Tiny heads big hands illustration has a name. Does ‘Corporate Memphis’ have a place in 2022?

Corporate memphis sketch of a person with a tiny head and giant hands walking a pet turtle. They wear a turtle backpack and in their hand is a plastic bag stating simply: Shop.

We’ve all seen it.

It is the choice illustration of big tech. It adorns everything from HR reports to training videos to anything under the umbrella term ‘content’. Its name (yes, it apparently has a name) is ‘Corporate Memphis’: aka the Comic Sans of the design world.

This illuminating Wikipedia article neatly summarises the sentiment towards this style of illustration, referring to it as “uninspired”, “dystopian”, and “generic”. With sources, of course.

It is easily identifiable by a lack of facial features in humanish forms; gangly limbs; bright colours; no discernible outline; tiny spherical heads and gigantic hands (all the better for scrolling, my dear).

What could be so offensive about a style of illustration that, by its very nature, is designed to be 1. inclusive and 2. inoffensive? Is this just designers complaining as they like to do, or are the days of Corporate Memphis numbered?

The grand tradition of Corporate Memphis

The aforementioned Wikipedia article touts the roots of Corporate Memphis as going back to the 1980s, and an Italian brand that was known to have a particularly ‘garish’ aesthetic. However, the use of geometric shapes, bright colours, and symbolic representations of humanity has a lot more in common with mid-century illustration, of the 1950s/60s.

Think Andy Warhol. Think the creation of Xerox copy machines. Think block colour. During this time our art came to reflect our technology, and developments in printing resulted in the patterns and styles which today we view as iconic. The golden age of illustration — the evocative, richly detailed scenes celebrated at the turn of the century via the use of lithographic printing — was displaced with 2D symbols, layered colours and shapes, grain textures. Print was king. Repetition was style over laziness. Personally I think this era of design is delicious, and so contrasting to its predecessor.

However, i’d argue the history of Corporate Memphis can be traced back even further, to approximately 3000 B.C.

The Ancient Egyptian use of hieroglphic symbolism to convey ideas was (literally) iconic. When we view 2D humanoid forms acting out strangely exaggerated movements in a displaced reality, we should remember that humans have been communicating in this way a very long time.

Also see: Cave paintings.

The Corporate Memphis is the Message

Marshall Mcluhan is a fun old communications theorist whose book “the medium is the message” has shaped a lot of media analysis to date, and is applicable here. Essentially: We often create and communicate for the form, as opposed to simply through it. You cannot separate the art form from the device, and technological advancement and its subsequent ubiquitousness, relentlessness, mundanity(?) cannot be separated from Corporate Memphis.

We are the most likely to browse the web via our mobile phones than via desktops. In this sense, simplicity, colour and symbolism are the easy way to grab attention – unconsciously or otherwise – when faced with endless scrolling.

Furthermore, the usage of the pen tool and its connect-the-dots form of illustration that leaves little room for human error (or humanity?) cannot be overlooked. In this sense, shape language has become the only language. But its also accessible to those who do not have a traditional arts background, which i’m split on whether is a good thing.

Finally, let’s not forget that the proliferation of relatively fast animation software leaves us in a world where each limb must reside on a layer, transformed via size, rotation, opacity. The human form is relegated to the role of a digital peg doll. Hand-drawn and reflexive frame-by-frame illustration is out, at least when it comes to budgets, bosses and time constraints.

What does the future hold for Corporate Memphis Illustration?

The fact Corporate Memphis has become a sort-of meme amongst designers means its days as a flat and dystopian artform are likely numbered.

What is replacing it?

My top trends for digital illustration in the year 2022 probably warrant their own article. But as a sneak peak, I think things we want to watch out for are…

No longer is an image enough to vie for hard-won attention: Animation / motion graphics are here to stay. Faux 3D – using scale to force perspective – is the new quick and easy way to make animations that really pop. The latest After Effects update plays to this trend, with the ability to navigate between layers in a 3D plain.

Also in 3D, developments in Procreate 5 now allow you to paint layers onto your 3D creations. There are some fun possibilities with this, especially with the proliferation of other apps for the ipad that allow you to easily sculpt in 3D.

Finally, as for Corporate Memphis: Gradients, grain textures, and a more sophisticated colour palette or lighting scheme lend a modern appeal and depth to this style. This, coupled with animation, or a dash of meta irony mean that it’s likely here to stay.

As an aside, I found it genuinely enjoyable — and stress-free — to create my own corporate memphis sketch to go alongside this article. I’ll update later after I’ve rendered the sketch in Photoshop with shapes and finally animated it to see whether my theory still stands…

What developments in the field of digital illustration do you predict for 2022? Leave your thoughts and comments in the field below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.