About: Justin McDowell


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Redefining Web Brutalism

About this time last year, a buzz formed around a gallery website that featured unconventional website designs that bucked the trend of slick, UI-centric layouts common around the web today. The gallery, Brutalist Websites, features screenshots of websites with a “ruggedness and lack of concern to look comfortable or easy.” Hype around the trend seems to have peaked around the publication of a Washington Post article—currently featured at the top of the gallery—but has largely fallen off the popular radar since then.

A screenshot of a selection from Brutalist Websites.
A selection from Brutalist Websites.

I’ve written and spoken a bit about drawing connections between art and the web before, and so may come as no surprise that I also harbor a few thoughts on this subject. As we near the first anniversary of that Washington Post article, I’d like to contribute my own ideas on this movement, how it does or does not relate back to architectural brutalism, and how it could become a more coherent movement (if it’s not already too late).

Ugly is Not the Goal

“The hottest trend in Web design is making intentionally ugly, difficult sites”—that’s the headline from The Washington Post’s The Intersect, a blog that examines internet culture. The article begins bluntly; “There’s an interesting trend in web design these days: Making websites that look, well… bad.” This introduction to the trend misses the mark.

In this day and age, it’s probably not a surprising conclusion that the article’s headline is disingenuous: that the hot trend is to intentionally make websites that look “bad” or “ugly”. Inflammatory headlines make for good clickbait, after all. But if the main point is to paint web brutalism with an “ugly” brush, it does a disservice to the philosophy of the architectural movement. Brutalist buildings have less in common with brutality (savagery and violence) than they do with raw concrete (in the original French, béton brut).

Contrary, even, to Brutalist Websites, brutalism is not merely an aesthetic that set out to be rugged, uncomfortable, or uneasy as is dictated in the gallery’s description. If roughness and discomfort are truly the name of the game, why not call it grunge, which design-wise, these sites have more in common with? This ’90s trend was intentionally dirty and chaotic and one that graphic designer Steven Heller famously called the “the cult of ugly.” Furthermore, these sites owe their basic nature to the ’90s DIY web spurred on by hosts like Geocities and Angelfire. But I’ll get more into that in a bit.

There are many reasons why web designers chose to go the route of brutalism (whether or not they were even aware of the style). You can see this in the brief interviews attached to many of the works on Brutalist Websites. Here are a few:

  • Fictive Kin: “Simplicity is our jam.”
  • Malte Müller: “This simple and rational approach to problem-solving is what interests us about brutalism in architecture. We would like to see it replicated in the digital realm.”
  • Daniel Dittmar: “I suppose I have it out of convenience, as it was easy to make. (To be honest I didn’t even know it was called [web brutalism].)”
  • Tom Cavill: “There’s beauty in utility—I like the idea of a framework-less, semantic site that loads instantly and has no animation.”

Simplicity, rationality, convenience, utility. These designers’ goals don’t include ugliness, discomfort, or uneasiness.

Neither did the works of architectural brutalism. In fact, the movement’s best works sought to serve the needs and aspirations of a growing postwar generation. Indeed, history has been unkind to the aesthetic, in part because it turns out monolithic concrete can feel isolating and intimidating. But it’s also due to the fickle whims of fashion. Even so, the table is starting to turn as more of these buildings are tagged for demolition and we feel the increasing loss of their presence. Culturally, we’re finally getting the temporal distance needed to look back and fairly judge which works are timeless and which are relics bound to a bygone era.

A photo of the Seminar II building at The Evergreen State College
The Seminar II building at The Evergreen State College is an example of brutalist architecture. Photo from Wikipedia.

Bringing this to a point: to be ugly, rough, or uncomfortable may be an aesthetic choice of brutalism, but it isn’t the ethos. Pascal Deville, creator of Brutalist Websites admits as much in the Washington Post article, where he concludes that there’s a need for “a new definition of this kind of website.” I agree. A true movement needs a philosophy, a manifesto perhaps. How far can you really go when your defining statement is lifted straight out of a Wikipedia article? Roughness may be one feature by which we might identify some works of brutalism, but that doesn’t give the movement a vision or purpose. Punk was a movement that embraced roughness. Pop surrealism values discomfort. What separates web brutalism from other movements with similar values?

Walter Sobchak from “The Big Lebowski”: “At least it’s an ethos.”
“At least it’s an ethos.”

The Values of Brutalist Architecture

Digging, once again, into the architectural movement, there are, in fact, many other values that brutalist spaces generally demonstrate:

  • Repeated, modular elements.
  • Raw and unpretentious materials.
  • An inside-out unabashedness, whereby the infrastructure—water pipes and air ducts—is revealed, instead of hidden behind a facade or tucked away in maintenance tunnels.

Altogether, this is where we start to see the value of a true brutalist ethos.

Before I dig further into the brutalist ideals, I also want to mention the takedown, “The Problem With Brutalist Websites”, by Kill Screen writer David Rudin, which was also published last year. It’s a smart article, and it talks at length about how web brutalism as defined by Brutalist Websites (and the WaPo article) doesn’t seem to offer much coherence in its gallery beyond the ugly or austere monikers, which we can now see is disingenuous. The article criticizes the gallery based on the ways that it is not directly relevant to the architectural movement. However, it stops there without offering a viable way forward. The article focuses on what these websites are not, but never seeks to discover what they might have in common.

There is value to Deville’s gallery, however, and there are commonalities that we can start to build upon.

Honesty of Materials

Etymologically, the key fragment in brutalism is brut, the French word for raw. You can take that word in a negative or painful way, like a raw nerve, or a knee skinned raw on concrete, which appears to be the way brutalism’s detractors (and Brutalist Websites) interpret it. Or, as the architectural community intends, it can mean unpretentious materials and unprocessed construction. Brutalism was unashamed of its materials of choice (primarily concrete, but also glass and wood) and made no effort to obscure them with facades or make them appear to be something they are not. For example, brutalists would not imprint and then paint a brick pattern into concrete to make it look like a brick wall. If a building is made of concrete, let it be concrete.

This idea of “raw materials” is key to interpreting to the brutalist web aesthetic, and we can again see this in the interviews of the designers.

Take Ben Pieratt, for example. He says of his work: “I’ve learned that lists do best when they’re presented as lists, so I try and stick to that as much as possible. I’ve presented lists as something other than a linear stack before, and all it does is add confusion that the viewer has to sort through before they understand what they’re looking at. Was it Frank Lloyd Wright who said we should strive to be true to the materials? Like don’t paint over brick. Whoever it was, I’m stealing this thinking from them.”

Mark Renton and Sickboy from “Trainspotting”: “Beautifully fucking illustrated.”
“Beautifully fucking illustrated.”

Furthermore, the people who designed the website are often the same people who developed it, so in visiting these spaces, you are experiencing the individual push and pull between a designer’s sensibility and a developer’s practicality. You’re witnessing the individual’s integration of disciplines divided across the time available. In other words, sometimes there just aren’t enough resources for one person to consider every angle of a website from both technical and aesthetic points of view. It’s in these cases where it becomes strategic to rely on the available defaults.

Members of the web’s old guard have been flying a common banner more and more: “Creating on the web sure is getting complex.” You can add me to their ranks. Every time I start a new project today, I feel compelled to implement a growing stack of cobbled together software compilers, task runners, and frameworks required to do the job “right”. And, honestly, that can be frustrating when all I want to do is put some content online. I just don’t feel the need to spend my evenings hunting down broken dependencies whenever I want to update my blog. Gianluca Monaco puts it this way in his Brutalist Websites interview for F*CK: “Working as interaction designer means dealing always with the same principles that I sometimes see as limitations: good design, responsiveness, storytelling, experience, interaction and so on. And after doing that the whole day, you just want to say F*CK to all this.”

I’m not saying the modern workflow is the wrong way to make websites. I’m only saying that, buried underneath that heap of tools, the web still comes out as HTML, CSS, and JS. And that output is still imminently writable by hand, and relatively readable even by non-technical humans. This is how websites used to be made. They were simple, they were quick, and they were raw. And they still can be today.

Take a look at the website of Dylan Wilbanks, co-founder of The Interconnected.

A screenshot of the website of Dylan Wilbanks
The website of Dylan Wilbanks, circa May 2017.

Stylistically, it would probably be at home with the rest of the Brutalist Websites gallery. I asked him why he created his website in such a manner:

“SXSW 2009. I had a talk there. In the middle of a Saturday AM session, I went, ‘Oh crap, I don’t have a site!’ I had my personal laptop, but no web IDEs or tools. But. I did have Notepad. So, I started outlining what I needed to put on the site. Along the way the outline became an ordered list. As I was under-caffeinated, I just sorta rolled with my strange sense of humor. About 30 minutes in, I pushed it to the live server and there it sat. I had a site, hand-coded from an outline, out of necessity. I wish I had a story that wasn’t, ‘Oh crap, I need a website!’ in the middle of a conference talk, but there we are.”

I believe there is more than one human being in the world who might still find that rawness attractive. A person who might dig into that source code. Who might create a new web page based around their discoveries. Who will add their voice to our global community. Brutalist Websites showcases some of those kinds of people. They’re people who may not have the knowledge to develop, the time to maintain, or the resources to offload those concerns to an expert. Yet they’re still creating works that are beautiful, interesting, and valuable.

I have baptized myself in the church of Jeremy Keith, a developer who beats the drum of progressive enhancement. This gospel asks developers to start with a simple base layer, as close to the basics as you can get, and then add enhancements that make the experience better for more capable technology. I’m all about building websites in this manner. But, while enhancement can create beautiful or clever experiences, it is still only an option. Not every website in the world needs to be enhanced. It’s okay if some things on the web don’t have extensive JS frameworks that make the web more app-like, or exclusive typefaces that make it more print-like, or autoplay videos that make it more TV-like. Anthony Tran remarks on one of his own projects for the Walker Art Center, Superscript: “Publishing online ranges from pre-built platforms with uniform templates and one-click submission buttons to articles that have custom layouts that take months or years to implement. The aesthetic of the Superscript website is intentionally retro, stripped down and typographically emphatic, to pay homage to text as the only necessity in publishing.”

Therefore, I think that the defining feature of web brutalism isn’t its perceived roughness, or god forbid its ugliness, but instead its willingness to expose the raw materials of the web. The defining feature of web brutalism is its willingness to be itself. To be of the web. To embrace the web’s grain. To not pretend to be apps or magazines or paintings. It shows us the value of the parts of the web we’ve lost to over-engineered spaces. Let concrete be concrete. Let the web be the web.

The First Twelve Seconds

A few nights ago I saw Don’t Breathe, which was a scary, home-invasion movie that I enjoyed quite a bit.

But this post is not about the movie that I paid for. This post is about one of the trailers that played before that movie, for the new Resident Evil movie.

If you haven’t seen any of the five previous Resident Evil movies, let me assure you, you are not missing out on high art. They do provide a certain level of unabashed fun that seems to get better as the series progresses. They’re the kind of pulpy movies that I like to call let’s-make-a-movie movies where you can imagine two people sitting at a diner, trying to find an outlet for their absurd ideas. Think John Carpenter and Kurt Russel’s movies, or Vin Diesel’s Pitch Black series. In this case it’s actress Milla Jovovich and director Paul W. S. Anderson.

Within twelve seconds of the trailer starting, I knew I was going to be jazzed about what was coming up. Twelve seconds. In fact, I was only half-paying attention to the screen in front of me (my date was at my side) and I had no idea that it was a Resident Evil movie until later in the trailer, but I knew I was in for a ride. What happened in those twelve seconds? Watch along with me, and I’ll narrate, below.

What We See

The official trailer for the sixth Resident Evil movie.
  • Fade from black.
  • Guns N’ Roses’s “Paradise City” plays.
  • We see a motorcycle of the crotch-rocket variety.
  • A woman in a black coat walks up to the motorcycle and starts the ignition.
  • A computer interface indicates “ENGINE ENGAGED”.
  • She removes her thumb and we can see it uses Touch-ID–style fingerprint recognition.

The computer interface has a subtle cue I didn’t catch (an Umbrella Corporation logo), but otherwise at this point, I have absolutely no idea that this is a Resident Evil movie. Furthermore, I hate Guns N’ Roses, I especially hate “Paradise City”, I think crotch rockets are kinda douchey, and I didn’t even realize the figure mounting the motorcycle was a woman. (Like I said, I was only half-paying attention.)

The opening shot from the new “Resident Evil” mobie
The opening shot from the sixth Resident Evil movie

Yet for some reason I was jazzed about this movie. After only twelve seconds! I even said to my girlfriend: “I don’t know why, but I think this is going to be a fun movie.” It was enough to keep me glued to the screen for the following twelve seconds, which are far less revealing, until I saw the hanging corpses and the sign that explicitly drops familiar names like “Racoon City” and “Umbrella Corporation”. I was sold after that, but those initial twelve seconds stayed with me all through Don’t Breathe until I finally had a chance to talk it out with my date.

What It Signifies

Looking back at it with perhaps a little too much analysis, here’s what I think.

  • “Paradise City” is an obnoxious song, but to pull it off these days, you have to embrace a certain ironic, plebeian corniness. In other words, it’s dumb, but it’s fun if you don’t think about it too much. Dumb fun almost always equals action movie.
  • The fashion, though shrouded and nearly cropped out of the frame altogether, revealed just enough attention to detail that I picked up on its intent to be fashionable: half her coat is shredded, but it’s a flattering cut and you can sense that it’s made from good materials. Plus, fingerless gloves. When fashion has a place in an action movie, you know you’re going to see people kicking ass and looking good while doing it. You’re not going to take it too seriously.
  • The ridiculous computer interface with the fingerprint ignition sealed the deal, giving off a Marvelly, science fictiony, Iron Man-y vibe.

I’m so impressed by what those twelve seconds managed to communicate. It took you, dear reader, way longer than that to read my analysis, but it all flashed through my head at the speed of intuition. As a designer, I spend a lot of time sweating the tiny details of my work. Sometimes I wonder if I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. After all, as the cynics cry, most people will never truly understand what I put into it. Is it really worth the hour of development time to shave off 300 milliseconds of load time?

The UI on Resident Evil’s Touch ID-enabled motorcycle
The UI of The Umbrella Corporation’s Touch ID-enabled motorcycle.

This trailer reinforced to me that, yes, paying heed to the corners and textures and typefaces does matter. Though they can be subtle, your considerations signal your intention to the viewer or to the user. They may not notice it or, if they did, even be able to deconstruct it as I did tonight, but the care and the craft will come through.

There was just one thing that I found disappointing about the whole trailer. It was the subheading reveal at the end. It has nothing to do with typography or the visual effects, just that it calls the movie “The Final Chapter”. Bummer.

Nobody Will Read Your Welcome Letter

I have to put a welcome letter on a website. I have to do this because the welcome letter is in the printed program, and if it’s in the printed program, it also has to be on the website. There, it either takes up valuable space for useful content, or it appears as a PDF that no one wants to download, especially to read a welcome letter.

A welcome letter is a terrible thing for a website. There is no audience that wishes to read a welcome letter. They are fiction. They do not exist. People are on your website because they want information, not to read the welcoming platitudes delivered from a CEO, or president, or artist. This kind of content gets in the way of the useful content.

People might read your welcome letter in print. Oh yes, at least a few of them will. But make no mistake, they’re not reading it because they want to read it. They will because they’re currently sitting in your welcome lecture and they’re bored. They will because it’s socially acceptable to read the provided program while tuning out the welcome speaker. They will because it’s not acceptable to read anything on your phone while listening to the speaker. Even if they’re reading the welcome letter you put on the website—which of course they’re not, because the internet is full of much more useful things to read.

I put the welcome letter on the website because I had to, but I put it where nobody is likely to read it, because nobody will read it, no matter where I put it. I’m not just being smug. I know this because of the regular user testing my team has done. In these sessions, we watch real people skip vast swaths of content, many times scrolling straight down to the bottom with wild disregard for The Fold.

It was a political move, I admit, burying the link. It can be hard to convince people who write welcome letters that nobody wants to read them, in part because the writers put time into them and do provide them with the best intentions. Sometimes it’s best to pick your battles when you’re working with a client. Sometimes there’s not enough time or energy to spare for a discussion or argument over idealistic details. But sometimes your political concession doesn’t matter. Nobody asked me where the welcome letter was ultimately posted, because even when the clients use the website themselves, they have no interest in its welcome content.