What’s the Deal with Corporate Illustrations?

What’s the Deal with Corporate Illustrations?

5 min read

The illustration world currently seems to be overrun with flat, simplified characters featuring disproportionately oversized limbs, blank expressions, and brightly-colored skin tones.

They’re appearing all over social media, billboards, packaging designs, user interfaces, and editorial illustration features. Whether you love or hate them, these sharp vector characters seem to be the go-to style choice for big tech brands and start-up companies. The illustration trend has even been termed the “corporate art style,” or more critically, “Corporate Memphis.”

Flat illustrations of men and women working
Image Source: DrawKit

Characterized by simple shapes and bright colors, these cartoon people appear pretty friendly, but they’re currently causing a bit of a stir among design enthusiasts.

While some love the versatility and inclusivity of these often-faceless figures, the style has also been criticized for being generic, overused, and way too easy for illustrators to pull off.

From our perspective, there’s nothing wrong with a style that’s “easy” to execute. At Vectornator, we’re all about uncomplicated workflows that empower everyone to give designing a go.

However, when it comes to the corporate art trend, we would much rather see illustrators put in the time to create their own original vector characters, rather than try to imitate what already exists. To visualize our point, just head to Dribbble and filter for “illustration.” Flat cartoon figures have taken over!

Many people are wondering why there are so many similar-looking illustrations out there right now, and why so many brands are deciding to use this style rather than try something different. So, let’s dive into how the Corporate Memphis style emerged, how it was popularized, and how it might evolve in the future.

Where Did the Corporate Memphis Style Come From?

Those with an interest in design history might have already figured out that the term “Corporate Memphis” is a reference to the ‘80s Italian design and architecture collective, the Memphis Group.

The geometric forms and bold color palettes featured in Memphis furniture designs are mirrored in the shape-driven, dynamically-posed characters of today. However, the term  “Corporate Memphis” evolved partly due to criticism. The Memphis design movement evoked a strong “love or hate” response at the time.

The designs appeared friendly, yet some argued they lacked warmth and personality. The same could be said for contemporary corporate-style illustrations of today.

Although the trend is unofficially named after an ‘80s design movement, the corporate art style started in the late 2010s.

It evolved due to a change made by Apple in 2013 when the brand dropped elements of skeuomorphic design in favor of a “flat design” in its user interfaces. For those of you who might have just read the term “skeuomorphism” for the first time, the style originated in the early 2000s and involved designing buttons and icons to resemble real objects.

If you’re old enough to remember Apple devices pre-iOS 7, you might cringe at recalling the icons for YouTube (it was a vintage-style TV) and Newsstand (a wooden shelf). The skeuomorphic UI design was eventually replaced by the clean, flat, and simple designs of iOS 7, and this minimalist look was adopted by illustrators too.

Other corporations followed in Apple’s footsteps and began decluttering their previously busy interfaces to make room for flat design. Facebook adopted their own version called “Alegria” in 2017, and it wasn’t long before banking apps and other tech firms, including Lyft, Slack, Spotify, and Airbnb jumped on the trend. There are even open-source libraries such as DrawKit, unDraw, and Freepik that allow any brand to customize and download collections of flat-style illustrations.

Apart from the fact this illustration style tends to look the same, corporate art is often criticized for being oblivious to the times we live in.

In reality, we’re battling global warming, the pandemic, and the threat of war, but these illustrated characters are posed to act like nothing’s happening. The optimistic purple figures seem to live in a utopian world, happily working as teams in offices and tending to fig plants. However, while some people aren’t falling for the fake cheerfulness, others are welcoming it as a break from reality.

Corporate Memphis is getting plenty of criticism recently, but let’s cut the style some slack. There are plenty of reasons to love it. Firstly, let’s just celebrate the fact that big brands are hiring vector illustrators. Yay!

Brands can’t seem to get enough of flat cartoon characters in action. But why?

Corporate Memphis is a visual trend, and companies that want to appear young and fresh adopt new trends. The style also makes companies look friendly and approachable.

On the other side of the coin, this is exactly why some people are so opposed to the style. If a brand is appearing to be concerned with human-level interaction by using figurative illustrations in their branding, they can fool consumers into trusting them. It sounds pretty sinister, but marketing is all about creating a desirable brand image in order to sell a product or service, right? So, humanizing a brand is actually pretty smart.

But it's not just corporates that are benefiting from the trend. For professional illustrators and graphic designers, there's a lot to be gained from working in the style. Put simply, designing in vectors makes illustrations more versatile.

They’re infinitely scalable, and designers are also able to quickly alter designs according to the feedback from their clients. Additionally, flat characters are easy to animate, allowing brands to broaden the scope of their campaigns, and illustrators the chance to add motion graphics to their portfolio.

Even though the term “flat design” is often mistaken for meaning boring, there are plenty of illustrators working in this style who manage to inject personality and charm into the style. Take Maryia Nestsiarovich for example. Her dynamic figures are super relatable, and they also feature tons of interesting textures and patterns. If you want to learn more about Nestsiarovich’s work, check out our interview with her.

What’s the Future of Corporate Memphis?

In the world of graphic design, Corporate Memphis doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

Despite critics' opinion that flat characters lack personality, tech companies and other companies continue to employ the gangly-armed cartoons as their brand ambassadors. Perhaps it's this lack of individual identity that allows so many to easily project themselves onto flat characters. However, we still believe there's room for illustrators and graphic designers to put their own spin on the style.

Designing Flat Characters in Vectornator

If you're a fan of the corporate illustration style and want to create your own flat characters, Vectornator is the perfect software for the job.

With the Shape Tool, Node Tool, and Pen Tool, you can easily fill shapes with bright colors. And you can even add gradients and blurs for a more interesting look.

If you want to design human characters, the amazing Soodabeh Damavandi shows you how in this step-by-step video tutorial.

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