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A deep dive into brutalism

A deep dive into brutalism

An overview of brutalism including its origins, key features, and examples of brutalist web design.

Blog
Design
A deep dive into brutalism

A deep dive into brutalism

An overview of brutalism including its origins, key features, and examples of brutalist web design.

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Written by
Jeff Cardello

Brutalist websites make things weird, but in a good way.

They offer unorthodox user experiences and defy design conventions. Brutalist websites draw us in with their strangeness. 

Let’s take a look at where brutalism comes from and how it’s used in web design, then explore some brutalist websites so you can see how it’s done. 

Where brutalism began

An image of Park Hill Flats — a housing complex in Sheffield, England. It is  a classic example of brutalist architecture.
Park Hill Flats — a housing complex in Sheffield, England — is a classic example of brutalist architecture. Image source: Wikimedia

Brutalism’s architectural roots sprouted in post-war Europe, most notably in the UK. It resulted in stark, monolith-like buildings without ornamentation. Straight lines and recurrent patterns brought a necessary sense of order to a world still shaking off the mayhem of World War II. 

It’s easy to misinterpret the “brutal” in brutalism, but this term derives from the French  “béton brut,” which translates to “raw concrete.” People wanted to get back to normal as quickly as possible, which led to the exposed building materials that are characteristic of brutalist architecture. Schools, government buildings, apartments, and other important structures were built in the brutalist style because time and efficiency were the priority during this period of post-war recovery. It was a new era where ornamental architecture didn’t make sense. The practicality of brutalism allowed cities to quickly rise from the rubble and move forward. 

Brutalism in web design 

Where brutalist architecture occupies a more narrow spectrum, brutalist web design is a bit more varied. But like its architectural counterpart, brutalist web design pushes against the grain of tradition and convention. 

Brutalist web design sometimes embraces a similar sense of minimalism seen in architecture. Repetitive patterns, monochromatic color schemes, and unpretentious typography echo the restraint seen in post-war reconstruction. 

Brutalism in web design does diverge in the extremes it can go to. In its spirit of nonconformity, things can get visually loud. Where traditional web design is polite, brutalism can be brash and sometimes obnoxious — which is often the whole point. 

The key features of brutalist web design

Brutalist web design delights in pushing against the status quo. It’s similar to the first wave of punk rock that rebelled against the watered-down 1970s music popular at the time. It unleashes a cacophony of visuals and text. Where traditional web design is more Tom Jones, brutalism is more Johnny Rotten. 

Brutalism may be about breaking the rules, but there are some common elements we can observe across the many brutalist web designs out there.  

Lack of organization

Brutalism can be a nightmare for those who value structure. There is often very little hierarchy. This can be confusing, but this absence of organization makes us focus on deciphering what’s before our eyes.

Symmetry and asymmetry

There may be grids hiding beneath a layout, but visuals and text may stray radically from these anchors. Broken layouts mix order with disorder. 

Crowded layouts

Traditional web design uses negative space and deliberate placement for every element. Brutalist websites are often overflowing with visuals and text pushing up against each other. 

Clashing colors

Brutalism is all about opposites. Colors are smashed together without regard for complementary hues. Brutalist websites pulse with contrasting colors, making them stand out from the tame color palettes that we’re used to. 

Strange or absent navigation

Navigation may be purposefully obtuse with no obvious or familiar elements. Brutalism takes joy in obscuring elements and making things difficult. 

Eclectic typography

Brutalism hits extremes on either end of the spectrum of typography. Toward the more minimalist, there may be only one typeface in a single size with consistent spacing for all of the text. Monospaced typefaces are common in brutalist websites.

Typography can also be the exact opposite, bringing together multiple typefaces in various sizes and styles.

One page layouts

Ignoring the formality of multiple pages each with a dedicated purpose, brutalism lets loose with long scrolls of content all contained in a single space. 

Minimal CSS

CSS offers precise control over how a web design appears. Brutalist web designs often keep CSS to a bare minimum and have a stripped-down appearance. This lack of styling gives brutalist websites a sense of being straight to the point, free from the distractions of decorative embellishments.

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Brutalism offers a wide range of creative possibilities

Brutalist websites can take many different forms — from basic and unadorned, to the more ostentatious. Let's take a look at a variety of website examples that fall within the spectrum of brutalism. 

Ashley Cook Design Portfolio

An image of Ashley Cook's Design Portfolio. It is simply designed, just showcasing Ashley's work in Arial, black font on  white background.

Ashley Cook’s portfolio contains text with very little CSS styling. We see one long scroll of homogenous writing, with very little visual hierarchy.

Without visual distractions, her work is the only focus. It’s reminiscent of the sparse text next to a work of art hanging in a museum. Ashley’s portfolio is a resource list, not a flashy presentation. 

Budapest Park

An image of the Budapest Park website. The website uses blues, reds and tans as its colorway with bold text and graphics.

What first catches one’s attention on Budapest Park is the clash of colors. Most designs don’t mix blue, red, and pink, but brutalism is all about jarring juxtapositions. 

Along with a clashing color scheme, there’s very little negative space. Wavy lines, squares, elliptical buttons, and photographs make this a busy design. And yet somehow, this style makes us want to scroll further. 

Though the clash of colors and abundance of visuals is at the brink of being too much, there’s still a sense of cohesion. It’s easy to see what concerts are coming up at this venue. 

Brutalism is purposely weird — its strangeness is what keeps people engaged. Budapest Park succeeds with an unorthodox brutalist design that still effectively communicates information.

New Topographics

With a stripped-down look free from pretension, New Topographics communicates the purpose of the online photography museum. Dark gray and black, sparse white text, and lines forming linear connections between the different elements make this design feel closer to brutalist architecture.

The New Topographics website. It utilizes dark gray, black and white with sparse lines.

The design serves as a neutral backdrop, never getting in the way of the text or content about topographic photography. 

Trivi

While the majority of Trivi’s website delivers a more traditional user experience, the hiring page is crammed with blinking visuals, pixelated text, and other random elements all competing for our attention. 

An image of the Trivi website. It embraces us of a staticky background with a large digital-like headline "Do you collect trilobites."

If the rest of the web design were this frenetic it would be overwhelming. This is just enough brutalist absurdity to capture our attention and make us want to learn more.

Sergei Kalymykov

Brutalism provides the perfect sense of experimentalism for telling the story of the Russian avant-garde artist Sergei Kalmykiov

An image of Sergei Kalymykov's website. It features his name in large font as the heading, and "The streak of immortality," as the subhead.

With a black background and all of the text in the sans serif Angrandir, there’s a sense of stillness. This provides a strong sense of contrast to the visuals, which are feathered with a buzz of television-like static and ghostly colors. 

Brutalism tends to push a design to the brink of usability. Here, there is just the right sense of abstraction, giving it a surreal atmosphere. The design, built with Webflow, compliments the art of Sergei Kalmykiov.

Make Noise

Modular synthesis is a fairly esoteric branch of electronic music where artists sculpt and generate sound through specialized modules whose functionality depends on how they’re connected. Make Noise makes modular synth modules, and their product “Maths” is popular among many patch cable enthusiasts.

An image of the minimalistic and brutalist "Make Noise" website. It features a black background with typewriter-like font.

Modular synthesizers are far from being dubbed traditional musical instruments, which is why brutalism is the perfect look for this web design. There’s a minimalist color scheme of black with white text. Outside of Make Noise’s logo, we find just a single monospace typeface, Lucida Console. The layout has both symmetry and asymmetry for a slightly off-kilter feel. 

Brutalism, just like modular synthesis, explores new artistic possibilities, and Make Noise uses this aesthetic as the perfect showcase for their electronic instruments.

ThreeSixtyEight

ThreeSixtyEight takes what we expect about navigating a website and turns things around — forcing us to scroll up rather than down. Starting at the bottom of the page, we’re taken through the agency’s work from 2010 through present day. This unorthodox navigation is a perfect example of brutalism in action.  

An image of the the ThreeSixtyEight Culture Manual website. It features a bright red backfround with bold, minimalistic font. It also features arrows and dashes as accompanying graphics.

ThreeSixtyEight also embraces brutalism’s love of esoteric layouts. Their About page is a dizzying expanse of floating visuals that’s controlled by the cursor — another great touch of unconventionality.

The design is full of bold colors and visuals that do not adhere to the restrictions of grids. This website shows that they can push the boundaries of design while still crafting a stellar user experience. 

Typical Organization

Much like brutalist architecture that doesn’t hide raw materials, Typical Organization exposes its columns with gray lines as if they are weight-bearing elements for the text that runs over them.

An image of Typical Organization's website. It features three columns with a white background and black font.

A list of text is one of the most basic ways to display content. Here, all of the featured works are laid out vertically, with little variation in the text. Outside of the columns, all of this text appears the same. This is textbook brutalism. 

The navigation experience also gets a touch of experimentation. The text “Control” in the upper right-hand side doesn’t provide much indication of what it does until you engage with it, serving as a cryptic signifier. Once clicked, the color scheme inverts, and a list of categories appears, allowing you to navigate to different sections. Brutalism can be mysterious, and we love this unique navigational element.

Brutalist websites challenge what we know about web design

Most websites put us on autopilot with their familiar layouts and ordinary navigation. We’re able to get to the content we’re after without putting much thought into it. Brutalism smashes our expectations of how a website should look and function. Instead of a user experience that barely registers, we’re drawn into a digital space that demands our attention.

Looking for inspiration for your next design project? Whether you’re looking to do something brutalist or another design style, Made in Webflow is a valuable resource to see what people have been creating with Webflow. We hope to see your work there someday, too!

Last Updated
April 5, 2022
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