Creative Conversations: Elina Asanti + Christoph Niemann
In anticipation for Young Guns 11 (call for entries opening May 1) we are happy to host Creative Conversations: a reoccurring series focusing in on inspiring conversations between a Young Gun and someone whom they admire.
Elina Asanti: From what I’ve seen, you still do a lot of work with clients in States and in New York in particular, but also some German clients and I imagine other European clients? Do you feel like it’s sort of a different subject matter if you start getting into European Union politics or into German politics? Is there something about American politics?
Christoph Niemann: It is definitely more entertaining. I have tried after we moved here, it wasn’t so much that I tried to find new work, my main focus was just maintaining the clients I had just because I was so happy with the work I had. It was interesting to see that it actually is not that hard these days to keep up a client relationship across an ocean, at least so far. That might change any day. I think at this point, people really couldn’t care less about where you are as long as you deliver your drawings on time.
Elina: Yes, it’s the magic of the internet.
Christoph: Where in Switzerland did you grow up?
Elina: In Geneva.
Christoph: Did you go to art school there?
Elina: No actually, I grew up there and then I moved to the States and I went to the Rhode Island School of Design. After that I moved to New York and have been here since then. Actually the way that I became familiar with your work is through the New York Times when I was still at RISD. I had an internship at the Style Magazine. So I spent a lot of time reading the New York Times while I was there. After that I was asked to do a couple of illustrations for the Op-Ed which is always such an interesting way of working for me because normally my projects are much more long term and there is a lot of planning that goes into them and a lot of phases of revisions and these things. You know they will call you in the afternoon and you kind of drop everything. I imagine that you sometimes have a similar process as well, where you just have to make something in a few hours.
You think, Oh God, it is going to be revealed what a failure I am, and how I can’t come up with something decent, but then somehow you push something through.
Christoph: Absolutely. I haven’t done a lot of stuff for Op-Ed recently but there was a time when I did a ton of work for them. Even for a time I sat in as an art director when the main Art Director was on vacation or giving lectures. I have to say, that this time was probably as valuable as art school because of exactly what you said. It was the time pressure and being able to think on your feet. It’s really amazing how on the one hand you freak out and you think, Oh God, it is going to be revealed what a failure I am, and how I can’t come up with something decent, but then somehow you push something through. You think Oh God, if only I had had another hour, I could have made it right. Then the next day, you look in the paper and you realize that actually all of this adrenaline actually does something and probably if you would have had another two hours you would have destroyed it. I found it a very interesting phenomenon, especially look- ing back.
Elina: Yes, I think so. Sometimes you think about it as inspiration coming in a moment and if you are not inspired in that moment but you still have three weeks to think about it, you can wait for it to come. Whereas if you don’t have the luxury of that time you just have to force something. You just have to start working and hopefully it will become something by the time that you are done with it.
Actually I was interested and wanted to ask you about your process. For ex- ample, some of the things that you have done that I really like are the Abstract Sunday Series. I am not sure how you would call them, but it is sort of like a story telling through a series of images.
Christoph: Yes, absolutely.
Elina: How does the process work for that? Do you sort of make 50 of them and then sort of edit it down or do you already have an idea in mind or do you just create images and then put words with it or do the words come first?
Christoph: It’s really a mix. I realize that usually in order to make it work, the image has to play a very big part. When I focus too much on the words, I realize how I start writing and just illustrating my words. The problem is I am spending a lot of time thinking about writing and I have written a lot but I know that ultimately I can’t compete with a proper writer. The thing that might make it interesting is really the visual component, or the kind of back and forth between image and word and so what I do, I have a basic idea and then I just start collecting things. I try to see whether the elements start to like being close enough together to form like a string of the story or I guess string of arguments. Then, the really, really difficult question after a week or two is to see whether I actually have a critical mass of things and sometimes you have like three or four nuggets or panels that work, but you realize that’s that. That is the real sad moment when you realize that ultimately you just have to scrap the whole idea because it might have worked as a one-liner, but it doesn’t hold the page, like a longer series online. It is always this complete trial and error and then you think you have something and you start discussing it with some trusted people and then they usually shoot it down or shoot it down to a large degree. Then there is always the question, can you save it without destroying the whole thing? Of course there is always this thing when people criticize your work, first you think, Ah, they have no idea. They just don’t get it. Then you look at it the next day and you realize, Oh God, they are probably right. It is often the moment where you just have to say so long, new idea.
Elina: I had this image in my head that I knew what your illustrative style was and then I went back and looked at it. As it turns out, I think that often it is very cohesive, the tone is, but it is continuous, but the media that you use is very different. There will be photography or building things or paintings or even when it is actual just illustrations, it looks very different. Do you find that you make a certain style depending on what the subject matter is or if the New Yorker asks you to do something as far as the style that you have that goes for the New Yorker and then a different style for the New York Times and different styles for whoever else?
In my experience, you can never bullshit a client into buying something that they don’t like. It never works.
Christoph: There are cases like the economy column, James Surowiecki that I draw for The New Yorker, I want to have a consistent style because it has a consistent place in the magazine, where I do a little watercolor spot for the Times Book Review every two weeks. Of course I want that to be consistent so it really has its place in the design and you should recognize it as a reader. When I work on concepts for these I will try to find concepts that actually work in that style. Other than that, I am completely of the idea first and style second. Also because for a lot of illustrators, at some point when you have a consistent style, it doesn’t mean is it kind of boring always working in the same style, but also you get certain kind of assignments, like a certain tone. You get the goofy cartoon stuff or you get the really tear jerking sad stuff. I always like the idea of getting a lot of different assignments that come from a lot of different directions. I have found that having a more diverse portfolio helps me in getting more unpredictable projects. If you don’t have a predictable style of course, it is much harder. I have been there on the art director side. They go to the editor and say, Oh, that is the way he or she draws. They go, well maybe she has to do an oil painting or pencil sketch or a scratchboard. Of course, that puts the art director in a very dicey position. I have found that the only way that you can work with multiple styles is you need art directors who have a very strong standing within their organization. Without that kind of art director, I think you’re pretty screwed if your portfolio is too diverse as an illustrator. Often I feel that designing is 50% and the other 50% is being a good lawyer for your design. In my experience, you can never bullshit a client into buying something that they don’t like. It never works. On the other hand, I think you have to be ready to build a narrative around your work that is convincing and that gives the client, who usually is not the last line of defense of the client. It is usually just the entry point into the conversation at the client’s organization, to give them trust and give them talking points and give them the material that they need to then sell it to the next level.
Elina: Okay, well thank you for your time. I don’t know if there is anything else you me?
Christoph: I was very excited seeing your work. Of course, the one interesting question would be between a question and a problem, do you have any idea of where you want to go with your career?
Elina: I hope I am always going to be a multidisciplinary designer and it is a term that is thrown around a lot now, and it can mean various things, but I design a lot of books and magazines and I am very interested in typography but I would hope to continue to be interested in a lot of things. I am very interested in just trying all sorts of projects, even ones that are not necessarily in my expertise, just learning through the process of doing them, so creating objects or textiles or designing spaces or taking the idea of design further than just the two dimensional stage.
Christoph: It’s very smart and obviously it shows in your work and I am pretty sure that’s also had a considerable part in you being selected as a Young Gun. What I find interesting is that having seen how things developed the last couple of years is that certain things that are kind of considered an asset in one year. For example, about 10 years ago I found that if you were really good with computers, if you knew your design applications that was an asset like, Oh, Wow, she even knows how to use Quark Express or Illustrator or something. Then, five years later, it is not an asset anymore, it’s more like a complete requirement and if they would not be completely computer liter- ate it would be a disqualification for any job. I think that this idea of being comfortable with typography and design, like editorial design and imagemaking, in the sense of photography and drawing, that you show with your illustrations, that it is really special right now. I think it is very important to keep on going because I really think this is the way things will be going. Everybody who is kind of enjoying the comfort right now of having found a niche, unless they are completely hugely established, they won’t be able to base a whole career on just covering one part of the design sphere. It is not only fun, but I think it is a very smart move to keep on doing that.