Brutalist Websites — A Symptom of the Prevalent Accessibility Issues on the Web

Some time ago, I came across an intriguing and unorthodox web design trend that’s been making its way around the web — Brutalism.

What makes it interesting, is its intention to completely disregard the current conventional, clean and tidy user-friendly interfaces that have become the industry standard. Essentially, the goal is to make a website that looks…well, ugly.

Think back to the early days of the web, when websites were crude and unstyled. Brutalist sites are jarring compared to the websites we are used to seeing, and reminiscent of graphics from the 90s. The code is devoid of frills, the styling mimics raw HTML, and these sites make no effort to blend in with the rest of the web.

There are no specific rules that clearly define what is and what isn’t a Brutalist website. It seems like they can range from designs that look completely crass and almost uncomfortable to use, to more polished iterations that still obviously draw from the above inspiration of aesthetics. Some examples of what may be seen on a brutalist website includes:

- Stark backgrounds, colour palettes and imagery
- No distinct hierarchy
- Analog-style elements
- Lack of symmetry and alignment
- Simple navigations

Originating from the French word ‘raw’, the genre of Brutalist design started as a form of architecture that is characterized by raw looking buildings of rough unfinished facades, materials like concrete, and unusual shapes.

Image source: www.domusweb.it

While crude, Brutalism is regarded by some as a welcome breath of fresh air in an era of conventional web design. Certain principles and criteria are established for what is considered to be best practice. When merged with prominent trends, you get popular templates and frameworks for websites that eventually lead to limitations in originality. Websites can become less experimental and less memorable.

“My brutalism is a form of adversarial or uncooperative design: the internet suffers from an excess of orderliness” — Brandon Joyce (www.brutalistwebsites.com)

As a front end developer, coding a Brutalist website seems like an interesting task. You are making a website that looks like a rough, handmade HTML website, but is still a streamlined application underneath the hood. You are forced to code in completely unconventional ways. The grid systems and layout techniques that align everything neatly that you’ve ingrained into your brain? Out the door. And how should responsiveness be handled? How would these sites look on a phone?

As a designer, the philosophical ideas behind the design interest me. The style is jarring but somehow, when done right, its aesthetics still balanced and welcomed.

However, as interesting as this trend is, the takeaway from its emergence should not be purely on how its aesthetics can shake up the industry standard cookie cutter designs. Rather, it is addressing a much more prominent problem still affecting much ofthe web today — accessibility.

“20 years into the development of the web, it is still fairly inaccessible to people who have physical disabilities or are constrained to accessing the internet through slow connections and underpowered devices, or have limited internet access or electricity.
According to user experience and accessibility consultant Ian Hamilton, one fifth of the world’s population has some type of physical disability” — On Web Brutalism and Contemporary Web Design (http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/dialectic/14932326.0001.107/--on-web-brutalism-and-contemporary-web-design?rgn=main;view=fulltext)

Because of the lack of frills in Brutalist websites, they require little time to load, allowing an audience with slower connections and older computers to visit the site. For the same reason, they could be navigated easier by a screen reader.

Perhaps a reason the web seems to be increasingly cookie cutter is the belief that usability will be traded off when the current conventions are ignored.

It would be more productive to not view these as mutually exclusive. Designers and developers should continue to explore and push the current standards to promote both simultaneously.

While it doesn’t seem likely that Brutalist websites will become the new industry standard, the emergence of this trend should be regarded as a symptom of the prevalence of the issue of accessibility. Whether you appreciate or reject the aesthetics of Brutalist web design, web designers and developers should attempt to improve the usability experiences for the large segment of the world who are limited in their access to the internet.

There is much work left to be done to evolve the web into becoming more accessible and useful to broader populations than what is currently being serviced, towards best practices that strike an ideal balance of beauty and accessibility.