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Design Trend: The Modern Memphis Style

Graphic designers and illustrators have been enjoying revisiting 80s and 90s styles for some time now, with the jaunty optimism, geometric shapes and paintbox-bright colors of the Memphis Style proving to be particularly popular.

Looking ahead, we report on how this trend is evolving into a ‘Modern Memphis Style’, which takes the original traits of the retro style and gives them a new, ultra-contemporary twist. 3D elements, shadowing, highlights, unusual color combinations, and interesting textures combine to lift the Memphis Style into new territory and make it completely fresh and relevant for 2018.

Design Trend Report: The Modern Memphis Style

Seamless geometric pattern in Memphis style – Image from milissa4like, 123RF

Read on to find out five ways you can channel the Modern Memphis look in your own designs.

1. Polish Up Your Shapes

The original 80s-era Memphis Style was defined by the pattern. Triangles, wavy lines, and polka dots were arranged haphazardly to create an in-your-face look that felt bouncy and youthful.

To channel a Modern Memphis Style, take the same approach by creating a pattern made up of geometric shapes, but try to streamline your shapes to make them more elegant and polished. Simple, chunky half-circles and curved lines arranged in more regimented positions, like in the example below, lift the look out of the retro territory. App and digital-inspired shapes also add a more modern dimension.

Contrast your shapes against an ultra-simple dotted or grid background for an extra Memphis touch.

Design Trend Report: The Modern Memphis Style

Seamless pattern in Memphis style – Image from Iuliia Mazur, 123RF

Avoid overcrowding your design by repeating simple shapes in a minimal arrangement, with plenty of white space between, making other images and typography the main focus of your layout, like in this design for The Big Diploma Book by Lorena G.

Design Trend Report: The Modern Memphis Style

2. Experiment with a New Color Palette

The Memphis Style is defined by a bold, brash color palette. Primary colors and pastels blend to create that distinctive Eighties look.

You can give your Modern Memphis layouts an instant update by injecting a more contemporary color palette into the mix. Try mixing in neon gradients, ice-cream pastels or pared-back earthy colors for a fresh take on the style. In these designs for Google Pixel 2 by Leta Sobierajski, tonal teal is teamed with warm oranges and reds and soft pastel pink, which softens the pattern and enhances the abstract, modernist design of the shapes.

Design Trend Report: The Modern Memphis Style

In this example, pastel-neon gradients are applied to simple ellipse shapes and paired against a tonal gradient background for calming contrast.

Design Trend Report: The Modern Memphis Style

Abstract background frame with shiny Memphis acid colored balls over pink and blue backdrop – Image from sxwx on 123RF

3. Go 3D!

Digital technology was still very new back in the 1980s, so the original Memphis Style is defined by flat graphics or exaggerated pixelation. Now, with ever-improving 3D capabilities in design software, it’s possible to make Memphis-inspired designs jump off the page. This really enhances the youthful and energetic look of the Memphis Style and looks great on branding design, app design and illustration.

You can use Illustrator’s Extrude and Bevel window (Effect > 3D > Extrude & Bevel) to add 3D highlighting and shadowing to shapes such as circles and rectangles. Or try out software like SketchUp to imitate the look of the Google Pixel 2 and OFFF Festival designs below.

Design Trend Report: The Modern Memphis Style
Design Trend Report: The Modern Memphis Style

Branding design for Adobe at OFFF Festival by Noelia Lozano

It’s also simple to apply drop shadows and highlights to shapes in both Illustrator and Photoshop. Try layering 3D and flat shapes on top of each other to create a more interesting, dynamic composition, like in this example of a 3D geometric poster.

Design Trend Report: The Modern Memphis Style

Color 3d geometric composition poster – Image from antishock on 123RF

4. Add Grainy Texture

Taking the opposite approach to minimal layouts and 3D touches? Just add grainy texture to a flat Memphis-inspired design. This works especially well for illustration work, adding just the right amount of vintage charm to a design. These illustrations for the New York Times by Yukai Du are the perfect example of how to balance Memphis Style colors and shapes with a grainy texture overlay.

Design Trend Report: The Modern Memphis Style
Design Trend Report: The Modern Memphis Style
Design Trend Report: The Modern Memphis Style

By Yukai Du for The New York Times

This approach is all about maintaining an authentic vintage feel to the design. Keep the illustration style and subject matter contemporary to make everything look cutting-edge.

Design Trend Report: The Modern Memphis Style

Illustrated pattern for fashion range by Cape Town-based designer MUTI

You don’t have to use overlay textures to maintain a vintage feel in your Memphis designs. Try incorporating brush strokes (you can find watercolor and ink-style brushes in Illustrator and Photoshop) for added texture and interest.

Design Trend Report: The Modern Memphis Style

Retro vintage 80s Memphis fashion style seamless pattern

5. Keep It Simple and Big It Up!

Memphis Style patterns can look a bit busy; some designers consider the Style to be ‘bad-taste’ for good reason. However, you can instantly modernize a Memphis pattern by exaggerating the proportions of the pattern. Imagine you are zooming into a pattern and you get the idea.  

This stationery set by Katarzyna Nastaszyc runs with this idea, and it looks fantastic as a result. Each item focuses on only one or two isolated elements of pattern, whether it is monochrome stripes, solid blocks of color or dashed lines. The result is simple but really effective too, giving a cartoonish look to the branding.

Design Trend Report: The Modern Memphis Style

Stationery set by Katarzyna Nastaszyc

You can channel the look by creating your own simple patterns in strong, striking colorways. Or why not download a ready-made pattern which you can dissect and apply across various media? These patterns are our top picks.

Design Trend Report: The Modern Memphis Style

Neo-Memphis style colorful decorative illustration – Image from Iuliia Mazur on 123RF

Design Trend Report: The Modern Memphis Style

Festive background in neo-Memphis style colorful decorative illustration – Image from Iuliia Mazur on 123RF

How to Channel The Modern Memphis Style In Your Own Designs

The Memphis Style has always been a divisive design movement, with some designers praising its optimism and playfulness while others dismiss it as being in poor taste.

The new take on the Memphis Style should help convert those in the latter camp. By incorporating 3D elements, vintage textures or experimenting with more contemporary color palettes, designers and illustrators can bring the style bang-up-to-date.

You can get started with creating your own Modern Memphis Style designs by using a variety of Memphis-inspired patterns and graphics from the 123RF library.

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