Two weeks ago, Debbie Millman and I co-hosted the monthly PRINT Book Club on Zoom. The event featured a vigorous and inspiring chat with Christoph Niemann about his recently self-published wordless Idea Diary. I’ve known Niemann since he began his New York illustration career, when Paula Scher commanded I meet him (fresh from art college in Stuttgart, Germany, and internships with Paul Davis and Pentagram). While I have since worked with him on editorial and book projects, I had long been in awe of—but not envious of—his singular ability to fill space with imaginatively, humorously and satirically accessible ideas (or idears as he calls them in his rolling German accent). But envy hit me in abundance as I was listening to him talk about conceiving ideas, expressing ideas and nurturing them over Zoom.
Niemann is a conceptual superhero, able to smash meteoric problems with a single image, simplify complex concepts with a simple metaphor and withstand literal editors with his superior visual profundity and wit. He is any art director’s secret weapon. He never misses his target with at least one megaton idea—but he nonetheless routinely sketches several others to be safe. With Niemann only a phone call, fax or email away—whether he is in Brooklyn or Berlin—there is no chance of being at sea, drowning in symbolic tropes and illustration clichés. The secret to his superpowers is, above all, surprise.
Niemann produces scores of surprises without breaking a sweat or pencil point. Never content to cloak himself in a single method or style, he employs many—sometimes all at once. He makes the art director’s job a veritable holiday. Just give him a subject, and off he goes to his bat cave only to return, in what always seems to be (and often is) minutes (an hour if he’s in the middle of another job), with ideas that the average mortal would not—could not—have imagined.
This may sound like hyperbolic fanboy exuberance, but I exaggerate not (well, not entirely). I was reminded of this prowess during the Book Club when he showed one of his favorite ideas—one of the many he did for me, which is among the five best I have ever commissioned out of thousands from other great artists. But enough superlatives! Just look at what I mean:
Anyone with their eyes open and synapses firing can see that this simple, unadorned image is about a popularly held incontrovertible belief—right or wrong, left and right—in the sanctity of the 2nd Amendment guaranteeing a citizen’s right to bear arms. Yet it nonetheless goes further as a critical commentary about this widely held belief being much more than an essential constitutional right; it argues that these rights are so existentially inextricable to Americans that guns have evolved beyond law and ethos into biology and pathology, indeed the very structure of the nation’s anatomical self. There have been thousands of editorial images commenting, critiquing, protesting and supporting gun rights. Every time there is a mass shooting, the litany of clichés is rolled out of the cartoon arsenal. Some are clever, others are brutal, most are didactic. But none brings the fundamental issue home as clearly, cleverly and daringly as this. At the moment it was presented everyone who saw the rough sketch understood that the issue could not be expressed in a more bold or acerbic manner.
Niemann’s Idea Diary is a wellspring of intelligence, humor, play and the essence of ideation. This image shows how a powerful idea is invaluable. It also underscores an important lesson: Good ideas are valuable, great ideas are invaluable and super-powered ideas are invincible.