Can web design really learn from brutalist architecture?

As a web designer with an interest in brutalist architecture, I was fascinated to read an article by Justin Reynolds about what web designers can learn from brutalism.

Brutalism is, to say the least, a divisive style of architecture. Critics decry the “concrete monstrosities” and argue the buildings are difficult for people to relate to. It is true that many utopian brutliast projects simply did not work as intended.

Novi Beograd - West Gate 02

In a recent documentary, Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness, Jonathan Meades made a strong defence of the style. He celebrated the forms of brutalism:

Inverted pyramids, allusive shapes, reckless cantilevers, toppling ziggurats, vertiginous theatre, imitations of pyrites, the defiance of gravity: always a sign that a demigod is at work. The architectural imagination was flying.

You might not like all of brutalism. It might not be safe and cosy. Jonathan Meades appears to argue that to say so misses the point. Why shouldn’t architecture challenge? Why must it be insipid?

The difficulty with that argument is that designers cannot just have free rein to do whatever they please. A design has to carry out a function. The architect’s job is to design a building, which has a certain purpose. And while you might not want it to be boring as such, it cannot be too challenging either.

An artwork can be challenging because your exposure to it is limited; you can always put away an ugly sculpture or a depressing painting when you’re finished with it. A building has to be lived in, slept in, worked in.

I am fascinated by brutalism, but you could argue that the style sometimes failed to rein itself in when it had to. As such, brutalism brought the backlash on itself to some extent.

Web anti-design

In this regard, the idea that web design could learn something from brutalist architecture might be a surprise. In web design, you cannot afford to irritate the user in the slightest. When people have access to everything on the internet all the time, they do not hesitate in leaving if they have a suboptimal experience.

For this reason, I sometimes think of myself as an anti-designer. I would rather remove something from a webpage than add to it. Every extra element on a web design risks increasing cognitive load, so everything needs to strongly justify its presence on the page.

I sometimes even wonder if webpages should not be designed at all, at least visually. Since users are strongly task-focused and information-driven, why would we necessarily expect them to tolerate having to learn different designs for different websites?

The web designer’s job, more than anything else, is to structure information. If we use semantic markup correctly, the visual side of things could be handled exclusively by the browser, or perhaps by the use of third-party style sheets that users could select and install for use across all websites. This is perhaps the dream of the semantic web.

But is that feasible or even desirable? In a brand-conscious world, the answer is probably no.

In the end, different websites have to look different for the same reason different buildings have to look different. If you find yourself plonked in the middle of a Barratt estate, you could find yourself worn down by the monotony.

That might be the argument for adding a bit of brutalist spice to a residential area. But what would a brutalist approach to web design consist of, and would it be desirable?

London MMB M3 University of London Institute of Education

The five principles of brutalist web design

Justin Reynold’s article lists five principles of a potential “brutalist web design manifesto”. Here I summarise and respond to them.

  1. Celebrate the new

    Web design should celebrate the new, the original, the transgressive. Each project should be considered an opportunity to break new ground, to transcend what has gone before. We should seek originality as a matter of moral urgency, as a means to moving design forward into new aesthetic territories.

    Originality is to be championed, of course. But go too far and you will upset the user. In the end, standard layouts work well because users are used to them. If we were to move the search box from the standard location at the top right and display it on its side at the left, it would be original. But the true moral urgency would soon make itself felt — for the sake of our users’ sanity, we would have to put the search box back where users expect it to be.

  2. Be subjective

    Design should be unashamed in its pursuit of subjective expression, for the realisation of the singular vision of the designer.

    For me, a good designer cannot allow their ego to get in the way. This is perhaps a great failing of brutalism as well. The best design should meet the user’s needs. After all, the designer is not the one that has to use the website. To seek “the realisation of the singular vision of the designer” risks leaving the user out of the loop, and the design would likely fail.

  3. Celebrate intuition

    …there should less concern with user research, personas, and audience expectation. Designers should seek to overwhelm, to shock, to challenge, break and reset expectations.

    There is something in this. You can talk about the designers of the earliest cars eschewing people’s desire for a faster horse.

    I am not always keen on asking people what they want. Economists talk about expressed preferences being different to revealed preferences. In other words, what people say they would do is often not what they would actually do.

    However, web designers are lucky to have their hands on analytics data that tells us so much about what our actual users are doing. Not many fields can have access to this sort of information, and we would be foolish were we not to use it.

  4. Seek impact

    Web design should seek impact, prioritise sublimity over ordered beauty.

    Not much to argue with here.

  5. Organic unity

    Each new design should have its own visual grammar: sites should never be constructed from a patchwork of pre-fabricated elements.

    That’s a nice idea, but there is something rather practical in using a library such as jQuery, or even a framework like Bootstrap.

There are some interesting ideas here. But as Justin Reynolds later notes:

…a Brutalist web, like a Brutalist city, would be a somewhat exhausting place. How would one navigate an environment in which every building clamours for attention, seeks to proclaim its absolute difference from its neighbours, its own unique genius?

The core mantra of the web designer should be “don’t make me think“. Everything we do has to be as simple as possible, or the user will go elsewhere. Brutalism has an appeal, but simplicity is not it.

What lessons we can take

However, the idea of brutalist web design provides a lot of food for thought. Is web design in danger of becoming too safe and too samey? When it’s so easy to put together a website using Bootstrap, are we building the web equivalent of cheap prefabs?

What does brutalism have to say about the debate surrounding flat versus skeumorphic design? If we go too flat with our web designs, will we be replicating the international style that brutalism reacted against, and criticised by some as being too sterile?

The idea of web design taking inspiration from brutalism is appealing. But we should also heed the lessons from its failure to attain public approval. People reacted against brutalist architecture because they found themselves having to use buildings that didn’t quite suit their needs.

A brutalist web design could meet an even worse fate. If a web design doesn’t meet a user’s needs, the user won’t even have to use it — they will just desert it completely.

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