Whoever said art comes from pain might have predicted a design term like “brutalism.” Of course, while the name may sound more like a Mortal Kombat finisher than an art movement, brutalist design isn’t as threatening as you’d expect. The term comes from the French béton brut or “raw concrete,” and like it’s namesake, the style is stark, honest and captivating. The movement began in the 1950s, and its appeal endures to this day.
At the same time, brutalism is known not only for the fascination it inspires but the controversy: critics have called it everything from “cold” to “monstrous.” It is a style that has never failed to elicit a reaction, for better or worse. That’s why if you want to adopt it for your own design purposes, it is important to do so with a full awareness of what you’re getting yourself into.
What is brutalism?
Brutalism is a utilitarian aesthetic movement that shuns decoration in favor of exposing and celebrating the raw materials used to construct the design. It largely had its heyday in the architecture of the 1950s to 1970s, but it has recently seen a resurgence in modern digital design.
The reason why brutalism has been able to jump between such wildly different design disciplines is that it tends to describe more of a mindset than visual characteristics. By exposing materials of construction, brutalism has nothing to hide. It trades lofty ideals of beauty for the cold, hard truth.
Brutalism vs. minimalism
In some ways, brutalism is related to minimalism in general philosophy, but there are key differences. Minimalism also takes a less-is-more approach, reducing design to its essential elements. At the same time, it usually doesn’t go as far as stripping a design down to bareness.
For example, a minimalist website will still pay attention to considerations like color scheme and typography choice whereas a brutalist website can appear to throw out front-end styling altogether, using plain white backgrounds and default computer fonts like Times New Roman.
The brutalist approach has less to do with austerity and more to do with celebrating the few design elements that are present. For example, many brutalist buildings use raw concrete in over-the-top arrangements that would make a minimalist shudder. In this way, a brutalist design can be contradictorily more extravagant and more extremely minimalist than an actual minimalist design.
The characteristics of brutalism
The visual characteristics of brutalism can be hard to pin down, as they not only vary from designer to designer but from medium to medium. With that said, let’s go over some of the common features of brutalism:
- Exposure of materials—concrete for architecture, the default, unstyled HTML for websites
- Monochromatic color schemes, often black and white or grey
- An emphasis on bare functionality, devoid of decoration
- Modular, repeated design elements
- Layered, articulated or extruded pieces
- Rectilinear edges
- Unedited or as-is design elements
The history of brutalism
Our story begins with destruction. It’s the 1940s, WWII has just ended, and many of the UK’s buildings lie scattered on the streets in smoking ruins. The country must rebuild and do so quickly in order to provide housing for the displaced and government buildings to reestablish order. On top of all of this, there is a shortage of materials thanks to a years-long war effort.
Meanwhile, a very different kind of war is brewing with their former fair-weather allies: the Soviet Union. The Soviets have their own housing crisis: in addition to repairing war damage, urban centers are facing overpopulation, and the communist government has promised housing for all. Their solution is to build prefab tenement structures called Khrushchyovka that follow identical floorplans and use low cost materials. Not only is this an efficient way to construct public housing on a massive scale, it fits in with the communist ethos: the buildings reject bourgeois pretension and reflect social equality in their sameness.
Westerners of the day, diametrically opposed to all things communist, see these buildings differently—as expressions of oppressive uniformity and equalized poverty. Thus, brutalist designers emerge in the UK to answer this dilemma. They use cheap, raw materials but with more striking features to give the buildings a sense of individuality and grandeur. Buildings with stark concrete facades and extruded sections start popping up all over the UK: the Hunstanton School, The City of Westminster’s Smithson Plaza, the Balfron Tower and the National Theatre.
Eventually this spreads to other parts of the world, mainly on institutional buildings: the Alumni Memorial Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology, the Perth Concert Hall in Australia, the Robarts Library in Toronto. In a 1953 issue of Architectural Digest, the term “New Brutalism” appears for the first time, and a global movement is born.
Despite its popularity, brutalism could ultimately never escape its association with totalitarian regimes. Because these heavy grey slabs were often used to construct institutional buildings, it made them feel even more impenetrable, colorless and imposing.
Media involving totalitarian themes typically turn to brutalist set design, as seen in the grey and angular backdrops in Michael Radford’s film adaptation of 1984. As a result, in the 70s the style largely fell into decline. But it left behind several monuments to its reign in the skylines around the world, waiting to inspire the next generation of designers…
Brutalism’s revival in digital design
In recent years, brutalism has seen a revival in the unlikeliest of places: digital interfaces. On the surface, the connection between brutalist architecture and websites seems tenuous, if not impossible.
Brutalist architecture emphasizes raw materials, particularly concrete, but web design is obviously digital, devoid of physical materials—raw or otherwise. But the underlying traits of brutalism, namely authenticity and efficient construction, transcend genre.
Brutalism in web design began as mostly functional: one of the more famed brutalist sites is Craigslist, whose barebones appearance has changed little since the 90s. Intentional or not, whenever web designers focused on creating interfaces that were simple, unpretentious and useful, they were taking a brutalist approach.
Since around 2014, brutalist websites have flourished under a very different intention. The adoption of the term “brutalism” to describe digital design appears to have originated with Pascal Deville, co-founder of the creative agency Freundliche Grüsse. He started up brutalistwebsites.com to catalogue the new online phenomenon he was witnessing.
He characterizes the revival as youthful rebellion against soft, corporate, crowd-pleasing styles such as flat or material design that have become ubiquitous on the modern web. In contrast to traditional brutalism, the appeal now seems to be “its ruggedness and lack of concern to look comfortable or easy.”
With brutalism entering the digital sphere, its visual characteristics are now more distinctly articulated through typography and color choices, expanding its reach to all manner of design applications. Let’s take a look at the variety of ways designers continue to interpret brutalism to this day.
Brutalism in contemporary design
Brutalism in the modern age of design has its roots in the ideas of its architectural ancestor. Like the slabs of concrete, digital brutalism lets you see the blank screen other designers might hide with color and texture. Like the rough edges of buildings, brutalist websites eschew all editing, showcasing default computer fonts and square, untreated photos.
A recurring feature of classic brutalism is the imposing nature of its giant, stone buildings. Web designers often interpret this with oversized typography.
Design by Davide Baratta via Dribbble
Design by Aleksandar Igrošanac via Dribbble
Digital designers also subvert the common tropes of brutalism, accomplishing feats of which architects working with physical materials are not capable. A recent popular interpretation of the style came about in the 2019 video game Control.
In the game, players navigate a secretive bureaucratic office complex known as the Oldest House. Much of the building is in the traditional brutalist style. What is missing is the honesty—a regular feature of brutalist buildings is that you can clearly imagine their interiors from the outside. In Control, however, the interior of the Oldest House is unsettlingly labyrinthine and endless. At several moments, players witness the stone slabs literally rearranging themselves.
Similarly, web designers can expand on the original incarnation of brutalism, using animation to accentuate digital brutalist features or taking advantage of the lack of true borders on the web to create designs that go off the edge.
This design takes advantage of animation to cycle through brutalist elements, a feat of which the brutalist architecture is not capable. Design by Renato Mandic via Dribbble
While brutalism is most popular on the web these days, many of the stylistic features like monochromatism and raw text are amenable to any design context, from posters to book covers. The more important consideration is audience and tone—in other words, the types of projects and brands for which brutalism will be a match.
As Deville originally pointed out, contemporary brutalism comes across as youthful and rebellious, and it usually aimed at younger, artsier audiences. Because it can be polarizing, brutalism has become common on more personal ventures, such as on portfolio websites or blogs. Projects that can afford to take creative liberties, such as album covers or street apparel branding or designs for entertainment purposes, also pair well with a brutalist aesthetic.
It also fits designs that are smaller in scope—the starkness of brutalism can become exhausting on a website you’re using for longer than a few minutes. And finally, it is especially useful for brands that use a lot of crowdsourced or user generated content, showcasing these products in their natural, unedited state.
An important distinction the UX research collective Nielsen Norman Group makes is the difference between brutalism and what they term “antidesign.” In many cases, the two share similar features: a raw design approach and abandonment of conventional aesthetic principles. However, antidesign (as the name implies) makes a point of ugliness, often using clashing colors, no discernable visual hierarchy and skewed, hard-to-read text.
It’s more of a punk mindset whereas brutalism tends to have its roots in efficiency and functionality. Sometimes what makes a design brutalist or not comes down to intention, but the heart-stopping emotion it elicits often remains the same.
Dare to be brutal(ist)
Whether brutalism is as scary as it sounds ultimately depends on who you ask. But at the end of the day, you’d be hard pressed to ignore a design style that has attracted such ire and fascination throughout the decades. Brutalism rose from the ashes of war, gave shelter to the bereft, and 70 years later, its monuments are still standing. Such a powerful style is worth the risk to try out on your design projects every now and then.
First, a warning: brutalism is so visually striking that it can be tempting to adopt the style for pure, empty gimmickry. To get the most from it, remember where brutalism came from and how it made the face of design a little more brutally honest.