Andi Best Freelance Designer

In Support of Corporate Memphis

  • Published 15-05-2024
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In Support Of Corporate Memphis
When I learned there was an unsavoury term for the flat, fluid, abstractly bulbous style of illustration that's become ubiquitous on (mostly tech orientated) websites, I did a chuckle. It's called "Corporate Memphis".
The derogation is apparent, escaping the lips laced with sneer.
I think that's a shame.
Wikipedia does an honest job synopsising the Corporate Memphis style, attributing the moniker to the resemblance these drawings bare to a late 80s Italian furniture trend of similar name (which itself was born from the Modernist art movement), featuring abstract shapes and bold colours - a lot of unexpected balance and movement in otherwise static environments.
Some have described the style as senseless. Anti-utopian. Watchdog webpages with definitions like Tracking the illustration style of choice in our tech dystopia lambast the movement with vigour and potentially drew the stigma to critical mass.
Let me ask this - would I want half an orange armchair sticking out of a green trapezoid coffee table in my home? No - it's not my taste at all. For me, a room furnished like that would be akin to living inside a children's Saturday morning magazine show, so I do understand the criticism at surface level. But I don't actually mind the illustrative style it gave way to and I don't really understand why it's been so vehemently decried. It's practical. It's accessible. It's harmless.
Today it feels as if the style is conducting its swan song as trends are taking brands that formerly celebrated it in a cleaner, more homogenised direction. In a bid to preserve the style, let's take a look at some production examples before they fade from our collective memory.
In Support Of Corporate Memphis
Slack - the What's App group-chat with a professional leaning - eventually dropped the Corporate Memphis it employed a couple of years ago. In fact, not only did they drop it, they now actively object to it with a wonderfully self-aware "how not to" section on their current illustration brand kit webpage. Whilst Corporate Memphis was a staple though it reimagined the world of business as a playful one in two dimensions, instead of the three the platform now enjoys. Apps and user interfaces were all rendered as tangible objects that humanoids could interact with. It was a classic of the genre.
In Support Of Corporate Memphis
File-sharing giant We Transfer developed its own flavour of Corporate Memphis for a while - cartoonifying the cartoons. These animated assets would punctuate the UI at key moments of using the service, styling the characters in such at way that they shed the "flatness" of the art but retained other properties, such as the playful scale and simplistic colouration. For its deviation to the formula alone these worked well.
In Support Of Corporate Memphis
SAGE are currently enjoying the best of Slack and We Transfer. Their brand is awash with figures that appear to be leveraged from both brands, melding flat icon-like characters with bulbous, high-movement ones. Have SAGE failed to innovate or are the parameters of Corporate Memphis so concise that such output becomes unavoidable?
If you're handed a child's toy blocks you're probably going to build a tower.
In Support Of Corporate Memphis
Good Reads gives us their almost painterly interpretation of the style, where the edges of their cast are a little less sharp and precision has given way to expression. As an evolution of the style I think it works but as an illustration style in its own right it is lacking.
In Support Of Corporate Memphis
Recognise these guys?
It'd be quite the feat to omit the visual language of professional people from your product having named it Teams, so expectedly we are introduced to a cast of figures being busy, touching things, and emoting across the Microsoft app. This is boilerplate Corporate Memphis, quintessential even. You could tell me this is the genesis of the art style and I'd believe you.
In Support Of Corporate Memphis
Of course Facebook had a go too.
Corporate Memphis crops up across the Facebook products (and probably other Meta products) countless times, and in incremental states of evolution.
The pursuit of emulating "design trends" is a factor to consider, as is marketing teams instructing art departments to adhere to whatever visuals reflect the healthiest KPIs, gleaned by either their own evidence or the competitors', but I don't believe such things are necessarily the catalyst for the widespread adoption of the illustrative style. Are a lot of brands using Corporate Memphis? Yes. Are too many brands using Corporate Memphis? Probably. But who can blame them? Owing to its simplicity, adoptability of Corporate Memphis is high. The visual language is essentially building blocks ripe for graphic designers of all walks to pick up - even those who aren't especially illustration-minded. I like its effortless application. I enjoy decoding the disproportions and abstraction, the juxtaposition of sensible and silly. I appreciate the balance found when intentionally deranging otherwise balanced components. I'm indifferent to how throw-away it is.

I honestly don't mind the style at all but I can appreciate the ire it's garnered, particularly when its use has become core to a brand's aesthetic. As a device to fill a space in a layout it makes perfect sense to pick up and put down, but to attempt to forge a unique identity with it is foolhardy; as the examples above demonstrate the style transcends branding constraint and is the antipode of individuality. It's popularity has diminished its worth, which is a shame.
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