How to marry the aesthetics of web brutalism with a site that actually works
March 29 2018

When I was fifteen I grew my hair out down to my shoulders. I'd wear it in a ponytail with flared black jeans and a Metallica tee shirt. Looking back, I'm fairly sure the only reason I did it was because I was told, time and time again, to cut it. It looked awful, but I didn't care. It wasn't about looking good. It was a statement.


Anyone who resonates with this feeling can understand the sentiment behind the web brutalism movement. As we've got better and better at designing sites to fit user expectations, user expectations have got higher and higher. As a result, anything that strays from the norm has begun to look like sub-optimal design. Websites today are all starting to look the same.


Web brutalism is fighting back against this trend. It's a design philosophy that doesn't care for how the user feels about a design, and even less about best practice. It's a bold, outrageous statement designed to frustrate the advocates of ubiquitous design principles. It's seeking to increase engagement not by being beautiful, but by being bad. 


The question is, does it work?


In a marketing context, brutalist design can definitely get your brand attention. Bloomberg Businessweek is a great example of a brand that uses brutalist principles to turn its magazine from a stuffy business weekly into a progressive talking point. However, working within a paradigm that is actively designed to repulse your audience is a tricky proposition. If you're looking to generate conversions and seriously considering brutalism as a design approach, it might be more constructive to view the school as a set of principles than an aesthetic choice.


Pierre Buttin - the award-winning French designer and brutalist forerunner - explains how brutalist principles can be used to enhance, rather than destroy the conversion prospect; 


"Straightforward brutalist elements might improve the overall experience users have of an app. UX experts like Luke Wroblewsky show again and again that, for example, the word 'Menu' in an interface generates more engagement than the hamburger icon."


Brutalism's focus on the obvious instead of the beautiful - it's reliance on typography over graphics, colour over image - can allow for a more direct path to conversion. It's a philosophy that allows the content itself, not its presentation, to shine. This can be a powerful mentality for a UX-orientated designer to adopt, and inspires a more collaborative mindset. 


Whether you like the brutalist aesthetic or not, I think we can all learn a little something from the disruptive philosophy it embodies. When everyone else is doing the 'right thing', you sometimes need to do 'the wrong thing' in order to stand out or be unique. 


Or, perhaps it's telling us something more - that 'the right thing' and 'the wrong thing' are simply constructs. In reality, the only truth in UX design is what works and what doesn't. If every audience is different, then perhaps the very meaning of best practice is built on shaky foundations.

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