“Once in a while, I’ll see an element on a website and I can tell a human made that decision” says New York-based web designer Jon Lucas. “Even though this medium is so digital and stark and you have an LED light shining directly into your eyes, there’s still something human that can be communicated through it.”
What makes Lucas’ work magnetizing are the delightful details that delineate the person, or people, behind the designs. Take, for instance, his recent website for 3hd—an interdisciplinary festival that takes place in Berlin, Germany, in late October. The homepage features an eerie spotlight following your cursor that appears lit from a 3D-rendered hand holding a phone. Messages reads: “Who gets to decide what we see?” (an artwork by artist Salim Bayri). Even without knowing this year’s 3hd festival theme, which examines power systems, the intriguing feature momentarily shifts how you interact with the contents of the page and leaves you wondering about the intentions of its creators.
Although Lucas tinkered with code during the GeoCities era and taught himself how to make websites while studying graphic design at RISD, he always saw it more as a hobby than a profession. “It wasn’t until college, after I made a simple website for myself, that a friend was like, ‘Oh, can you make me one?’ And then another friend asked… It felt like a natural process,” he says. Considering that Lucas has an elusive online presence and hasn’t updated the design of his own since 2012, his portfolio is impressive. He’s worked with a slew of arts and culture clients ranging from PIN-UP Magazine and the Berlin Biennale to Helmut Lang and RISD.
Lucas’s recent website for New Models—a platform that dubs itself as “part aggregator, part independent journal” and aims to offer an alternative to the algorithmically-controlled feeds we’re often inundated with—is of a style that leans towards that raw and in-your-face movement known as “Brutalist web design.” This site is a stripped-down compilation of human-curated links from a plethora of sources. Mostly focused on art, culture, and politics, the design—which Lucas worked on with Eric Wrenn Office—is infused with the kind of spontaneity that stems from the DIY web aesthetic of the nineties: red hyperlinks, utilitarian font, lines to denote page sections.
“For me, the Brutalist web design thing is more about seeing through the website and seeing who’s behind it,” he adds. While he isn’t a fan of the broad term, he likes the honesty and directness that’s associated with it. The raw style, because of its openness and simplicity, gestures to the human hand behind a platform’s creation.
To avoid creating overly polished websites, Lucas likes to juxtapose 3D artwork or motion graphics (aka something with a ‘wow’-factor) with raw design elements. And he excels at it. For musician Sophie, he created a simple, yet hypnotizing, website that alternately shows stretched and distorted photographs of the artist alongside text about her work. On Lucas’ own website, there’s a highly rendered ‘DOWNLOAD’ button alongside a straightforward black and white system. As such, landing on one of these websites is like entering a familiar space that feels suddenly novel because the structures that govern it have changed.
Landing on one of these websites is like entering a familiar space that feels suddenly novel because the structures that govern it have changed.
Injecting humor is ultimately how the designer achieves a more human experience on the WWW. This can be as overt as using a smiley face with two brackets in a serious-looking text, or as subtle as the Facebook like button on the bottom left corner of his jon-l.com site, which appears fairly innocuous until you notice the number of likes changing as the cursor moves around the site. Another example is his logo for New Models, which seems like a standard typographic logo—until it begins to warp into new forms. That’s because the logo is continually modified by APIs that feed on real-time data from an array of sources, like the most recent bitcoin transaction, the number of year-to-date dolphin sightings, and the percentage of cloudiness in Berlin.
“You have to have a sense of humor to live with the web,” says Lucas, “It’s important to keep things light and casual and to remember, at the end of the day, this is just a piece of metal and plastic sitting on your lap.”