Illustration by Michele Rosenthal.

For the last few years, it seemed a new article, Twitter thread, or video essay would pop up on the internet every few months analyzing the style that has been called “Corporate Memphis.” This style, heavily used by Big Tech companies and start-ups, has been described as flat, colorful, minimalist, depicting energetic, and gangly-armed characters with long legs and small torsos who are seemingly always on the go. As with every trend, it has been declared dead and gone, going through the digital equivalent of burning at the stake: memefication. 

These think pieces were not simply descriptive or analytical accounts, but participated in the mythization of the style as a cautionary tale for the creative industry, imbuing it with (negative) values to warn us of…something. Framed as a boogeyman, the style became a mirror of the anxieties many creatives felt, like the outrageously low wages illustrators often work for. But as its vectorized ashes settle, the mass of opinion pieces we produced about it is a testament to how much it struck a chord in our industry. What do these values illuminate? What if these articles, which claimed to tell us something about the tech industry, also revealed something about the creative industry? What if Corporate Memphis doesn’t actually exist beyond the comments that have named it? I ask these questions not as a design critic but as an illustrator, a position that may have been too rarely heard on this topic.

The “Corporate Memphis” style became a mirror of the anxieties many creatives felt.

Perhaps the first problem was recognizing flat art—to use illustrator Michele Rosenthal’s neutral term—as a style. Most of the pieces about flat art are accompanied by a plethora of examples or links to an board displaying the culprit: homogeneity. The exercise is perilous, and most of these collections, in trying to display the overwhelming quantity of flat art, end up including images that are so far-fetched they only show how little consensus there is as to what “Corporate Memphis” actually is. The impact of this practice is real and has successfully promoted the idea of a monolithic style washing over the industry. In a market of individual styles, letting other creatives recognize you as a “trend” is deadly because most of what we rely on to generate income as illustrators is the perception of our individual, irreproducible, personal style. Acknowledging a stylistic trend involves conceding that styles are not only individual and that there is something reproducible about them. From the diversity of flat art thereby emerged the monolithic threat of “Corporate Memphis.”

Most of what we rely on to generate income as illustrators is the perception of our individual, irreproducible, personal style.

To turn flat art as a general style into the “Corporate Memphis” trend you know today, critics needed an origin story that would show how flat art was the enemy of personal style or authorial practice. In practice, it is extremely hazardous (and useless) to assign the origin of a style to a moment in time because styles do not appear overnight and their boundaries are fuzzy and ever-changing. As Rosenthal recently pointed out, flat art style has a rich, long history that has been overlooked by many of the “Corporate Memphis” think pieces. 

Instead, commentators have agreed on a mythical origin: the illustration system “Alegria,” created by the creative agency Buck and deployed most famously by Facebook. This opened the doors for a wave of hatred on social media, as Ally Reeves, a Toronto-based illustrator, experienced. “[Corporate Memphis backlash] brought a lot of people to my feed and it was really nasty—a lot of sexism and misogyny disguised as bad design takes,” they told me. “There’s a much more interesting conversation to be had about how we define illustration, design, and art.”

Flat art is not taking over. What is, however, is an unimaginative and superficial understanding of illustration, one that is making the most of the systemic weakening of illustrators’ expertise. Software like Humaaans and sites like iStock do the job they were built to do, but if we are worried they represent a serious competition to a living, breathing, thinking illustrator, then, as Reeves pointed out, there is a conversation much more pressing to be had than one about the ubiquity of flat art. 

Illustration at large is not reducible to style, and framing flat art in an author-less and mechanically produced context ignores the voices of the actual artists who still work in this style. With this reduction came the idea that the mere presence of flat art was enough to signify creative laziness, as if it was impossible to create interesting work in this style. But as extensively argued through the chapters of Alan Male’s Companion to Illustration, illustrators weave together complex skills such as cultural decoding and encoding, semiotic layering of connotations and denotations, visual literacy and problem solving, with style being only one of them. Unfortunately, the tendency to think of illustration as a mere stylistic stunt made to fill up space is on the rise. How many times are illustrators asked to merely draw someone else’s idea? Or they are not even contacted because there is a designer in-house who can copy “their style” and save money? These practices undermine the real value of illustration and the expertise of illustrators by limiting our contribution to creative projects. And these are not “corporate” particularities happening only to people with “cutesy/friendly utopian flat aesthetics.” Most of all, these are not Big Tech’s problems; these are very much our own. 

By describing this particular assemblage of visual forms, color and content as “corporate,” we drew a line around it, enclosing the “corporateness” within recognizable boundaries. In doing so, we felt reassured that as long as our work does not look like that, as long as we do not work for Big Tech, we are safe from “corporateness” and neoliberalism. But if I make watercolor paintings for The New Yorker (i.e., Condé Nast), am I less of a “corporate” artist? If I create pencil drawings for Starbucks, do I participate less in capitalism? Reducing these complex systems into a single style is certainly naive, and self-righteously judging our peers only exacerbates the issue.

“Corporate Memphis” became a cautionary tale because it was a way for us to articulate our anxieties about the creative industry’s unstoppable march towards neoliberal practices. It was a reassuring way to make our demons visible, and therefore manageable. These anxieties about style, authorship, or corporateness far exceed flat art, both in longevity and scope. To adapt Žižek’s famous quote, we don’t hate flat art, we hate capitalism (and what it does to creativity). The systemic issues and deep-rooted ideologies that undermine illustration are not going anywhere any time soon. We can only hope they will be scrutinized and criticized as thoroughly and vigorously as flat art was. Because in the end, it was never really about the style, was it?