In this 99U talk, illustrator Christoph Niemann shares his three biggest fears: the fear of not being good enough, the fear that our work will be irrelevant, and the fear of running out of ideas. Each of these cripple our process in different ways, but as Niemann explains (complete with hilarious illustrations), there are solutions we can apply to each.
Push yourself to learn new things, embrace the grumpiness, and realize that there’s nothing wrong with you when you feel anxious or nervous—it’s just part of the job.
Christoph Niemann is an illustrator, artist, and author. His work has appeared on the covers of The New Yorker, Time, Wired, The New York Times Magazine and American Illustration, and has won awards from AIGA, the Art Directors Club, and The Lead Awards. His corporate clients include Google, Amtrak, Herman Miller, and The Museum of Modern Art. He is a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale.
Since July 2008, Niemann has been writing and illustrating the whimsical Abstract City, a New York Times blog, renamed Abstract Sunday in 2011 when the blog’s home became The New York Times Magazine. For his column he draws and writes essays about politics, the economy, art, and modern life. He has drawn live from the Venice Art Biennale, the Olympic Games in London, the 2012 Republican Convention, and he has drawn the New York City Marathon—while actually running it.
Niemann is the author of many books, most recently Abstract City. His latest project is an interactive, animated app called Petting Zoo. In 2010, he was inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall Of Fame. His artworks have been subject to numerous exhibitions, most recently at Gallery Max Hetzler in Berlin.
Hi. My name is Christoph and I’m a creative. And like all self-respecting creative, I love talking about how incredibly hard and difficult being a creative is. And of course that begs the question if it’s so painful why did you even get started?
And of course 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, or maybe even better, it takes your whole world and turns it upside down. 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.
And this is a cover I did for The New Yorker recently and this shows how I always thought the creative process would work. It’s kinda, you try this, you try that, you try this and then ta-da. There’s your solution. Open a bottle of wine. Celebrate.
That’s not how it works. It really feels like this. It’s not nice, but when you think about it, it’s not that surprising either. When you think of sports, when you try something really, really hard, this is what you’re going to look like. When you are at the edge of what you are capable of. If I was a coach, and I would like see my athlete performing and they would look like this, I would be like, you’re not really trying. So why should it be any different in art?
And sadly, with any half-decent thing that I’ve done in my life, I totally remember being absolutely grumpy while doing it. And even worse, every time I feel quite jolly happy while working I’m really, really suspicious. Because I think that’s not gonna bode so well for the outcome. So what’s wrong with me here?
For the first ten years of my career I mostly worked in editorial. In editorial the deadlines are so insanely short and tight. That you do not have the luxury to really kind of like embark in your creative self-pity but, more recently, I’ve done more self-generated projects where I have more time and I realized it actually got worse when I thought it would get better. So, I tried to think about it and I thought, like, maybe that’s the price we pay. But, on the other hand, I know I have a job that a lot of people envy me for. And frankly, everybody who is not an illustrator, I pity you! But, how can it be that I have this great job, and then I spend 90% of my time sitting at my desk feeling terrible?
So the more I thought about it, I realized that a lot of the problems that I have have not so much to do with the actual problem in front of me, but it’s more like a larger kind of generic fear. And that this fear actually separates in three grand themes.
So the first one is I’m not good enough. The second one is my work is irrelevant and soon I’ll be broke. And the third and worst one is, I’m out of ideas. Now, this is terrible, but sadly they’re actually really legitimate fears to have as a creative.
You know, I’m not good enough, I look at my work all the time and all the insufficiencies are so glaringly obvious. Especially when I look at something from two years ago I see everything that went wrong, and I was like, how could they let me get away with that? When I look at other people’s work, I see all the amazing things that are out there, like all the fantastically innovative stuff, and I have to ask myself, can my stuff really live up to that? And even if it can today, can it be in five years, in ten years?
This fear of being out of ideas, this is really close to physical pain. And you think that if you do something that’s okay, that kind of raises your confidence. But I actually think it’s a burden, because people will, of course, always judge you by your best work. And then you look at it and feel like, well, now I have to repeat this. This is terrible. So, what can be done?
I think I have actually a pretty high threshold for creative pain, but I realized at some point that all this thinking really was having a negative impact on my work, and I can’t let that happen. So, I thought about it, and I think I’ve solved it, and I’m going to present this to you now.
So the first problem is, like, 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. This is something. This is something not that you’re not good at. This is something you become good at. And it takes exactly 10,000 hours.
And everybody I know who I admire. Some people are confident. Some people are anxious. They’re all really extremely good. And if I think my work doesn’t live up to it, I have to sit down and practice. It’s like the guitar or piano or tennis. And I will say that I think over the last years I’ve become better.
And I sometimes have to just think of what if I had to take myself on in a creative battle, like myself ten years ago? I think I would kick my ass. Even in the absence of kinda like, inspiration and talent, I think that through sheer craft you can actually create extremely good work. All the time, very reliably.
Great work, that’s something else. I think for great work, you still need all the craft, but you also need a lot of luck. And I think it’s important for clients to know, and for artists to create, that you can only aspire to very good work. And the great work, it happens or it doesn’t.
Even more importantly, I think being a good craftsperson is almost like armor that you can wear every day to work that protects you in all this insanity that’s happening around you. And the one thing that’s dangerous about focusing on craft and working very hard is that of course it can keep you from asking the really relevant questions.
I’m trying to get good at something, but is the thing that I’m good at actually the real thing? It’s like, am I getting really good at doing a dish that nobody likes to eat? Maybe I don’t even like to eat it myself. And I think we all know that when you’rekind of workaholics like, aw I’m so stressed. You kind of ignore that you’re headed in the wrong direction.
So that’s a problem like my work is totally predictable and soon I’ll be broke. And my area, publishing has undergone such dramatic changes in the last couple of years. I’ve seen a lot of people who are really kind of like, thrown under the bus. Great people. And this is a terrible thing to see. On the other hand, there’s been so many amazing opportunities out there, and if you’re awake and If you’re lucky and healthy, you can do the most fantastic things out there.
But, even if I can do that today, I know that the state that we’re in right now, it’s not like, oh, everything changed and now that’s the new future that we’re living in. Of course it’s gonna keep on going and going. And can I do the things? Can I make the right decisions to still be relevant and busy in five or ten years? There’s, this is a very hard question that you have to ask yourself. And I think again, there’s only one solution: worry, doubt, and agonize.
Yeah, I’m a freelancer, and freelancers that’s like a really daunting proposition. I found this in Twitter and I love it so much. It’s like, I’m very busy today and I know for the next three months, I’m going totally crazy, but after that, I don’t know.
The only thing I could do to really kind of make sure I stay busy is, of course, focus on my work. That’s the only thing, I think, that matters. But how can you focus on your work when you actually have to be worried about money? And I’ve been there, and this is really, this is the worst of it all, of them all.
And I think the only solution there, is to really kind of create a safety zone, where you can focus on your work without having to think about money. And this is very, it’s difficult.
For me what my solution is, like, I try to think of what’s my kinda like, every month expense, which is surprisingly steady, and then I try to multiply it by six and always try to have that number in the account. So I know if something goes wrong, whether its health or work, I can always focus on that thing and then worry about the money a little bit later. And this actually has a real impact on my creativity, I realized.
Because it means I never have to take on a job that I don’t believe in, because I feel I can always, I have a week to wait for something else to happen. And maybe even more importantly I always feel if I want to, I can walk away from any job.
I think I’ve done this maybe twice in 15 years. But knowing that you’re not forced to like
do that thing, that you can always say, look, like forget it, this is not working. This actually frees you up to do much better work, I think.
So this is like one of the few cases where I think money has a real clear impact on your creative work and of course once a month you have to actually go there and check and see whether it’s actually time to freak out.
Even more important than thinking about your economic sustainability, is where are you heading creatively? And when you’re drawing, when you’re creating, I think you have to be nice, you have to be kind to yourself, but every once in a while, you have to kind of step out and become this really, misanthropic critic like really evil, trying to find everything that’s possibly wrong with you.
Is your work shallow? Are you taking creative risks? Or are you just writing on the old jokes that worked two years ago. Are you in touch with what’s happening out there?
There’s all these things. I’m drawing little people with big noses, does this add up? And you have to do that. You have to be really critical and say like does this work? Maybe even harder is trying to see, maybe I’m doing something that’s right to actually see what I’m doing that might be good.
Usually you have an art director or you have a client that you’re working with. But so much about the project at hand, it’s difficult to have this kind of larger discussion. Of course now, we have social media. So, in social media I do something, I post it online and it takes exactly a second and a half and I have feedback.
The huge problem though, I think is that social media is really designed to kind of like, to mess with our insecurities. When Rochelle was talking about getting feedback, this is real data systems, like Facebook and Twitter, algorithms that are not really working that way. I think when you post something and people like it, it’s more like haha, click.
And if a thousand people do it, it feels really, really good and everybody who pretends like they’re not enchanted by that, I think they’re a liar. But you must not confuse that thing with real value and where you’re going creatively. And this is a big challenge because you have to do it, I think these days, especially when you’re kind of like a one person enterprise, you have to be on social media. But how do you make yourself not dependent upon the feedback that you get?
And I love nothing more than stories of artists who are kind of out there, who are strong, who are just like, yo Snap Chat. Who cares? I’m doing my thing, they do their thing, and they believe in their creativity, and then ten years later, they get vindicated and have a big show and everyone’s like, that is so cool.
But I have to say, for everybody who’s like that, there’s five other people who, oh, I don’t need a website. And ten years later, they really regret it. And I’m constantly torn between these two things, but I think you can not ignore these questions. They are too important.
So what I think you have to do, is you have to think all these thoughts, you have to take quality time for that, and you have to get a box, open that box put these thoughts in there and put it at a safe distance from your drawing table. Then, you have to do the thing that really matters, which is worrying about your ideas, which brings us to the problem of, I’m afraid I’m going to be out of ideas.
This is the most difficult one to face, but I also think this is the easiest one to actually solve. You have to sit down, you have to create. You just have to start. You worried, you practiced, you made sure you have food in the fridge next month, and then say how like Donald Rumsfeld said, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want.
So just start and take a leap, and see what happens. I think creativity is, you take what you know, you take like the things that you are comfortable with, and you throw them in a situation of new things, of things that you are uncomfortable with, and all of a sudden, connections happen, new connections happen.
Most of them are completely random or stupid, and your goal as a creative is kind of like to open your mind so wide that you see if there is something that clicks. And something might not click, but sometimes something clicks.
This was actually– I did a project at MoMA. I walk into the staff elevator at MoMA, this is what I saw. I’m so glad I had my camera out there. So these moments are out there. And I think, then your goal as a creative must be having the skill to pick up that idea and carry it home, carrying it home without breaking it, which is very hard and so of course even harder if you have to have a client to think about or a deadline to think about.
There’s this thing called the 20 percent rule, maybe I just call it the 20 percent rule, something I heard that google does with their employees. What they tell their employees to spend 20 times, all their engineers, their high paid geniuses, to spend 20 percent of their time, just a day out of a five day week, to follow something that they’re passionate about. That has nothing to do with their official assignment. Essentially this is kinda like you kinda like look for a solution without even worrying whether there’s a problem. And this sounds crazy and I actually think, like the first time I heard about it, it sounded to me like altruistic, like, you work really hard for four days, and then we will reward you with a day of goofing off, and being a nerd. It was really fantastic.
But the more I thought about it, it sounded really smart, because when I was looking at my own practice, I realized that everything that’s the backbone of what I’m doing today, actually started as a really silly experiment I did in the middle of the night or on random Saturday morning five years ago.
So, I have absolutely no clue what I’m going to do in five years. But looking at the rate of how things are changing, I know that what ever it is, it will be completely different from what I’m doing today and most likely it will be based on some silly experiment I’m doing today.
So I really think we should take that time for silly, free thinking experiments, very, very seriously, and give it some quality chunk of my week. And this is so difficult. You have a deadline, you care about your work, and then in the middle of your work, we say, like, stop!, I’m going to do some watercolors now. And this is so difficult but I think it
really is your creative life insurance.
I’ve done a couple of projects. I’ve taught myself Java. Incredibly frustrating, but ultimately great. That lead to a great children’s app that was a great work experience. I did other things, experimenting with music and animation. Glorious waste of time. Very entertaining, I don’t see any application to my work whatsoever. And the most recent thing I’ve been doing is a series called Sunday Sketch. Most of the images you saw here are from that series.
So, the way this works is I take an object, and just look at this object, and see what happens. I try to not pick that object with an idea in mind, but really pick something random that I find on my desk. Or in the kitchen. And then I look at it. And I turn it around. I also tried to see something at an off angle. Not like looking at a chair straight but from an angle. Where do you get angles that add up to something that doesn’t make sense. And then, trying to find a very simple drawing to kind of complete this thing that all of a sudden it looks like something completely different.
It’s a fun project. It gave me Instagram followers. Other than that I don’t really know how I can apply this into my other work. But I think it’s important and I try to maintain a sense of play and try not to be too predictable.
So this is something I did last week on a flight. I flew back from Italy to Berlin. I had two hours. I hadn’t really done anything that I liked so I thought, I have two hours. I’m going to figure something out. You have a 6’4″ man in economy that’s like an endless source of inspiration. I thought this is kind of a safe one, took me ten minutes, I took a photo and I thought I’m set.
Eventually they’re serving coffee and I was looking at the coffee and I saw the debossed little area there with the coffee. I thought this looks kind of like an animal face and I turned the cup and I saw this little paper thing, this really looks like a bear snout and eventually, I ended up going full circle when I took the bear snout I saw that my cramped in knees actually perfectly served as ears for that bear.
And I don’t know if this is the greatest idea I’ve ever made, but what I like about it so much is it shows how important to processes. You cannot plan that thing, you cannot kinda gather meetings like, let’s think of something.
Like, this required all these little steps, all these little steps were kind of like benign. We’re like, look at it this way. And this is really how nonlinear I think good ideas eventually are.
You have to start with something. You have to have a goal in mind but then you have to be very open to letting something else happen. And I think it’s not about an Aha moment. I think the Aha moment is totally overrated. Small steps. It’s like worrying about a one or two point line. This is what makes or breaks an idea.
And then, very slowly, you get to something that will work or will be decent most likely, if you’re good at what you’re doing, and I think if you even manage to do what you do in an environment that’s without fear, to get back to the original point, I think that sometimes maybe even borders on something like happiness, as much as I hate to admit that.
Whether you create something really fantastic and something that people really love, that happens or it doesn’t happen. And since I’ve been able to accept it, I’ve been much more content person.
I think you can’t plan it, you can’t force it, I think that kind of stuff you can also not crowdsource. All you can do is kind of create an environment where it happens. Or it doesn’t. Thank you very much.