What is Corporate Memphis and Why is it Everywhere?
Sriya Choppara·April 5, 2021
If you’ve ever stepped foot in an Apple store, you’ve probably noticed the large, softly glowing graphic panels spanning every wall. You may recall Yukai Du’s vibrant and flat illustration from your last visit. Its candy-like color palette and the sharp silhouettes drawn with unusually rosy skin might have caught your eye. The art style used by Du, commonly seen while scrolling through Facebook or viewing the Google Doodle of the day, is not unfamiliar to you. This illustration style has been dubbed the corporate art style, or more pejoratively, ‘Corporate Memphis’.
Characterized by solid coloring, geometric shapes and cartoonish figures with disproportionately lanky limbs, Corporate Memphis has become increasingly ubiquitous since it was first popularized in 2017. While it debuted as a space-filler in social media, websites and SaaS (software as a service) products, the style can now be found as images accompanying website articles and on magazine covers. The style is well received by the majority of consumers and has become the go-to choice of illustration style in marketing and user interfaces. However, its omnipresence has spurred criticism for its apparent shift away from more intricate, detailed illustrations to what critics deem to be generic and uninspired.
The exact origins of Corporate Memphis are unclear. Some credit its creation to Alice Lee, an independent illustrator who partnered with Slack to design 40 illustrations for their website and platform. She has remarked that she was influenced by Mary Blair’s Disney concept art in the process of creating these warm and whimsical figures. Others credit BUCK, the design firm that created the style guide, illustration, and animation system called Alegria for Facebook’s ecosystem. Corporate Memphis is also said to be the illustrative analogy to the 80’s post-modernist design movement Memphis. Corporate Memphis’ geometric forms, along with its highly contrasted and bold color style are similar to that of Memphis furniture designs. Additionally, the way figures are warped in Corporate Memphis is reminiscent of how Memphis designers depict everyday objects in unusual ways.
Considering past trends in graphic design, the art style’s current ubiquity was inevitable. Take your phone’s interface, for instance. With every update, app icons have taken one step forward to a minimalistic, simplified, and flat look. The days of skeuomorphism are long gone. Big Tech companies have increased their demand for Corporate Memphis illustrations. Additionally, the progression to a minimalistic finish is evident in how several corporations have revamped and decluttered their previous busy and detailed logos.
There are several reasons why there is such mass appeal for simplified design, and why the Corporate Memphis style has flourished in particular. For one, the illustrations of people are often inclusive to the extent that some resemble anthropomorphic aliens. But no matter their appearance, people can see themselves in illustrated figures with skin as purple as a plum. The cheery color palettes and the characters reminiscent of childhood cartoons only add to their charm. The simple vector art has just the right amount of detail to please the eye while one swiftly skims through social media or lengthy policy updates.
Corporate Memphis is flamboyant. It’s spirited. It’s joyful. It’s most certainly prepossessing to the general public. But it’s exactly these elements that warrant greater scrutiny. Illustrations in the style, with its aggressively friendly expressions, portray a world that is uncannily utopian. The deliberate oversimplification in Corporate Memphis can give a false sense of security in situations where the opposite behavior should be observed. While it may not be obvious, the bubbly style can make consumers subconsciously lower their guard and lure them in. For instance, Corporate Memphis is often strategically placed in predatory subscription terms or privacy agreements. This smart marketing ploy for firms may have negative repercussions for users.
Other benefits that corporations receive from using Corporate Memphis are far less sinister. It is convenient for graphic designers to work in the style using vector art which makes illustrations easily scalable, animated, and replicated. Graphic designers are able to quickly alter designs according to the whims of their clients. The generic appearance also makes it simple for startups on a budget to use premade assets to accompany a wide variety of texts. Its homogeneous appearance lends to a sleek and professional look at a small price point. Not to mention, graphic designers don’t need a particularly high level of skill to create rudimentary assets in the style.
That isn’t to say that it’s impossible for illustrations in the Corporate Memphis style to be unique. While Corporate Memphis has very distinctive features that make art of its genre appear similar, it is wrong to say that it lacks creativity. Take Slack versus Facebook’s illustrations, for instance. The fluidity of lines, color palettes, proportions, textures, digital brush choice and methods of shading make a world of difference.
Editorial illustrations with elements of the style are evidence of how artists have put their own spin on it. Illustrator Jing Wei’s characters have consistently thick limbs, a rich color palette, and distinctive eye shape. Her experience in printmaking is clearly an influence on her commercial art. Illustrator Alex Eben Meyer uses colors so bright they seem to pop out of the screen and overlays shapes to mimic paper collages. While it is more likely that these illustrators drew with the intention of echoing Art Deco or Minimalism, the solid coloring and jointless limbs parallel Corporate Memphis’ key attributes.
So what is the future of Corporate Memphis? Despite criticism that it is generic, or even lazy, the decision of several companies to invest in and use it in their visual branding is a sign of its appreciation by the majority of its audience. While its appeal may come with questionable implications, it is also hard to argue against its radical inclusivity and how it allows many to easily project onto the cartoon-like figures. It is important to consider it a warning sign when it accompanies consequential texts like terms and conditions, but I appreciate its style and love to see how different artists put their own spin on it. In the light of its pervasiveness, I am keen to believe many are fond of it too. Whether its influence is seen in accompaniments to editorials or fillers to bedeck empty space, Corporate Memphis’ sweeping popularity will not disappear anytime soon.