Christoph Niemann: Digital expands the possibilities

Christoph Niemann talks about his transition from print to digital, in particular projects like Petting Zoo and his column for The New York Times.

Illustrator and author Christoph Niemann sat down with Design Indaba at the AGI Open 2013 conference in London after his presentation to talk about his work.

While Niemann comes from a print background he has been dabbling in digital over the last few years, and increasingly so since his work for Google and on the Petting Zoo app.

In this interview Niemann says he enjoys working in digital because he can do so many more things all by himself:

“Working with sound and movement really expands the possibilities… For the first time since I started working with computers, I really feel there’s media that’s new. Not everything has already been said," says Niemann.

You’re part of developing a new language, rather than just speaking the language.

Niemann’s work now almost always sits with one foot in both fields, print and technology. He says that nowadays it’s very rare not to have to think about both sides of the coin.

His breakthrough job was his online column for The New York Times.

It was so way out of my comfort zone, says Niemann

At the time Niemann had wanted to change his work. But “as a freelance designer,” he says, “the change never comes from the outside. Nobody in their right mind will call you and say, ‘Stop the thing you’re doing that’s working and try something that might be a complete mess.’”

Niemann was fortunate to find people at The New York Times to encourage him to try something new.

That was where I really started telling stories, going from one drawing to multiple drawings, developing storylines, and also being personal, says Niemann

On collaboration and Petting Zoo

The theme for his talk at AGI 2013 was collaboration, and Niemann made a point of saying that often the problem with collaboration is too much talking and not enough doing.

With reference to his experience on Petting Zoo – which was a very collaborative project, working at times with people based in Berlin, New York and Cape Town – Niemann explains in the interview why this project did work well.

One of the most important things he says learnt on Petting Zoo was that all the work he did that didn’t make it to the final product was necessary.

Experience is necessary, he says, but ultimately it’s all trial and error

Advice to young designers

Giving advice to young designers is difficult, says Niemann, because you never know which mistake has actually made your career. He nonetheless concedes:

It’s always about the work. All the selling skills, you can learn… it’s actually remarkably simple. The thing that’s hard is the creative work. There’s no recipe.