Brutalist design: what it teaches us about tone of voice

The text on a brutalist website is often overlooked. But brutalist design reveals a lot about tone of voice and the impact of our words.

Brutalist design: what it teaches us about tone of voice

What is brutalist design?

Brutalist Websites describes it as ‘a reaction by a younger generation to the lightness, optimism and frivolity of today’s web design’.

Awwwards says it ‘laughs in the face of rationalism and functionality’ and is ‘freestyle, ugly, irreverent, raw and superficially decorative’.

Confusingly, brutalist design is about both function over form and unapologetically hard-to-use websites. In other words, under the umbrella of brutalist design fall barebones, greyscale sites, as well as ones with spinning GIFs, colour clashes and erratic layouts.

And if you’re thinking it all sounds like nonsense, you’re not alone and you may have a point – it often seems as though it’s a heavily ironic love letter to Geocities & Myspace pages. Whatever your view, though, this design trend gives us a huge insight into how words and design interact.

5 things it teaches us about tone of voice

1. Tone of voice isn’t just about the words you use

This is the most important lesson about tone of voice in general.

Whether you’re going for a brutalist website or not, this design trend really hammers home the point that tone of voice is not just the words you use or what you choose to say. There’s a third, often-overlooked part: how you present that copy. No matter what your designs are, a reader makes a lot of judgements on your copy based on how it looks on the screen.

Think about how you feel when you land on a page with one long, solid block of text – immediately, you think this brand is unhelpful and boring. Both of which are tone of voice issues.

2. Brutalist design creates brutalist copy

Or rather, good brutalist design extends to the words on the page – it all comes together to create a unified look and feel.

Take author J C Matheson’s website which uses a virus-ridden Windows 98 desktop as its design influence, but carries it through with copy nuggets like ‘You can sometimes find Jon screaming into the void’ as a link to his Twitter.

Or take a website like Craigslist, which has a no-nonsense, hyperlinks-galore design, and a tone of voice which is similarly to the point and unpretentious.

And then there’s the exception to the general rule that brutalist design is mostly used by designers, artists and musicians: the decidedly uncool Bloomberg

But then again, Bloomberg’s brand is to be a bit of a financial news disruptor, separate to the more po-faced Wall Street Journal or CNBC. Its brutalist-lite design is matched by its more controversial take on the latest news.

3.    Copy and design are intertwined – whether you acknowledge it or not

A minimalist or erratic design affects the way the copy sounds. There’s no way to divide a page’s design and the words contained within it.

To demonstrate my point, go through the Balenciaga website and try not to read the copy as a member of Kraftwerk. No matter what you read – whether it’s the returns policy or size guide – it’s imbued with that coldness that comes through in the design. Which is fine, if that’s the effect you’re trying to create. 

Which is probably the case for Balenciaga. They’re known to be anti-fashion, creating a collection inspired by dads and releasing a reproduction of the blue Ikea bag. So an anti-website is aligned to their overall brand image.

On the other hand, if you’re going for an anarchic, freewheeling design but your copy is formal and robotic, the intended impact is lost.

4.    You can’t have it both ways: anarchic design & traditional copy

It’s important to line up your tone of voice with any shift to brutalist design. ‘Going brutalist’ without any thought to the words on the page will result in a strange mish-mash – and not in a good way.

And don’t think that you can change to a brutalist design but retain that ‘Clear, Human, Friendly’ tone of voice. Everything you write is now presented on something entirely different to the majority of websites, so is read differently by the customer. 

You can’t have your cake and eat it, basically: a radical design offset by a more traditional tone.

5.    Copy and tone of voice is an integral part of UX

On a brutalist website that is more greyscale than technicolour, copy becomes ultra-important in guiding users around the site. As a matter of fact, it’s almost a copywriter’s dream: a website shorn of imagery where only words guide someone around.

On the more garish sites, the jury is out on whether it’s purely for show – but even on websites that act more as brand statements than places to complete a task, UX designers and copywriters still have a big part to play alongside designers and coders.