Broken or brutalism: personal websites in 2018

Saturday, 30 June 2018

My short history of the internet

There was a time, when being online had two meanings: surfing the web and having your own website. Because a website was how you communicated before instant messaging, blogs and social. So lots of non-techies built websites, like teenage me, my neighbor who wanted to promote her kennel and everyone else who liked the idea of having a way to publish. Not to the whole world, but to that curious group of people with PCs who were hyped about cyberspace.

For a while, websites were not, because nobody knew that web design was to become a thing and styling options were limited. And on a 15” 800x600 pixel monitor everything looks literally rough around the edges anyway. It didn’t matter, because everything was new and amazing and there was this Israeli who every week uploaded their local Top 40 as MP3 files. And there was gratis.nl.

At that time, it was quite easy to build a website that was as well-designed as any big brand’s. Either you wrote HTML by hand, or you used Frontpage and the result was equally messy. The hard part was that there was no Google and no StackExchange, so if you didn’t know how to build a certain feature within 5 minutes, you assumed you’d never find out and forgot about it. In many ways, companies and individuals were much more equal in their appearance and value they offered to visitors web surfers.

Making websites in 2018

If you want to make your own website today, there are many options, from controlled environments like Wix and Squarespace** to WordPress and Jekyll. Of course you can also still write HTML in Notepad. Except for the latter, they all include some way of using themes: designs that can be applied to a website without affecting the content. Some of those can be customized, allowing you to pick your own colors, fonts and stuff. So nearly no one designs a website for themselves from scratch anymore. Not just because these themes and customization options are so awesome (they really aren’t all that easy to use). But if you’re not somehow motivated to learn a lot about web development, it’s impossible to create a working website anymore. Provided you know how to get and setup hosting, first you need to know Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML) just to create a page. Then you need to add Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to apply your design. If that CSS doesn’t work in all browsers (which it won’t), then to some visitors the site will look broken.

Unstyled HTML: that’s what you see when a website make made a mistake and didn’t test it with your particular combination of operating system, browser and installed plugins (just think of all the types of mobile devices alone). I even get that feeling of ‘there’s something not quite right here just because a site uses Times New Roman as the main font, like the Bing Webmaster Tools website.

Screenshot of Bing Webmaster Tools
I like how they are like 'this is normal' and even use Times New Roman on the big button.

If you want to add a bit of interactivity to the site, you need to add JavaScript. If the web server has to react to those user actions, say to save comments, you need to do things in PHP or another language. That’s at least four languages to get a website to do basic things people expect nowadays.

And why would you still build your own website? You can just post something on Facebook, Twitter, or one of the many blogging services that work straight out of the box. And they let you create something that can look professionally created, which is the standard now. That’s right: now the majority of visits is to websites that have been designed by teams of professional designers, everyone on the web has much higher expectations of a website than 20 years ago.

Because of all that, the difference between visiting a homemade website and a commercial website has become huge. At the same time, in my experience, the share of people making personal websites has declined. As a result of that, people spend almost all their time on commercial websites and rarely even encounter personal websites anymore. I don’t have a ton of data on this, but considering the amount of time people spend on Insta, Facebook etc. — hours per day — there’s just not much time left to spend on other people’s personal pages.

The international style (of business)

People spend most of their time online on websites and apps that are built with a commercial goal. Almost all those outlets have been designed with the purpose of looking reliable, trustworthy and either approachable or dominant in their market. There are (albeit culture-dependent) styling techniques that can create such looks and these techniques are used over and over again. On top of that, everyone who wants a new website looks for inspiration at the sites of just a few successful tech companies: Apple, Amazon** and Google.

Just a few years Google did a brilliant marketing trick of a sort and magnitude that I don’t think ever happened before. They created a new brand identity that included styling for many common user interface components. Then they made it part of the Android app design guideline and presented it as the new neutral way of styling apps and websites. They opened it up to everyone. Lots of designers and developers, including myself, were excited about this very well-executed set of rules. It made it a lot easier to make good-looking android apps. Material Design, the name of this brand identity book (just in case you hadn’t guessed that yet), is an open invitation to use that style on websites. It looks quite decent, has some delightful details and is easy to apply. Very nice for small independent operations to quickly create new things that look real and professional. It’s customizable*** and supposedly is (was) the new neutral. Except it’s not, it’s just Google’s brand.

So in some ways, most of what happens online looks and works the same. I’m probably going to piss off some designers wit that statement, so: yes I know this and that fashion brand have a super special websites and I love them. What I’m saying though, is that I think it’s good that most websites have so much in common:

  • Users don’t have to learn to navigate every website they visit
  • The costs of getting a decent website have decreased
  • Websites of organization that are not very customer-centric are still recognizable as such to web-savvy people
  • Professional website makers earn a decent living and get to do useful things instead of solving the same problem over and over again with outcomes depending on the taste of the client.

Design History flashback: modernism or the international style, started as a social and artistic movement in the 1920s. With functionality, simplicity and clarity it would improve the living conditions of everyone. Its style was adopted by corporations and became common in the fifties and sixties. Because of the shit these corporations did with our planet, in the seventies the big anti-corporate hippie movement emerged and rejected that inhumane, technical modernism. That’s how we ended up with that post-modernist era that followed and that is still not over.

I see a similar pattern in digital design. The internet may have started as a military project, but the early web was a decentralized bunch of linked sites mostly run by individuals and research groups. Non of it was for profit. Many website makers were idealistic about sharing knowledge with he world. Companies and their bots are now defining what the web is. And a counter-movement has emerged.

Broken or brutalism

So, the standard of web design is set by corporations. To live up to that standard is difficult and a lot of work, if you’re building a personal website. A while ago though, a style called ‘brutalism’ emerged though. It often presents itself as the opposite of the clear, well-known New International Style. You probably have seen it and if you haven’t, take a look.

I’d like to discern between three different phenomena that are all called brutalist web design. They’re ugly websites that either:

  1. Use kind of childish colorful images, like those 90s gifs, lots of emoji and web-safe colors
  2. Look very SERIOUS AND ARTY as if they’re some sort of art gallery in an abandoned factory
  3. Use simple ways to generate mainly static pages and have a sort of transparency by exposing the default styling that web browsers apply when nothing else is defined.

I see all three as anti-corporate style movements, but each with different motivations. I think the third option is closest to the original, architectural meaning of brutalism, called after the uncovered concrete that buildings from that style show.

Brutalist building in Berlin
Brutalism in Berlin by Mika Stetsovski. These cuties are all over the city.

As of now, the page you’re looking at falls under that third category. It’s not that I really want to be a brutalist hipster, but I wanted to change my website fast, for technical reasons.

In the coming months and years, I want to bring the quality of the design back to at least the level that my freelance business website had. But now I’m not presenting myself as a designer for hire anymore, what kind of design would fit this type of website? I don’t have to look like Google or Apple and I shouldn’t. That would be bad design as it would not communicate well who I am and what I do. An old school Geocities-style website with some bees trailing the cursor wouldn’t reflect me as a person either. The only clearly visible movement with a different aesthetic right now is brutalism. So until I figure things out for myself, I’m embracing the DIY look.

Footnotes

*) Not necessarily easier than the other options

**) It seems Amazon’s messy styling isn’t consciously an inspiration, but they certainly are an inspiration when it comes to how they make it easy for people to spend money.

***) If you strictly stick to Material Design’s rules, I think you’re only allowed to pick colors from a certain palette. But because it’s so open, it can be adjusted quite a bit.