Beating dullness with a brutalist redesign

April 15th, 2018 by Ross A Hall

Filed under : Design

Websites have become quite dull. For all the talk about UX and the importance of design, we seem to be heading towards a world where everything looks the same. Maybe that’s inevitable as growth hackers analyse response rates to the nth degree and designers circle round designs they know work. 

I’ll confess I’m part of this problem. My reading list includes many of the popular UX sites that encourage us to design this way or that. The last major redesign of this site settled on something that was familiar and safe. As a regular reader you’ll know I managed to screw that up!

A redesign commenced

So while the site languished on a design that was a couple of years old I set about redesigning. Tired of the boring, I wanted something that was a decent design from sound principles but which was genuinely different. I wanted to explore what was possible with a relatively low footprint in WordPress. I wanted to do something that wasn’t dependent on Javascript and overblown animations. Equally, I wanted to put the content front-and-centre.

As I hunted around for inspiration I rediscovered “Brutalism”. This is a web design approach that strips everything back to basics. It discards “beautiful” in favour of function.

Brutalism was my saviour

At its extreme, Brutalism discards imagery almost completely. It uses monospaced fonts and uses highly structured grids (sometimes with their outlines exposed). For someone who is using the web to share my photography this wasn’t a path to follow.

Green screen exploration

Yet brutalism appeals to my desire to create a clean, simple website. As I started to experiment with what I wanted on my site I found myself increasingly drawn to aspects of its principles. 

Slowly, surely, a design emerged.

I discarded complex branding elements and sophisticated navigation in favour of a straight forward flow. A visitor arrives at the page and isn’t distracted with endless headers. Instead head straight into the content and follow the page down. At the bottom there’s the calls to action to visit more or follow or share. All delivered cleanly.

attachment page sketch

Farewell to Google Analytics

Another distraction I removed was the cookie alert. It’s gone because I’ve dropped Google Analytics. Sure, it is a nice tool to use. It gives lots of data. Frankly though there is nothing it gives me I want that I can’t get straight from the server logs. So bye-bye to GA and the annoying “I use cookies – do you consent” rubbish.

Given the site is built on top of WordPress I have compromised in some places. My desire to create a rotating gallery of page styles was ditched because the programming effort was too great. That said, by playing with aspects of the way it works I could create a distinct look and feel for different areas of the site. My photography index is presented with images inside curves, while illustrations are within rectangles. The general page indexes use a common approach that moves elements to left and right, encouraging a small degree of exploration.

Retain what works

There were some elements from current web design that I held on to, specifically around hover interactions. A few experiments with backgrounds, borders and shadows have found their way onto the site. I’ve also experimented with the timing of transitions to create different effects in different places.

Menu exploration

Compromises have also been made on mobile and tablet. While there are some aspects of playfulness that have found their way onto these devices, for the most part they remain fairly flat and standard. My next challenge is to find ways to challenge the linear dullness that bugs these viewpoints.

Feel free to play

I’m fairly sure some will encounter the site and scream at the screen in frustration. There will be complaints about the design aesthetics and how I’ve put different elements together. That’s perfectly fine by me.

This site is a playground for me, a place to share my content and explore new ideas. Some of the ideas here will need to be refined, others I’m quite happy with.

For now, at least, the Brutalist version of the site will remain.

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Ross A Hall
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