Brutalism, the sublime and everyday digital design

A version of this post was first published on the web design magazine Creative Bloq.

Design isn’t art. Designers don’t create for the sake of creating: they seek to help their clients achieve their communications objectives, drawing upon a toolkit of pragmatic, proven design methodologies and techniques.

Design is a systematic. Before putting pen to paper, cursor to pixel, designers follow a process: they analyse target audiences, develop user personas and study the work of their client’s competitors. That research establishes parameters within which the designer’s imagination can work, suggesting appropriate of imagery, typography, colours and layout.

This understanding of design as method provides the philosophical foundation for the curricula of all contemporary design schools, and is set down as a mark of professional competence on the ‘how we work’ page of every design agency website.

But it hasn’t always been that way. Today’s design orthodoxies are less than a century old, evolving from the modernist design movements of the early 20th century. Before then designers were indeed considered artists, of a sort. Consider, for example, the illustrative style of Victorian design, or the craftsman-as-artist aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts movement. And even modernism, which supposedly led us from the murk of subjectivity to the clear, cool light of rationalist design methodology, was a rather more complex phenomenon than that simple narrative suggests.

In his BBC series Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry the cultural commentator Jonathan Meades insists that the history of 20th century design was not the story of modernism but of modernisms, with diverse understandings of the purpose and nature of design. His focus here is architecture, but his arguments are relevant to all design mediums, including the web. (If you didn’t catch the TV series see the accompanying piece he wrote for The Guardian.)

As I’ve come to expect from Meades his polemic was panoramic, witty and designed to offend. For him the most vital design movement of the last century was the most despised: Brutalism, a radical architecture whose surviving housing estates, bus stations, shopping centres and public libraries are commonly referred to in tabloid lexicon as ‘concrete monstrosities’.

Brutalism emerged as a reaction to the glacial International Style that dominated mid-century Western architecture. The International Style celebrated order, modularity, the grid and Euclidean geometry. Meades paraphrases Corbusier’s famous formulation that a house is a ‘machine for living’:

International modernism strove for standardisation, for production line architecture, for collective anonymity and personal self-effacement: the ideal building was not only a machine, it appeared to be designed by a machine.

Process was prioritised over expression, the use of pre-fabricated, standardised components over customised detail. Everything started to look the same. Meades:

The same few devices were endlessly employed: most had flat roofs, most had white walls, most had abundant glass, most shunned ornament, which as every junior draughtsman knew was ‘crime’, because a dotty Austrian Adolf Loos had said so.

The recasting of the designer as engineer was stealing architecture’s soul. Brutalism sought to revitalise architecture by restoring what had been lost: subjectivity, novelty, wildness.

Brutalist architects transposed modernist architecture to a strange new key. They used steel and glass but introduced a new material: concreate, the Béton brut that gave the style its name. And where the cool Platonism of the International Style prized order and rationality, the Brutalists celebrated a Dionysian expressionism:

The expressionist instinct was entirely contrary, undisguisedly individualistic, the artist is omnipresent, pulling the strings, performing, failing to be modest, asserting him or herself.

Brutalism shunned the Internationalist concern for consistency. Each new Brutalist design was conceived as a departure from those that had come before. Brutalist architects rejected the use of pre-fabricated, standardised components, and prioritised form before function, throwing up jagged alien geometries:

Inverted pyramids, allusive shapes, reckless cantilevers, toppling ziggurats, vertiginous theatre, imitations of pyrites, the defiance of gravity: always a sign that a demigod is at work. The architectural imagination was flying.

Brutalism aspired to sublimity rather than beauty, the shock of the new:

These structures challenge the gods. They’re monuments to mankind’s supremacy. They’re supremely optimistic, supremely confident, supremely hubristic. Mankind, when it was discovered that there was no god saw an opportunity. There was a void to be filled. And to be filled with ostentatious, earnest and grandiose exultation. This was a near sacred project, undertaken with the utmost gravity. It usurped the god that wasn’t.

Meades cites the evolution of Le Corbusier’s work as illustrative of the shift in sensibilities, comparing his Villa Savoye of the 1930s to the Unité d’Habitation of the 1950s. ‘He had, so to speak,’ says Meades, ‘abandoned the prose of a technical manual in favour of the poetry of the sublime.’

But by the 1980s it was all over, freewheeling postmodernist styles replacing Brutalism’s uncompromising avant-gardism. Meades is withering:

It’s the revenge of a mediocre age on an age of epic grandeur. It’s the cutting down to size of a culture which committed the cardinal sin of getting above its station, pushing god aside and challenging nature. It’s the destruction too, of the embarrassing evidence of a determined optimism, that made us more potent than we have become. We don’t measure up against those who took risks, who flew and plunged to find new ways of doing things, who were not scared to experiment, who lived lives of perpetual enquiry.

Meades’ apocalyptic commentary lifts the clash between the International and Brutalist styles from a dispute between mid-20th century architectural schools to the realm of myth: a tale of the eternal struggle between order and free expression of interest to designers working in every medium, including the web.

The rational principles of the International Style have been dominant throughout web design’s short history. Professional web designers use disciplined grid systems, modular typographic scales, sharp vectors, simple colour schemes and crisp photography. The trend towards flat design has made Internationalism more dominant than ever. But there is, and has always been, a rebellious undercurrent, a desire for greater personal expression, for the new for the sheer sake of newness.

Recall, for example, the trend for grunge of five or six years ago, a style based on the collage organic elements: scans of torn paper, stencil and spray-paint typography, impressionistic, urban photography. A few years before that avant-garde web design was dominated by Flash, which allowed for wide ranging experimentation with navigation styles, animations and page transitions. And it could be said that web interface design was born as an act of rebellion, when designers started to use tables to facilitate print style layouts, breaking the semantic bonds between content and structure that it took the advocacy of the web standards movement years to restore.

But all in all web design is a conservative field. The back end technologies that power website functionality might be in a permanent state of revolution, but at on the surface the shining rationalist interfaces of the web exude a pacific, timeless calm.

Indeed it’s an eerie calm, generating the persistent, rumbling complaint: everything looks too damn similar. This tendency towards sameness has intensified recently through wider use of design frameworks and WordPress themes that make it easy to snap together a website from pre-fabricated design patterns, building blocks that can be pieced together like Lego.

So, let’s undertake a brief thought experiment: what might be the core principles of a Brutalist web design manifesto? To what extent – if at all – is the Brutalist aesthetic applicable to the web? I offer five principles for consideration, spiced with some of Meades’ trenchant commentary:

First: Web design should celebrate the new, the original, the transgressive. Each project should be considered an opportunity to break new ground, to transcend what has gone before. We should seek originality as an aesthetic and moral imperative, as a means to moving design forward into new vsual realms. Meades:

Progress explicitly connotes movement, change, perpetual experiment. Equally explicitly it precludes stasis.

Second: Design should be unashamed in its pursuit of subjective expression, the realisation of the singular vision of the designer. The designer/artist leads the creative process, shaping it in accord with their experience, vision and imagination. Isn’t that precisely what the client is paying them to do? Imagining his ideal Brutalist architect Meades says:

They have both been habitually regarded as transgressive, for they show the architect not as a servile technician or social worker, but as a maker, an artist. An artist creates what he regards as necessary, he creates in order to achieve something which did not previously exist. What an artist does is not pander to his patron’s taste; rather he flatters the patron into believing that it is he, the patron, who is the creator of the scheme which the architect has proposed. The collusive first person plural is important here, we think, we do, we achieve: thus the architect is granted the licence to do his will. Again, he does not attend to a notional audience. Second guessing doesn’t come into it.

Third: Design should celebrate intuition, spontaneity, mysticism: there should less concern with user research, personas, and audience expectation. Designers should seek to overwhelm, to shock, to challenge, break and reset expectations. It sounds absurdly indulgent, and from a commercial point of view, downright irresponsible. But consider the example of Apple, famous for its shunning of customer research. Meades is scathing about design by consensus:

It’s evident, that if an audience is asked what form a new housing development should take, it will reply like ‘A’ or like ‘B’, something with which it is already familiar, something it understands, not something new, not something which is yet uninvented. The consensual cannot help but be feeble.

Fourth: Web design should seek impact, prioritise sublimity over ordered beauty. Designers set out to make an impression. Designs should favour striking imagery, bold typography, elemental colour schemes, and sharp, concise content. To borrow the title of a recent book by Maurice Saatchi, web design should be characterised by a Brutal Simplicity of Thought.

Fifth: A web interface should be an organic unity, the design of each component consistent with and reinforcing of the guiding aesthetic. Each new design should have its own visual grammar: sites should never be constructed from a patchwork of pre-fabricated elements.

Bracing stuff. How many of these principles make any sense when applied to web design?

I think we can agree that originality of vision and freshness of imagination are good things, even applied to most pedestrian design project. And that it is the designer’s prerogative to lead, if not dictate: clients do look to designers to present new perspective, to look aslant at a project brief and make things new through force of imagination and clarity of vision. We might also acknowledge the design of an uncluttered, direct and unambiguous visual message as being especially important for web design. And we can agree that each website should have its own character, comprising unique visual elements: if we are going to use a framework as a basis for design let us at least apply our own styles to the building blocks.

But a Brutalist web, like a Brutalist city, would be a somewhat exhausting place. How would one navigate an environment in which every building clamours for attention, seeks to proclaim its absolute difference from its neighbours, its own unique genius? How would we cope with a web with no commonalities as we move from site to site, with no shared conventions or wayfinding devices to help us to find our way round?

And exciting as the idea is, especially when articulated with Meades’ eloquence, can designers really be considered artists? Or artists designers? Design by its very nature has a conditioned aspect that is not true of art. Designers have an objective, a problem to solve, a client to please, an audience to satisfy. Artists, under true conditions of creative freedom, need not consider any of that: they create for its own sake, for no particular audience, with no particular purpose other than to illuminate and bring into sharper focus an aspect of existence – just for the sake of doing so. Design is, unavoidably, a public activity, with public obligations. Art has no obligations.

But whatever we might ultimately make of Meades’ argument, he makes us think. We might find the Brutalist aesthetic offensive, but that, he insists, is the whole point: it sets out to challenge, to uproot, to undermine, to question, to force us to consider why we prefer the status quo, why we think we’ve already got it right. Any form of design, be it architecture or web design, can only move forward if subjected to continual challenge, from the most severe and passionate of critics. By holding our cherished design principles up to the light for examination we affirm their worth – or otherwise.

Image credit: The image at the top of this page is of the Pilgrimage Church at Neviges, Germany, designed by Gottfried Böhm | Photo by Maria Königin des Friedens.