Most designers promote the ability to create websites that wow and bring your brand to life beautifully. But there is a groundswell of ugly web design that is pushing the boundaries of what is considered worthy design.
Brutalism — a term borrowed from architecture — is a design movement that’s capturing the attention of creatives around the world. It describes websites that are counter-culture and push back on today’s standard notion of beautiful, optimized, and user-friendly websites to create something that’s rougher, more basic — and at the same time more difficult to navigate.
As MilesHerndon designer Ryan Pickard says, “We’re seeing people experiment in ways that don’t adhere to specific sets of boundaries or limitations. In brutalist work, there’s a certain level of satisfaction in creating something that’s initially inaccessible, in challenging people’s preconceived notions of what makes up ‘good design,’ and even making them feel uncomfortable.”
We talked with brutalist designers and experts to learn more about the movement and to discover how designers are putting these concepts to work in their creative process.
One of the first people to codify brutalist web design was Pascal Deville. Pascal is creative director and partner at the Swiss design firm Freundliche Grüsse GmbH and founder of Brutalist Websites. With a combined background in design and architecture, Pascal saw the undercurrents of a web design movement that echoed the brutalist architectural style.
“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,” says Pascal.
Brutalist Websites share a wide sampling of web pages designed in this style as well as interviews with some of the designers. A few of Pascal’s favorite brutalist sites include Very Interactive and Sebastianlyserena.dk.
Pascal suggests that the designers driving the movement often possess a trifecta of abilities: strong technical skills, great design sense, and a passion to push back against prevailing design. Yet, beyond that, the motivations and cultural influences vary.
“Many explain it as a kind of a minimalist movement. They want to get rid of all the creative elements and stuff you can add to a website today. Some of them are coming from a cultural background where stuff that’s not beautiful is also a style — like punk music or hardcore music where things are very rough,” says Deville.
Ryan suggests that in some cases brutalist design is born of fatigue with websites that look too much alike. “Beautiful design has plateaued in a lot of ways, so you’re seeing a revolt against that. When you hop on Behance, or when you look through some of the top agency and studio sites, you see how everything more or less blends together, how everyone is emulating each other’s approach to making icons, logos, and illustrations, and it’s hard to not feel fatigue from that,” says Ryan.
Pascal suggests it also may be a reactive push against the further homogenization of sites thanks to the explosion of focus on UX and UI design. “UX design is not a style; it’s not a shape; it’s not a color. Yet, I think today, if you look at UX design blogs or portfolios, it actually has become a style that is very dominated by how Google and Apple do stuff. It’s very limited and this has spread all over web design. This is maybe one reason why lots of websites look exactly the same today.” Designers exploring brutalism are creating websites that take an alternative approach to design and UX.
The Future Brutalism
For designer Max Robinson of AIMS Media in the United Kingdom, brutalism is all about gaining recognition for web design as a creative discipline that has value beyond its marketing applications. “They’re trying to show that web design is ultimately art, and that it can be just as powerful as any other form of art. I think we’ve seen attitudes change recently towards things like graffiti and tattoos, both of which are now considered art. Web design will hopefully follow that path,” says Max.
How can designers who are interested in learning more about the ugly web design movement experiment with brutalism in their own work? Each of the designers we interviewed point out that it’s important to have a knowledge of the rules you’re going to break — you need to understand what you are fighting against.
Josh Miles of MilesHerndon notes that context of the movement is critical for younger designers who want to wield it with any power. “If you’re interested in understanding the roots of the brutalist movement, check out the 99 Percent Invisible podcast episode Hard to Love a Brute,” suggests Josh.
Standard design isn’t going anywhere. However, brutalist websites represent a small corner of web design and creative culture that’s challenging our notion of what’s ‘best.’ And it’s catching on: there are brutalist-themed web design templates and campaign microsites, and agencies have reported clients asking for these designs.
Ryan summarizes, “We’re seeing movements that are inspired by disenchantment, by a need to be challenged, and by a desire to see and feel something new that cuts against the grain with a rusty edge.”
For designers, brutalism is an invitation to explore what’s possible in the realm of web design — whether it’s based on a desire to challenge, to explore artistic limitations, or a simple wish to create something outside the boundaries of today’s accepted web designs.