In April, the internet seemed to abruptly discover a trend that had been lurking in its midst for years: Brutalism, an aesthetic borrowed from architecture and applied to minimally designed, bare-knuckle websites. After Hacker News — itself arguably a Brutalist website — discovered a Brutalist website devoted to other Brutalist websites, discussion surrounding the trend caught on and spread.
But what is a Brutalist website? That question is easier asked than answered.
So far, there's not really a consensus on what a Brutalist website is
On Hacker News, a giant debate broke out about whether the websites listed on Brutalist Websites are actually Brutalist. Maybe they're just minimalist, or perhaps "vernacular," a term once used to describe the eternally "under construction" nature of the web in the mid- to late '90s. Or maybe they're part of the vaporwave movement, a twofold visual and music subculture that evolved on the internet alongside seapunk and thrives on retro aesthetics, early glitchy computer art, and the intersection between yuppie-era capitalism and kitsch. (Think Lisa Frank meets mall elevator music meets Geocities meets pixel art meets loud Hawaiian shirts.)
As a descriptor, "Brutalist" seems to imply that the sites are somehow ugly or offensive to the viewer, but this isn't always the case. Often, it just means a website is constructed from essential coding elements and very little else — no frills, redundant images, or advertising. But Brutalist Websites goes further in its definition of the movement by issuing a short, blunt manifesto:
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.
Plenty of people have argued that this definition doesn't take into account the huge number of websites that look crude and Brutalist not because of some self-conscious aesthetic choice, but because they haven't been updated in several years. So far, there's no real consensus on whether a page "becomes" Brutalist by aging into it, or whether it only qualifies if the design is intentional.
However, we do know what a Brutalist website is not
In architecture, Brutalism tends to refer to buildings that are in some way stark, that don't make any effort to blend into the urban landscape or environment surrounding them. (Take these Brutalist sandcastles, for example.) On the web, we might say Brutalist sites have refused to blend in with the many changes and trends that have impacted website design over the years.
These days, interactivity is a given, complex multimedia platforms like Facebook and YouTube have largely superseded individual websites, and individual sites, when they do exist, are frequently template-based and built on platforms like WordPress and Squarespace. Usability wars are waged, not over things like whether your site navigation should be vertical or horizontal but over things like intrusive target-based advertising, trackers, and other forms of browser malware, and buggy plug-ins.
As far as site design itself, well…
which one of the two possible websites are you currently designing? pic.twitter.com/ZD0uRGTqqm— gold (@jongold) February 2, 2016
Designer-engineer Jon Gold's fatigue with the cookie-cutter nature of modern templated web design is a cousin to the impulse behind Brutalism on the web. A Brutalist website is basically the simplest version of said website — either a response to a reactionary dislike of the modern, overcommercialized, and overdesigned web or a byproduct of the website being built during the stone age and no one ever bothering to update the code.
Famed computer culture journalist and programmer Paul Ford has pointed out that most Brutalist sites aren't profit-driving websites, and that Brutalism clearly isn't about feeding a capitalist or corporate view of the internet.
Here are six examples that illustrate the Brutalist movement, either intentionally or otherwise.
Drudge Report accumulates 9 billion hits per year and mostly links to external websites. The implication is that owner Matt Drudge can't be troubled with maintaining a more complex design because he's too busy scouring the web for conservative news, which adds to its feeling of legitimacy.
However, while the site may be Brutalist, it predates the rise of Brutalism as a distinct internet aesthetic, and it's highly unlikely Drudge is making any particular artistic statement.
Suckless is a tiny open source coding and developer community that's been active for a cool decade. With a plain and simple style and an FAQ section that contains only three questions/answers, it stands as an example of Brutalist design that's flexible enough to look as modern in 2016 as it did in 2006.
The popular classifieds site is perhaps the most famous example of Brutalism in practice. Though Craigslist runs on plenty of engineering, its navigation is among the web's simplest and plainest.
Belong is kind of like Digg for the weird internet, except it aggregates interesting links from Twitter. With its ever-changing but consistently garish animated header, Belong seems to deliver a tongue-in-cheek homage to the aforementioned vaporwave movement as well as to Brutalism.
Belong is run by web developer Andy Baio, who also owns another Brutalist website, Playfic. Playfic houses hundreds of interactive text-based games — which are arguably among the most Brutalist "items" on the web.
Although Pinboard owner Maciej Ceglowski has said he’s "not too fond of the parallel" between his website and Brutalist architecture, he has plenty of opinions about the need for simplicity and low density in web design, starting with his aversion to "megabytes of cruft." His no-frills bookmarking site has become a cult favorite in part because of its low-key, clean aesthetic.
NPR's "thin" version
Like many websites, NPR offers its users a handful of different options for viewing its website. There's the "graphical" version, or the main homepage that most users see by default, and then there's the image-free, link-only version, which is designed to deliver content to the reader as quickly and simply as possible. The latter, which NPR has labeled its "thin" version, is totally devoid of pictures, plug-ins, trackers, style sheets, or anything else you might expect to see on a highly trafficked popular media site.
The "thin" version of NPR serves to help out readers with slower connections and older computers, because it doesn't require much time to load. It's also more legible and accessible for readers who have trouble reading image-heavy websites. But beyond those functionalities, it reflects the needs of a crucial segment of internet users — the ones who show up not for interactive plug-and-play design or elaborate graphical interfaces, but primarily for the nuts and bolts of what the web can do.
These users might range from busy developers eager to build and interact with a more efficient web to readers who want to know more about what code is to users who prefer to sink their teeth into the philosophical ideas behind design. To these groups, convoluted aesthetics just get in the way; a webpage that takes too long to load is a page that's already proven its uselessness.
Brutalism reminds us that more isn't always better — especially on the web
If you're one of these design-curious types of internet users — or even if you've ever looked at a totally blank, uncrowded webpage and felt a sense of relief — you can probably understand the basic appeal of Brutalism, starting with the idea that the text-based focus of the internet's early development wasn't actually bad.
The simplicity of these websites isn't only aesthetic in nature. The code for NPR's thin version, on this particular day, is only 21 lines long. Pinboard's streamlined nature is due in part to its owner's philosophy that no text-based website should be larger in file size than the average Russian novel is as a text file — that is, only a few hundred kilobytes. (Anything larger impedes page load time and essentially means you've started to include plug-ins and bells and whistles, all of which ultimately obscure the text, a.k.a. the reason for building the site to begin with).
Most of the internet's websites vastly exceed this size, a phenomenon often referred to as "bloat." Meanwhile, the average person who spends time on the web has to regularly contend with a barrage of obstacles to their primary goals of finding information and communicating: everything from cookies and ad trackers to privacy-invading search tools and strategically engineered user interfaces designed to make you stay as long as possible.
Brutalist sites, in contrast, are fast to load and intuitive to use and comprehend. It's no wonder pages like these are gaining popularity. In an increasingly overdesigned internet, Brutalism is a welcome respite from the noise of the modern web.