Simplicity in Design

simplicity in design

Get your Message Across with Simplicity, Specificity, and… Brutalism

What’s the first image that comes to mind when you think of a government building? 

What about an old university structure? 

Or an aging housing complex?

If you live in Europe or North America, you may have found yourself picturing a chunky, hard-edged building, probably with a lot of uncovered concrete, few windows, and little color.

Architects call this style brutalism.  The name comes from its high use of uncovered concrete or béton brut.  It’s not a style many would call beautiful, but it is truly unique in its unpretentious presentation and messaging.

As a case study, brutalism helps us think about the value of simplicity in design. There’s a reason the style was popular and might be coming back. You can communicate a lot of messages by employing a simple visual design.

Brutal Simplicity

Extreme simplicity defines brutalism. Its structures are blocky, large, monochromatic, and geometric. Think impersonal blank walls instead of warm, inviting interiors. The most common structures to employ the brutalist look are the above-mentioned corporate and government buildings, utilities, and major housing units.

Brutalist design puts its emphasis on the function of the building. The look and form are meant almost exclusively to support that function.

The only real message that the brutalist form conveys is, “Just a building, nothing to see here.”

The aesthetic had its critics. These objectors called brutalist buildings “cold” and “inhumane.” By the 1960’s, the public had cooled on brutalism.  By the 1970’s and 1980’s, its heyday was almost certainly over.

What happens, then, when society changes around something static?

The answer depends on its message, but if that message is simple enough, it tends to adapt and survive.

Even if the adaptation is profound, repurposed simplicity can speak just as loudly as it originally did.

As brutalist structures age, they become a reflection of institutional change. As the building’s function changes, the original messaging changes. The form begins to say something like “This bank is now a Social Security building.” The simple design appropriates the new message with ease.

Consider the abandoned brutalist building in particular. The functionless building now communicates a very different message with the same simple design. The form points to nothing, and the message becomes “Why is this here?” The example is powerful. A simple enough design can even tell two opposing messages. From “Look at this function” to “Look at this lack of function,” the variability of brutalism is almost total.

Virtual Concrete: Brutalism in Gaming

Now, let’s take the discussion into the modern era: brutalism as depicted in video games.

Control is a 2019 supernatural action game by Remedy Entertainment and 505 Games about a secret government agency housed in a featureless brutalist skyscraper. The structure is an even more pointed reworking of the brutalist mentality. As the game narrative spins into madness, the set design’s straightforward and traditional brutalist elements stick out more and more.

The message rapidly becomes “Look at this design—isn’t it the opposite of your bizarre and wacky experience?”  It’s a parody of the original intent, a joke about visual contrast and expectations.

Interestingly, the virtual arena is not the only place modern thinkers are reconsidering the role of brutalism. 

Writing in 2018, Jessica Stewart described the design form’s resurgence in popularity, quoting GQ’s Brad Dunning as saying of the structures “…They can’t be easily remodeled or changed, so they tend to stay the way the architect intended.  Maybe the movement has come roaring back into style because permanence is particularly attractive in our chaotic and crumbling world.”

As aging and digital representations of the art form have shown, the brutalist structure itself might feel permanent. Yet, the message one takes from the design of a brutalist structure can and does change.  The simplicity in design lends itself quite well to alternate messaging.

Maybe modern interest in brutalism doesn’t come from the style “stay[ing] the way the architect intended,” as Dunning put it. The reason for renewed interest might actually be the dynamism in the simple design. Few other styles bring such variability in messaging to the table.

The Single-Mindedness of Complexity

Consider Frank Lloyd Wright’s argument that “There should be as many (styles) of houses as there are kinds (styles) of people and as many differentiations as there are different individuals.”

This quote reflects the restrictions that come with complex messaging. There should be many styles of houses, Wright proposes, but they’ll always and only be houses. They won’t be hospitals, and they won’t be zoos. The architect’s approach leads to designs that are entirely focused on a single message.

No one is going to look at a home built by Frank Lloyd Wright and think it is anything other than a home. Its high degree of customization will not change this. 

Now, compare Wright to the brutalists. The day after its construction, a brutalist building might be a featureless government tower. Come back after forty years, and it may be a clinic, or an apartment building. The messaging evolves with the structure’s function.

Then, take the same design principles into the virtual world, and contend with them in a game like Control. The message of the design changes again. It pushes players to think about the story’s chaotic and fantastical place in an otherwise normal world.

Say More with Simple Designs

The Wright-style of complexity cements a message, makes it permanent and unambiguous.  Simplicity in design allows for rediscovery and repurposing.

When a design becomes highly complex, it gains numerous advantages for its users. It might be customized and personalized, ornate and beautiful, even unique and irreplaceable. But with every layer of complication, it becomes more specified. The design communicates only one message successfully. This is the Wright house.

Of course, it’s not a problem for a design to only communicate one goal.

It’s important, though, to remember that not every design need function that way.  Brutalism’s hyper-simplistic architectural style allows for multiple messages to be communicated.  With the passage of time, and with its inclusion in virtual entertainment, the design elements that make up a brutalist structure have communicated different feelings and ideas to people time and time again.

This is the power of using simple design messaging. Not only is it quick to ingest and comprehend, but it can be used to tell a multitude of stories. How can you employ simplicity in visual design to tell your stories?