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Is brutalist design the new cool kid in branding?

Find out what brutalist design is, and whether is making a comeback or not

brutalist design

So it’s time to talk about brutalist design and its apparent comeback as a trend.

First of all, let’s try to explain what is Brutalist Design. In the words of UX moguls NNG…

Like minimalist design, brutalist digital design descends from an earlier movement. Web brutalism is inspired by the brutalist architecture of the 1950s. Brutalist buildings are characterized by their heavy and ‘ruthless’ appearance.

NNGroup

Brutalist design is also known as anti-design, and it’s a trend that many of us have seen over the years, specially at the beginning of the web.

Later, with the advent of mobile technologies and a greater interest in user experience, brands were moving away from any relationship with this style, as much as they could.

However, there are different conceptions of what this trend is. In theory, brutalist design is a plain, unadorned design that focuses on use rather than form or decoration. Which would imply that it would be the UX design par excellence, or even the central principle of the Bauhaus “Form follows function”.

And it’s very easy to check: if we build a wireframe of a website, without mockups or prototypes, only the basic functionality, we will get the definition of brutalist design!

However, the brutalist design trend in recent years has two variants: what we could call “classic” and another that deviates towards what we can consider “anti-design”.

Brutalist Design vs Anti-design

As we said earlier, in brutalism we have a very simple, unadorned design that only focuses on functionality.

This design trend comes from the architectural brutalism of the 50s, with large structures and concrete, metal and glass blocks. In this architectural trend, function preceded form. However, the shape was an important part of its aesthetic, which was dominant, rigid and imposing.

brutalist design in architecture
Brutalist architecture: one of the pavilions of the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Urbanism (FADU) of the University of Buenos Aires

Although this classic brutalist design is considered by many to be the same as minimalist design, this is not correct. Brutalist design can look as minimalist to most people. But minimalism is a studied aesthetic, while brutalist design is the absence of aesthetics.

An example is our own site: although it consciously takes elements from brutalist design, the conception is aesthetic and based on functional needs (accessibility, loading speed, usability), so we are talking about a minimalist aesthetic.

Within this style we can find well-known examples, such as Craiglist or Wikipedia.

On the contrary, the design trend that is identified with anti-design deliberately moves away from simplicity to transform itself into complex and even absurd constructions.

Furthermore, they question what we usually consider beautiful, or what is a “correct” design, to embrace a more raw aesthetic. this is why it is called “anti-design”: the antagonistic concepts of beautiful / ugly, usable / not usable or discreet / absurd do not take place and can coexist or be completely destroyed.

A classic example of this design stream is Drudge Report, and its unconventional design.

brutalist design: Drudge Report, example of anti-design trend
Screenshot of Drudge Report website

The emergence of brutalism in new brand design

Once we understand what brutalist design is, let’s move on to the emergence of this style in recent years.

Although it is not a widely used style, it is increasingly being seen in different brands. Curiously, it is very common to see brutalist design in fashion brands. Examples of this are Balenciaga and Zara (in this regard, a few years ago we worked for Zara and proposed a colorful aesthetic that moved away from black and white. The proposal was immediately rejected, and seen from a distance, it was a correct decision).

Zara’s example is very interesting, because they started with a controversial logo design by Baron&Baron (note: we LOVED it at first sight) which created a growth hacking campaign all by itself. There was a subsequent rebranding, but the ground-breaking, brutalist brand identity was teh core of such campaign and a massive growth in income. Food for thought.

Brutalist Design: Balenciaga Homepage
Balenciaga’s homepage
Brutalist Design: Zara Homepage
Zara’s Homepage: now has color, but very low accessibility and usability

On the side closest to anti-design, we have examples such as Also or this particular article by Bloomberg for Domino Pizza, which challenges aesthetic and usability conceptions. And still, the user experience is not bad at all. Rather, it’s fun, nimble, and memorable. And we are talking about Bloomberg, a brand known for its classic and conservative values.

Image for Is brutalist design the new cool kid in branding? 5
Also’s logo design challenges all brand design conventions

So, it’s brutalist design REALLY making a comeback?

That’s quite a question. There are many brands that already engaged in brutalism aesthetics at some point. This includes Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Facebook. So it’s not adventurous to guess they may experiment with some brutalist design experiences, such as barebones user interfaces.

As a matter of fact, some designers are already embracing this aesthetic. And guess what? Some of them already did brutalist design for huge companies. Including… Google!

Design Byform Studio, including Google Zoo

However, we think brand design is moving towards minimalism rather than brutalism. Time will tell, of course!

The Branding Blog