We're taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming to talk about something that's been happening online for the last two years: brutalism.
Brutalism is an emergent web design philosophy. Put simply, it bucks tradition in favor of style. It scorns functionality for the sake of nostalgia.
Well, if you've seen it in the wild, you’ll know what we're talking about. If you haven't, then here are some links to check out:
What do all these sites share in common? Nothing … let’s be clear about that: brutalism breaks all the rules.
It's ugly. It's garrish. It ignores SEO. It embraces enormous graphics, cursors, gifs and serif fonts. It takes a long time to load, and (in most cases) it is NOT optimized for a mobile browser.
So why are we talking about it, and why should online marketers care?
The answer is simple: it’s awful on purpose, and people like it that way.
Getting up To Speed
First let’s talk about the trend itself. Brutalism emerged as a topic of conversation almost two years ago in October of 2017, when awwwards published a suitably horrible article on the subject, replete with contemporary examples.
Since then, others have criticized awwwards’ introduction for various reasons. Some accuse the design body of confusing brutalism with antidesign, a deliberately aggressive style mainly used for the sake of parody.
Soon after, Brutalist Websites emerged, cataloguing examples of the trend from around the Internet. Although recently it has announced the trend “dead” (as anyone will see from paying it a visit), it has since amassed hundreds of sites, all uniquely impressive in their ability to surprise.
We are going to reject the distinction between “anti-design” and “brutalism” for one simple reason: to the average web user, it makes no difference. Anti-design is unconventional for the sake of expression; brutalism is unconventional for the sake of attention.
In the end, these two trends overlap so closely that distinguishing them is of no practical importance. They both appeal to the same kind of crowd.
The Philosophy of Design
But what is that crowd? We’ll have to dive in deeper to find out.
Marketers are practical people, and they measure everything in terms of KPIs, conversion rates, bounce, clickthrough, and anything that can be quantified in a spreadsheet.
But ordinary people don’t care about those numbers. They care about what they find interesting, and what they find interesting can be influenced by many factors outside the world of business. So why is brutalism taking off?
Art & Politics
The first answer is the one you’ll hear from an art professor, and as far as we can tell, they’re not wrong this time: brutalism represents the re-emergence of a 20th century architecture movement which also happened to be called “brutalism”.
When brutalism emerged, it was shocking to many people. It comprised cold, stone, steely buildings which looked more like prison complexes than apartments or office towers. Twenty years after WWII and ten years before 1980, dystopia had seized the public consciousness, and brutalism managed to unite both the hopeful aspirations of Eastern block countries and the bleak prophecies of the Western hemisphere.
With political tensions running hot throughout the world in 2019, the return of brutalist design works. During crisis or upheaval, people seek out the unconventional and shocking for a sense of catharsis.
The Power of Nostalgia
For those who don’t understand cyber-nostalgia, brutalism may seem cynical and even positively offensive. For those who do, brutalism represents a warm, higher innocence hearkening back to the earliest days of the World Wide Web.
To Gen-Z, who grew up in the age of dialup and America Online, Brutalism is a nostalgic throwback to old web tropes like flashy animations, custom cursors and tabled web design.
All of these conventions died off for a good reason: they did not work well, and for some time, everyone laughed at them. But after a solid decade of CSS, HTML5 and tableless web-design, some Internet users miss the “good old days,” and brutalism is a pleasant reminder.
We’ve established that brutalism appeals to nostalgia and political dissatisfaction. What demographic best suits these interests? If you guessed “young people,” you’re absolutely correct. That’s why brutalism has been adopted by fashion brands such as a Gucci, Balenciaga and Band of Outsiders: companies that specifically target a younger demographic.
Ridiculing brutalism is equal parts a measure of taste and a question of marketing prowess. On the one hand, nobody can blame you for disliking it. But on the other hand, nobody can blame others for finding it interesting, fun, or nostalgic.
For a certain kind of crowd, brutalism works for a simple reason: it makes a brand seem chic, tongue-in-cheek, relevant, and unconcerned with standard marketing rules. Millennials are skeptical of marketing. Gen-Z is actually fine with marketing, but it likes brands who can catch their attention with clever messages.
Brutalism is one of those rare movements that can appeal to both groups equally.
When it’s Okay to Break the Rules
So here are a few important takeaways from the brutalist trend:
- “Rules are made to be broken” – every marketer should brush up on the best practices for a web presence; but best practices can and should be broken for principled reasons.
- It’s all about the customer – you’ll hear commentators say that brutalism is a bad customer experience (CX). Nonsense! Even though a brutalist website is more cumbersome on a technical level, customers thoroughly like and enjoy the design. Paradoxically, brutalism is the ultimate example of putting CX first.
- Nostalgia is a powerful drug – nostalgia is one of the simplest ways that marketers can connect with their audience. If there wasn’t such a generational gap between advertisers and their audience, it would be tapped into more often. (For a great example of nostalgia, check out ‘Child of The 90s,’ one of the most successful commercials for Microsoft Edge).
Whether brutalism is still alive or not, it stands as a shining example of marketers who understood their customers well and took risks to make an impact. If the popularity of the trend is anything to go by, it worked, and it worked well.
Conveyance Marketing Group is a team of bright, innovative and talented veteran marketers dedicated to big ideas, fresh insights and measurable results. We pride ourselves on taking challenging marketing issues and turning them into opportunities for our clients, on pointing brands in the right direction, and on getting our customers noticed both online and off. From branding to websites to digital marketing, and public relations, we handle all your marketing communication needs! Web Design and Development | Brand Strategy | Inbound Marketing | Social Media | SEO | PR