Designing for the web? Why not be brutal?

At the end of the working week, in Friday's late afternoon, everyone at earthware comes together for a retrospective. A special meeting where we can showcase our weeks’ work, and share our recent experiences with the whole team.

We take it in turns to host the meeting. To choose the order in which each member of staff gives their update. And because we’re curious people – curious about our colleagues and how they see the world – those of us that host the meetings will often pose interesting questions for the rest of us to answer.

During a recent retrospective, we were encouraged by the host to reveal an unusual habit, or a surprising hobby we might enjoy. When my turn came, I confessed to one of mine: I enjoy taking photographs of concrete buildings. I am a lover of brutalism.

Raw concrete

The term brutalism originates from Le Corbusier’s description of his own Unité d'habitation in Marseille. A building he described as being ‘béton brut’, or ‘raw concrete’. Brutalism prospered in the 60s and 70s, championed by architects like Marcel Breuer, Ernő Goldfinger, Paul Rudolph, and Le Corbusier. Brutalist buildings are characterised by their simple form and concrete construction.

Some notable examples of brutalist architecture in Britain include Ernő Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower, Preston Bus Station by Keith Ingham and Charles Wilson, and Denys Lasdun’s residence halls for the University of East Anglia.

Brutalism is frequently lauded for its functionalism. It’s an expression of design that promotes utility over aesthetics. Practicality over good looks. For admirers, that’s where the beauty lies; in the inherent honesty of the style. It’s entirely unpretentious.

It’s also a style that’s concerned with ethics. In its heyday, brutalism was a favoured solution for many social housing projects, university campuses, and government buildings. Partly because of its economic efficiency, but also due to its perceived integrity.

  Preston Bus Station


Universal principles

Brutalist architecture supports many of the principles that make for good building design. Simplicity. Affordability. Functional effectiveness. Principles that only grow in importance when creating public structures and spaces.

These tenets of architectural design transcend their medium. We, as designers for the web, are faced with the same challenges. How much of our design is essential and how much is frivolous? How do we keep our work within budgetary constraints? How should we best balance form and function?

As we approach the designs for our own public spaces, it’s tempting to look for resolutions to our problems in the same arena – to use other websites or web apps to help shape our decisions – when a wealth of undiscovered solutions lie outside of our immediate field. In the realms of architectural design, furniture design, industrial design, and so on.

Living better

Design is for people. Whether we’re designing a building, a chair, or a website; it’s people that interact with our creation. And the different disciplines of design are connected by the same purpose; to help human beings live better.

When you begin to sketch out your next web project, I’d like to ask you to take just a brief moment to consider the disciples of brutalism, and their passionate devotion to simplicity, honesty, and function. These are principles we can bring to the web. To help us live better.