Does ‘Big Tech’ Design Have an Authenticity Problem?
23rd March in Design
Back in 2017, Facebook introduced ‘Alegria’ to the world: a set of illustrations featuring flat characters with elongated limbs, small heads, and non-human skin tones. Created by Buck, ‘Alegria’ is Spanish for ‘joy’, which, Buck says, ‘is apropos — that’s how we felt creating this fun, playful world.’
The figures are abstracted — oversized limbs and non-representational skin colours help them instantly achieve a universal feel.
But over the past few years, the design community is beginning to rebel against this corporate style that took over the world. Accusations are arising that actually, despite aiming to be inclusive, it’s the opposite. There are those that now accuse corporations of using it as a tool for deception, or covering up issues, and above all, being an indicator that a company is lacking one of the greatest commodities in the marketing world: authenticity.
So how did we get here? How did Corporate Memphis come to dominate the style language of modern corporate tech? Well… let’s take a look. Starting 100 years ago.
Modernism & Cassandre
After The Great War, the art world began to respond to the horrors it had witnessed and rebel against the romantic style that had seen art through the Victorian and Edwardian era. In Germany, the creation of a republic also helped ignite a wave of modernism; the proponents of which included the Bauhaus school, whose teachings on proportion, in particular, still influence graphic design today.
Amongst this wave of new artists was A.M.Cassandre, a French artist, typographer, and designer whose work particularly in advertising would become part of the defining artistic movement of the late 20s: art deco.
Many of his designs feature the same techniques we see today in ‘Alegria’ – a limited colour palette, geometric shapes, and a general sense of movement and motion by design. Interestingly, too, Cassandre’s design for Dubonet is widely considered to be the first example of advertising design to be seen or viewed at high speeds. Consider that today we often talk about using effective design to capture the attention of a user while they scroll past at high speed, it’s almost no wonder this particular style is seeing a resurgence.
Apple & Skeuomorphism
Skeuomorphism refers to a design intended to mimic the ‘real life’ version of what it’s representing, including light, shadows, and depth. We’ve actually covered this in a previous blog post, where back in 2013, in the move from iOS6 to iOS7, Apple moved away from its previous design style to a flat, ‘representative’ design language. And just as with a lot of other areas of their business, where Apple goes, so too does the rest of the world! Especially as tech began to proliferate consumers’ lives, away from the desk and into the pocket and on-the-go, the traditional skeuomorphic design felt dated, unhelpful and a little too detail-oriented.
Political & Economic Uncertainty and the Continued Rise of Big Tech
Whilst the 2000s gave us huge technological growth, it didn’t really take hold for the consumer until the late 2000s and early 2010s. By then, the iPhone had reached its 4th iteration, and the consumers’ expectations of tech began to shift from the cynical to mainstream mass-adoption. During the early part of the 2010s, social media continued its slow but steady growth and a lot of the big players in tech we see today were still in their infancy, spurred on by creators and entrepreneurs who were still reeling from the the ongoing, deep recession following the 2008 economic crash.
And then 2016 happened.
In Europe, the UK voted to leave the European Union, and across the Atlantic, Donald Trump was elected President.
The cracks were beginning to show and the questions began around foreign interference, the use of hyper-personalised targeting and the role that social media was playing in a world where fake news, alternative facts, and misinformation were no longer just Orwellian ideas.
And amongst all this, the inherent trust that the mass market had in big tech was dented. Arguably, most people didn’t have a reason not to trust big tech before the mid-2010s, and if they did, big tech had certainly never had such a vice-like grip over our lives before then.
Thanks to its association with Cambridge Analytica, Facebook was arguably the biggest hit by the dent in consumer trust. Facebook had now become the frontline in a fierce, brutal political background. And it had to respond.
Rachel Hawley, writing for An Eye On Design:
How do the cheerful, Mastisse-like illustrations that fill up the corners of any given Facebook page temper the expectations of people using these platforms? Their palpable joy is friendly, approachable, inviting, even — all of which translates to trustworthiness. The political predicament the Alegria style faces has less to do with the aesthetic itself than it does with the harmful corporations for which it has become the happy, kinetic face. The style appears to serve as the illustrative arm of an intentional deployment of cheerful minimalism to mask the insidiousness of multinational tech corporations with friendliness and approachability.
And now in the midst of a global pandemic, there’s real, palpable anger that the billionaires keep getting richer while the rest of the world struggles through with a depleted income in homes that, in the UK at least, are becoming more and more expensive.
Cost & Ease
As for the illustrators that continue to create these designs, it remains, well, not particularly lucrative. According to Creative Bloq’s 2019/2020 Salary Report:
In terms of money earned overall, it seems that many are not reaching the AOI’s minimum salary of £20,000 a year, with 55 per cent of those working full-time as illustrators not earning this amount. There were also concerns around commissioners and their understanding of illustration and areas such as licensing and the importance of a clear brief.
And so now in the 2020s and a world gripped by COVID, businesses are understandably looking to adapt their marketing to make it more cost effective. The bendy-limbed flat designs we see across the tech can be produced quickly if specially commissioned, but they’re also available en masse in a seemingly infinite variation of poses, colours, and proportions across image / asset libraries online.
Design vs. Disguise
Of course, creating a design language that’s essentially a by-word for trustworthiness also leaves it open to misuse by any organisation that wants to portray themselves as nice, modern, approachable, and deserving of your trust and custom.
In an interview with WIRED, Jack Hurley, a Leeds-based illustrator mentions:
I live in a student area and there are some real scumbag letting agents. Suddenly they’ve got all this marketing with the bendy-arm-people.
And tech writer Claire Evans writes:
Corporate Memphis makes big tech companies look friendly, approachable, and concerned with human-level interaction and community – which is largely the opposite of what they really are.
Very interestingly, one big-tech company is bucking the trend: Airbnb.
Though diversity is finally a headline issue, many still feel the pressure of having to define humans without offending anyone. A solution that many land on is a kind of homage — a metaphor for diversity through rainbow-coloured figures. They’re often the same body type and age, but colored in red, blue, yellow, orange, purple, and green. Put simply, they’re not real. And while this may be fine in a world that’s just starting the tricky conversation about representation … we could do better.
Jennifer Hom, Experience Design Manager of Product Illustration at Airbnb does a fascinating deep-dive in how they’re redefining the corporate standard in the 2020s to better represent their communities. The overall message though is that representation is difficult. Especially for a global tech company. But also that representation goes way beyond skin tone – it has to encompass disability, gender, and age, too. As Jennifer so accurately and brilliantly puts it: normal is diverse.
So… what’s next?
The visual language of big tech will inevitably continue to evolve, and I believe that Airbnb are leading the way with how that evolution is going to play out. Individual expression forms an integral part of our online identity, and customers are going to want to see that reflected in all their interactions with brands, big or small.
At the core of this all is authenticity. Brands that have taken the time to design a service that reflects its users is a brand that informs its users that it cares enough about them to see them reflected in it.
Still. The current ‘Alegria’ style will, eventually, pass, and inform the next generation of tech design – but I fully expect that we’ll be seeing a celebration of ‘normality’ that’s inclusive of everyone, rather than consensus by exclusion, which I worry is what ‘Alegria’ ultimately offers.
It’s a golden age for design, though. Instagram, Behance, and the portfolios we get to see show us that the design world is already moving on… we just have to wait for tech to catch up.