If you visit UX brutalism, you’re greeted by graphics that seem straight out of a 90’s website, if not a meme about a 90’s website. Scrolling below, you’re asked to “forget everything you know about UX”, including things like usability, legibility and common sense.
UX brutalism is a parody account brought to us by the folks at the UX Design Collective, and such farce is this satirical page’s response to the trend of a web design aesthetic that’s rapidly spreading across the Internet.
Like a bull in a china shop, Brutalism is laying waste to years of finicky designers’ predilections for pretty flat design, tastefully symmetrical compositions, the design “block” and “till death do us part”-level loyalty to the grid- as seen in the popular web design trends for 2018.
THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE
In an academic paper published on the subject in design journal Dialectic, Professor Aaron Ganci argues that “because it has become fairly easy to create websites that “fit the mold and that look great,” this type of idle, sans-design-thinking approach will eventually lead to web design failures, as it coerces web designers to engage in formulaic processes that sacrifice real invention and innovation centered on meeting well-understood user and audience needs and desires.”
Is the criticism levied against brutalist web design- sloppy, ugly, pretentious, pseudo edgy- fair? Are principles laid down by Google’s Material Design and others objectively better than other design sensibilities when it comes to the modern, responsive web site that is expected to perform and adapt equally well regardless of which circa-2018 device users visit it on?
Or is there something more lasting and valuable about an art movement that is independent of technological constraints that favour the by-the-numbers formation that we’ve come to expect of our web experiences?
Such free artistic expression, as represented by Brutalism, might not sit well with the UX Design Collective but bear in mind that they also flatly call UX designers a part of Business, not Art in a new feature on UX Trends. You may or may not entirely agree with that assessment too.
BRUTALIST WEBSITES ARE USER FRIENDLY- JUST NOT TO YOU
Can catering to a target audience’s aesthetic preference be, on its own, bad design?
If you answer in the negative, you are supported by a pretty undeniable rationale for brutalist aesthetic:
“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.”
– Pascal Deville, Founder of Brutalist Websites
Brutalism represent the carefree, effortless cool of the new generation that eschews corporate “perfectness”. Think of it as the ripped jeans to the businessman’s trousers.
If Brutalist websites, commonly favored by Gen-Z, are truly what connect with that demographic (or any other of interest) aesthetically, then it’s plain bad web design AND bad business to be creating yet another blocky bootstrap-style website. In other words, there is no bad web design. There is only bad business.
If the customer wants brutalism, you serve it up with a smile. Don’t hold on to the grid, your heels dug into the ground, while the web moves in another direction.
IS THERE PRECEDENCE?
We are so well versed with mainstream interpretations of design as a neat problem solving method (which it is, of course, if not one hundred percent of it) that it’s easy to ignore that it’s also been a tool of exploration, subversion and creative problematizing- much like art. Just ask any new media artists and designers of critical and speculative experiences.
Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are well known for their critical design practice that provides users with experiences outside of functional, practical concerns. Consider their prototype for the GPS table (part of the Placebo project) that features a display that either shows its coordinates or the word ‘lost’ when its unable to connect.
What user needs does a table that shows its coordinates (or, alternatively, produces guilt trips upon declaring itself lost) fulfill?
The answer? Psychological, emotional and thoughtful needs.
They are as much the needs of Sapiens as an online store with a simple check-out process.
The brutalist website may not be the most efficient manner for delivering content or facilitating purchases but it creates a more human and liberating experience for the user who is bored of seeing the same type of website over and over again and skeptical of brands looking sparkly clean and machine-made.
Conversely, it is naive to think brutalism is truly a minor rebellion or revolution. If enough users want it and its profitable, capitalism will co-opt it as it has issues of sustainability and diversity.
THE CULTURAL VALUE OF BRUTALISM
Art movements have always influenced web design (even if a Dutch one* has had a particularly strong hold). Our minimalistic websites may have their root in visual art but architecture has also played its part. We can all credit (or blame) Bauhaus for our penchant for functionalism, for instance. Knowing our art and design history, is it any surprise that Brutalist architecture will find its renaissance on our desktop and mobile screens?
Material design, scalable and accessible interfaces, responsive experiences and all other conventions serve important functions. However, unless the web can be a fluid and free medium for creative expression for art and critical design as well, the promise of the Internet will remain unfulfilled.
As Sandijs Ruluks fantasizes in his web design timeline, the future we want to work towards is for designers to be able to freely express themselves and for technology- whether its code production or browser/device compatibility- to automatically catch up and make it possible.
Brutalist websites may not be universally lauded or functional- but they don’t have to be. They represent the kind of freedom we want designers to have and users to experience on a web that is truly limitless.
I would rather have bad design on the Internet than just one kind of design!