“Corporate Memphis”: Why do all websites look the same?

18 August, 2021

Illustration created for this article with an online service using the "Corporate Memphis" variant made famous by the American magazine "Jacobin".
Illustration created for this article with an online service using the "Corporate Memphis" variant made famous by the American magazine "Jacobin".

We have all encountered dozens of magazines, stories, websites and commercial applications with an aesthetic similar to that of the illustration adorning this article. That style is known as “Alegria” or “Corporate Memphis.” It is a product of the precarization and devaluation of labor and has dozens of variants and versions, all equally lifeless and repetitive. But there is more to the homogenization of graphic representation than bad news dressed up in false corporate optimism.

Table of Contents

Where does “corporate Memphis” come from?

Webpages of some famous US startups using "Corporate Memphis". Source: Mitchel Wakefield
Webpages of some famous US startups using “Corporate Memphis”. Source: Mitchel Wakefield

We can trace “Corporate Memphis” to the late 1990s. Illustrations very similar to today’s appeared then on Getty, one of the first photo banks to establish an online retail business. But the use of ready-made illustrations on corporate websites and online services remained marginal for years, especially among large commercial sites.

In reality “Corporate Memphis” emerges with the boom of apps and web services through which the start up world responds from 2014 to the crisis opened in 2008. Although in English Start up only describes a newly created company, this environment follows some very specific rules. It is actually the clearest expression of the subordination of production to speculation and fictitious capital.

So-called “entrepreneurs” create online services with relatively little seed capital, which usually allows them to launch an online business facade and sustain it for a year or a year and a half. With that minimal run the operators can already elaborate and sell expectations by resorting to successive “financing rounds” of “venture capital” that, in the rare “success cases”, will end with an IPO (“Initial Public Offering”) listing.

Everything in these companies is temporary and precarious. If they fail to meet the expectations of the speculative capital invested in them they shut down, they cannot remain as a small business because investors do not find it worthwhile to have their money tied up with the profitability of a “normal” business.

Their expectations are not commercial. In general it doesn’t matter much what a start up gets in sales and if it actually does it’s because they use it to argue that they will have higher billings tomorrow, that there is a niche market over which they will establish a monopoly. That is why most of them gain users at a loss for an indefinite period and many others have a loss-making cost structure, i.e. the more they sell the more they make a loss. It doesn’t matter, the business does not lie in margins but in speculation.

The problem, in a decadent capitalism increasingly antagonistic in all its expressions towards human development, is that what is in general a progressive trend, can only materialize as the disqualification and devaluation of labor and express itself in the form of a cultural and aesthetic impoverishment.

The result is a qualitative change. Anyone can create an illustration within the visual codes of “Corporate Memphis”. It is no longer just a matter of the illustrator – one of the last artisans – having been proletarianized, nor even that once proletarianized, he has been driven out of the office and precarized to the extreme by selling hours of work on a platform. Now the illustrator as such is already unnecessary.

The problem, in a decadent capitalism increasingly antagonistic in all its expressions towards human development, is that what is in general a progressive trend, can only materialize as the disqualification and devaluation of labor and express itself in the form of a cultural and aesthetic impoverishment.

It’s not the illustrators’ fault if we are surrounded by flat, inane images and if websites, educational books and children’s stories all look the same. “Corporate Memphis” isn’t about them, it’s about a capitalism that has become impoverishing in every way.

“Corporate Memphis” is the graphic expression of this world. The managers of these companies don’t mind looking exactly like a dozen companies that come from the speculative startup circuit. On the contrary, the association with celebrity companies can even be positively valued. Nor is it a question of creating a memorable image: why bother if the norm is to hold three “financing rounds” in the first two years, each of which may end with a closure and the search for the next bet? And above all: it’s about paying little. The illustrator does not even hold a contract, it is a supplier to be found in an “Uber of designers” at knock-down prices.

From “Alegria” to the automated “Corporate Memphis”

"Work in progress" customizable illustration under free license by Katerina Limpitsouni, downloadable at Un-draw.
“Work in progress” customizable illustration under free license by Katerina Limpitsouni, downloadable at Un-draw.

To fend off a market which ultra-precarized them, many of these illustrators began to stylize and standardize their own work so that just a few tweaks would allow them to present it to many clients… and share it with each other. In 2017 an illustrator from Thessaloniki (Greece), linked to the world of free software, Katerina Limpitsouni will create the first systematic, free repository under free licenses of generic vector illustrations: Un-draw

.

But the corporate world leaves no gap unexploited. The quintessential successful startup, Facebook, will realize the possibilities offered by such a system to be able to make orders to the highest bidder while earning exactly the same amounts as before. And that same year it presented Alegria, a totally codified and standardized style that allowed it to become definitively independent of the originality of any illustrator, salaried or precarized. “Corporate Memphis” became a universal set of icons.

But there was still one more step left to take in automating the world of illustrations. Less than a year later, in the U.S., a designer, Pablo Stanley, created a standard set of characters that, like paper dolls, could combine their parts and be placed on different backgrounds: Humaaans. And from Humaaans, a commercial site, Blush, where anyone can, in the way one creates an avatar in a video game, combine elements within different sets of styles and compose an illustration in the purest “Corporate Memphis” style.

What does “Corporate Memphis” represent?

"Blush" interface during the composition of the image illustrating this article. The style is a variant of "Corporate Memphis" popularized by the American magazine "Jacobin"
“Blush” interface during the composition of the image illustrating this article. The style is a variant of “Corporate Memphis” popularized by the American magazine “Jacobin”

The result is a qualitative change. Anyone can create an illustration within the visual codes of “Corporate Memphis”. It is no longer just a matter of the illustrator – one of the last artisans – having been proletarianized, nor even that once proletarianized, he has been driven out of the office and precarized to the extreme by selling hours of work on a platform. Now the illustrator as such is already unnecessary.

The combinatorial automation of a standard code of pre-designed images will allow illustration to become just another task for the web developer. One among many others that have already been automated or are on their way to being automated. Because the developer has been the first to suffer the standardization and automated proceduralization of his work and now, Artificial Intelligence being used, he is being alienated even from writing algorithms.

“Corporate Memphis” is the plastic expression of a deeper process. The universalization of the computer in the workplace has accelerated a trend that was already present in proletarianization: the reduction of the gap between manual and intellectual labor.

The problem, in a decadent capitalism increasingly antagonistic in all its expressions towards human development, is that what is in general a progressive trend, can only materialize as the disqualification and devaluation of labor and express itself in the form of a cultural and aesthetic impoverishment.

It’s not the illustrators’ fault if we are surrounded by flat, inane images and if websites, educational books and children’s stories all look the same. “Corporate Memphis” isn’t about them, it’s about a capitalism that has become impoverishing in every way.