Brutalist design is the bad influence we all need

The UX/UI world has gradually come to be dominated by guidelines and aesthetics belonging to companies like Apple or Google.

It’s absolutely normal and predictable that this would happen, considering most apps are designed to seamlessly fit into the user experience of technologies belonging to these big titans.

The success of any product depends on its coordination with the existing services and that requires some level of standardisation, be it on hardware or software level. Design is directly impacted by the state of the market.

Everyone (designers and developers alike) has access to Apple’s, Google’s or Microsoft's frameworks and guidelines. This way, even if one doesn't have much knowledge or experience in design, one should at least be within the safe zone when following those very specific structural and aesthetic advices.

It probably won’t come out great, but it shouldn’t be a train wreck either.

Everything is a copy, of a copy, of a copy

Naturally, a lot of graphical and aesthetic principles ended up dictated by languages such as Google’s Material Design or Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines.

When you’re following a framework or some sort of guidelines with the purpose of providing the best User Experience possible, it’s very easy to follow their visual language too because it is also part of the structural and navigational tool set.

A link is a link, text is text, and how you choose to distinguish them is not just a UX problem, it’s a matter of visual communication and, consequently, visual aesthetics too. With that, comes the product’s visual identity.

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IMG1: Some of Google's Material Design guidelines and views.

Consequence: one way or another, everything is slowly starting to get homogenised.

On a User Experience level this brings a lot of advantages, such as the settlement of universal languages that pretty much every user will get and, if the designer follows the rules, the product will be in the safe zone and its users won’t be lost.

On the other hand, it doesn’t mean that the current universal languages are the best they could ever be - and by best I mean easiest, healthiest and safest.

Maybe there would be better patterns to follow but, as any language that is very well established, introducing new patterns is extremely messy. Turns out old habits do indeed die hard.

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IMG2: Behold, every single template in 2017 - Squarespace templates.

On a visual level, the scenario is way less positive.

The mainstream current of graphic work is becoming repetitively bland and a copy of everyone else's. Most designs are using the same typefaces, the same sets of colors, the same visual effects.

User Experience is everyone's ultimate pretext for the lack of originality and differentiating identity.

Of course there’s still space for a visual identity within, for example, material design's patterns. But can a brand or a product truly stand out anymore if they decide to settle with the same fonts, boxes, shadows and colors?

Some big, commercially successful companies don’t think so. Web-Brutalism has taught them something very valuable.

So what is Web-brutalism?

"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.” - Pascall Deville, brutalistwebsites.com

As a movement, web-brutalism has no founder or original birth place. It started all over the world, by professionals who had no relation to each other.

The name references Brutalist architecture, which was a 50's to 70's movement that chose to stay away from all decoration - from architectonic ornaments to simple wall-paint.

Contrary to what might seem obvious, Brutalism doesn't stem from brutal. Brutalism is born out of "raw-concrete" - physically and etymologically - béton-brut in French.

The Brutalist arquitecture movement was usually expressed through massive, solid structures, with exposed concrete and sometimes exposed architectural plan.

The idea was that the buildings were honest, unpretentious and anti-bourgeois, which was not only born out of low-budget projects within economically depressed communities, but also adopted as the philosophy and mindset of large budget private and government comissioned works.

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IMG3: Trellick Tower, London, 1966–1972, designed by Ernő Goldfinger; Le Corbusier's Unité d'habitation in Marseille, France (1952); Habitat 67 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Web-brutalism is no different from brutalism in the sense that it not only embodies a counter-reaction - in this case, to standardized visual design - but also manifests itself through a sense of roughness, exposed structures and visible thought processes.

Some would even consider some of its works "ugly" because of how unpolished they might look - just like the architectural movement. Some would say this web-movement is basically "extreme" flat design.

Let's also keep in mind that UX wise, the raw, "original" Web-Brutalism will straight up ignore all the User Centered design principles there are as a statement and also, for those of us with a geeky sense of humour, as a gag.

The first (and only) step is to throw elements on the screen, without worrying too much about how they work together. Who are you to define hierarchy anyway? Let each element fight for the spotlight. - www.uxbrutalism.com

But since a picture is worth a thousand words, here are some examples of what this design tendency looks like:

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IMG4: http://christopherbabb.com; http://www.zku-berlin.org; http://patchworkarchitecture.co.nz

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IMG5: http://6thfinger.studio; http://spin.co.uk

Cool kids got angry at the system, what's new?

Like it or not - personal opinions and memes aside - web-brutalism is moving from something edgy and almost punk, to something very mainstream and commercially viable.

Just ask Balenciaga, Dropbox, news-outlet Bloomberg or digital media company The Outline - which, by the way, is also re-inventing visual, interactive content and Ads for a "Post-Text" Internet, effectively reaching new, underfed audiences.

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IMG6: https://theoutline.com

What these brands are taking from web-brutalism - and truly, we should all be learning something here - is that User-centered design doesn't need to be monopolized by the same colors, same buttons, same photography and even same copy you see in pretty much every single website or product.

UX is not an excuse for lack of visual identity.

The same way well-designed and interesting packaging will make you choose one product over the other, a powerful and solid visual identity will set you aside too.

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IMG7: https://www.bloomberg.com; https://dropbox.design

This doesn't mean we should all go make extremely disfunctional designs for the sake of difference and experimentation, but it means that there is another way besides the one we've been abusing lately.

Minimalism as a usability and visual principle is not synonym to Material Design, and User Centered Design doesn't mean you cannot think outside the box visually.

UX is not a style or visual language - it's a discipline that interprets qualitative and quantitative data in order to optimize design decisions, but it doesn't tell you which shapes, colors or fonts to use.

Let go of your safe zones because the current tendency tells us they won't be safe for very much longer.

It won't take much longer until rigid grids, full screen faux analog photos, gradients and neat google fonts become outdated and unable to compete with all the other outstanding, new and interesting designs.

Bottom-line is: Brutalism has brought back a touch of irreverence and confidence that is lacking in most mainstream designs.

A system of bold colors unafraid to be mixed with pastels and unusual fonts is meant to stand out and, if used wisely, it will do so for all the right reasons.

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