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In 2018, the musician and writer Claire L. Evans began cataloguing examples of an increasingly ubiquitous style of editorial illustration she calls “Corporate Memphis,” a winking reference to the vibrant, patterned abstraction popularized by the Memphis Group in the 1980s. By now you know the style: A woman whooshes past on tiny white roller skates, a periwinkle leg twice the length of her torso arched behind her in a smooth, kneeless parabola. A man strums an indeterminate string instrument—a huge ukulele, perhaps, or a tiny upright bass—clutched at the center of his chest, his arms looping outwards, then back in to form a figure eight across the center of his body. Bright green or orange sleeves give way to pastel hands, reaching for a box or a shelf, holding a cell phone or a birthday cake, a whirlpool of motion around which one’s gaze might eventually settle upon pea-sized faces with ink-dot eyes and sideways parentheses for mouths.
In 2019, I wrote for this website about the same style using the term “Alegria,” after the name a team of Facebook designers gave to its work. At the time, the ambiguously human figures were becoming the illustrated mascots for an increasingly large slice of corporate America, but I was mostly uninterested in prognostication about the future of Corporate Memphis (the term I’ve come to prefer, for its specificity). Either a Crayola legion of giant, noodly limbs would continue to dominate our screens, or they wouldn’t, and I figured only designers and illustrators would really care in either event.
Then something changed. Recently, Corporate Memphis has become a sort of meme, as people lambasting the style plucked the colorful, sinuous figures from their sanguine world and reconfigured them as symbols in a cultural mythology of our own. Posts and images deriding the style began bubbling in social media cauldrons, ricocheting from Twitter to Reddit and to TikTok and back again, finding a larger and more mainstream audience with each iteration. Even when I’m not looking for it, the style’s attendant commentary, critique, and mockery follows me like a salacious rumor across the web (while recently watching a movie trailer, YouTube recommended to me a video essay on the subject that has been viewed more than two million times). “It’s something that was obvious to me, and was being observed by my peers and friends in a light-hearted way, and it’s metastasized in this really interesting way, now,” Evans recently told me over Zoom.
However this memeification might have started, it is no longer really about purple people with big arms. Beyond aesthetic distaste and cyclical design whims, the backlash against Corporate Memphis is the inevitable outcome of a style based on figures meant to communicate inclusivity, cooperation, and equity while serving as the ebullient face for companies that profit off of social atomization and division.
However this memeification might have started, it is no longer really about purple people with big arms.
Understanding the full scale of Corporate Memphis’ downfall requires broadening our scope a bit. Corporate Memphis is the heart of the meme, but in this capacity it seems to serve as a synecdoche for the general design zeitgeist. That zeitgeist, known as flat design, has reigned the world of interfaces for almost a decade, as affably serviceable to dating apps as it is to healthcare startups. Elements of this approach have existed since the days of the mid-early internet, but an entire flat ethos cohered in the very early 2010s, when Google and Microsoft adopted flat-centric operating systems.
Like so many aesthetic reinventions, flat design was born in reaction to foibles of the past. Skeuomorphism—the seminal philosophy of graphical user interface design, whose ecosystem of real-world metaphors like manila folders and trash can icons shepherded generations of people into computer-usership—was unceremoniously discarded after developers began pushing it to the outer limits good taste in the late aughts. Steve Jobs, the most famous skeuomorphism enthusiast, dictated a tacky, maximalist vision for iOS, full of wood-grain facsimile and elaborate, audibly “whooshing” page-turn animations (the calendar app was infamously “bound” with a texture based off of the Corinthian leather inside his private jet). Within two years of Jobs’ death in 2011, Apple joined Google and Microsoft in embracing flat design with iOS7, and skeuomorphism was dragged to the trashcan icon of design history.
Where there’d once been an uncanny valley governed by overwrought approximations of texture and dimension, all that remained was a sparse expanse reminiscent of The Matrix’s white void. It was at first received as a welcome change; tech media largely heralded the death of skeuomorphism. But as the aesthetic variety of our screens has continued to winnow, interfaces that might have appeared sleek and sophisticated in 2013, today register as sterile and alienating. Corporate Memphis was at least in part born out of the desire to inject color and personality into the pallid landscape of flat design.
But there’s another explanation for flat design’s popularity: It’s cheap to produce. A minimalist calendar simply takes far fewer billable labor hours to develop than an elaborate design with Corinthian leather texture and page-flip animations. Whatever savings accrue from opting for a stylistically simplified design language are rarely passed along to the consumer, or even the designers working on the technology—like all overhead savings, their greatest beneficiaries are usually executives and shareholders. Corporate Memphis is itself a perfect specimen of design austerity: It’s not only minimalist and scalable, but also highly replicable, such that it can be produced in-house or by a variety of different contractors while remaining aesthetically consistent.
Incredibly, there is also an emerging market for apps that sell illustrations to be used by other apps, with subscription-based libraries like Blush charging $15 a month for access to a database of pre-drawn Corporate Memphis illustrations, complete with RPG-style customizable features. By their prefab nature, these illustrations are farcically nonspecific: one Blush entry, titled “Revolution,” depicts a woman standing in front of an assembly of blank protest signs (per different customizations, she can be taking a selfie, raising a fist, or carrying a pennant that reads “Empowered Women Empower Women.”) The need to fill empty space with stock illustration isn’t going away, so it’s not surprising that Blush’s solution is designed to maximize profit through an atomized labor model—in this way, it’s no different from Lyft, Postmates, or Airbnb.
Corporate Memphis was at least in part born out of the desire to inject color and personality into the pallid landscape of flat design.
Corporate Memphis is more than a way to fill empty space, though. It’s also a marketing tool, tasked with selling consumers on the moral worth and social advantageousness of Big Tech with a fun, cheerful facade. It’s no coincidence that Corporate Memphis tableaus emphasize community and cooperation, nor is it incidental that the figures usually have non-flesh skin tones. They are portraits of a post-racial, harmonious, equitable society—a vision that one might then associate with the innovations of Facebook, Google, Uber, or whatever other company deploys the illustrations.
This is the source of Corporate Memphis’ biggest tension: While these companies market an idealistic vision of the future, the byproduct of their primary pursuits involve bludgeoning what remains of organized labor in America (see: Uber et al’s $200 million Prop 22 campaign in California), producing tools for state and corporate surveillance used disproportionately against Black and brown people, and wreaking havoc on the environment. But the Corporate Memphians—and by extension you—don’t need to think about that. They’re simply too busy roller skating and playing ukulele. “It feels extra cruel and weird in our current moment,” says Evans, “because it’s sort of selling itself to us in this way that makes us feel like whenever the platform fails us, which it does frequently and spectacularly, that it’s somehow our fault because we don’t fit into this storybook world that the imagery is selling us.”
While these companies market an idealistic vision of the future, the byproduct of their primary pursuits involve bludgeoning what remains of organized labor in America.
Perhaps this kind of agitprop could prove successful on a smaller scale. But Corporate Memphis is so ubiquitous and stylistically unsubtle that it was only a matter of time before users collectively took offense to being objects of condescension. Simple indignation goes a long way toward explaining the backlash—you don’t have to be a strident anticapitalist to realize that Big Tech isn’t actually a force for social good, and Corporate Memphis’ attempt to convince consumers otherwise is simply too hamfisted to be effective.
But while much of the broader disdain for Corporate Memphis is engendered by perceived hypocrisy, the mere idea of valuing inclusivity is enough to provoke certain people. Before the backlash went mainstream earlier this year, it was already a topic of discussion among a corner of the internet connected by neoreactionary politics, whose denizens include “ironically” racist trolls and committed white nationalists. Through the lens of their worldview, Corporate Memphis—commonly referred to among this milieu as “Globohomo Art,”—serves as propaganda to push multiculturalism and gender non-conformity onto an unsuspecting public. This self described “right-wing design squad” is waging small-scale “guerilla meme warfare” by creating bigoted, violent, or otherwise shocking images drawn in the Corporate Memphis style. The astroturf hews aesthetically close to Corporate Memphis, with the goal of accelerating public disaffection with it while implanting an association between the style and vile, offensive imagery.
Racist image-board warriors have little chance of turning the tide on Corporate Memphis alone, but the trend’s broader memeification represents a saturation point from which it likely cannot return unchanged. The stylistic landscape around it is changing, too: In the past two years, skeuomorphism has become an object of nostalgia against the backdrop of unyielding flat design, and major tech companies like Apple have subsequently reintroduced elements of what is now being called “neumorphism.” Between this cyclical sea change and the current flurry of mockery directed at it, Corporate Memphis will likely be reinvented for the sake of aesthetic consistency, or disappear altogether as companies embrace a new unified way to market tech dystopia.
I think it’s more likely to evolve into something unrecognizable: less whimsical, less aseptic; more surreal, more self-aware.
Maybe Big Tech’s next house style will share some commonalities with Corporate Memphis, but I think it’s more likely to evolve into something unrecognizable: less whimsical, less aseptic; more surreal, more self-aware. In a recent Substack entry, writer Samatha Culp predicted artists including Sadamasa Motonaga, Awazu Kiyoshi, and Friedensreich Hundertwasser would influence the post-Corporate Memphis aesthetic, noting that “[o]ur eyes want to pull our flesh to touch the textures we can’t feel through a screen.” And last month, anthropologist Justin Pickard created an are.na board titled “After Corporate Memphis,” bringing curation of the style full circle. But as Corporate Memphis fades away, its modes of production will remain intact. Apps like Blush will almost certainly outlive the style they were created to produce, pivoting to whatever aesthetic fad comes next while maintaining a business model by which artists earn an ever-decreasing scrap of what their work is worth. Illustration systems will likely become even more scalable, more replicable, more ruthlessly streamlined for the sake of interchangeability. And like its progenitor, the next Corporate Memphis will be carefully optimized to tell a story about the nature of Big Tech—and that story will be fiction.