimes I feel we’ve come full circle to the horrendous websites – packed with all-flashing, all-jumping gifs – of the mid 1990s.

And I look back with nostalgia to the pared-down, basic designs of the world’s first websites.

Apparently I’m not the only one. Several trend-spotters are predicting that 2019 will see the increasing popularity of so-called ‘brutalist web design‘. Derived from ‘brutalist architecture’, the term comes from the French ‘brut’ meaning ‘raw’, as in raw concrete; béton brut.

[content_box box_type=”normal”]The term brutalism in relation to architecture goes back to the 1940s, a descendant of the modernist architectural movement. By the 1980s, the original concrete buildings in the brutalist style were starting to decay and crumble, and interest in the style declined. The past few years have seen a renewed interest in the stark, graphic beauty and clean lines of brutalist architecture.[/content_box]

Brutalist web design is inspired by brutalist architecture, embracing the fundamentals of UX: usability, legibility, common sense. Its expression is stark, pared down and minimalist.

What’s not to love?

That said, although I love the idea, I don’t love all the expressions of it currently online. It’s early days for this trend, and it may be no more than a 9-day wonder. Meanwhile, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago has one of the best brutalist websites I’ve found. Simple, easy, clear.

Brutalist web design – How to do it

For UX principles for creating a brutalist website, look no further than here: UXbrutalism (itself a wonderful example: update – this website no longer exists) defines a framework for brutalist design.

It outlines (very simply) wireframes, user journeys, user personas, etc. I particularly like the brutalist user story:

… and brutalist user testing:

Should you redesign your website as a brutalist site?

Well, maybe it’s not for everyone. However, brutalism is a healthy, necessary reminder of WHY we make websites in the first place: so that users can visit them and see them. NOT to win design awards. So that users can find information, not be impressed by your fine esthetic sensibility.

Start with the communication basics and build from there.

So, how should I design my website?

First of all, NEVER, EVER, EVER, start with this question. Your website design should be decided on based on your communication strategy; it is not a starting point, but a result. It depends on your communication objectives, your target audiences, your brand positioning, your competitor positioning, your key messages, …To come back to what David Bryant Copeland said:

“apply styling only to solve a specific problem.”

I’ll be writing more about communication strategies – and how they apply to website design – soon. Watch this space!

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