Protocol | Workplace

Why is tech illustration stuck on repeat? Ask the overworked, underpaid illustrators.

Few freelance illustrators stay in their careers beyond their 30s. Yet they craft the public images for many of the world's most powerful companies. What gives?

Humaaans versions of the writer and the creative director discussing how to illustrate and lay out this story

Humaaans, which launched in 2018, is one of the most popular and effective of these new-wave illustration systems.

Image: Humaaans.com

You may not have heard of "Corporate Memphis," but you've almost certainly seen it. The illustration style can be found in the trendiest direct-to-consumer subway ads, within the app you use to split restaurant tabs or on the 404 page that attempts to counter your frustration with cutesiness. In fact, Corporate Memphis has become so synonymous with tech marketing that some illustrators simply know it as the "tech aesthetic."

But Corporate Memphis has also become a victim of its own success. The once-whimsical, fresh style now feels safe and antiseptic. More conspicuous iterations of it get roasted online, if they get noticed at all; one popular tweet asks, "Why does every website landing page look like this now?" Illustrators are just as often tired of Corporate Memphis, but tech companies continue to commission it.

So why can't tech wean itself off of Corporate Memphis? Part of it has to do with the practical aesthetic considerations that gave rise to the style. But Corporate Memphis has primarily stuck around because tech executives continue to overlook the value of illustration, according to several of the illustrators interviewed for this story. Illustration work is increasingly awarded to the lowest bidder on gig platforms, using tools designed to standardize output. For the few companies that recognize the value of illustration, however, investing in creative talent has paid considerable dividends — just not in ways that are easily measured.

What is Corporate Memphis and what makes it effective?

Corporate Memphis is characterized by flat cartoon figures with exaggerated body proportions. The human figures are ethnically ambiguous, often drawn with blue or purple skin and minimal features; they all seem to live in a parallel universe where nothing bad happens and mass celebrations break out over the latest banking app.

While many illustrators take issue with Corporate Memphis, they also make a point to avoid disparaging the artists who use it. Many of the most vocal critics of the style also acknowledge its effectiveness and potential for beauty.

Jennifer Hom, for instance, wrote one of the most prominent criticisms of the style while she worked on product illustration at Airbnb. Hom's case study, "Your Face Here," argued that "Western-centric, outlined cartoon people need to change." She proposed an alternative style for Airbnb that didn't "try to design [its] way around the simple fact that we're all different." The illustrations that accompany the case study are still cartoon and flat, but also recognizable and particular. In one demonstration of the new art direction, Hom suggests replacing a minimalist, outlined depiction of an Airbnb host with a detailed illustration of what is evidently an older Sikh gentleman.

"My major critique is just people [are] not really thinking about why they're using it," Hom told Protocol when asked about the merits of Corporate Memphis. "The pros are, sometimes it's just really beautiful. If you get a good illustrator who knows how to use tangents, how to use color, how to truly get unique silhouettes — then it can be gorgeous. And it can be very simply stated and very powerful because it is simply stated. But a lot of companies really don't care about the voice or the artistry or the purpose of illustration as language."

When a company isn't looking to make a splash, though, this ambiguity can enhance the appeal of Corporate Memphis.

"These images now are saying friendly, contemporary lifestyle," said Fred Lynch, a professor of illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design. "These images actually succeed in that way. The problem is that illustration can do so much more, but it's not being commissioned to do more."

Lynch traces the mass production of the "nice, upbeat, colorful, harmless aesthetic" to Facebook's Alegria illustration system. BUCK, the design agency that Facebook commissioned to make Alegria, even claims on its website: "There's many imitators, but there's only one Alegria." And in what feels like a confession, BUCK writes that Alegria figures have "oversized limbs and non-representational skin colors [to] help them instantly achieve a universal feel."

Companies develop illustration systems like Alegria to standardize their aesthetic. Systems let multiple illustrators produce content in a coherent, consistent style. Those illustrators can then borrow ready-made elements from a system library, reducing the workload required to produce any one piece.

The development of open-source and subscription-based illustration systems has played a significant role in the homogenization of tech illustration. A new wave of these systems further accelerated this process by placing illustrations in user-friendly interfaces, allowing laymen to produce publishable content by clicking through a few drop-down menus. Content gets updated regularly so users can keep up with the latest illustration trends with minimal associated cost and effort.

Humaaans is one of the most popular and effective of these new-wave illustration systems. It was launched in 2018 by Pablo Stanley, a former designer at Lyft and co-founder of Carbon Health. Illustrations produced using the Humaaans engine have made their way into dozens of prominent tech campaigns, most notably the Hinge subway ads that haunted my pre-pandemic commute.

Making an illustration on Humaaans is a lot like creating an avatar in a video game: If you've made a Mii or a Sims character, you wouldn't feel that out of your element crafting a Humaaans figure. Despite having nearly failed high school art class, I crafted a self-portrait using the Humaaans engine in less than five minutes. Though the final product isn't nearly as good as what a professional illustrator could make, it also wouldn't stick out for its amateurism on a startup website. (Or maybe I'm just flattering myself to address the repressed trauma of having nearly failed art class.)

A self-portrait designed in the Humaaans engine. A self-portrait designed in the Humaaans engine.Image: Humaaans.com

The website prompted me to upgrade to Blush, the paid add-on to Humaaans, which includes access to thousands of additional vector illustrations. Using Blush's menu system, I could put my avatar on a pre-drawn skateboard and give him a hat, then stick him in a floral office space next to four randomly generated avatar co-workers. The end product might not be entirely original (that exact same skateboard illustration could show up on another website), but for many companies, this sort of mix-and-match approach does the job.

"A lot of these companies, when they're setting up their first marketing sites, they don't have the time or the team in place to really do something super innovative," said Stewart Scott-Curran, an artist and senior director of brand at Loom. He added that most early-stage start-up founders are focused on product and revenue growth. To these founders, investing in a trailblazing illustration style might seem like "probably a step of risk a little bit too far," Scott-Curran said.

That makes sense for startups; but it's harder to figure out why multi-billion-dollar tech companies skimp on original illustration, too. For Hom, it comes down to the people with power not caring: "There's such a celebration of expression out there, if only the people who have the budgets are willing to take a chance and step outside the box." Rather than invest in original illustration styles, these tech executives end up with clones of established brands such as Uber, GrubHub, Facebook and Google. Hom said she wonders why tech executives don't care that "all of this sameness" is a waste of money, space and time.

This apathy might stem from the inherent clash between the tech ethos and that of art. Silicon Valley was built on zeros and ones; it is obsessed with efficiency and views ambiguity as a defect. Bucking expectations that the ultra-wealthy endow the arts, many of the most powerful people in tech instead attempt to uplift humanity by pursuing transhumanist visions in which we will all upload our consciousnesses into circuitry. Less ambitious tech billionaires seek new perspectives through brief joyrides into space. It wasn't until NFTs came along that the tech world seemed to take interest in the whole "art" thing, which they proceeded to treat as a high-stakes version of Pokémon.

It is no wonder, then, that illustrators often report feeling overlooked in this world.

Art in the age of the gig economy

Illustrators are already willing to do a lot of work for not all that much money. The New York Times will pay a freelancer around $500 for a quarter-page illustration that makes it in print, according to anonymous submissions vetted by Litebox, an organization that advocates for greater pay transparency in the industry. Other recent Litebox submissions show Barron's paying around $300 for an editorial print spot, Vice paying $400 for a web header and The Washington Post paying $700 for a half-page print spot. (These figures are approximate to protect the anonymity of the illustrators.)

Tech companies tend to pay more than publications, but not by all that much. Litebox submissions show Apple paid around $1,000 for an editorial web spot, Airbnb paid around $2,000 for a web header, and Slack paid around $600 for an editorial web spot.

"There's such a celebration of expression out there, if only the people who have the budgets are willing to take a chance and step outside the box."

This is all to say that it's nearly impossible to make a living as a full-time freelance illustrator. A $500 quarter-page New York Times illustration would take three days to complete, according to one estimate. That breaks down to $167 a day, which would equate to a little over $43,000 in income per year (assuming five-day work weeks and no holidays). But this is an unrealistic cadence of work; freelance illustrators spend a huge chunk of their time reaching out to publications to land jobs. These jobs should, in theory, become more regular as an illustrator develops industry connections, but even so, scheduling back-to-back-to-back jobs seldom happens. Once the costs of health insurance, taxes, equipment, running a personal website, etc. are added in, freelance illustrators are left with very little profit, if any at all.

Litebox recently collected data on the duration of freelance illustrators' careers. They found that the vast majority of freelance illustrators were still within the first five years of their careers, and there was a steep drop off after that.

"People who have worked over 10 years [or] over 15 years are increasingly rare," said one Litebox employee who wished to remain anonymous. "The career trajectory of illustration right now is you work your ass off through your 20s, and then when you get to your 30s, you take a design job or something."

Many young freelancers support themselves with side jobs, according to another Litebox employee. Some of these jobs are illustration-adjacent, but just as often, freelancers make ends meet in the service economy. "It's really difficult right now to just freelance as an illustrator," the Litebox employee said.

It wasn't always this way. Illustration rates have actually gone down over the preceding decades, even without adjusting for inflation. At the beginning of the 20th century — what some people consider the Golden Age for illustration — a portrait for a major publication could land a five-figure deal. Star illustrators would often see their rates go up over time as they established a reputation. Trust and reliability were paramount because it was so hard for publications to find replacement illustrations on short notice.

"Now there is an overabundance of talented people who are able to get out there and show their work," said Antoine Revoy, a freelance illustrator and comics creator who teaches at RISD. "They're all at an excellent level. It [evens] the playing [field] that people can show their work first and show their strength and get it out there — but at the same time, it creates more of a saturat[ed] field where everybody is competing with everybody."

Gig economy platforms are one of the battlegrounds where this dynamic most visibly plays out. On Fiverr, dozens of freelancers offer to produce Corporate Memphis illustrations for as little as $10. Their pages seemingly jockey against one another with bolder and bolder promises: One seller guarantees a two-day turnaround and unlimited revisions, another offers a 100% money-back guarantee.

This gig economy model actively dissuades experimentation — it rewards those who can produce the most work in the least amount of time for the least amount of money. And though many illustrators make a point to avoid joining gig platforms, the gig economies still affect their markets: Whereas a magazine editor in the 1920s could only hope an illustration would arrive on schedule, an art director in 2021 knows that hundreds of illustrators are waiting online, ready to churn something out at a moment's notice.

At the same time, illustrators know they're creating immense value for the tech companies that commission their work — that's part of what makes the situation so difficult for them to reconcile.

One of the Litebox employees relayed the story of an illustrator friend who feels uncomfortable using the payments app he helped illustrate. "It bums him out whenever he pays his rent using this thing," the Litebox employee said. "If he got some kind of royalty from that, it would pay his rent 10 times over for the year."

There are signs that this imbalance might soon shift toward a more stable equilibrium. More tech firms are building in-house illustration teams, which can provide illustrators with a stable annual salary, health insurance and stock options. It also benefits the tech companies, since illustrators then have the time and space to develop a unique visual style that sets the brand apart. Several of the illustrators interviewed for this piece commended the illustration work produced by Cash App, Mailchimp, Dropbox, Robinhood and Pitch. All five companies have full-time employees working on illustration or other types of visual design.

"I think there's plenty of room," said Colby Nichols, a creative director at Jolby and Friends. "It's [about] how brave the client [will] be to say yes to the bigger idea or to the thing that's a little more different. And I think it's an illustrator's responsibility to at least have one idea on the table when they're presenting work that is a little different, even if they know it's going to get thrown in the trash."

"I do sometimes think that tech ... gets a bum rap," said Ryan Putnam, an illustrator and creative director at Carbon Health. "It offers a path for an illustrator to have a traditional career trajectory and life. And I think that's great. And I think that will only get better as time goes along."

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