Illustration by Christoph Niemann

Christoph Niemann: Short Deadlines Make You Think Straight

Christoph Niemann has an impressive knack for distilling complex concepts into images that are as striking as they are simple. His iconic illustrations – recognizable for their crisp execution and undeniable wit – regularly appear in the pages of the New Yorker, WIRED, and the New York Times Book Review. Niemann, who’s admittedly “addicted to producing,” has also authored two children’s books and regularly creates clever pictorial narratives for his Abstract City blog, which tackles illustration from a medium-centric perspective (i.e. Legos, coffee, woven paper).

Formerly a New Yorker, Niemann now lives with his wife and three sons in Berlin, where he has the advantage of a 6-hour headstart on his mostly US-based clientele – not to mention easy access to a delicious morning bowl of milchkaffee. We chatted with Niemann by phone about how deadlines can be a good thing (especially when it comes to managing clients) and why open-ended assignments send him into fits of utter despair.

Do you have a daily routine or ritual?

I have a pretty strict schedule: I’m at work by 9 and I leave by 5:30. I realized at some point that there’s only a given amount of creative time I can squeeze out of myself and if I try to extend that, it either doesn’t really lead to proper results or you have to pay a price the next day. So I’ve found that I can do maybe 3 or 4 hours of hardcore creative thinking where you sit there and really try to come up with a concept. Then there’s another 4 hours of concentrated execution. I just don’t have more in me. Even though it’s a very strict amount of time, and sometimes I wish I could sustain another 2 hours, I’m surprised by how much I feel I can get done when I started this kind of schedule a few years back.

I realized at some point that there’s only a given amount of creative time I can squeeze out of myself.

So you do the concepting in the morning?

It’s very deadline driven, but I do really believe in the morning hours. When I started out, I realized at 11 o’clock the phone starts ringing – that’s when people come out of their morning meetings. And so over the years, I’ve heard this from a lot of other designers, the first 2 hours where you can really just sit down and work are the most valuable for me. The good thing with being in Berlin now is that that has turned from like 2 hours into 8 hours. The phone doesn’t really start ringing until 5 in the afternoon.

What’s your workflow? Are you mostly working on smaller short-term, fast deadlines projects?

It’s a mix. The biggest part, the editorial work, is still extremely short deadlines. I would say I right now have jobs for another 3 days and then I’m out of work. But it’s been like that for the last 10 years, and I’m really used to it and I know something will happen.

Did that stress you out initially?

Oh, of course, it’s horrible. And the problem is you’re so afraid of not having anything to do in a week that you start taking on too much. And then all the sudden you’re sitting there, and you realize you can’t really handle all that stuff. It took me a good number of years to get the poise to turn down things even before it really hurts. Because then there’s always something, either where it’s a person who you’ve been working with for a really long time so you can’t say no, or something that’s really interesting. I’ve learned the hard way to keep an extra 15% of time open to be able to be flexible to be able to take something on.

How does the client rapport work with illustrations?

I realized recently that one of the things I love about short deadlines is that people think straight. I really believe in the collaboration between the client – whether it’s the art director or the editor – and I know that this really improves my work. The problem is when people have too much time on their hands. Because then at some point everybody’s going to question, “Why did you make it red, not green?” and “Could we try it upside-down, or left to right?” and then at some point it becomes arbitrary.

Especially with advertising projects – very rarely with editorial – when you have a month, it’s almost always going to end in disaster. Or if not disaster, then at least be extremely boring. It’s the same thing for me, if I were to go into the store and look at something for a month, I wouldn’t be excited anymore – it would be impossible.

Especially with advertising projects,
when you have a month, it’s almost always going to end in disaster.

In advertising, and also editorial, when people have 2 days, the briefing is much better, and the discussion is much better. It’s not that people just sign off on anything because they’re in a hurry. They’re just really looking at what they have, and trying to make the best product, and get it done.

If the anxiety is about the deadline, then the energy really focuses on the result. If there is not anxiety about a deadline, all of the anxiety goes right to the creative part. In the end, you need a lot of trust from the client to get a really convincing result.

What about anxiety for you personally? How do you deal with failure, if a drawing isn’t working?

At the beginning, for every single job, I was absolutely freaked out. But I feel that over time, it’s learnable to a large degree. For instance, with all business illustrations, I take them very seriously – it’s not like I do them with my left hand – but I know that there’s more of a mechanism to make what I call an un-embarrassing solution. Something that works, something looks right and sharp, and gets the job done. At this point, I think you can wake me up at 3 in the morning and I can do something on the Federal Reserve discussing interest rates and it will look right, and it won’t generate angry letters from readers.

If there is not anxiety about a deadline, all of the anxiety goes right to the creative part.

The anxiety not to be able to do something like that, that’s really gone. The anxiety is still there in terms of the things like the Times blog. That whole thing is utter desperation for every single one. First of all, because of the reaction from the audience, but also just creatively, because there’s no direction. It’s all so horribly open. And there’s so many things – it’s like this three-dimensional game of writing and drawing. It’s so difficult. And I have so little routine in it. I really think after every single one, “Oh god, I could not possibly do another one.” And that really feels like, any illustration job felt 10 years ago.

Illustration uses a lot of metaphors. Is there one in particular you would use to describe your creative process?

I find it really amazing how close it is to sports. Even with writing, I can appreciate it even more right now because it’s newer to me. Going over a paragraph, going over and over and over it – at some point it starts hurting the same way it does when you go running.

Ultimately, my whole approach to what I do is 95% effort and 5% talent. I really see it as a sport. You probably won’t become a tennis player if you don’t stand on the court for six hours a day and whack balls over the net. And if you do that, you have to be incredibly untalented for it not to work. But I think it’s tempting to think as a creative professional, you sit there and you’re creative. So much of it is just doing it everyday for hours.

More insights on: Clients, Energy / Fatigue, Interviews

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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