Throwback Thursday: Being an Illustrator 101

Throwback Thursday’s The Art of Business: Christoph Niemann

The Thinking Man’s (and Woman’s) Illustrator by Steven Heller 

Niemann-e1361299607224-250x250Since moving to New York City eight years ago from Ludwigsburg, Germany, Christoph Niemann has become one of the chief go-to illustrators for art directors seeking to clarify the complexities inherent in subjects such as gun control, trade deficits, and black holes. Niemann’s wit, irony, and minimalist style have made him a favorite with such major magazines and newspapers such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Men’s Health, Esquire, Popular Science and international publications such as the German business weekly, WirtschaftsWoche.

Niemann’s brain seems to be wired for thinking metaphorically. In Niemann’s world, donuts explain black holes and pink toothpaste succinctly sums up romantic obsession.

Every solution begins as a series of doodles Niemann comes up with on the subway ride from his Brooklyn home into Manhattan. He likes to have a couple backups (or 10), just to prove he’s nailed the problem. He also maintains bulging binders of rejected sketches every bit as smart as those that make it to print. “The good stuff never comes easy—it’s like weightlifting,” says Niemann, who confesses he draws everyday because it feels good to look at a new pile of work.

As one of the art directors who calls on him regularly for tricky assignments, I recently had the opportunity to quiz him about his work. Here, Niemann speaks on his process, his clients, and avoiding distraction.


When and why did you decide to become an illustrator?

As far as I remember I knew I wanted to be an illustrator when I was maybe 13 or 14. Thinking illustration would be an insane career choice, I briefly considered becoming an architect. But my dad told me that this would involve building little models. I happen to be the most inept man on the face of the earth when it comes to building little models of anything, so I decided to abandon that idea very quickly.


Click to Purchase The Creative Process Illustrated!Were you always a good drawer? Or did you really study hard to do what you do?

My brother was the effortlessly talented one. He did these insane portraits of my parents when we were little (3 or 4) whereas I was pretty much doing predictable kids art, maybe a bit better than average. But I always enjoyed drawing enough to keep at it, and I guess I always was the best draftsman in class. Then again, the competition wasn’t that hard. I always felt I had to achieve my skills through hard practice. Thankfully I seem to have a masochistic streak that makes me enjoy hard practice.



Why did you decide to immigrate to America from Germany? Wasn’t there enough work to keep you going? Didn’t you like the beer and schnitzel?

When I was a student I spent two consecutive summers as an intern in New York (with Paul Davis in ’95 and with Paula Scher at Pentagram in ’96), so I was already infected with the New York virus. When I finished my degree in ’97 I decided to just give it a shot for a year to see whether it works, knowing that once I would have settled in Berlin or Hamburg it would have been much harder to leave everything behind and do such a crazy move. So I have never really tried to work in Germany (though I have a lot of clients here who I enjoy working for a lot). On top of that, you can actually find very decent schnitzel here in New York.


Let’s talk struggle. Did you ever? Did you ever have to sell yourself? Or did America just open its wide arms and take you in like so many cheap computer chips?

When I came here I was only worried about whether I would get enough jobs, but luckily I pretty much had enough work right from the start.

The struggles happened at other fronts. For about six months I was living and working in a loft on lower Broadway that I shared with three other people. My roommates were nice and easy going (one of them started smoking his first gigantic joint at 8 in the morning). My desk was a little chest with drawers, so I had to basically work sitting sideways. On top of two Multiplex-style television sets that were acoustically competing with two insane dogs, an Irish folk-band was rehearsing about five feet from me rather frequently. I concluded my stay at this joint being carried out on a stretcher followed by a bumpy ride in an ambulance to Beth Israel, were I got treated for a slipped disc and a wicked blood infection. When I came back to pick up my stuff the dogs had eaten my portfolio.


Click to Purchase Breaking Into Freelance Illustration!Decades before you brought your signature brand of conceptual illustration to these shores, Eastern Europeans—from Romania, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia—had introduced symbolic and surreal conceptual illustration to American editorial art. Do you think you have a German sensibility that has somehow influenced American illustration? Or have you been influenced by American art?

My greatest influences as far as American illustrators go were always very New York related (Saul Steinberg, Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, Brad Holland), and I always felt that New York design had a very central/eastern European feel. When I was looking at illustration or design yearbooks in school, I always felt I understood New York design much better than anything from London, for example. I am still stunned by the fact that people here got almost every single metaphor in my book when I first came to the city, even though I hadn’t done any of that work having an American audience in mind. And from my experiences since, I doubt it would have been that easy if I had started out in Paris, London or California for that matter.


Have you ever attempted to create a more American style with American art directors in mind? Do you think of your work as American?

Other than some strange metaphors that I had to learn first (e.g. golden nest eggs), I never felt I had to adjust. Since I spent almost my entire professional career here my work probably qualifies as American (to the degree that New York qualifies as American…)


You’re faster than a speeding bullet, and more powerful (in your conceptual acumen) than a locomotive. How did you become such an illustrative Superman?

Ha! What a nice question, if only I could agree with you. Once of my ultimate career goals is to always be the one person with the most accurate knowledge of my weaknesses, which is why I won’t use this answer to dwell on my multiple insecurities. There are three things that I think work to my advantage. First, I think a lot about technology and how I can use it to streamline my work progress without compromising the results (whether I succeed in that is another question). The second one is working without music (I really think that makes a big difference). The third is coffee.


Why don’t you like to listen to music while you work? Did you overturn a bottle of ink while dancing to Shakira?

Music or no music, I think I spill about a half gallon of ink per year.

I simply can’t focus enough if music is playing the background. Thinking of ideas and especially drawing require so much concentration that I have to minimize any sensual distraction.


Click to Purchase 2014 AGDM!Getting back to those insecurities. Just give me one biggie.

I keep reading all these interviews with all those famous designers who keep fighting for their vision, against all odds and despite an audience that “isn’t ready for it.” Of course I do fight for an idea that I think works or against a stupid suggestion that would that would compromise the quality of a concept.

But at the end of the day, if I come up with something, be it a single idea, or a new style or some strange theory and I can’t get anybody really excited about it very quickly, I usually lose my enthusiasm and abandon that direction very swiftly. I guess that streak actually helps me professionally, but I wonder often whether I am to be too dependent on other people’s opinion.


Let’s get down and dirty. What is your process? How do you make illusionary magic on the page or screen?

All the good and special solutions come from god-knows-where, and involve the unfortunate but unavoidable sweat, tears and desperation. But I certainly have a work process for the “everyday” illustration hat I have perfected enough that I know will allow me to do an un-embarrassing solution in a fairly short time. I doodle on a 8½ by 11 paper and run through the entire list of possible metaphors for a topic and while drawing see if there is a slightly-less-than-predictable twist with which I can turn it into an interesting image. Once (or while) I do that I think about how to render that Idea (do I want to draw the character as a bubble nosed cartoon man or a super stylized bathroom icon, etc.).


What stimulus (or stimulants in addition to coffee) do you require to make the perfect image? Does it matter if the manuscript is good or bad?

Actually, the more bland or irrelevant the story, the easier it is to come up with a funny idea for it. The worst possible assignment would be a real news story about aliens landing on earth. I don’t think that there is any illustration that could come even close to the most blurry photograph. This may sound like a stupid example, but it is a similar problem to illustrate a story about a ground-breaking invention or a charismatic person.


What are those bland stories?

Stories on “why your eight-year-old doesn’t like broccoli” give you much more opportunities to come up with a surprise.


I’m not letting you off the hook about stimulants…

As far as stimulants go, I barely ever do any research once I get an assignment. I rather try to practice preemptive research, meaning I try to read a lot of newspapers, magazines and Web sites in order to get a fairly broad sense of what is going on out there. Hoping that once I get an article, I already know what the discussion is all about. If I get assignments about fly-fishing, ice skating or car races, I have a real problem, because I have no interest (and knowledge) about them and therefore have a much harder time coming up with an image that a possible reader can relate to.


Art directors—especially editorial ones like me—rely on you for ideas we couldn’t think of in a hundred years. That makes you an invaluable commodity. What does it mean to you?

I like—and thrive on—the collaboration with art directors, but that doesn’t make me any less insecure about people (especially readers) actually getting my jokes. Once I have finished a drawing I feel pretty confident, but in the work process, that doesn’t help me much because until I have that idea that does get approved, I do feel like this will be the job that will simply not work out.


Do you reject clichés or reinvent them?

In general all clichés are my friends. Some clichés are so over-used though, that they turn into illustration clichés themselves that then can be quoted. (At this point piggy bank is not a metaphor for finance, but a metaphor for a metaphor for finance.) Of course it is always a huge relief when a fresh image comes around. I remember around 1999 it became okay to use a shopping cart for any kind of shopping (probably because of—before that it only said “supermarket!”). And all of a sudden you have a great new and very versatile image that can be abused in a million different ways.


What does style mean to you? Your own is rather economical; witty, though not slapstick. You reduce your images to clear simple linear forms. Is this style on of compromise or is it truly the way you see and feel your ideas?

I actually have to disagree. Even though I am drawn to simple linear solutions, I use fairly baroque solutions quite often. It all depends on the idea. A lot of the very conceptual ideas work best when the drawing is subdued and impersonal, but there are some ideas that need a lot of technique to carry you over th finish line. I did a drawing about the gay marriage discussion on Adam and Adam in paradise. And the only way it worked was as a crazily detailed Dürer rip-off ink drawing.


What is the best kind of job and why?

This one makes everybody involved happy. Unfortunately I only know that when the job is over.


Okay, then conversely, what is the worst job, and when do you know it’s time to give up?

I think I have gotten much better at smelling trouble before it turns into a disaster. Two big red flags are: The client doesn’t really know what they want and even though they pretend to hire you for a real job, they just need your art to make up their minds on where they want to take the project. I have often worked with concepts that were given to me by the client (especially in advertising, this is unavoidable). But over the years I have gotten pretty good at knowing what kind of concept will graphically work and what doesn’t. Knowing that they will blame me if their incomprehensible idea won’t work on paper, I try to politely run away as fast as I can.


I know that you keep a book filled with “idears” you call them in your quaint accent. Do you physically review them when you have a problem to solve?

I have tried so often to bring a killed idea back to life but unfortunately they all seem to be cursed. That’s why these books are unfortunately only good for impressing students (and occasionally design writers).


Is illustration a satisfying enough endeavor for you?

It is, and especially when you look at the giants like Steinberg, Chwast, Holland or Heinz Edelmann you can see that you can spend a lifetime doing it without ceasing to reinvent yourself and keeping things interesting. The question is if the way I do illustrations today remains a viable profession, or whether it will morph into a less “artistic” and isolated field. If there are no more 4×4 spot illustrations to be done I will have to use my skills differently and I am young and stupid enough to hope that I will enjoy whatever that may be as much as what I am doing now.

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