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Web Brutalism, Seamfulness, and Notion

The essence of Web Brutalism is a way of creating spaces for thought and expression on the web that reflect the nature of thought and the web.

The web is fun­da­men­tal to mod­ern life, but mod­ern life is also weird and bizarre and our com­mit­ment to us­abil­ity need­n’t hin­der the ex­pres­sion of that strange­ness.

Dorn is writ­ing from the ten­sion be­tween the weird web” where us­abil­ity is­n’t the pri­mary con­cern for cre­at­ing in­ter­est­ing and com­pelling ex­pe­ri­ences, and the moral and le­gal ram­i­fi­ca­tions of uni­ver­sal ac­ces­si­bil­ity.

Web Brutalism has be­come a catchall term for web­sites that flout the con­ven­tions of mod­ern web de­sign with a kind of droll, util­i­tar­ian nos­tal­gia for the early web.

Okay I guess. I won­der how much the orig­i­nal con­tent of the term as de­sign method­ol­ogy ac­tu­ally re­mains.

Navigation el­e­ments are ei­ther in your face or pur­pose­fully ob­scured. 3D art, ital­ics, plain, neo grotesk fonts, mon­strous hover states, jewel tones, thick di­vid­ing lines, harsh con­trasts are some of the hall­marks. The trend is de­cid­edly hip, and pop­u­lar enough to show up in The New York Times ar­ti­cles and Bloomberg de­sign con­fer­ence sites. You know it when you see it.

I guess this is ac­tu­ally a lit­tle dif­fer­ent from what I un­der­stand Web Butalism to be, but I get his point. We’re talk­ing here about a post-con­tem­po­rary style of de­sign that blends 90′s nos­tal­gic el­e­ments with high-de­sign print aes­thet­ics while op­er­at­ing in a space of screen-na­tive flu­id­ity. Right on.

The purists ref­er­ence strongly to the ar­chi­tec­tural char­ac­ter­is­tics of Web Brutalism, such as the con­cept of truth to ma­te­ri­als’ and the use of the purest markup el­e­ments avail­able. The UX min­i­mal­ists, in con­trast, see ef­fi­ciency and per­for­mance as the main dri­ver of Web Brutalism and even be­lieve that the rad­i­cal lim­i­ta­tion of pos­si­bil­i­ties can boost con­ver­sions. The anti-ists’ or artists see web de­sign as an (still) un­der­val­ued form of art and don’t show much re­spect [to] the sta­tus quo and mostly get bad press.“

Reference: https://​www.smash­ing­magazine.com/​2020/​01/​split-per­son­al­ity-bru­tal­ist-web-de­vel­op­ment/

Most of what’s la­beled Web Brutalism is a norm­core vi­sual aes­thetic — the web ver­sion of anti-art, a re­jec­tion of re­fine­ment and so­phis­ti­ca­tion — rather than a mean­ing­ful dig­i­tal ana­logue to ar­chi­tec­tural Brutalism.

I … don’t think that’s true? Web Brutalist are highly re­fined and so­phis­ti­cated aes­thetic ap­proaches, its just that they revel in a the ironic (so I guess I agree with the norm core” part).

After a quick overview of the term Brutalism in it’s orig­i­nal ar­chi­tec­ture con­text, Dorn iden­ti­fies the ten­sion at the heart of the style that will pivot to our dis­cus­sion of the web:

The de­bate asks the ques­tion, To what ex­tent should an ob­ject re­veal its struc­ture and op­er­a­tion to the user?

Reminds me of: https://​de­sign­port­land.org/​sto­ries/​2016/​what-do-we-lose-when-its-easy-to-use

Proponents of seam­ful­ness ar­gue that re­veal­ing an ob­jec­t’s com­plex­ity and op­er­a­tion can aid us­abil­ity.

See Chalmers and Galani: https://​dl.acm.org/​doi/​10.1145/​1013115.1013149

Seamlessness em­pha­sizes con­ceal­ment; seam­ful­ness em­pha­sizes trans­parency.

Dorn iden­ti­fies Web Brutalism as a re­jec­tion of the high-cor­po­rate, con­text­less slick­ness of Apple and Google, which I very much agree with.

The anti-art aes­thetic has be­come the face of Web Brutalism be­cause it’s fun and edgy and all the cool kids are do­ing it.

This gives me con­cern tho, as I see anti-art” as fun­da­men­tally anath­ema to the Web Brutalist ethos. Dorn fol­lows with:

… [the] purists, min­i­mal­ists, and anti-ists are all ask­ing, in their own way, what it means to make some­thing on the web that is true to the web

Which is the sort of ques­tion and prac­tice that artists en­gage with.

What is the true ma­te­r­ial of the web? … But tak­ing it some­where in-be­tween, see­ing the web as pri­mar­ily an in­for­ma­tion medium, we can ask the ques­tion a lit­tle dif­fer­ently: what does it look like to de­sign some­thing that is true to the ma­te­r­ial of dig­i­tal in­for­ma­tion?

The struc­ture of [Notion] re­flects the struc­ture of the web it­self: dig­i­tal con­tent is pur­pose­fully for­mat­ted, like se­man­tic HTML el­e­ments, and ex­ists in a hi­er­ar­chi­cal struc­ture (directories on the web, nested pages in Notion), yet can be linked and ref­er­enced to cre­ate a com­plex net­work of in­for­ma­tion.

This is a great way to iden­tify how to de­sign in a way that is hon­est to the ma­te­r­ial of the web, and is I think so foun­da­tional and fun­da­men­tal to good web de­sign that it feels ob­vi­ous when stated like this but is so of­ten over­looked and one poorly.

This is the essence and op­por­tu­nity of Web Brutalism: more than a util­i­tar­ian aes­thetic, it’s a way of cre­at­ing spaces for thought and ex­pres­sion on the web that re­flect the na­ture of thought and the web.

Yessssssss. This is a great way of look­ing at what it means to op­er­ate with Web Brutalism as a de­sign prin­ci­ple rather than an aes­thetic move­ment.