For someone who’s often frozen by a host of creative fears—from not being able to execute his ideas to not having any good ideas to execute in the first place—illustrator and graphic designer Christoph Niemann is surprisingly prolific. His work regularly graces the covers and pages of The New Yorker and the New York Times, where he’s penned the popular Abstract Sunday column since 2008. He’s written and illustrated a number of books for children and adults, his self-generated projects are a pleasure to follow on Instagram @abstractsunday, he even taught himself how to code in order to make his own app (and while I’m pretty sure Petting Zoo is meant for kids, I can admit to thoroughly enjoying it all by my grown self).
His packed portfolio is an indication that the beloved artist is bravely vanquishing his inner demons daily, and after years spent bent over his desk drawing in utter pain and anguish (his description!), Niemann has learned some highly relatable lessons about his own practice that he’s compiled in his new book, Sunday Sketching, and which he shared in a recent talk hosted by AIGA/NY. Rational or not, here are the worries that keep Niemann up at night, the thoughts that both paralyze and push him to do his wonderful work.
Fear of comfort
Even though Niemann liked his hometown of Stuttgart, Germany, where he was born and went to school to study graphic design, he sensed the danger of getting too comfortable in a place. So after graduation he moved to New York City, where he interned with Paula Scher and struck up a rapport with editors and art directors at some of the city’s most respected publications. NYC is also where he met his wife, had two children with her, and was, on the whole, happy and successful. In 11 years he went from a fresh grad to one of the world’s leading illustrators; his work flow was steady, even comfortable. Uh-oh.
“When you’re too comfortable,” Niemann says, “you don’t have to analyze your work.” Why push yourself in a new direction if the one you’re on is just fine? He knew he needed to jolt himself awake again, and since the energy of moving to a new city had worked wonders before, he and his family made for Berlin (see his lovely studio) where he could have the freedom to unlearn some of his tricks and make mistakes (and, yes, get homesick for New York).
There’s nothing like a physical change of space to shake things up, but of course, moving is not a magic trick. Fortunately, Niemann has a host of other fears that work like a swift kick in the ass.
Fear of collaboration
“It’s too many cooks in the kitchen.” Niemann admits that not every job can afford to have this fear (i.e. doctors curing diseases), but for an illustrator, luckily the preferred method is working alone.
Fear of likes
As easy as it is to rely on positive social media feedback, the immediacy of all those likes can blind you from creating work with lasting impact. Niemann points out that the kind of work that performs well on social feeds is designed to trigger an immediate reaction, and that kind of work doesn’t always hold its own in the long run.
Fear of meetings
“The four nastiest words to hear are ‘Let’s have a meeting.’” Preach, Niemann.
Fear of assignments
Ever been excited by a legitimately awesome opportunity, only to find yourself cowering under the burden of actually completing it? After taking on the Abstract Sunday column, Niemann quickly (and much to his surprise) came to loathe it, ultimately considering it such an unpleasant task that it made him question his decision to become a designer in the first place.
But it made him realize that working under pain and tension is okay, in fact it’s required. Good work is never created under happy-smiley circumstances. Ever see an athlete smiling all chill while they’re throwing a shotput or shooting a three-pointer?
Fear of personal projects
Okay, so assignments are tough, but on the other hand the open-ended, self-generated work was killing him, too. Without the tight deadlines of the editorial process and the feedback from editors and art directors, Niemann felt like he was waffling. Which brings us to his next fear.
Fear of not being good enough
Here Niemann offers a solution: “Practice and become better.” Put in those 10,000 hours. Learn the skills that might be holding you back. We all know this, but how many of us actually do it? For Niemann’s part, a heretofore ink-and-paper guy learned to code so he could make his own app. It’s also why he mastered Flash so he could animate his own illustrations.
Fear of creating irrelevant work (and going broke)
Solution: “Worry, doubt, and agonize.” Check. And then? If you can, Niemann suggests hoarding away enough money to create a six-month buffer that allows you to turn down jobs, even quit your 9-5 if you need to, so you’re not creating work just to make ends meet.
Fear of being out of ideas
“It’s just so hard to come up with them,” Niemann bemoans. His solution? Create. You can improve on what you are, but you can’t change it. So you have to do things, lots of things, until something clicks.