I return every now and then like I’m visiting a comforting family vacation spot. Stretching the viewport as wide as I can on my monitor the H1 title expands to a whopping 431.778 px. “WHAT IS CODE?” it screams at me. Behind this grows a seeming random pattern of garish purple, yellow, and orange squares. I watch a prompting cursor blink. It’s huge, and it doesn’t match up with the hideous puke colored grid behind it. It’s making me crazy. It’s making me whole inside.
A message at the top of the experience from editor Josh Tyrangiel tells me “The world belongs to people who code. Those who don’t understand will be left behind.” And I’m like “Yeah man. Left behind… suckers!”
For me, visually, this page is the smartest attempt at what is known as Brutalism that I’ve ever seen (I’ve studied the good and the sad imitation). Scroll down the page and you’ll find interactive diagrams simulating circuitry, a sweat stained Steve Ballmer .gif screaming “DEVELOPER” off the side of the page- lining up with NOTHING, and some kind of blue box animated character guiding you through the article.
Brutalism is many things for me. It’s an escape from the monotony of creating “Little boxes on the hillside” as I think it is for many user experience designers, but I think it can best be summed up as a feeling some Gen Xers have about when the internet was a wonderful weird chaotic place and terms like “data travellers” and “electro wizards” were thrown around by Fox Mulder- “a flash on the screen and then gone.” The fact that those words never actually made it in to our tech vernacular even in the 90’s makes it all the more wonderful.
Copyright Fox Broadcasting Company
As I was telling a colleague the other day, one of the reasons I watch and rewatch X Files is to see the evolution of the first cellular phones, video technology, and computers you had to communicate with by spelling commands correctly.
“…when the internet was a wonderful weird chaotic place and terms like ‘electro wizards’ were thrown around by Fox Mulder.”
In fact, there was a lot more communication with your computer in general to accomplish a simple task as illustrated by this screenshot from an article on Windows command prompts. I vaguely remember this from childhood. You had to literally write out what you wanted your computer to do and spell it correctly in order to accomplish what’s done today by clicking.
For me there is good smart thoughtful Brutalism, and then there’s lazy garbage Tumblr Brutalism. I think the best combine the early functions and concepts of computer technology in a way that makes me think and provides some sort of intelligent interaction within the chaos while the later sorta throws a bunch of pixelated 90’s imagery together with no deeper purpose other than to show one can identify what visually fits into this genre. To be clear, all Brutalism as it pertains to the WWW should be able to classify as visual assault. (I think…I’m just a visitor here)
The accidental Brutalism of out of control sites like cnn.com:
Robert Mueller + summer wedges = Brutal. Is it me, or is he looking up at those shoes? It’s the placement of large swaths of pixels dedicated to uncurated ad space that can lead to a page like cnn.com looking unintentionally…rebellious. The grid is never going to match up and the content clash can end up being quite hilarious.
Can you spot the 9 sales advertised above the fold on the JCP site? I can’t. I can’t even find the f-ing navigation:
I’ve watched the JC Penny site devolve into true madness over the past few years, and it’s been real. I can’t even imagine being in the meetings that would need to happen to get this site back to a digestable comprehensible experience for their customer. How did this happen?! Don’t answer that. I already know.
Now I’m not sure if the NICAP site stays Brutal because the style really does suit the content, or if this qualifies as Accidental Brutalism but what the hell, it’s just plan fun and one of my favorite corners of the internet:
Again, with a site like UFO Sighting Daily it seems totally suitable to be using this style of web design…but it is brutal. I’m just so glad these sites still exist in their original format. Wouldn’t it be sad if they got a polished redesign? I’d probably stop visiting them.
The Good is REALLY Good.
Pop up windows are a common theme within the Brutalist environ for obvious reasons.
This a a screenshot from Delirium Magazine. You can move these pop-ups around, you can close them- thought the best part is you can never clear the screen, but the weirdest thing is you can’t open the content. I can’t figure this one out. Love it.
Above is a shot from FML, one of the totally mind blowing digital experiences produced by the new(ish) Huffington Post Highline. Created with digital input from both their in-house Creative Director Sandra Garcia and work from award-winning agency Gladeye the experience pulls lots of great early digital design references together to create a super fun scrolling experience along with the compelling content of the article itself.
Sites like Allheels.it are not exactly my favorite, but do fit into the Brutalism umbrella. I think my problem is that they look too intentionally mimicking the style with not too much though behind it.
Like, they have a pretty polished logo, and then a bunch of rando weird photos and icons slapped together with little to no connection. If this is your thing, that’s totally cool. I mean I do like looking at it for a little while. It’s definitely defined by “ruggedness and lack of concern to look comfortable or easy” -Creative Dir. Pascal Deville, but for me it feels empty when compared to experiences like the What Is Code sitelet. Also, I think it’s missing the “nostalgia” element that all good Brutalist sites elicit. The below .gif is kind of memorizing, but again, just a hodgepodge of 90’s internet memorabilia.
I think a good Brutalist site for me might need to be created by someone that was around while the World Wide Web was shaping up. Those pre-Bootstrap magical years when it could have been anything at all. I’m really comforted by the new Brutalist sites that I see popping up and keeping the internet weird. I’m sure it’s harder than it looks and it looks challenging enough. Bravo Internet!