Design Log / Illustration / Festival

I Keep Forgetting How Slow & Unsexy The Process Is — Christoph Niemann

We had a quick chat with New York-based legendary illustrator, graphic designer and animator Christoph Niemann, who will be speaking at the Design Fabric Festival later this month.

By Rohini Kejriwal on 12 March

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'Creative Process' A self-portrait by Christoph Niemann

Christoph Niemann, who spends his time between Berlin and New York, specialises in illustration, graphic design and animation. His repertoire is beyond impressive, having illustrated essays like North and Coffee; created apps like The Petting Zoo and illustrated childrens’ books like The Pet Dragon and Subway; made books like I LEGO N.Y using Lego as the medium of storytelling; and worked on the covers of magazines like The New York Times, WIRED, Print Magazine among many others.

One of the most genuine artists of today, he allows nothing to come in his way of artistic explorations and creative expression and is constantly challenging himself to learn and expand his work. This can easily be seen in his ongoing project Sketching Sunday, a drawing experiment that begins with a blank piece of paper and a random, everyday object, which becomes a prop to create clever, visual puns. In 2017, he was featured in the first episode of Netflix’s Abstract: The Art of Design, an in-depth look into his creative process and struggles as an artist, which has placed him firmly on the global art and design map.

Christoph will be speaking at length on March 31 during the inaugural edition of Design Fabric Festival. In the meantime, he indulged us in a short interview about the importance of routine, his ongoing projects and a little bit about his creative process.

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Illustrations from Christoph Niemann's ongoing project Sketching Sunday

What are you looking forward to most about your India trip?
I have never been to India. And even though there is no way I can even scratch the surface of such a culturally rich and uniquely diverse country, I’m excited to have a first glance.

What was the first project you ever took on as an artist?
I did all sorts of small editorial assignments when I was in High school.

My first real editorial job was for Rolling Stone, while I did my first internship in NY. It was both exciting and truly terrifying. I wrote this down in a little essay.

  • Christoph Niemann First Rolling Stone

The Alice in Chains illustration for a mid-’90s issue of Rolling Stone

Having a routine as an artist is crucial. What does your average day look like? How do you unwind?
I have a very boring 9-to-6 routine. I’ve found that this creates the best environment to enable the chance for good and consistent work.

To unwind, I try to do some sports most days of the week to balance my body and mind.

Did being on Abstract change your persona in the public eye and how you viewed yourself as an artist?
Every once in a while, somebody approaches me at an airport, and it’s usually a nice and flattering moment. The exposure has given me additional clout with clients - and that usually translates in more trust, which is great. For the actual creative process, the effect is zero.

How do you immerse yourself into creating work for clients like a New Yorker?
For these, I have to take the initiative. I look at current events, and think about a relevant image that I then submit.

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The New Yorker covers designed by Christoph Niemann

What are your favorite tools to work with?

I keep coming back to black ink on paper. Ultimately, there’s nothing you cannot do with these tools.

With a project like Sketching Sunday, are you constantly waiting for inspiration to strike?

Not at all. I never happen to look at something and go: “Oh, this looks like…”. And if it happens it’s usually boring and obvious. These ideas happen in a very conscious and slow process: I sit down and do endless small variations until eventually a compelling image emerges (or not…). The reader is supposed to have a surprising and spontaneous AHA moment. This doesn’t mean that the creation of such a moment involves sudden surprises or spontaneous inspiration.

Even though I’ve been doing my job for a while now, I keep forgetting how slow and unsexy the process is. It’s very helpful to remind yourself every morning that there won’t be a glorious epiphany. That idea that may (or may not) eventually look sharp and convincing is the result of a series of unspectacular minor decisions. Once you accept that, the design process is a lot less disappointing.

What are you afraid of as an artist?
Running out of ideas and making bad work.

How is 2018 looking for you?
I’m dabbling more in VR projects. I’m still not sure if it will emerge as a powerful storytelling tool, but it’s exciting to try to find out.

Christoph Niemann will be speaking at length on March 31 during the inaugural edition of Design Fabric Festival.

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