Behind the Scenes of Abstract: The Art of Design With Christoph Niemann
Netflix’s stunning eight-part docuseries, Abstract: The Art of Design, has started conversations about design around the world — and, we want to continue those conversations. In this editorial series, we sit down with some of the artists and designers featured in Abstract to go behind the scenes and gain a deeper view of their passions, their creative processes, and the role technology plays in their designs.
German illustrator, Christoph Niemann’s work has been featured across a variety of media sources, including the cover of The New Yorker, the Google homepage, and several self-authored children’s books. With works like I LEGO N.Y. and Sunday Sketches — as well as his regular blog for The New York Times — Niemann uses abstraction and simplicity to present everyday aspects of life in a new light, allowing viewers to examine the world through different perspectives.
Our Q&A With Christoph Niemann
We went behind the scenes of Netflix’s eight-part docuseries, Abstract: The Art of Design, with illustrator, Christoph Niemann, to learn more about his world of design and his role in the Abstract.
What was being part of Abstract: The Art of Design like for you personally?
I’m most comfortable sitting at my desk and drawing (sans film crew), so the filming process was very intense. The setup of the scenes was planned rather tightly, but once the camera was rolling, we improvised.
What insights did you gain as you watched episodes from the other designers in the series?
I met Tinker Hatfield at Sundance and became an instant fan — what a unique man! After watching his episode, I thought, “Wow. In terms of being loose and open-minded, while still being a focused professional, I still have a long way to go.”
In the show, you talk about creating covers for The New Yorker, saying, “It’s extremely exciting, but it never becomes easy.” What do you do when a project becomes difficult? How do you push forward and find inspiration?
The biggest secret is that it’s all about the small, unsexy decisions — fretting over whether to increase a line weight by 0.5 point, for instance, or spending three hours drawing a foot to make it look like it only took you 10 seconds. That’s what it takes to end up with a piece that might make a viewer go, “Wow!”
How do you maintain a balance so that using technology doesn’t destroy the integrity of your art or stifle your creativity?
Technology is an incredibly important part of my work. My main rule is always that the technology should not inspire the art but enable ideas that I would dream of even if there were no computers. I’m stunned that, nowadays, I can create work by myself in one day that would have taken a team of five experts a month when I was a student.
There’s a moment in your episode in which you say that, “The gateway drug is not creating art but experiencing art.” How do you think technology affects the way that young people today experience art?
We’re all drowning in images, and the most obscure design trend can spread across the globe in a few hours. The challenge is that the social media algorithm favors a very specific kind of art — a quick “haha” or an immediate emotional moment (I’ve done my fair share of that kind of work, I guess). But, there is a whole universe of more obscure, difficult, multilayered ways to tell stories with images that can have a much more profound impact on your mind. In our creative “like & follow” economy, these pieces tend to be undervalued.
You told the story of Heinz Edelmann and how he didn’t really give you much positive feedback as a student. Did that experience affect the way you interact with young designers?
The huge advantage of that approach is that I’ve learned not to take professional criticism personally. When I talk to students, I try to be positive, but I do believe that the biggest requirement for the job is enthusiasm, and you need to be able to generate that yourself — even when things get rough.
What advice would you give to young illustrators who are working to make their marks?
When you’re in your early- to mid-twenties, you have certain superpowers in terms of excitability and stamina. I’ve lost a good chunk of my youthful naiveté, which is mostly a good thing, but I know I would be unable to tackle the absurd personal, administrative, and artistic obstacles now that I faced when I started out. This is a unique and special time. Take advantage of it!