Thursday, March 31, 2022

It's Not Just You: Why People Hate "Corporate Art Style"

This article was originally written for and published by the Grand Geek Gathering on March 30th, 2022.

You’ve probably seen it and you probably hate it.

It’s corporate art style, and it was originally developed for Facebook, but is now in use by just about every other big tech and start-up out there: Google, YouTube, Airtable, Hinge, Uber, Lyft, GrubHub, and Airbnb, to name a few.

What is this art style, and where did it come from?  More importantly, why is it so universally hated?

Jump in the world of inoffensive pastels, noodly arms, and flat, 2-dimensional vector drawings as we examine what makes Corporate Art tick!

What is it?

There are many features of Corporate Art.  Often described as “minimalist” or “flat,” its major distinguishing features include use of primary shapes, uniform line widths, minimal line work, little texture, and minimal tonal shadows to convey depth.

The humans depicted by Corporate Art have non-representational skin tones, often pastels or cool colors like blue and purple.  They also have long, oversized limbs or other exaggerated features, which often have a “wiggly” or “flowing” movement when animated.  While the arm and legs have uniform length and width (with only the slightest taper to the stubby fingers), the heads are small compared to the body, and the eyes are dots with lines for eyebrows.

Examples of this art, from an actual Facebook artist’s portfolio, can be found here.

Where did it come from?

It goes by many names, despite having little variation.  Corporate Art Style, also called Big Tech Art Style, Flat Art, Globohomo Art Style (short for “globalized homogenization”) and Corporate Memphis, was developed for Facebook in 2017 by a design firm called Buck.

Specifically, the design is heavily credited to artist Xoana Herrera and animator Esteban Esquivo.


An early example of the duo's work

This art style was originally called “Alegria,” Spanish for “joy.”

“Corporate Memphis” was coined in 2018 and refers to the Memphis Group, a widely-loathed postmodern Italian architectural group from the 1980s whose designs typically included flat, geometric, and colorful features.

The characterization of Corporate Art online garnered notice from a Twitter account @HumansOfFlat, which amassed 6,000 followers and collected examples of the art to criticize and ridicule it.  The account was suspended in 2019.

But this particular account wasn’t alone in its hatred of the style.  On August 21st, 2019, Aiga Eye on Design blog published an article titled "Don’t Worry, These Gangly-armed Cartoons Are Here to Protect You From Big Tech," which remains one of the first Google results when you search for corporate art style analysis, and is also the first citation on Wikipedia when you visit the Corporate Memphis page.

On February 6th, 2021, YouTube channel Solar Sands posted a video decrying the art style as “fake.”  It received over 2 million views in its first month and currently sits on 3.8 million views.

Watching the video myself, I was treated to an ad for Google Fi that used– yep, you guessed it– this very same art style.  It’s everywhere.  I'm pretty sure I even used some stock images in my last article.

Why do tech companies love it so much?

For tech companies, corporate art style is incredibly useful.  For one thing, the art is vector-based and easily replicable.  This means that instead of needing to pay one artist, you can have a whole team of graphic designers who make uniform, consistent art.  This art style renders the graphic designers easily replaceable.  What’s more, it can be rapidly created in programs like Abode Illustrator with little effort or time.

The non-representational skin tones are both inoffensive and “inclusive.”  And the minimalism, paired with the movements depicted, makes for exciting, “playful” art that does a good job of representing what the companies are trying to communicate about themselves: that they are accessible, fast-paced, and fun.

Unfortunately it’s very quickly become despised by most people.

Why do we hate it so much?

A lot of artists and graphic designers have chimed in to offer opinions on why this art style, which is designed to be inoffensive, seems to have had the opposite effect.

Some suggest it’s the “grotesque” proportions of the people, which trigger an uncanny valley response.  Others have said that the art style is “obnoxiously joyful” and that the “constant motion” causes visual fatigue.  Still more believe that the issue is that people are aware that the non-representational skin tones are tokenizing and that, in its efforts to be inclusive and diverse, the people end up representing no one at all, leading the audience to feel pandered to.

But all of this, to me, falls into a bigger issue, which is that the art doesn’t feel like authentic art.  This art carries no emotion and conveys no message other than to hype a product.

The art is definitionally “corporate” with no underlying message

But it doesn’t have to be.  The truth is, minimalist art is often very good.  But the corporate style has so thoroughly saturated the market that we tend to see it, immediately identify and associate it with Big Tech branding, and then dismiss it as "noise" without considering its artistic merits, if any.

The truth is, flat, minimalist drawings with tonal shadows, exaggerated limbs, soft colors, and primary shapes is a legitimate art style.  We’ve seen it used with finesse in the Bauhaus and Art Deco schools of art, and indeed, I’ve heard it said that this style is a natural evolution of Art Deco and builds on the kind of art made by A.M. Cassandre (who, it should be noted, famously made his art for advertisements).

An example of A.M. Cassandre's work.
Vintage globohomo?

In fact, one of my favorite paintings of all time is a minimalist vector piece of art, which has several similarities to Corporate Art: minimal line use, exaggerated features, tonal shadows.


"Two Hours Past Bedtime" by Shag

But the thing about this piece of art is that it tells a story, and conveys an emotion.  It’s not trying to promote any product other than itself.  Like all good art, it’s representational and thought-provoking.

And that’s precisely what corporate art style lacks.

But there's good news!

The extreme dislike of Corporate Art has prompted people to create creative parodies which are, in fact, art.  Ironic and satirical, the parody art makes a statement and evokes emotion: humor at the image, annoyance at the style, and appreciation for the commentary.

Two of my personal favorite pieces of Corporate Art parody include a recreation of Francisco Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son, and of Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith Slaying Holofernes.  The "pleasing, soothing" minimal and color scheme, paired with the violence of the imagery, makes for an unsettling and comedic piece of true art.

So perhaps not all hope is lost for this flat, minimalist style.  We may hate it because we associate it with unskippable YouTube abs, but we can't deny that it's exerting a powerful influence over how we consume and respond to art.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Content Dump: I Dislike Tik-Tok.

I'm not a huge fan of TikTok.

Actually, no, scratch that, I hate TikTok.

Aside from finding the interface really busy and unpleasant to look at because of what a sensory overload it is, I think TikTok's culture is incredibly toxic.  Like Facebook, it's a polarizing social media platform that allows people to go on short video diatribes about their "hot takes," everything from science denial to extreme social justice posturing.

Here's a link to the article.

This meme has a typo.  Deal with it.

I don't want to say TikTok has no redeeming features.  It's given us some degree of creativity, such as the revival of sea shanties.

But my big problem with it is that it seems to really push a "mental health awareness" narrative that has resulted in a ton of people self- and mis-diagnosing.  Now, I don't want to simply invalidate every self-diagnosis.  If they're used to communicate something meaningful then I'm all for it. But if they're used to excuse or justify toxic behavior then I'm not. I guess I care less about where the label came from and more why someone is using it... if it helps me to understand a person better then I don't care whether or not they've got a slip of paper from a doctor. 

But diagnoses have a purpose.  The purpose is 1) to characterize a disorder to better understand what the person who suffers from it is experiencing, and 2) to formulate a treatment plan that alleviates the symptoms.  It's not meant to be used for clout, as many of the people on TikTok do, presenting their mental health as "quirky" or "fun," a stand-in for personality.  And, again, it's not meant to excuse toxic behavior, which I've seen as well.  I know two people who use TikTok and both have, over the course of the last year, begun to explain away bad behavior by dropping a slew of acronyms on me.

On TikTok, mental illness on social media is treated the same way astrology is.  You make a highly relatable and broad post about how "people with X experience Y!" and then make the experience into an incredibly vague, general human experience.  A classic example is sharing a picture of misaligned tiles and claiming that it upsets your "OCD." People with OCD can certainly find it annoying, but it's not exclusive to them, nor is it diagnostic criteria. 

There are many people, especially easy influenced teens who can't even be diagnosed with personality disorders at their age, who "find their own" diagnosis, go to doctors with a confirmation bias, and end up with a diagnosis and treatment plan that is deeply harmful and will follow them for the rest of their lives.
What's more, the "movement" of "mental health awareness" on TikTok has become so cult-like that there's terminology for people who call out bad behavior.  These people are called "fakeclaimers" and that's a fancy way of saying that they're suppressive persons whose questioning of any TikTok featuring a person with a disorder is inherently problematic.  This cult-like behavior is not dissimilar to what we see with the "body positivity" movement, a thing that could have actually been good and uplifting but has ended up with such extreme viewpoints that it's become extremist and dangerous.

This has solidified my dislike for TikTok and I was glad that the GGG let me write the above article on it, because I know it's a bit of a hot take.  I enjoy having the creative freedom to be able to express my opinions, and it's something I wish more TikTokers would employ instead of leaning on the sensationalism or glamorization of possibly-misdiagnosed mental disorders.  

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Heave, Ho: an article on sea shanties and other things I'm up to.

Recently I wrote an article about sea shanties.

You should go read it.  It's very informative, because I happen to be a big fan of sea shanties.  I'm not sure why but lately, in particular, they've really been resonating with me...

Anyways, in unrelated news, I recently got a new job at Whole Foods.  It's a little part-time side hustle working in wine and cheese, which is very bougie, I know.  It's a way for me to get some much-needed time out of the house so I stop writing articles gate-keeping sea shanties.  So far I love it; I got hired at an on-site job fair I stumbled into accidentally.

Directions unclear; ended up with a wage job.

I've found all of the other team members to be enthusiastic and welcoming people, and the work, while relatively simple, is extremely satisfying to me in the way simple, manual labor often is (when you're opting in, that is).

That being said my commission work has also been going splendidly (which is why my posts here are getting shorter... sorry, blog, but you don't pay me because you're proudly ad-free and also no one actually reads you).  I've got one client in particular who is a darling to work with and whose stories and characters are really fun to explore and frankly very risqué.  Unlike with kids or dogs, I can absolutely choose favorites and S is my favorite client to work with, hands-down.

So, here's to you, patron S and Whole Foods, for keeping me physically and intellectually stimulated, productive, and gainfully employed.  May the two of you never, ever intersect.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Content Dump: Mystery Science Theater 3000 Is Back, Baby!

I'm a big fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  It's back and I wrote an article telling you everything you need to know about their new streaming platform.

While I'm not a fan of paying for multiple subscriptions and love the convenience of getting my media fixes from a single place, I have to admit that the decentralization of art is probably better for creators, and I'm definitely willing to throw a few dollars toward the Gizmoplex if it means I finally get to see MST3K take down Munchie.

Friday, March 4, 2022

Content Dump: ComiXology’s 4.0 Update Disaster (And Alternative Platforms for Digital Comic Consumption)

Right on the heels of my recent post about graphic novel recommendations, ComiXology, an app for digital comic purchase and reading, updated, and the update was nothing short of a dumpster fire.  It was nearly universally hated.

I'm happy to report that this update didn't affect me much, because I don't read books digitally.  I'm a paper-and-ink kind of guy, with the bookshelves to prove it.

Look at all those dead trees!  Take that, plants!

But I saw an opportunity for an article and so if you'd like to read it, you can check it out by clicking here.  This article explores why the ComiXology update was so devastating for the platform's users, and offers ten alternative platforms for those who prefer digital versions of graphic novels.

This was also a nice tie-in to my previous article about comic books because of the involvement, once again, of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which provided some tips for readers on how to access comics (including digitally!) using their library and free apps like Hoopla, OverDrive, and Libby.

Speaking of comics, I've gotten my press badge confirmed for WonderCon in Anaheim next month, and I'm really looking forward to it, not in the least because Trevor reached out to me and asked if I wanted to meet up and grab drinks.  Really looking forward to seeing my friends, especially since moving, I've been feeling a bit isolated.

Winter Friends confirmed?!