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Big Ideas

Christoph Niemann: Short Deadlines Make You Think Straight

Too much thinking begets over-cooked outcomes. Illustrator Christoph Niemann talks about the value of working within your means and expediting delivery

Christoph Niemann has an impressive knack for distilling complex concepts into images that are as striking as they are simple. His iconic illustrations – recognizable for their crisp execution and undeniable wit – regularly appear in the pages of the New Yorker, WIRED, and the New York Times Book Review. Niemann, who’s admittedly “addicted to producing,” has also authored two children’s books and regularly creates clever pictorial narratives for his Abstract City blog, which tackles illustration from a medium-centric perspective (i.e. Legos, coffee, woven paper).

Formerly a New Yorker, Niemann now lives with his wife and three sons in Berlin, where he has the advantage of a 6-hour headstart on his mostly US-based clientele – not to mention easy access to a delicious morning bowl of milchkaffee. We chatted with Niemann by phone about how deadlines can be a good thing (especially when it comes to managing clients) and why open-ended assignments send him into fits of utter despair.

Do you have a daily routine or ritual?

I have a pretty strict schedule: I’m at work by 9 and I leave by 5:30. I realized at some point that there’s only a given amount of creative time I can squeeze out of myself and if I try to extend that, it either doesn’t really lead to proper results or you have to pay a price the next day. So I’ve found that I can do maybe 3 or 4 hours of hardcore creative thinking where you sit there and really try to come up with a concept. Then there’s another 4 hours of concentrated execution. I just don’t have more in me. Even though it’s a very strict amount of time, and sometimes I wish I could sustain another 2 hours, I’m surprised by how much I feel I can get done when I started this kind of schedule a few years back.

I realized at some point that there’s only a given amount of creative time I can squeeze out of myself.

So you do the concepting in the morning?

It’s very deadline driven, but I do really believe in the morning hours. When I started out, I realized at 11 o’clock the phone starts ringing – that’s when people come out of their morning meetings. And so over the years, I’ve heard this from a lot of other designers, the first 2 hours where you can really just sit down and work are the most valuable for me. The good thing with being in Berlin now is that that has turned from like 2 hours into 8 hours. The phone doesn’t really start ringing until 5 in the afternoon.

What’s your workflow? Are you mostly working on smaller short-term, fast deadlines projects?

It’s a mix. The biggest part, the editorial work, is still extremely short deadlines. I would say I right now have jobs for another 3 days and then I’m out of work. But it’s been like that for the last 10 years, and I’m really used to it and I know something will happen.

Did that stress you out initially?

Oh, of course, it’s horrible. And the problem is you’re so afraid of not having anything to do in a week that you start taking on too much. And then all the sudden you’re sitting there, and you realize you can’t really handle all that stuff. It took me a good number of years to get the poise to turn down things even before it really hurts. Because then there’s always something, either where it’s a person who you’ve been working with for a really long time so you can’t say no, or something that’s really interesting. I’ve learned the hard way to keep an extra 15% of time open to be able to be flexible to be able to take something on.

How does the client rapport work with illustrations?

I realized recently that one of the things I love about short deadlines is that people think straight. I really believe in the collaboration between the client – whether it’s the art director or the editor – and I know that this really improves my work. The problem is when people have too much time on their hands. Because then at some point everybody’s going to question, “Why did you make it red, not green?” and “Could we try it upside-down, or left to right?” and then at some point it becomes arbitrary.

Especially with advertising projects – very rarely with editorial – when you have a month, it’s almost always going to end in disaster. Or if not disaster, then at least be extremely boring. It’s the same thing for me, if I were to go into the store and look at something for a month, I wouldn’t be excited anymore – it would be impossible.

Especially with advertising projects,
when you have a month, it’s almost always going to end in disaster.

In advertising, and also editorial, when people have 2 days, the briefing is much better, and the discussion is much better. It’s not that people just sign off on anything because they’re in a hurry. They’re just really looking at what they have, and trying to make the best product, and get it done.

If the anxiety is about the deadline, then the energy really focuses on the result. If there is not anxiety about a deadline, all of the anxiety goes right to the creative part. In the end, you need a lot of trust from the client to get a really convincing result.

What about anxiety for you personally? How do you deal with failure, if a drawing isn’t working?

At the beginning, for every single job, I was absolutely freaked out. But I feel that over time, it’s learnable to a large degree. For instance, with all business illustrations, I take them very seriously – it’s not like I do them with my left hand – but I know that there’s more of a mechanism to make what I call an un-embarrassing solution. Something that works, something looks right and sharp, and gets the job done. At this point, I think you can wake me up at 3 in the morning and I can do something on the Federal Reserve discussing interest rates and it will look right, and it won’t generate angry letters from readers.

If there is not anxiety about a deadline, all of the anxiety goes right to the creative part.

The anxiety not to be able to do something like that, that’s really gone. The anxiety is still there in terms of the things like the Times blog. That whole thing is utter desperation for every single one. First of all, because of the reaction from the audience, but also just creatively, because there’s no direction. It’s all so horribly open. And there’s so many things – it’s like this three-dimensional game of writing and drawing. It’s so difficult. And I have so little routine in it. I really think after every single one, “Oh god, I could not possibly do another one.” And that really feels like, any illustration job felt 10 years ago.

Illustration uses a lot of metaphors. Is there one in particular you would use to describe your creative process?

I find it really amazing how close it is to sports. Even with writing, I can appreciate it even more right now because it’s newer to me. Going over a paragraph, going over and over and over it – at some point it starts hurting the same way it does when you go running.

Ultimately, my whole approach to what I do is 95% effort and 5% talent. I really see it as a sport. You probably won’t become a tennis player if you don’t stand on the court for six hours a day and whack balls over the net. And if you do that, you have to be incredibly untalented for it not to work. But I think it’s tempting to think as a creative professional, you sit there and you’re creative. So much of it is just doing it everyday for hours.

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (25)
  • Rafael Cerrada

    I thought I was crazy for loving deadlines!
    My creativity works better under pressure and most times I force my clients to give me tight deadlines, which guarantees a better outcome about 90% of the times.
    The faster the process gets done, the more logic the solution is.

  • Vahram Muradyan

    i love the new different non-vector Niemann: coffee, lego ny, sleeping…
    i love that the signature and style is not the medium, but the concept.
    that’s the best one can achieve.


  • Moses Ting

    9 – 5:30, I love that restriction. It forces to really focus and get done what you need to get done. People often believe time spent in the office relates linearly with productivity, which is often not true. Just think how many of your coworker (or even yourself) slack off during the work day?

  • Alecia Lanzlinger

    Hi Christoph.
    I really appreciate your comments about knowing your limits with regards to daily creative capacity.
    I’m so pleased that someone has had the guts to say this openly!
    In the past, I have found that my comments regarding ‘having only so much creativity to give in a day’ have been met with accusations of poor work ethic, lack of stamina, being uncommitted or simply just being lazy.
    Thank you for confirming my suspicions that none of these are in fact true. I absolutely agree that once the limit has been exhausted, ideas just become exhausted, forced and less exciting.
    Cheers, Alecia

  • Luke Morgan

    A very insightful read. As a young designer/illustrator it’s great to know other people have gone through what I am going through now and survived. There is hope yet!

  • Pele

    Exceptionally insightful. I’m going to save this and re-read it whenever I am banging my head against a wall creatively.

  • Gedy

    I really enjoyed this article. I personally use this method and it works great for me, but there were some points that you mentioned that really caught my attention, such as getting some thinking time very early in the morning. I love it.

  • parisvega

    A very refreshing read. Thanks for the insights. It’s always nice to see into another creative professionals mental and emotional processes. Maybe I’m not the only crazy one out there after all.

  • Most Interesting Ideas

    Very useful article. Thanks for sharing!!!

  • Michelle

    Thank you for this! I will be featuring this article on my blog as well.

  • Kristin

    I love you last thought, “But I think itâ??s tempting to think as a creative professional, you sit there and youâ??re creative. So much of it is just doing it everyday for hours.” So touching as well as inspiring. I appreciate your insight.

  • tomkrieglstein

    How are there not any comments on this wonderfully insightful pieces. Thanks for sharing!

  • Monica Diaz

    I loved this post! Christoph’s take works for my consulting biz and my husband’s music production company as well! I also LOVE short deadlines and had a similar experience about taking on wrk for fear of being out of it. I believe taking on work that YOU are interested in, as well as the client!

  • Bob Derksen

    Thanks for sharing! Good post.

  • Smile

    thanx christoph for sharing your workproces. its very stimulating to read & it will inspire me to continue to create!

  • IC3D

    Great read.

  • Kindle 3 Reviews

    Some valid points from Christoph!

    Being pushed is generally beneficial but how he manages to care for his US clients from Europe without going nuts – that shows true dedication of an artist. His blog, the books, sites and products he illustrated, as well as the interviews with him show us he is working harder than he admits… which is great! 🙂

    Superb read. Thanks.

  • Saïd Martínez

    I’m at the beginning stages of coping with the anxiety of having work for one week & not knowing what’s up the next. Thanks for a very open article.

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    Never put off what you can do today until tomorrow.
    The best preparation for tomorrow is doing your best today!Believe in yourself.
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    We have the most affordable shirt, best service and quality.Believe us, you won’t regret it!

  • Mukundvr

    inspirational, loved the parallel to a sports,  dedication and practice.

  • Smash

    My advertising lecturer would probably agree. We get given tasks to do in an hour and then he marks them! ahh

  • Kim Volk

    Very insightful interview. I completely agree… when too much time is given, people start to question every little thing. Tweeking and twisting the final product eventually becomes arbitrary and makes your head hurt.

  • Lenticular

    It’s good to see this information in your post, i was looking the same but there was not any proper resource.

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    happy holidays!!!!

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