What is Illustration?

Christoph Niemann: The Art of Collaboration and Compromise

Adapted from What is Illustration? (RotoVision)

By Lawrence Zeegen

“I’m a graphic designer at heart. I understand that different problems require different treatments, and that the mantra ‘form follows function’ is going to save my ass one day,” says Christoph Niemann, a passionate advocate for ideas-centered, problem-solving illustration. Niemann trained in graphic design at Stuttgart Academy of Fine Arts in Germany, moving to New York upon graduation in 1997 to begin a career in illustration, working predominantly as an editorial illustrator.

“Despite studying graphic design, I majored in illustration,” Niemann admits. “I had a harsh tutor, but it was a fantastic education.” The harsh tutor was no less then Heinz Edelmann, art director and illustrator of the 1968 classic Beatles movie Yellow Submarine. It was this education that set Niemann on his path to concept-led illustration.

“I have a real problem with illustration that isn’t created within the context of graphic design,” he continues. “Being an illustrator is like being an artist without being an artist; it is not about self or ego, it is always about collaboration and compromise.” Niemann understands the complexities of working to a brief, for a client and for an end user or “reader,” as he refers to his audience. “For an illustrator, the collaboration with a good art director means that it is never just about making a picture to fill a white space on the page—an art director will always have an opinion,” he explains.

Magazine Cover: Digital
This cover image for The New York Times Book Review sits alongside a review of Exurbia, in which David Brooks explores the phenomenon of urban sprawl in the USA.

Niemann’s favorite clients are those that push him and demand the best of his skills because they also care passionately about the quality of the work and the strength of the message. “The New Yorker, for me, is the Olympic Games of illustration commissions. Your illustration takes center stage, no cover lines or text, just you out there for a week—your idea, your work, and nothing else,” he states. “And the readers are demanding too.” It is the end user who is at the core of Niemann’s drive to create work. “It’s all about the reader,” he exclaims. “If you design a sign for a bathroom, it is all about helping someone find the bathroom. It’s the same with a funny idea; it’s not for you or the art director to laugh at, it’s the reader who should be laughing. If they don’t laugh, you have failed.”

Magazine Cover: Digital
An editorial illustration for Wired magazine, published in the USA, that accompanied an article discussing the pros and cons of deleting negative comments posted by readers of your blog.

Niemann often wonders at what he does and how it all happened. “I’m like a kid at a candy store,” he admits. “I do exactly what I did as a 13-year-old, the only difference is I get paid for it now. I have an amazing freedom.” The freedom, however, could be short-lived. “In three days’ time I could be out of a job. I have work until the end of the week,” he states. “And it is always like this. I’ve gotten used to it, but there really is no sitting back and relaxing. I do sometimes wonder what it would be like to just go into an office and work through a pile.”

Niemann, after 11 years, is leaving New York for Berlin, keen to explore new influences and inspirations and to connect with his German past. He insists he’ll still work for his US editorial clients, despite the pressure of the frantic deadline. “Editorial work is crisp and fresh,” he insists. “It’s too fast to get stale. There is no time for slow-cooking an idea, and if a solution stinks, it only stinks for the life of the newspaper or magazine.” It is evident that Niemann’s timeless illustrations remain as fresh as the day they were executed.

Magazine Cover: Pen and Ink, Digital
Globalization was the theme for this image illustrating the cover of a July 4 issue of The New Yorker magazine. Communist poster art was the inspiration for heroic workers machine-stitching the Stars and Stripes.

Magazine Cover: Mixed Media, Digital
For a Fall issue of The New Yorker, Niemann created this cover image. His trademark simplicity marries creative thinking with artistic execution beautifully. And once again, the image says it all.

Magazine Cover: Pen and Ink, Digital
Niemann’s expertise in combining pen, ink, and digital drawing allows a simple concept to shine through. This cover for another July 4 issue of The New Yorker says it all without having to fall back on a cover line or supplementary text.

Magazine Cover: Digital
An entirely digital artwork, this cover image for an April 15 issue of The New Yorker, the deadline for submitting US tax returns, represents the message graphically.

Book Review: Pen and Ink
An illustration for The New York Times Book Review accompanying a review of a book investigating how guns have become inseparable from the American character, this combines bold thinking with simple graphic art.

Book Illustrations: Pen and Ink (left); Brush and Ink (right)
In the book 100% EVIL (Princeton Architectural Press), Niemann and Nicholas Blechman, designer, art director, and illustrator, visually dissect their own interpretations of evil. Working between projects and deadlines, and in late-night New York City bars, they created over 150 black-and-white drawings, including these two: Evil Pasta and Evil Shoe.

Book Cover: Digital
The annual US showcase American Illustration commissioned this image for the cover of the 2001 publication. It signifies the relationship that illustration has with the American public: the warm embrace of the toothbrush bristles represent America and the toothpaste the discipline of illustration. An odd comparison certainly, but Niemann’s creative thinking is generally anything but conventional.

Magazine Cover: Pen and Ink
A cover illustration for The New Yorker’s Style issue, focusing on Japanese fashion. Niemann once again draws influences from global art and design’s rich visual history.

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Excerpted with permission from What is Illustration? by Lawrence Zeegen. Copyright © 2009 (RotoVision).