A subversive act came back to me recently. While reading about the trend of brutalism in design, I recalled what David Carson did to a dull interview with singer Bryan Ferry for a 1994 issue of Ray Gun. Carson set the entire piece in Zapf Dingbats, making a stinging statement about the emptiness of content that offers readers nothing new. As the great Tibor Kalman, founder of the New York City design firm M&Co, would say in an interview for Eye magazine two years after Carson published his message, “Design is just language and the real issue is what you use that language to do.”
Like Carson’s infamous piece, today’s designs are eschewing easy visual communication in favor of a more complex design response. White space or clashing colors, sans serif fonts, minimal ornamentation and very few on-page elements abound in websites like Bloomberg.com and the Drudge Report, and the style is spreading offline. But where did brutalism originate? And is it anything more than just another trend amongst many?
An architectural style not only spawned the word brutalism, but also buildings that used the most fundamental construction material—concrete. Indeed, the word derives from the French phrase for ‘raw concrete,’ béton brut, as coined by architect Le Corbusier. But brutalist architecture was not intended to be “a mildewed lump of elephant droppings,” as Prince Charles once described a brutalist complex. Its genesis lies in postwar modernism, which made the most of new manufacturing processes to quickly and cheaply replace civic buildings and educational institutions in war-ravaged cities. Brutalist architecture built on that aesthetic as a coherent, rational step forward.
Raw is one word that describes the aesthetic, which has since relocated from cities to websites and more. Jeremiah Shoaf, designer and curator of online typography resource Typewolf, offers another: harsh. “Saturated, sometimes clashing colors with nontraditional layouts are a hallmark of the style,” he says. “It’s a reaction against designers building sites using frameworks and templates, which has led to everything starting to look the same—slick, friendly and corporate.” (Just see brands like Apple and Airbnb.) Global practitioners of the style would agree—among them Adrian Bruno Pruß and Kolja Fröhlich, cofounders of German design studio Paria Radikal. “Graphic design contents are constantly repeating themselves. Consumers are tired of the whole ballyhoo, and you cannot overexcite people anymore,” they say. “The retrogression and tendency to a more simple style is the predictable consequence of the overload.”
In the Netherlands and Sweden, design studio Our Polite Society adds another dimension to the emergence of the style. “For us, the brutalist current in graphic design also comes from the punk DIY culture and fanzine production of the late 1970s—the whole ‘This is a chord... now form a band’ thing. This ideology actually greatly resembles architectural brutalism,” say partners Jens Schildt and Matthias Kreutzer. They recall the words of architect and Bauhaus graduate Max Bill, who said that restraints and low budgets led him to use “robust, cheap materials whose natural qualities complemented each other” for the iconic Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm (Ulm School of Design) building in Ulm, Germany. “One had to use whatever means at hand to build or publish something. We started Our Polite Society in the crash year of 2008; maybe that’s why our work lacks coziness,” muse Schildt and Kreutzer.
Brutalist design may be au courant, but its bones are hardly new. The work of United Kingdom–based design and publishing company FUEL has always contained the building blocks of brutalism: sparse, clean design, Swiss Style fonts and pared-back graphics. “We sometimes explain this as a reaction to the 1980s and 1990s work we were surrounded by as students, which favored content over style. But this could be postrationalizing an approach that actually reflects our attitudes and personalities. We’ve always been independent, outsiders and—at the start at least—a little arrogant,” recalls cofounder Damon Murray. Provocation also plays a part for Paria Radikal, which says, “Maybe the trend evolves from fun, from boredom, as a protest or—like for us—from enjoying protest and from the will to provoke. In brutalism, functionality, bulkiness, and focus on materials and constructions harmonize [the design] and also [help it] clearly stand out from the crowd.”
The inventive work of South Korea–based design studio Workroom also exhibits many brutalist traits. Cofounder Kim Hyung-Jin attributes the studio’s output to an appreciation of the simple, clean design of the 1950s. “I love the Swiss Style; it’s true. When I started graphic design, it seemed quite different from the other styles I had known—American postmodern or the highly decorative Japanese graphic style.” On the wider trend of brutalism, he says, “It comes from a contempt for the idea of ‘graphic’ design and the love for a ‘joke.’”
Other agencies that utilize attributes of the style refute the idea that their work is purposely brutalist. “Our work exists somewhere down the line of modernism, of which brutalism is part, but it would be boring to reduce it to just that one aspect by labeling it,” says Our Polite Society. “Our definition of brutalism, if we were to have one, would probably somehow oppose the myth of ‘good design.’ Brutal as in crude, losing control maybe, being big and small at the same time—epic.”
Stripping away graphic elements to achieve an unpolished design is the foundation of brutalism. In Tim Lindacher and Steffen Hotel’s case, the style lent itself perfectly to the content. After coming across brutalist web “nondesign” back in 2012 and 2014, Lindacher and Hotel began exploring design directions for their A Mag A Month project in Germany. From the very first issue, they decided to reduce the design to basics, refining the style for the second issue, on land speed records and the vehicles that attempted to break them. “We wanted to create something rough, jarring and ragged that would fit perfectly with its counterpart—the [cars]. These vehicles ... were not built for the purpose of being pretty. All they had to do was go as fast as hell ... and that is what we wanted to create with this design. No ornaments, no colors, nothing,” says Lindacher. For an unexpected twist, they used a sans serif font with inverted characters, called Sneak, from Konstanz, Germany–based independent type design collective Tightype.
“It’s fascinating that this [desire to produce Swiss Style fonts] still seems to be a natural reaction to the modernist legacy, to question the norm by making your own version,” says Our Polite Society. “Sometimes it seems like everyone has designed their own. It’s a confirmation and a counterstatement at the same time ... that’s a very constructive way of making things your own and to try to figure out your position. If you look at it like that, the form and the question of good and bad is secondary; it’s all about doing it, about energy.”
For designers, it is also about making sure the design is fit for its purpose. Craigslist, which is regarded as a prime example of brutalist web design, is one of the first places you’d turn to for a used coffee table or a secondhand bike. “If you want to showcase design—for example, in a magazine—you can push your own design until it’s ‘more important’ than what you actually want to show. In the case of Craigslist, design’s role is to help the user find things quickly. Design is not only about making things look good. It is also about finding solutions and then fixing them with good design. So brutalist design definitely has a role and place in design, unless it misses its original [intent],” says Lindacher.
Murray concurs: “I’m not quite sure what ‘legitimate design’ or ‘nondesign’ or ‘good design’ are. Craigslist has been designed, which means decisions have been made about appearance; the choices might appeal to some designers as an example of ‘nondesign,’ but they remain design decisions. What is essential is how we use these design elements—how we make them serve a purpose.”
Miguel Naranjo and Diego Etxeberria, cofounders of Madrid-based design studio Naranjo–Etxeberria, conclude, “If you can do simple and powerful, you don’t need more. ... we believe in a strong functional message mixed with the visual culture of the moment we are living in right now.”
When all is said and done, the similarities between brutalist architecture and design go beyond a tidy list of words. Both emerged during perplexing and frightening shifts—the compulsion to create order and simplicity is one reaction; the desire to create something that reflects harshness is another; and the real fact of limited budgets, leading to raw solutions, is a third. As Our Polite Society says, “Brutalism strongly connects to a design position which is about ‘nothing but organization: social, technical, economical, psychological organization,’ as Hannes Meyer said of building and the Bauhaus.”
So, will brutalist design endure?
Shoaf thinks so. “Like all design trends, it will pass, but I think brutalism with leave its mark. The recent Dropbox redesign was definitely inspired by the brutalist movement, which shows that even a big company can be open to a look that is a little weird, even if it is a little off-putting. Hopefully this mainstream acceptance will lead to designers pushing the boundaries a bit more, and maybe [it will] make brands realize that they don’t always have to go with safe and generic design choices.” ca