The hottest trend in web design is making sites that look terrible
What’s old is new again
There’s an interesting trend in web design these days: Making websites that look, well … bad.
Look at Hacker News. Pinboard. The Drudge Report. Adult Swim. Bloomberg Businessweek features. All of these sites — some years old, some built recently — and hundreds more like them, eschew the templated, user-friendly interfaces that has long been the industry’s best practice. Instead they’re built on imperfect, hand-coded HTML and take their design cues from ’90s graphics.
The name of this school, if you could call it that, is “web brutalism” — and there’s no question that much of the recent interest stems from the work of Pascal Deville.
In 2014 Deville, now Creative Director at the Freundliche Grüsse ad agency in Zurich, Switzerland, founded brutalistwebsites.com. He meant it as a place to showcase websites that he thought fit the “brutalist” aesthetic: Design marked by a “ruggedness and lack of concern to look comfortable or easy” in “reaction by a younger generation to the lightness, optimism, and frivolity of today’s web design.” (In architecture, brutalism describes a ’70s architectural movement characterized by large buildings with exposed concrete construction.)
The term’s gotten a lot of pick-up in recent weeks, since Deville’s site appeared on Hacker News and promptly went viral. Deville saw unique visitors to his site rise to over 100,000 in 24 hours, with 160,000 page views. And the interest has not slowed since then: Deville now receives over 100 site submissions a day.
“It’s not only what you can see, it’s also how it’s built,” Deville explained, of the submissions he selects as emblematic of the style. “… In the code you can see if it’s really a streamlined application or it’s a very rough, handmade, HTML website.”
Intriguingly, Deville has found in his Q&As with coders and designers that few set out to mimic this newly popular aesthetic; instead, they all arrived at the same point out of a drive to create something original.
“[Brutalism] is interesting to me … because it doesn’t necessarily have a defined set of aesthetic signifiers,” said Jake Tobin, the designer behind trulybald.com. “What defines those signifiers is decided by the platform it’s built on.”
His site, trulybald.com, is both the Internet home of Truly Bald Records and a web playground, with flashing colors, irregular spacing and a unique typeface: a reaction to professionalism and digestibility built with HTML, PHP and a simple text editor.
Nathaniel Smith, of tilde.town, echoed that sentiment.
“I designed a brutalist web site to show that we can still do wonderful things together on the web without so-called ‘best practices,’” he told Deville, in an interview published on his site on April 19.
There’s one big problem with this aversion to rules, of course: It makes it that much harder to pin “brutalism” down. Already, Deville says, it may be time to dream up “a new definition of this kind of website,” to include more of the iterations we’re seeing now.
But brutalism remains one of those things where you know it when you see it. And lately, you see it a lot.
“Look at Craigslist,” Deville says. “This is totally a brutalist website … and commercially, very successful.”