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Is Brutalist design coming back as Carbon Conscious?

jennyjudova profile image JennyJudova (she/they) ・6 min read

Earlier this week the new Space Jam 2021 trailer dropped and of course, the movie needed its own website. As by now the original website from 1997 is an iconic part of living internet history I expected the original website to be somehow incorporated into the marketing campaign. It was not.
tweet about the new space jam website

Luckily the original Space Jam website was not completely defaced, just relocated to https://www.spacejam.com/1996/

However, I am surprised the marketing team decided to ignore the original iconic site. Especially since more and more contemporary websites try to mimic the 90's Brutalist aesthetic which has actually aged quite well.
OG Space Jam
New Space Jam

What is Brutalism?

Brutalist web design should not be mistaken with Brutalist architecture - a style that became popular primarily in the UK after WWII. It is characterised by a ‘blocky’ appearance with a rigid geometric style and large-scale use of concrete. Brutalism prioritises functionality and structural elements over decorative design.

What is Brutalist Web design?

There is no one definition of what is Brutalist Web Design. I would argue that it's more a “vibe” than a set of design principles (or lack thereof). Lewis Menelaws' wrote a brilliant blog post trying to explain the design but for my purposes, I think Brutalist Design can be summed as a throwback to the internet of the late 90'ies.

The internet was the wild west with no existing conventions, patterns or rules. There were no existing solutions to problems like 'What should a navbar look like', or 'How does one present big data' because data was not yet big.
And though the imagination was limitless the developer toolset was very very limited. In fact, in the early 90's it was just HTML. PHP was born in 94, JavaScript in 95, CSS and Flash Player in 96 (if you are interested in web history How We Got Here by Richard Campbell is great). So Brutalist websites look either like stripped-down HTML or like they are trying to recreate Flash but on steroids.

Maybe this is Brutalism - a design that does not follow patterns.

What Brutalism is not

Brutalism is sometimes equated with unusable websites. Visually the two are similar however they are worlds apart.

Unusable websites feel like a design exercise that showcases the importance of design. Brutalism - is the design, and it does not equate with the absence of accessibility.

Arguably the 90's websites were more accessible than contemporary ones, if you needed a button you used the tag < button > not the < a > tag that was then styled to look like a button. My current personal website is HTML only and it scores 100% on accessibility.
Alt Text

Some examples

Brutalism is a “vibe” not a set of rules so it's easier to show. Here is a shortlist of websites that fall under the Brutalist Vibe:

The spectrum is pretty big
From the really loud sites that look more like a collage that came to life:
https://www.toiletpapermagazine.org/
Toiletpaper shop
https://benhalpern.com/
Ben Halpern

To those that seem really basic:
https://x20xx.com/
x20xx

To somewhere in between:
http://www.milliondollarhomepage.com/
million dollar homepage

Is Brutalism dead?

For many, Brutalism is an interesting yet unusable design - fascinating to look at but not commercially viable. The style is relegated to weekend projects and portfolio sites.

Speaking of personal websites, the creator of Sass Hampton Catlin's portfolio website is 'chef's kiss' meets 'big flex'.
Hampton Catlin's portfolio website

Brutalism the art world darling?

The only industry that seems to have many examples of Brutalist websites is Art. Why? I can only guess. Maybe because brutalism is perceived as creative, or maybe because it looks like you are cool without trying to be cool; Big Lebowski style. Or maybe because like an ad campaign for Vintage Volga or Gucci Brutalist web design screams ‘90s meets y2k.
The Dude from Big Lebowski
Volga Vintage
Gucci 2020 campaign

Or maybe because many art projects are not interested in selling to mass audiences. Some they are not for profit and others sell out before their work even goes on sale. Thus, their sites do not need to be a streamlined sales funnel. In some cases, the website exists just to showcase past projects.

Here are some of my personal favourites:
https://hannahbarry.com/
Hannah Berry website
https://circa.art/
Circa Website
https://mschf.xyz/
mschf
https://www.stedelijk.nl/en
stedelijk
http://kunsthallezurich.ch/en
kunsthalle zurich
https://www.cabinet.uk.com/
cabinet
https://www.greengrassi.com/
green grassi
https://nicoletticontemporary.com/
nicoletti contemporary
https://new.deappel.nl/nl/
De Appel Amsterdam website

And of course my own pride and joy https://climateart.org.uk/
climate art

Brutalism as Climate conscious web design

Let's face it Millennials are a generation that was taught about climate change from primary school, if not kindergarten, and so was Gen Z. As we move from fast fashion to vintage, from cow milk to oat milk, from liquid soap to bar soap it's no surprise that some of us also started looking into the carbon footprint of their website via tools like Website Carbon. Millennials (people between 25 and 40) now make the bulk of people currently working in tech and building websites.

And there are some incredibly high profile organisations that have adopted Brutalist design because it is environmentally friendly.

Elon Musk (love or hate him) has to always be in the avant-garde and the website of Musk Foundation is plain HTML with 7 lines of text. The website is perfectly in line with the climate-conscious mission statement.
musk foundation

The art world darlings Formafantasma wrote a climate manifesto when they redesigned their website.
forma fantasma website

So what does this all mean? It means that there is an argument to be made that web design like all other design: fashion, interior, architecture, is cyclical. y2k is back not just in fashion but also in web design.

On a personal note as a person who knows enough about design to see what looks good and what looks bad but not enough to actually create a beautiful design the fact that we are moving in the carbon-conscious direction of less is more and basic is cool - makes me very very happy. If the Brutalist whimsy comes back repackaged as 'Good for the Earth', well, that's just brilliant news.

Returning back to Space Jam guess which of the two sites is better for the environment?
New Space Jam website carbon results
OG Space Jam website carbon results

Discussion (5)

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maureento8888 profile image
Maureen T'O • Edited

I love Website Carbon! I think carbon footprint in the tech world isn’t understood well and I think we’d benefit from transitioning off heavy carbon-producing servers for hosting websites even. I was surprised after using the tester that a site I built was run off of peat-bog energy which could be cleaner if I transitioned to another hosting service😯💡

Love the art history lesson! Brutalist design has a history in Toronto on my university’s campus with the largest library - Robart’s Library - that literally looks like a concrete, straight-edged bird shape (don’t even ask about the elevator system inside 💀). It’s supposed to be a peacock but students call it the “turkey”. Supposedly the architect who built it has a dark past which funny enough coincidentally matches the brutalist architecture 🥲

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jennyjudova profile image
JennyJudova (she/they) Author

I am getting more and more interested in web's carbon footprint, and I guess even more how exactly is it calculated. Are there any other resources you use apart from Website Carbon?

Oh wow Robart Library looks awesome! Definitely see the turkey/peacock shape :D

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maureento8888 profile image
Maureen T'O

Website Carbon’s the only one I know and use! 😓 I’d love to know other companies that do what they do - that’s why Website Carbon’s currently my go-to 😂 HAHAH yes the many times I walked into and past Robarts and used it’s elevator system is beyond me 💀😂

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steelvoltage profile image
Brian Barbour

You've inspired me to redo my personal website with a brutalist design. Brings me back to my childhood using the internet on dial up.

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jennyjudova profile image
JennyJudova (she/they) Author

Do share it when its done! :)

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