As designers, sometimes we forget about our audience. We set out to build things that are trendy or technically interesting instead of powerful and meaningful. We can spend hours tweaking the aesthetic only to populate our work with meaningless placeholder content.
Brutalism has set out to challenge what’s trendy. It ignores conventional grids, opting instead for an ugly mess of layered content. It denies users of common patterns for navigation and leaves them on their own to discover how to access other pages (or not). We find these designs shocking and obscure because they challenge the part of our craft that we seem to identify most with: our trends and conventions.
Ironically, brutalist design has itself become a trend and it won’t be long before it can’t support its own satirical weight. Until then we should learn what we can from it.
Here’s what brutalism gets right:
As the modern movement emerged in fields like industrial design and architecture a designer’s most important asset was their understanding of materials and production. There’s a sense of modesty in the designs of the 60s and 70s. A sense that designers were chipping away at the usual facade to uncover something about the things they were creating.
In UI design, the methods of production (programming) have become so flexible and abstract that exposing them seems less valuable. The fact that the work is so unconstrained has caused many designers to become less engaged in implementation leaving the choice of tools and methods purely up to developers. This has triggered some exciting growth and specialization as designers search for new frames of reference (e.g. User Experience Design). That said, the lack of continuity between design and implementation is going to hurt the field as we face the limitations of new technologies.
As we move into an era of natural language interfaces we’re regularly hitting the limits of what the technology can do. Just watch someone using Siri for the first time and you’ll see this. Yet designers aren’t exploring and exposing these limitations. They aren’t pulling back the facade to find value in the patterns and materials that form these products. Instead we’ve regressed back to decoration and novelty, and we seem to be designing and marketing tools like Siri as if its limitations don’t exist.
Once again we need designers to take an interest in the materials and methods they’re designing for. It’s is the only way we’re going to uncover the value of technically limited products like natural language or predictive interfaces.
A few weeks ago I saw the Berliner Philharmoniker. The show was so full that the only available seats were in a balcony behind the orchestra and facing the conductor.
Watching from this perspective it was clear how important the conductor is to the group. It’s rare to have such an intimate view of the art of coordinating people. It made me realize that there are a lot of parallels between conductors and managers:
When a startup has plenty of funding, they take the shortest path to their vision. They get out ahead of the market to offer something new. What they build is disruptive. It’s different from what customers are asking for.
In contrast, bootstrapped startups need to sell their product right away. The resistance of customers to change has a greater impact on what they do. Many will take “the path of least resistance” by simply doing what the market asks them to until they inevitably reach their vision. The problem is that someone else will reach it first.
Companies that minimize resistance will never be responsible for a disruptive product (e.g. from horses to cars, or typewriters to PCs) because customers never ask for one. The value of a disruptive product isn’t immediately obvious, for example: Cars and PCs started off as toys for hobbyists.
The market doesn’t ask to be disrupted, but greatly rewards those who disrupt it.
In order to innovate, bootstrapped startups must recognize that customers require a nudge at times. That facing some friction with customers to bring them closer to the vision is healthy. The goal is to discover those areas where customers can be challenged and leading them through changes that quickly demonstrate the value of the vision. As customers grow to understand the vision they become just as eager to see it happen, and they place their trust in the company that revealed it to them.
By gaining the trust of customers through many small challenges, you break down resistance and find a more efficient path. By simply doing the things that customers ask for, you will never disrupt an industry. And if you race towards your vision without bringing customers with you, someone else will win their trust and loyalty first.
Every early-stage startup knows the importance of company culture. There’s no shortage of books and advice on the subject. The attitudes and motivations of early employees are amplified as the company grows. Setting the right culture from the start is critical to scaling the team successfully.
Equally important (but less known) is that this also applies to customers. Naturally, as the first few are on-boarded, the team and the product will be affected by their attitudes and motivations. When aligned with your company, the right customers will accelerate everything you do. The wrong ones will set you back.
Startups should evaluate and seek early customers with the same care they apply to early employees. You want to find valuable allies that you can trust with your product.