Christoph Niemann
1,811,856 views • 12:42

I'm an artist. Being an artist is the greatest job there is. And I really pity each and every one of you who has to spend your days discovering new galaxies or saving humanity from global warming.

(Laughter)

But being an artist is also a daunting job. I spend every day, from nine to six, doing this.

(Laughter)

I even started a side career that consists entirely of complaining about the difficulty of the creative process.

(Laughter)

But today, I don't want to talk about what makes my life difficult. I want to talk about what makes it easy. And that is you — and the fact that you are fluent in a language that you're probably not even aware of. You're fluent in the language of reading images. Deciphering an image like that takes quite a bit of an intellectual effort. But nobody ever taught you how this works, you just know it.

College, shopping, music. What makes a language powerful is that you can take a very complex idea and communicate it in a very simple, efficient form. These images represent exactly the same ideas. But when you look, for example, at the college hat, you know that this doesn't represent the accessory you wear on your head when you're being handed your diploma, but rather the whole idea of college. Now, what drawings can do is they cannot only communicate images, they can even evoke emotions. Let's say you get to an unfamiliar place and you see this. You feel happiness and relief.

(Laughter)

Or a slight sense of unease or maybe downright panic.

(Laughter)

Or blissful peace and quiet.

(Laughter)

But visuals, they're of course more than just graphic icons. You know, if I want to tell the story of modern-day struggle, I would start with the armrest between two airplane seats and two sets of elbows fighting. What I love there is this universal law that, you know, you have 30 seconds to fight it out and once it's yours, you get to keep it for the rest of the flight.

(Laughter)

Now, commercial flight is full of these images. If I want to illustrate the idea of discomfort, nothing better than these neck pillows. They're designed to make you more comfortable —

(Laughter)

except they don't.

(Laughter)

So I never sleep on airplanes. What I do occasionally is I fall into a sort of painful coma. And when I wake up from that, I have the most terrible taste in my mouth. It's a taste that's so bad, it cannot be described with words, but it can be drawn.

(Laughter)

The thing is, you know, I love sleeping. And when I sleep, I really prefer to do it while spooning. I've been spooning on almost a pro level for close to 20 years, but in all this time, I've never figured out what to do with that bottom arm.

(Laughter)

(Applause)

And the only thing — the only thing that makes sleeping even more complicated than trying to do it on an airplane is when you have small children. They show up at your bed at around 4am with some bogus excuse of, "I had a bad dream."

(Laughter)

And then, of course you feel sorry for them, they're your kids, so you let them into your bed. And I have to admit, at the beginning, they're really cute and warm and snugly. The minute you fall back asleep, they inexplicably —

(Laughter)

start rotating.

(Laughter)

We like to call this the helicopter mode.

(Laughter)

Now, the deeper something is etched into your consciousness, the fewer details we need to have an emotional reaction.

(Laughter)

So why does an image like this work? It works, because we as readers are incredibly good at filling in the blanks. Now, when you draw, there's this concept of negative space. And the idea is, that instead of drawing the actual object, you draw the space around it. So the bowls in this drawing are empty. But the black ink prompts your brain to project food into a void. What we see here is not a owl flying. What we actually see is a pair of AA batteries standing on a nonsensical drawing, and I animate the scene by moving my desk lamp up and down.

(Laughter)

The image really only exists in your mind. So, how much information do we need to trigger such an image? My goal as an artist is to use the smallest amount possible. I try to achieve a level of simplicity where, if you were to take away one more element, the whole concept would just collapse. And that's why my personal favorite tool as an artist is abstraction. I've come up with this system which I call the abstract-o-meter, and this is how it works. So you take a symbol, any symbol, for example the heart and the arrow, which most of us would read as the symbol for love, and I'm an artist, so I can draw this in any given degree of realism or abstraction. Now, if I go too realistic on it, it just grosses everybody out.

(Laughter)

If I go too far on the other side and do very abstract, nobody has any idea what they're looking at. So I have to find the perfect place on that scale, in this case it's somewhere in the middle. Now, once we have reduced an image to a more simple form, all sorts of new connections become possible. And that allows for totally new angles in storytelling.

(Laughter)

And so, what I like to do is, I like to take images from really remote cultural areas and bring them together. Now, with more daring references —

(Laughter)

I can have more fun. But of course, I know that eventually things become so obscure that I start losing some of you. So as a designer, it's absolutely key to have a good understanding of the visual and cultural vocabulary of your audience. With this image here, a comment on the Olympics in Athens, I assumed that the reader of the "New Yorker" would have some rudimentary idea of Greek art. If you don't, the image doesn't work. But if you do, you might even appreciate the small detail, like the beer-can pattern here on the bottom of the vase.

(Laughter)

A recurring discussion I have with magazine editors, who are usually word people, is that their audience, you, are much better at making radical leaps with images than they're being given credit for. And the only thing I find frustrating is that they often seem to push me towards a small set of really tired visual clichés that are considered safe. You know, it's the businessman climbing up a ladder, and then the ladder moves, morphs into a stock market graph, and anything with dollar signs; that's always good.

(Laughter)

If there are editorial decision makers here in the audience, I want to give you a piece of advice. Every time a drawing like this is published, a baby panda will die.

(Laughter)

Literally.

(Laughter)

(Applause)

When is a visual cliché good or bad? It's a fine line. And it really depends on the story. In 2011, during the earthquake and the tsunami in Japan, I was thinking of a cover. And I went through the classic symbols: the Japanese flag, "The Great Wave" by Hokusai, one of the greatest drawings ever. And then the story changed when the situation at the power plant in Fukushima got out of hand. And I remember these TV images of the workers in hazmat suits, just walking through the site, and what struck me was how quiet and serene it was. And so I wanted to create an image of a silent catastrophe. And that's the image I came up with.

(Applause)

Thank you.

(Applause)

What I want to do is create an aha moment, for you, for the reader. And unfortunately, that does not mean that I have an aha moment when I create these images. I never sit at my desk with the proverbial light bulb going off in my head. What it takes is actually a very slow, unsexy process of minimal design decisions that then, when I'm lucky, lead to a good idea.

So one day, I'm on a train, and I'm trying to decode the graphic rules for drops on a window. And eventually I realize, "Oh, it's the background blurry upside-down, contained in a sharp image." And I thought, wow, that's really cool, and I have absolutely no idea what to do with that. A while later, I'm back in New York, and I draw this image of being stuck on the Brooklyn bridge in a traffic jam. It's really annoying, but also kind of poetic. And only later I realized, I can take both of these ideas and put them together in this idea. And what I want to do is not show a realistic scene.

But, maybe like poetry, make you aware that you already had this image with you, but only now I've unearthed it and made you realize that you were carrying it with you all along. But like poetry, this is a very delicate process that is neither efficient nor scalable, I think. And maybe the most important skill for an artist is really empathy. You need craft and you need —

(Laughter)

you need creativity —

(Laughter)

thank you — to come up with an image like that. But then you need to step back and look at what you've done from the perspective of the reader.

I've tried to become a better artist by becoming a better observer of images. And for that, I started an exercise for myself which I call Sunday sketching, which meant, on a Sunday, I would take a random object I found around the house and try to see if that object could trigger an idea that had nothing to do with the original purpose of that item. And it usually just means I'm blank for a long while. And the only trick that eventually works is if I open my mind and run through every image I have stored up there, and see if something clicks. And if it does, just add a few lines of ink to connect — to preserve this very short moment of inspiration.

And the great lesson there was that the real magic doesn't happen on paper. It happens in the mind of the viewer. When your expectations and your knowledge clash with my artistic intentions. Your interaction with an image, your ability to read, question, be bothered or bored or inspired by an image is as important as my artistic contribution. Because that's what turns an artistic statement really, into a creative dialogue. And so, your skill at reading images is not only amazing, it is what makes my art possible. And for that, I thank you very much.

(Applause)

(Cheers)

Thank you.

(Applause)