Christoph Niemann traces his illustration legacy from his roots in Germany to his early struggles in New York City to his first New Yorker cover—and the many brilliant ones that followed. 

Wheat Field

Christoph Niemann

ILLUSTRATOR / AUTHOR

2018

ILLUSTRATION / GRAPHIC DESIGN / NEW YORK CITY / THE NEW YORKER / SUNDAY SKETCHING / NICHOLAS BLECHMAN / NEW YORK TIMES / WIRED / PAULA SCHER / PAUL DAVIS / STEVEN HELLER / FRED WOODWARD / ROLLING STONE / CHRIS WARE / GERMANY / TRAINS / TOM SELLECK

Christoph Niemann is perhaps the best illustrator working today.

He’s also dryly hilarious. Mindboggingly brilliant. Creatively tortured by design; on the page his work seems playful, simple, creative with confidence and ease. It’s anything but—and there’s a great reminder in that.

While we usually reserve quote collections for the live episodes of Design Matters, some creatives are best left to speak for themselves. In their words, the raw materials of their output can be found.

—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief


“As a schoolboy, I had one big problem: I had fantastic handwriting but it came in 10 completely different versions. And it changed every five lines. From loose and flowery to sloping. I always got into trouble over my handwriting.”

//

“You start not by creating things but by looking at art. And when you read that book, or when you look at a drawing or listen to that music and something lights up in you and explains the entire world … this is such an incredible thrill that you think, if experiencing art is so fantastic, how great must it be to actually make art? And that’s how they lure you into art school.”

//

“I think the most important difference between a person who is successful in art and a person who is not successful is how much frustration a person can take without losing this childish enthusiasm.”

//

“If someone approaches me with a fixed idea, the conversation is pretty much over. Not because their ideas are bad, but if you already know what you want to do, there are better people out there to execute it to your liking. The reputation that brought me assignments was: ‘We can call him when we don’t know what to do.’ I was a bit like the fire department.”

//

“I found that what I enjoyed most was connecting with the reader through the poetry and absurdity of our common experiences.”

//

“I am a designer by education, and my approach to styles in illustration is similar to a designer and his typefaces. There are styles that are fashionable, and sometimes I find myself trying to find a venue for a spiffy pencil drawing, but ultimately it is always the idea that dictates what style I must use. Every idea needs a pretty exact amount of realism/abstraction, certain emotional warmth or cold graphic objectivity. I try to constantly broaden my range, and adapt new ways of solving problems, not out of vanity, but because it’s essential to my approach.”

//

“Editing, editing, editing. I always want to make something so that at the end it feels like that was the only possible solution. Inevitability.”

//

“‘I’m not good enough!’ This is something I think a lot of people can relate to. I hear a lot about that in talks and conferences. And the consensus is, ‘relax, don’t be so hard on yourself.’ I absolutely disagree. I think the solution is practice and become better. It’s writing, it’s drawing, it’s taking photographs, it’s coding.”

//

“I absolutely think of myself as a problem solver! Any assignment, whether self-generated or from a client, needs to be broken down into a set of problems that I then try to solve—a process that is a lot less sexy than one would think. I always thought this would feel like playing ping pong with ballet moves, but it’s more like doing math while lifting weights. You must never forget, though, that nobody enjoys looking at something that feels like it was created through lifting weights while doing math. It is crucial that once you have solved the problem, you spend just as much time making things look like you just came up with it as you were sitting in a pretty café, dreamily slurping your macchiato.”

//

“The only path to success leads through mountains of killed ideas.”

//

“I can say that the steps that lead to my finished drawings are very unspectacular. It’s more like with a sculpture, where I chip away piece by piece from a stone and slowly get closer to the final form—to hopefully have an elegant form where the reader is in any kind of way emotionally touched.”

//

“It’s not about having a goal but instead about thinking, Where does that object take me? I could take a photo of that chair and probably turn it into a reasonably good giraffe. But that is of course predictable. We have these stock images of life in our head, and only when you start looking at real life and the imperfections do things start to become fun.”

//

“Drawing is an amazing exercise in feeling and in looking.”

//

“Whether for assignments or free works, the most important currency is the principle trust that people put in you. You have to earn it.”

//

“I can be efficient with my workday and technology and everything, but one thing you must not—and cannot—be efficient with is creating. Once you start thinking about what works faster or better, you start ruling out mistakes, and that’s really awful. So I really try to be as inefficient as possible.”

//

“On the one hand, my work is my greatest reason for being afraid of going insane. On the other hand, I think that it’s the single thing that has kept me from going insane.”

//

“Imagine you’re a doctor who specializes in difficult surgeries. You excel 500, even 1,000 times. Everyone’s happy that you do this one thing perfectly well every time. If you’re a soccer pro and you score every penalty—happy days! However, in our world, if you scored a perfect penalty, you can never kick it the same way. If you’ve written a novel, the next one has to be different. Even if it’s slightly similar, they’ll say you’ve run out of ideas. The great thing about our job is, you can do new things all the time. The curse is, you have to do new things all the time.”

//

“In the end, with this combination of frustration, resistance and enthusiasm, I hope I will have gained a little more soul.”

//

“What I try to do with my work is enter your space. Basically, I want you to stay where you are and give you things that redefine everything around you. I can’t take you to faraway places and show you dramatic stories. I’m always limited by our shared experience.”

//

“For me, illustration is closest to writing. When I say ‘I love you,’ with ‘I’ I take this entire universe of all my facets, hopes and dreams. With ‘you’ I do the same for you. And ‘love’ can designate a million things. You take all this meaning and then you put it into three words. It’s so simple, but if said in the right way, it can mean everything. In an ideal world, this is something drawing can do. It’s the incredible power of abstraction.”

//

“I try to squeeze as many animals as I can into business illustrations … like when I do the financial page for The New Yorker. I think animals are always—whether for kids or grown-ups—a fantastic tool for telling stories.”

//

“Nobody needs an illustration. It is not a necessity. We can ask whether we need newspapers, but let’s say that if I want to see what the weather will be like or learn who won the election, the newspaper tells me what and who and why. Illustration, however, has to create its own relevance.”

//

“Among my colleagues, I would say, probably a majority would rather be acknowledged as an artist in a museum or a gallery. I’m pretty glad I’m not. It probably makes me a more content and happy illustrator. But also, I care so much about magazines and newspapers and books. This is the world that I live in as a consumer, and that’s why I really care about contributing to this world.”

//

“At lifestyle magazines you would think the art director is more important than the editor since two thirds [of the pages] are covered in images. It is not the case. I do not necessarily think this is horrible and we have to change it, but it is a curious fact. We live in a visual world still run by language.”

//

“Frankly, everybody who is not an illustrator, I pity you!”

//

“When all is said and done, nothing beats the sexiness of black ink on a crisp white drawing pad.”
 

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman