Christoph Niemann on the tension between his inner artist and his inner editor

Renowned illustrator and creator of the popular Petting Zoo app, Christoph Niemann talks about his work and process at Design Indaba Conference 2013.

“The creative process is daunting,” Christoph Niemann starts off his presentation at Design Indaba Conference 2013.

He talks about oscillating between emotions of agony and moments of happiness: “The worst part, of course, is to come up with a concept. It is just desperation. Every time I am convinced that was the last idea and that it will never happen again and that I am doomed.”

Niemann found editorial work a constructive environment where tight deadlines meant he couldn’t “really dwell on your creative self-pity because you have this editor breathing down your neck all the time.”

He approaches his work as a designer or editor would. Once he has an idea he tries to find the right style to bring the idea to life like a designer would choose the right typeface or an editor would use the right image.

The biggest challenges is always to keep your artistic vanity in check. To let the ideas shine and not to show people how well, or not, you can draw, he says.

He tells how once you become a more experienced designer you start to avoid mistakes and you recognise dead ends and can divert ahead of them. While this is a professional assets that you need to survive, making mistakes and running into these dead ends are also important.

Pursuing creative dead ends are kind of your creative life insurance. You have to make mistakes and fail in order to get to the next step, says Niemann.

He goes on to liken making mistakes and pursuing dead ends to a soccer player getting a bloody knee in practice: “It is not about getting injured but if you get home from practice ten times without a bloody knee then you are doing something wrong.”

After many years of experience, Niemann has developed a formula of what it takes to come up with a great idea with hard effort making up 87% of the process. It is 87% effort, of banging your head against the table or like trying to catch a chicken with your bare hands – it is extremely hard and unglamorous. The rest of the formula is made up of 7.5% luck, a pinch of talent at 0.5% and 5% of staying off the internet for a consecutive 90 minutes.

Niemann goes on to show two projects. The first is illustrations he did while running the New York Marathon. He documented his experience in a succession of quirky images that he drew while running, photographed and then tweeted live during the race. 

The presentation culminates in the unveiling of the Petting Zoo app developed in collaboration with Design Indaba. Niemann had been toying with the idea of interactive storytelling. 

“I had an inkling of a solution but the thing that was missing a nice chunky problem to apply it to.” He explains that one space where visuals, stories and interaction come together is in video games. But after trying out his kids' Wii, he realised that he was far more comfortable with the demo mode of a game that the full version. 

“I asked myself what the real life equivalent of the demo mode of a video game would be?”

What came to mind was an animal pen with a rabbit in. It provides a safe environment where you can slowly approach the animal and pet it and it will probably do something cute when you touch it. 

Six months later the Petting Zoo app is the result with a whole host of animals that respond to your touch and swipes in delightful ways. Although developed with kids in mind Niemann finds that parents and adults enjoy the play without any frustration, as much.

He concludes by talking about the tension of being an artist and being your own editor and balancing these two poles.

“I have to draw and experiment and leaping out there and not caring whether it works or not. You don’t discover new territory without getting your hands dirty. The really good new stuff comes when you draw and you try things not thinking about things you’ve done before and it is really liberating; good things happen.

Sometimes in order for your ideas to be understood by others, you inner editor has to come in and chop down all the craziness that you’ve created in order to reveal the bare essence.

“I love simplicity in design. Simplicity is not about doing something that doesn’t have a lot of ornaments or detail, it is really always about going from the very complex and then cutting it down to its very essence. That is something my inner editor has to do because my inner artist is incapable of doing it. The even bigger problem, where the inner editor is even more important, is when something isn’t working.

He jokes that this is what separates the boys from the men: “If you’ve spent a week on something and it just isn’t work you have to let it go no matter how much you’ve fallen in love with it.

One of the most crucial elements for all designers is this open, almost child-like love for what you do, to be out there and go crazy. On the other hand, you have this almost grungy evil accountant that can just say ‘no this isn’t working and let it go’.

Balancing these two personalities is a constants struggle but it is an exciting and relevant struggle, he concludes. 



Watch the Interview with Christoph Niemann