The Honest Web

Mike Swartz
3 min readNov 22, 2019

The bright side of brutalism

If you’re a close observer of digital design trends, you’ve noticed what people have called “brutalist” websites. Once relegated to the domain of arthouse design studios or cultural institutes, this aesthetic is now firmly part of the mainstream graphic design conversation. Like most trends, it’s hard to define exactly what makes a site or design fit in this group. It’s characterized by stark colors, “normcore” typography and shapes, harsh geometry and a seeming irreverence for traditional values of form and type. It’s weird.

It’s not just websites either. It’s fashion, music, and media. Whatever you think of this aesthetic, it’s worth looking a little deeper at the underlying principles and the theory behind the trend:

The idea of brutalism was about exposing the raw materials of construction through the aesthetics of the design. Not putting veneers on things, not making concrete look like wood, or encrusting a façade in ornamentation. It was a reaction to decoration and artifice. But it was in no ways minimal — it’s actually a bit overwhelming, and maybe this is why it’s gotten such a bad rap since the heydays of the international style.

Our studio is right in the center of downtown Boston, with the Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center behind us and the infamous City Hall right down the street. People love to hate on these buildings, but if you look closer, they’re actually pretty amazing spaces that deserve a second chance.

The secret chapel in the Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center, designed by Paul Rudolph.

The brutalist trend in web design has brought something unexpected in with it: people are building with the honest materials of the web. They aren’t slathering on texture or trying to spackle over the cracks between divs, they’re letting the seams show proudly. It’s a refreshingly bold statement that puts the materials forward, emphasizes limitations in creative ways, and in the best of times can put the attention where it belongs: on the content. Oh and by the way, it’s fast as hell.

Norma’s site is beautifully simple and puts their ideas forward.

The true “brutalist web” trend actually crested a few years ago, and the tide is on its way out. But left in its wake are important lessons and lasting ideas: the web doesn’t have to be complicated to be good. It can be memorable and emotional, exciting and poke you in the eye. It can also be accessible, fast, direct and to the point. No more loading screens. Gifs over videos. Black and white over repeated patterns. Content and speed over “experience.” Make your constraints take center stage.

LOW-TECH magazine: a solar-powered website.

We’ve always been a bit closer to this end of the spectrum as a studio, but it’s great to see the world moving in the direction of our intuitive values. Flashy animations and computer melting graphics definitely have their place, but being inventive with the materials and constraints the web gives us will help us build smarter, more inclusive experiences that can still make you think.

It’s also worth mentioning that this isn’t new. It’s been with us since the beginning. But hats off to the web for keeping us honest.

A very good website.

If you’re into checking out more sites like this, head over to our Are.na board!

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Mike Swartz

Principal, Creative Director at Upstatement.com. Artist, guitarist, maker and breaker of things.