Ah, I remember the days well… when everything was a shiny, drop-shadowed gradient, with at least 6 pieces of clip art, and a stock photo of 5 celebratory office workers. We loved pictures of keyboards with nonsensical buttons on them, and 3D-effect stick people holding glossy symbols.
And then what happened? iOS 7 came along. The gradient tool on our Photoshops started gathering dust and we deleted our massive library of stock photos.
Flat design took over in 2013. Everything needed to be bright, cartoonish, and, of course, flat. In the same way that flat design was a reaction to skeuomorphism, we’re starting to see things go another way entirely.
So, what’s the new flavor of the year? I’m pleased you asked: Sites that look like the downloads page of an open-source software company that shut down in the late ‘90s.
This has been documented by Brutalist Websites, which picked up traction and scored coverage on Washington Post and Fast Co to name a couple. But surely, these are just websites from pretentious design agencies and experimental artists? In the Brutalist Websites showcase, that’s mostly true, but we’re starting to see this aesthetic leak through to the mainstream. Nice! We can’t look at sleek flat design for the rest of our days, can we?
Personally, I love this trend. I’m not the sharpest web designer out there, and nor do I want to use a hackneyed framework — whatever I can cobble together is the best I can do.
I used to spend time scouring the internet for outdated web design, delighting in clunky Times New Roman and awkward framesets. Probably because it reminded me of a simpler time, where people called themselves webmasters and everything was permanently ‘Under Construction’.
But, seeking to learn web design from scratch instead of adopting a WP theme or CSS framework, I’ve always been too ashamed to create the simple, ugly website of my dreams. ‘What would be the point?’, I thought. Showing it off would make me look ridiculous. I can’t use it as a portfolio for anything without looking like a mess.
Looking at the selection of new minimalist sites, I noticed several key themes that seem to be rearing their beautifully ugly heads.
Monochrome design does exactly what good design should do: draws attention to the content.
No Fancy CSS
Remember the good old days? When everyone owned a website and had something to prove? The no (or little) CSS approach brings back those days, and, personally makes me extremely nostalgic for simpler times where a website could be just a short bio and collection of links.
Slanted text throws the user off a little, and not in an astonishing way. Instead, it’s something that the user isn’t used to seeing so it makes a powerful impression.
Check out the experimental text placement Loïc uses on his website. The total disregard for readability gives visitors the feeling of a high-fashion store that doesn’t have price tags. It’s so uninformative (and in this case, aloof) that it’s classy.
Little regard for scale or padding
Bloomberg’s getting pretty experimental these days, and I love it. Imagine the trials and tribulations the designer had to go through to get that approved with the big boss.
The reason this is awesome is that it’s so different. It pays little regard to hard design rules: leaving enough space between elements, keeping things at similar scale, and even making sure that everything is suitably readable on all devices.
References to legacy tech
Many of us will have fond memories of Windows 98, or early Mac operating systems. Some websites instill a sense of nostalgia—and, perhaps humor—by making references to old software. After all, a lot of brutalist web design does come from the ‘old days’.
Check out this example from Post HTML (these folders each contain experimental art).
What this means for designers
We thought that flat = simplicity, but obviously it still needed a ton of design work to get it right.
With brutalist aesthetics coming to the forefront, designers will need to rely less on traditional CSS frameworks and code sites from scratch.
However, it doesn’t seem to be businesses that are employing this trend on their sites. Brutalist design—aside from Bloomberg and some other bigger names—is, right now, confined to design agencies, experimental sites and personal blogs.
If you want to make your own brutalist website, here are a few pointers…
Strip the CSS out of your current site
While some sites rely heavily on CSS for horizontal positioning, it is possible rip all styling from some sites and still have them display ‘properly’. Here’s an example:
Cut back to monochrome
Sometimes, brutalist design means simple design. And that’s always great for the user experience. Cutting back your current color palette to just 2 colors (black and one other—white, technically), can help reduce the user’s overload and give them a clearer direction on where to go. After all, you don’t see sites with a ton of different colors in the text area because it’s hard to focus on.
Get creative with text positioning
Who said you have to have everything line up nicely? Loïc Dupasquier’s website above, for example, is a bold statement that says something about the designer. Looking exactly the same as every other potential hire isn’t a good look.
Unless you’re the most famous designer in that field, you’re always going to be second best. By shunning traditional ‘rules’ about typography, you’re standing out from the crowd.
Re-learn the basics & old ways
For me, it wasn’t a matter of adapting a design or skillset to a new mentality. I learned the basics of web design back when sites actually looked like the ones I’ve shown you, so all I had to do was take a quick refresher and get to work.
I’d recommend checking out the source code on old sites and those featured on Brutalist Websites, old HTML tutorials, or this goldmine that features a list of the earliest websites that are still alive.
Where this style works well (and where it doesn’t)
In the end, a website is always a balance between self-expression and creating the best experience for your users.
On a blog, it’s probably best to concentrate on making the body of the text easy to digest. You’ll notice that while Bloomberg’s piece on Yahoo starts out pretty weird, the main body of text is easy to read.
So, when you’re building a blog, it’s better to stick to conventions for the body of the article. For example, WIRED’s design is quite distinctive but when it comes to the articles themselves, they use a pleasant font and keep it readable.
For a designer that works mostly with stuffy corporations, an experimental portfolio might put the client off at the most vital moment—first contact.
In the end, it comes down to knowing your audience, and whether you can get away with totally ignoring conventions.
Go forth, and make something disgustingly brilliant.