April 25, 2009

Stay Curious and Always Give Away the Sock Monkeys

An Interview with Interaction Manager Raoul Flaminzeanu

(Part 1 of 2 - link to Part 2)

click on any image to enlarge it to original size

One of the aspects I like with this ‘job’ (BTW: if anyone is willing to start paying me, just let me know!) is not only the great things I learn about the fields of design – from amazing new techniques of using every day materials to shaping the very elements of the earth around us to much more – but also how I ‘meet’ the different people that I get the privilege to interview.

In the case of Raoul Flaminzeanu, currently residing in Arad, Romania, it was an interesting route of introduction. Raoul’s work came to my attention while I was working with a team in Switzerland – that I believe was only made up of about 10 – 15% Swiss citizens, which is pretty typical of the region. A mutual friend of ours – a Spanish citizen no less (but would he believe my prediction of Spain winning the last European Cup? NO!) – introduced me initially to Raoul’s work. Still, it would be some months before getting a chance to set up a more thorough contact with Raoul as he was not only getting his then new website up and running, but indeed returning to his native Romania. It is then in his native region of Transylvania (no, don’t say the V word) where is he is now busy not only running his own company,
Versatile Media, but also dutifully learning French that he hopes to utilize pending his move to Canada.

So, we’ve got a good part of the whole ‘United Nations’ thing covered (our next article features a young lady born in Shanghai and raised in Tokyo who studied in both Sydney and Cape Town and now resides in Rio de Janeiro). All joking aside, it’s a pleasure to bring you not only someone that I’ve met through an obviously interesting and perhaps even circuitous route, but has a world of talent, focusing his energies on the interesting field of ‘Interaction Management’.

Raoul, what made you decide to leave your home area of ‘sleepy’
Arad, Romania and study Interaction Management and Media Technologies in Basel, Switzerland?
Don’t get me wrong, I quite like ‘sleepy’ Arad. But the reason I left my home town at age 19 was not to study at the
Institute HyperWerk but instead to take an apprenticeship in the Basel area. The position was at a small company, Lynx Multimedia AG. The internship was only for 3 months but I wound up working there for about 7 years.

The idea of starting my studies came after I had been working full time at Lynx for about 2½ years. It was then that I decided that I wanted to be challenged more and to gain more skills on a
professional level. After a chat with the HyperWerk director, Mischa Schaub, and a couple of the students there, I realized that was what I wanted to do. So I decided to enroll so I could become ‘Hyper-Active’ and much more versatile.

Was there a particular reason for attending the Institute HyperWerk vs. studying at a ‘more exotic’ location (like say New York, London, or even Bucharest, etc.)?
There were several. There were the somewhat obvious reasons such as location and also that I could arrange a flexible working schedule with my employer. That was good because I was able to sustain myself through the education program.

But the main reason that I chose HyperWerk was because it was the ideal education platform for me. The resources and the philosophy behind the teaching/learning system really fit what I wanted to do. And with the Institute, well basically once you’re admitted you’re able to tap immediately into an enormously large network of resources. Not only the technologies you have at your disposal or the learning material and guidance but you also have access to an amazing network of students with different professional backgrounds and experiences.

For example, one student colleague was a goldsmith, another one worked as a journalist, another one was a marine biologist and so on. There were programmers, DJ’s, VJ’s, graphic designers, camera men, video editors, event organizers, fashion designers, make up artists and more. There were just so many possibilities in terms of learning from each other and the opportunities for inspiring each other were immense.

And I think, too, that at the end of the day it’s the people you meet and work with that make a location “exotic”.

What is the general design scene like anyway in your home area? There seems to be a fine history of the sciences, music and even theological studies in the region (thanks Wikipedia!).
That is a hard question. There is not much interest in contemporary art. There are few good contemporary artists in Romania but they are better known in Western Europe than in Romania. The main ‘struggle for awareness’ in the art sector is in Bucharest (which is not in Transylvania). And maybe Cluj and Timisoara. But besides the theater and movies festivals, there is little to be said about visual and video arts in Transylvania (including Banat were Arad is).

Still, if you’re interested, I could name a few Romanian artists and designers including
Dan Perjovschi, Cezar Lazarescu, Omulan, and Ciprian Muresan. If you really want to look into the local talent, you can check here, here or here. And in my home town there is one place were the artistic community gathers, called KF.

Do you think therefore that being originally Romanian adds anything ‘unique’ to your own approach to your work and projects?
I really formed my professional style and way of working in Switzerland. I would say that there is little Romanian feel in my works.

Who were your biggest influences (artistically, private, etc.) and why?
Really different things: cartoons, books, graffiti, random actions of random people, art in general, etc.. In terms of an artist or their style: I don’t have a ‘hero’ that I could just point out per se.

I see that you were involved in theater when you were younger. Do you think that has influenced what you’re doing now?
Very much so. I am very comfortable speaking in front of a large audience or hosting workshops. I normally rehearse a couple of days in advance any presentations I have to make – including jokes or even ways that I want to use to keep the attention of the public. I know of course that how well a presentation is accepted comes down to it’s content, but I’ve seen so many presentations that didn’t catch the attention of the audience even though they had great ideas behind them.

Moving on to your work as an Interaction Manager: what has been the main difference for you in terms of changing from an ‘established’ company at Lynx Multimedia and now working essentially as a ‘freelancer’?
Lynx multimedia is a relatively small company and when I was there, it felt at times like a family. Working as a freelancer you lose that feeling. You become directly responsible of your own motivational and energy levels.

I’ve also learned that many freelancers have a problem with time management. Through my research on my diploma project (see later), I became more aware of time management and everyday life rhythms. And from the beginning of my time working alone, I started to impose a rigorous rhythm and really planning in advance my time. And that’s the real challenge: to be able to focus, prioritize and stick to the plan. I find that having a time-planner agenda and lots of Post It notes are a blessing when it comes to that.

You see, I developed my own personal ‘bonus’ system. Every day I define my tasks for the day or even for the following days. Each task is given its own Post It. Once I finish the task, I take the Post It and put it in a box on my desk. And for me, I really get a terrific sense of satisfaction when I can look at the box and see it filled up again. Again, there is no boss, partner or teacher to pet your shoulder, so you have to do it by yourself.

The definition for Interaction Management on your web-site reads that it is:
‘...an interdisciplinary role of the middle person that is able to create a communication flow between himself and different working partners (client, suppliers, designer, video editor, photographer, makeup artist and so on). The position is most relevant within the digital media field, where the main advantage of an interaction manager is his versatility to understand the multiple digital working fields and to synchronize those resources for reaching the planned goal. For achieving such a project understanding and to provide process-based support for innovative, adaptive, collaborative human work, an interaction manager is either the initiator of the process or present already in the first conceptual phase.’
Wow, that’s quite a description. Let’s pretend we’re having a more ‘casual’ conversation over coffee: how would you describe what an Interaction Manager does for someone who is not familiar with the process in any way?
I think I would simply put it as: I try to make life easier for my clients. They don’t have to be aware of the process, they only have to be able – with or without my help – to form a question, to define their problem. It’s my job then to come with a viable solution and to be able to implement it.

For me, an Interaction Manager must be comfortable as project manager, project coordinator, supervising manager, communication specialist, event planner and at times even a copy writer. Of course, all of this involves a huge amount of knowledge and experience. But in the end it comes down to understanding the project’s purpose and coordinating all resources in such a way that they can meet their full potential.

Obviously, selecting the partners you work with is very important and you even point out that ‘Whatever I can no do I can get someone to do it for you.’ What do you include as selection criteria when working with other partners?
The project itself defines the selection criteria. In general, though, I personally conduct a background check on all of the working partners to ensure the quality of their work. I am interested not only in the quality but also in their ability to respect strict deadlines. Their ability to work in a team or even to form a bond with others is always a plus. And of course, there’s always a question of price.

How about your own style of work? I found it amusing that you have stated that you are a ‘perfectionist and sometimes a bit too intrusive professional.’
I ask questions. Lots of them. I always do. Even if sometimes the answers might be obvious I prefer to not take my chance on that. Once a colleague of mine (
Elke Gülk) told me that it’s better to ask questions rather than guessing. It might of course have a huge impact on the end product if you don’t fully understand the client’s wish or a company’s identity.

However, I find that in Romania this can sometimes be extremely difficult. Quite often potential clients from small or medium companies don’t understand why to I want or really have to know in detail about their products, their clients and finished products/services. For example, last year a company hired me to redefine their visual identity. In their old logo was appearing an ‘X’, even though this letter was not in the name of the company. I was finally able to have a personal conversation with the client, where I found out that the X was actually representing the cross of Saint Andrews. This was a unique, personal touch of the client – but a very important symbol for the people working within the company and also for some of their clients. But that ‘detail’ was revealed during our talk and not during any kind of more ‘professional’ brainstorming session.

As for being a perfectionist: well, have you ever heard of Swiss watches?

You have an interesting mathematical equation on your website, namely that CQ (curiosity quotient) + PQ (passion quotient) > IQ (intelligence quotient). What was your main message here?
The formula belongs to Thomas Friedman, who stated: “Give me the kid with a passion to learn and a curiosity to discover and I will take him or her over the less passionate kid with a huge IQ every day of the week.”

Most creative people I know followed an alternative education system: Waldorf or Steiner/ Waldorf, for example. My education though was a Romanian classical one, where you learn how to maximize the amount of information through memorization, to conform and not question the existing systems. A creativity killer indeed.

So Friedman’s formula is something that I challenge myself to apply, really as sort of a personal rule. It’s so important to stay curious. You know, open up and take apart that toy car to see what’s inside it – and then try to convert it into a plane, or a sock monkey or a musical instrument. I guess in many ways it’s like the modern mantra of: “Learning by doing”.

I think your business is appropriately titled ‘Versatile Media’ looking at all of your different project work and project types. Do you find it a particular advantage to be so versatile? Or can that sometimes work against you in that someone may be looking more for a ‘specialist’ in one area? For example, if a company wanted a logo and preferred instead to go to a ‘logo designer’, how would you argue that someone should still work with you in this case?
There is no designer in this world that can say he is a logo designer and that’s it. If he can say that, well, he is not a designer. Designing a logo is more that making a pretty symbol above a companies name which is what was I talking about earlier.

Yes, it can be difficult at times to explain what it is that I do for clients and the services that I offer. But really if people are searching for a designer, then I can put on my designer hat and ta-da! If they are satisfied with whatever it is I deliver, then they will very likely ask for more. Maybe they’ll also then need a voice for their radio ad or some good photographs to go along with a printed ad. And ta-da! I pull out my interaction designer’s hat and get to work! The customer might not even notice that I’ve made the ‘switch’ but they can surely appreciate it.

But that’s with clients. Explaining to a potential employer has really only been a challenge for me in eastern European countries where the positions are so clearly defined (you are there a web designer, OR a graphic designer, OR a producer, OR a camera man, etc.). In western Europe, I find that the term ‘multimedia’ is actually very well understood. Furthermore, it’s quite normal in the West for an advertising agency to need not only someone who is creative but that also has a strong technological understanding and well-rounded work experience.

In the end, I guess the best argument is: do you want to have a designer that creates your logo, another that designs your flyer, another that makes your homepage and another one that layouts your catalogue? Do you want to keep track of so many people? Or would you prefer to simplify your life, working together and building trust in one designer that is ultimately able to maintain the consistency of your company’s image?

Continued in Part 2

Stay Curious and Always Give Away the Sock Monkeys

An Interview with Interaction Manager Raoul Flaminzeanu
(Part 2 of 2 - link to Part 1)
click on any image to enlarge it to original size
Your blog adds an interesting compliment to your ‘corporate’ website. What relevance do you see in terms of working with a blog on a professional level?
In terms of maintaining both a website and a blog, it does help. A lot actually. The blog reaches out to other professionals and even clients. I’ve meet many interesting people so far in my career that at the beginning only knew me through my blog. But it also allows for simple networking and a way for free expression. I don’t hesitate to write about my personal life, even what it’s like to be openly gay in Romania. I mean, do you think I should write about my last affair on my professional site?

But, yes, they are connected, even visually. Even though the professional site has a black background and the blog is white, both maintain the same the personal visual identity, the cloud voyager, the ‘Kingdom in the Sky’.

You recently left Basel to return to Romania, which I understand was (or still is) somewhat difficult for you. Why the decision to return? Furthermore, I understand that you are looking to move to Canada soon?
Obviously, I lived in Switzerland as an expat from Romania. This means that even if socially and professionally I did manage to succeed in feeling at ‘home’, there were still certain limitations. For example, my permit did not allow me to live in whichever city I wanted to within Switzerland. Plus, it’s just a simple fact that even after 7 years residence, I still couldn’t apply for the citizenship and so on. Things are a little easier now as there is a bilateral contract between Switzerland and Romania, but as
you’ve mentioned before, there always remains that aspect of being a foreigner in Switzerland.

But you’re right, I do not intend to remain in Arad or Romania. Since I’ve been living in Switzerland, I have dreamed of moving to Canada. So, as a Romanian citizen, the immigration process is more straightforward if I am currently living in Romania. And afterwards, with a European and Canadian passport I can move anywhere in the world. Plus, I have a real purpose now for learning French! And I love to have the challenge of adapting to a new culture. And who knows, maybe professionally it might also be rewarding (I hope so!). We learn while going where we have to go.

Looking back at your experience at the Institute for a moment: you worked on the Rhythmus project for your bachelor diploma project, which reflected upon changes of circadian rhythms and their role in influencing our creativity, focus and group dynamics. First, asking for a bit more of a ‘normal’ description, what are circadian rhythms?
Well, since you used Wikipedia earlier, I will, too: “A circadian rhythm is a roughly-24-hour cycle in the biochemical, physiological or behavioural processes of living entities... Circadian rhythms are endogenously generated, and can be entrained by external cues, called Zeitgebers (translation: lit. ‘time givers’), the primary one of which is daylight. These rhythms allow organisms to anticipate and prepare for precise and regular environmental changes.”

What did you learn from that project, both as an artist and also privately?
It is difficult to summarize in only a few words. But very briefly, I learned that creativity is influenced very strongly by the environment you work in. This includes the spaces around you, the time frames in which you work and, most importantly, the people with whom you work. Many people may think that’s already kind of obvious, but at the next brainstorming session you’re involved in, try sitting back maybe in a corner of the room and just observe the group (without participating). I think you will realize just what I actually mean.

As an artist you have to actively struggle to create an environment that allows you to be comfortable with yourself, that gives you the trust in your abilities and imagination. A place were your demons are friends.

After completing the project, what was the answer FOR YOU in terms of ‘will a change of rhythm increase our motivation, creativity and focus?’ If yes or no, then why?
There was no answer. Really, the study would have to be organized on a much larger scale to actually be able to draw empirical quantitative answers. Even so, the analysis of the project (
www.rhythm-us.ch) does include some very interesting and solid observations when it comes to time management and group interactions.

FOR ME, though, the answer actually came earlier. The original plan for the project called for working with three separate circadian rhythms (day rhythms):
8 h work + 8 h free time + 8 h sleep = 24 h day
4 h work + 4 h free time + 4 h sleep = 12 h day
12 h work + 12 h free time + 12 h sleep = 36 h day

I in fact tested the last 2 rhythms as they were the most ‘unusual’ in terms of corresponding to daylight and normal conditions. My diploma assistant assisted me in this experiment and we tried the rhythms for 5 days. We tried the last plan first. In fact, the 12 hour ‘sliced’ rhythm was easy to apply at the beginning but became much more difficult toward the end. We found that we lost focus on work and the quality of our free time decreased. Plus, trying to sleep 12 hours was a challenge.

On the other hand, the 4 hour rhythm – even though it was pretty hard to get used to at the beginning – turned out to be the most efficient rhythm I have ever worked in. We were so focused in those 4 hours of work that we even gave up our smoking breaks. Everything was more condensed and more energetic. Solutions came quicker as we were working under tight time pressure. Even the free time had more quality as 4 hours of free time were between midnight and 4 a.m. in the morning. So you couldn’t just quickly go to the bank, drop something at the post and there were no friends available to talk to you on the phone for hours. It’s time that you can solely use for yourself without external influences. We were under this rhythm for only five days, and our body accommodated already after 2 ‘normal’ days (24 hour days).

If I had to summarize it, I think that a more focused time plan based on shorter time slices stimulated a more efficient use of time, both personally and professionally. This works especially if there is also a reset segment (sleep) in between the free time and work time slices. Still, I’m not aware of what the side effects (physical, sleeping, etc.) might be in terms of maintaining such a rhythm on a long term, so I definitely wouldn’t just recommend it based on our experience.

The Rhythmus project was great though and helps describe in many ways what I do today. My role in that project was initiator and project leader, as well as designer, cameraman, video editor and animator. I authored DVD’s and also did the book layout. The final ‘product’ included the home-page, the book which is mentioned and 3 video documentaries. In fact, if you’re curious to learn more, there is an
on-line testing tool where you can find out more about your ability to work within different working rhythms. The project was with the sponsor (National Swiss Television), the partner (Institute of Sociology Basel) and a team which included the project assistant, 3 students from the Institute as well as around 20 people that worked on and off the project, plus the 9 participants themselves that took part in the 3 models studied. In all it took 9 months to complete.

My own web-site also features a little bit of the
animation we wound up using (see the project home-page mentioned earlier for more) as well as the artwork, which is very much content oriented. Just go to the ‘Visual’ feature and click on the planet in the upper left hand corner, or if your German is really good, you can even download the whole book.

I sense more than a slight influence from Asian art on your designs, including among others ‘Kingdom in the Sky’ decals and others. I also notice you went to Vietnam late last year. Does this region hold a particular affinity for you? How about the influence of travel and getting to see new places in general?
I do find travelling inspiring. The visual prints remain in my sub-consciousness and will often surface even randomly in different projects.

Still, the idea and concept for ‘Kingdom in the Sky’ existed before I went to Vietnam, in fact, while I was planning the trip. On the other hand, I am currently flirting with the idea of creating a ‘Floating Kingdom’ which is inspired by my Vietnam/Cambodia trip. I got fascinated by the various shapes of the boats, the floating markets and villages, the improvised bridges. The trip was a visual delight.

I do like travelling, but normally I want to do more than just ‘visit’ a place; I really want to experience it as a local. To be able to stay a couple of weeks in a city and to behave as I always lived there. Sadly, I don’t always have time to pursue that, but I do always search for renting a flat rather then checking into a hotel. I find that it allows you to reach another level of connecting to a place and understanding the energy that fuels it, you know, the energy on which the visual swarm was built.

What message do you want to share when you include not only on your website but also your CV : ‘Always leave room for improvement’?
Actually, I took that out of my CV. :)

Again, I think it is so important to keep being challenged and to stay very curious. Don’t assume you know everything or that you are specialist in something. There is always room for learning or experiencing more.

What’s next for Raoul Flaminzeanu (free space to plug away)?
Having a beer with my friends and keeping an eye open for a gorgeous guy. Oh, you mean professionally?

Well, professionally: I don’t know what’s next but I know what’s now. At the beginning of the year, I started working on a small project called Manufactura 9 (9 = noua which means “new” in Romanian). The project is in collaboration with Irina Ternauciuc, a local fashion designer I know. She designed these special gloves to protect her hands from the daily use of her wheelchair. I picked on the idea and proposed to mass produce them. We are at the beginning with it, but the gloves are really cool. You can check out the project at

My latest ‘bigger’ project is working on some new menu animation for
Ringier Academy. The interface of the site itself was done by another company but we’ve been asked to make it more user-friendly for the students. This is only reserved for their internal usage but you can see examples on my web-site (for example here). The latest version isn’t finalized yet with the customer but we’re getting closer and closer. Irina, who I just mentioned above, is also working on this with me.

And beyond that, I’m still pushing ahead with my immigration plans for Canada – including keeping up with my French lessons! – and continuing to work as a freelancer.

Finally, I have to ask: what is the fascination with sock monkeys?
While watching a movie, I tend not to do anything else besides watching the movie. But this can be a bit of a time loss especially in case the movie turns out to not have been worth that amount of time from my life (and so movies are to loooong now-a-days). As such, I decided to look for something to do while watching movies, you know to keep myself occupied. So I started to do sock monkeys.

But I have a rule about sock monkeys: A sock monkey is never to be kept. Always give them away.


Raoul Flaminzeanu resides in Arad, Romania and can be reached via his home-page. He currently describes his professional focus as a ‘Freelancer in graphic designer & interaction Manager (PFA)’ including specializing in various skills including ‘digital production of promotional material for indoor and outdoor advertising, video editing, animation and DVD authoring, developing user interaction architecture and web interface design, creation of brand identities, working with-in an establish network of national and international of service providers, animators and advertising material production companies.’ Again though, if he can’t do it himself, he’ll find the right person to get the job done for his clients.

He has conducted an endless list of tasks for clients of all sorts, including filming while flying over the Alps in a balloon, acting as in field project coordinator for a documentary video titled ‘Conflict Transformation and Islam’ in Tadjikistan, and even found time to be very well versed in just about all of the currently fashionable and diverse multimedia software. Top it off and he can hold his own not only in his native tongue of Romanian, but English, German and French as well!


All pictures and images used by written permission of Raoul Flaminzeanu and belong exclusively to the artist and/or the customer/corporate entity involved. For more information, visit

April 2, 2009

Get It, Got It ... And It's Good!

An Interview with Illustrator and Graphic Designer Christoph Niemann
(Part 1 of 2, link to Part 2)
Note: all pictures may be enlarged by clicking on them.
For some reason I think Christoph Niemann, the talented German artist now living in Berlin after a long stop-over in New York, wants us to think that he’s a little insecure. One review of a presentation of his even indicated that he stays up at night, tossing and turning, restlessly wondering if we’ll all ‘get it’ in terms of his pieces.

Well, for that reason, I’ve chosen the title above that I did. I personally very much get Christoph’s work or at least I’ve convinced myself of that (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). If anything then, I think he comes across as much more humble than necessarily scared, as he would lead us to believe. Especially after interviewing him as well as reading countless Internet inputs from fans of his work, enjoying
his blog in the NY Times myself for several months and even reading on-line reviews of his children’s books, my only conclusion is that Herr Niemann is indeed a very personable, quite articulate and perhaps a somewhat quiet fellow ... but I say that noting that we didn’t have the chance to discuss evil in a local pub (keep reading). Instead, Christoph strikes me as someone who is in fact very comfortable with what he’s doing and how well he does it. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

Christoph’s images bring out the best in graphic design and illustration. He does more than incorporate a given style that someone might interpret and say ‘oh that’s it!’ in terms of his influences. Instead, if you look close enough, you’ll get a sampling of different flavorings from not only the Western world but other climes as well. And even if you have to look back at a piece twice – perhaps because your brain is screaming at you subconsciously, for example, that the other bathroom door is marked for ‘Scotsmen’ – then that’s okay, too. So sit back, enjoy, and perhaps even get a bit challenged once or twice along the way. Just don’t be scared, you’ll get it:

Christoph, why did you decide to move to New York?
Well, I had done some internships there while I was in college. You see, I studied at the Stuttgart Academy of Fine Arts, which is only about 20 kilometers away from my hometown. It was the perfect University for me. I realized though that a part of studying is that you should also get a sense of the world and even separate yourself a little bit more from your background.

For the last 2 summers while I was in school, I went to New York and that’s when I realized that it was a great city for me. After graduating – having gotten to know the city a little bit – I felt it was the right time to move there, since I had nothing to lose. I had absolutely no sense of luxury, I had no sense of giving anything up, because I’d just dissolved my student apartment and I could go with a suitcase and try it out. If it didn’t work out after a year then I could just come back to Europe.

Why have you decided recently to return to Germany with your family and settle in Berlin?
Ultimately, I found that the things that make NY great – the energy and the sense of inspiration and the drive that’s in the air – can make it a little difficult to start new things. In my case, I felt like it hindered me from making mistakes and I feel in order to advance yourself, making mistakes is crucial.

There’s something about NY where you have an idea and you make it happen without looking left or right. There’s no margin of error not only economically but also emotionally. And looking at the whole industry, I just feel that now is the time to really think about what you’re going to do in the long run and how you’re going to react to changes that are definitely coming, before these actually become real problems. Berlin seems to be a better place to explore and to start new things because the emotional and economic pressure isn’t remotely as tough as it is in New York. But in Berlin, you also have a big city and you’re surrounded by a lot of inspiration. And I am an urban person, I need to be in the middle of big cities. So that seemed like a good trade.

And there’s of course other personal reasons. Even though it was a lot of fun with the kids in New York, we were also thinking about our families in Europe, too (my wife is also German, even though we met in NY). Plus, taking a 6-year-old on holiday to Germany was no problem. But once they’re 14, you don’t say ‘come on, let’s go visit Grandma in Germany’. They’d be like ‘yeah sure, call me when you’re back.’ But if you tell a 14-year-old ‘hey let’s go to NY for a month’ they’ll say ‘I’m there!’ We wanted them to have both cultures, so it seemed easier to have our base here in Germany, with visiting America as an option rather than the other way around.

How has the return to Germany affected your work, if at all?
I’m certain it has but I was imagining that I’d be sitting here comparing my life in NY to the one I have here. That I’d be saying ‘Oh, here this and this is different.’ But life has been so dynamic lately with what has happened economically in the last year, even what’s happened in the industry only in the last 12 months. So many things have changed in terms of what I’ve done with my work that I can’t really go back and say ‘Oh, I did that kind of thing 2 years ago and I’m doing this thing now ... and that’s because of the move.’ Because I feel that I’ve started so many other things like the books and the blog and these have really changed my work.

On the other hand, I have to say I couldn’t imagine doing the blog in NY. I just don’t think I’d have the patience to sit down and work on something so elaborate and so complex. At least not repeatedly; like once, definitely, twice maybe, but not 3, 4, 5, or 6 times in a row. This morning, for example, I was actually preparing some work for a children’s book and just space-wise that would not have been possible in NY. Because I’m painting and even though the formats aren’t huge, here I’m able to put like 18 pieces of paper dripping with ink all around me on the floor. That would not have been an option in NY.

Do you find now living in the relative calm of Berlin that the pace of life in New York was too crazy?
No, not really. I was never even remotely sick of NY in the sense that it was too fast or that there was too much going on. I absolutely loved it, I still love it and I go there a lot. I’m still a huge fan of life there. Maybe later, because I’ve only been gone 6 or 7 months, when I’m there again I’ll think ‘oh this is insane.’

However, I do like the contemplation that you see around here in Berlin. People try things a little slower, things are done with a little bit more thought and patience. And I feel in the long run that’s a good thing – and that was another part of our thought process of coming back to Berlin. I think that when you are 25, there’s just nothing better than NY. But the idea of me doing the same fast-paced game when I am 55 or 65, seems ... odd. It seems a little out of place. It’s not that you can’t keep up but it’s like you want to think in a different mode almost. And then the short breath way of doing things in NY – at some point it just wasn’t compatible with what I imagined myself doing long-term.

Do you feel, for example, that you’ve had enough exposure in New York to continue to get assignments from your clientele there?
So far I’ve kept the exactly the same client list. I just don’t want to change things right now. I’m trying a couple of other things but I have no interest in reaching out too much and only working here, like limiting my work only to Europe. Of course, all the new technologies make it easier, too, and make a huge difference. For example, I’ve got a new Internet phone service which is so much improved over the 1st generation of services. It’s so much more convenient. Plus so much of my work involves email exchange so that has certainly helped.

But no one has called and said ‘oh, you’re in Germany, no no no, I won’t give you that assignment’. Of course, I don’t know if I’ve missed anything fantastic just because I’m here. I’ve done advertising jobs, I’ve done editorial jobs – even ones on very short notice – and so far I think it’s worked out pretty nicely.

Can you explain more about your influences in terms of ‘art’ in general?
Like most graphic designers, I spent a lot of time drawing when I was young. My friends in school and I would also draw extremely realistically. It was kind of about proving with every drawing how well you could draw or how well you could depict something really crazy or really gross, but in a very realistic way. In school though, I was very fortunate to have a very good and well-known teacher named
Heinz Edelmann – who was very strict but an excellent instructor – and he introduced me and all my student friends to the idea of a graphic design approach to illustration. This taught us that you certainly need drawing skills but then just as a designer would chose a certain typeface or a certain level of abstraction or realism to make or prove a point – you would use the same approach with illustration.

We worked within a variety of styles but it wasn’t that we went through the styles just for the sake of trying different styles. You would instead evaluate the situation and if the piece required a really cartoonish look in order to be funny, you used a cartoonish look, or instead you perhaps needed the style to be absolutely deadpan and so on. It was about coming up with the idea but then picking an appropriate style based on conveying the message in the right way. And that was something I only learned in school. Before I went to the Academy, I had absolutely no sense of that whatsoever. My approach prior to that was simply that I thought if I could paint more precisely, then that was better.

Your selection of books including both solo works and from collaborations seem to be somewhat broad in their variety. What inspired you for example to produce two such ‘innocent’ children’s books as ‘
The Pet Dragon’ and ‘The Police Cloud’ in comparison to working on a book titled ‘100% Evil’?
Well, definitely having kids and becoming a parent helped. Before I was very reluctant to do something like children’s books just because it seemed so predictable: ‘oh I’m an illustrator so I’ll do children’s books.’ It seemed just to be the easy thing to do on top of your career, so I always stayed away from that. Still, I always take new media extremely seriously and I think there’s a lot more to book illustration than just drawing a simple story. It’s definitely not ‘oh it’s for kids so everyone can do it.’

But ‘The Police Cloud’ was kind of an accident. It was a good night story that I shared with my boys, that started making sense after several telling’s and I just wrote it down. There was something that I really enjoyed as well, namely, the format of a book which I absolutely love because all my other work is so temporary. With an editorial assignment, you draw something and it’s basically in the paper for a couple of hours. After that, it’s being thrown out and they’re already working on the next one. So having something as ‘physical’ as a book is a great treat.

But ‘100% Evil’ and these kids books have absolutely nothing to do with each other. The one is a story for kids and the other is more personal. ‘100% Evil’ isn’t even a story for grown-ups, it’s really more like a personal project that we found a publisher for. We –
Nicholas Blechman and I – had done other editions on like maps and architecture and even sincerity. And we initially always made only 100 copies; but then we felt there were too many people interested and we didn’t like to be so stingy with our few copies, so we decided we had to get a publisher.

What is actually more related is my work with the kids books and the blog. In both cases, it’s really about trying to find a story that transports a certain thought to as wide an audience as possible.

What is the major difference for you when you work either alone or in collaborations?
For me, there are two kinds of collaborations. There’s one collaboration that I’m not very good at and apart from working with Nicholas, I’ve rarely enjoyed it. That’s the one where it’s a real creative collaboration where kind of two people are holding the same brush and you’re trying your best to paint a picture together. The other kind of collaboration – where you’ve basically got a team of people including an art director and an editor, all of whom give you advice, direction, and who clear stuff even – that’s something I need for everything, whether it’s a book or an editorial piece.

And when you have thing’s like the ‘100% Evil’ book, that’s something where I sat there with Nicholas, we drew and we met in the bar and talked about each drawing. It was really a true artistic collaboration whereas the others are more – I don’t want to say administrative collaborations because there’s of course a lot of creative input flowing in all directions – but I would say that this situation is more like being on a tennis player. It’s like I’m the player and I have a great coach and a great nutritionist and a great tactician getting me ready and helping me. And we collectively discuss how we should go about this problem and that problem – but obviously it’s me trying to score the point.

Can you explain a bit more about your self-professed ‘addiction to clarity’?
I don’t want to psychoanalyze myself too much. But I would take a wild guess and say that a lot of people who start drawing when they are young try to compensate for social insecurity. Maybe it’s a way to prove that even though I may not be a good talker, I can still do something else really well.

Drawing was always something I wanted to show other people and I really wanted them to appreciate it. I know there are other artists out there that do stuff and they couldn’t care less whether people get it or like it. But for me, the art really lives by the audience, it’s something I always do for an audience. Whether it’s a very selective audience or whether it’s a targeted advertising audience or whether it’s everybody, there’s still always somebody out there that I’m doing it for. And if that person doesn‘t laugh, it’s not funny, full stop. Even if I think it’s the most hilarious thing in the world but everybody else looks at it and doesn’t get it, well, I’m not happy.

And maybe it’s for this reason that I’m so addicted to clarity. I like having people react exactly as I’ve planned. I may like ambiguity as a consumer of design but as a designer I’ve found that I want to design my message so that everyone gets it in a very particular way and understands the joke exactly because I put it at a certain point. For example, with my blog, I spend a lot of time to try and plan out the pacing. I want you come to this conclusion at this point, then I want to give you this piece of additional information which together adds to x and so forth. I try to predict how you’ll read and react to my visual story.

In your process, do you have a kind of mechanism built in that helps you to be more clear or concise?
My pieces often end up being simple in an editorial context. They very often have to. On the other hand, I’ve done some really complicated and messy things – if I felt that’s what was needed. In theory, at least, I try to find the right tone and the right degree of simplicity.

I did do this one piece of a Greek statue for the New Yorker and his hair and his beard included all these warriors doing battle with each other. That’s one case where I felt it needed a certain amount of chaos. Still, overall the structure and colors are very simple. But there it needed a lot more detail, more than you could grasp with one glance. It needed to move a little slower. For me it’s not so much about simplicity or clarity but more about readability. And in order to convey this, well, it’s kind of like with music: sometimes you need the whole orchestra and sometimes you need just one tone or voice.

Some of your images bring to mind the propaganda images of Germany or even Russia in various periods of the last century (or China or the US, etc. etc.). Do you see that as well?
I’m absolutely a huge fan of early 20th century graphics of all kinds. I’m certainly aware of the political problems associated with this but I try to treat it simply as a vocabulary for certain visual problems.

It can be tricky though: take for example
Ludwig Hohlwein*, who worked in Germany in the 1920’s through to the 40’s. He did all this terrific work in the 20’s and 30’s, great advertising work and beautiful ad campaigns for clothing and beer. And then all of a sudden he does this dreadful stuff for the Nazis. He was an incredible draftsman and he had this amazing way of reducing colors and shapes, but as appealing as his art is, it always has a very bitter aftertaste. (*ZN: for a more thorough sampling of Hohlwein’s works, including the good and the ugly, see here)

Even today, when I look at for example some of the major shoe company ads, sometimes I get shivers, because I feel they use the same tricks that
Leni Riefenstahl used to glorify the Olympic Games of 1936 in Berlin. I just feel like they current ads can be so Fascist in their tone, yet they’re just trying to sell sneakers. But it works! That kind of stuff works for a reason because it’s designed to speak to all of us on such a basic human emotional level. So of course the question is: do you use it to sell sneakers or do you use it for a completely sick and horrible campaign of fascism and hate?

While we’re on the topic of Fascists (ahem): I wanted to ask about the process of working with, for example, the art directors at the New York Times or at different magazines: do they call and tell you exactly what they want or are you left some (or all) artistic freedom in terms of interpretation or how does that work exactly?
I usually get calls when people want my ideas. The execution is certainly a big part of it but usually they know that they’re calling for the concept and the execution. I rarely get calls from people that are saying they want a drawing of x, y or z. But I think if they did, they’d be calling the wrong guy. Other people are better at that and I have anyway too much of an urge to put my 2 cents in that it usually doesn’t work out nicely.

I see that there’s a need for collaboration and I try to be unpretentious about the whole thing. I’ve also learned by working with art directors – and I’ve worked as an art director as well – how this whole thing works. You have this process that’s extremely complex and with a lot of pressure involved. You’re working with a writer, with an editor with deadlines, etc.. And if everybody is an ‘artiste’ and acts as if they’re a precious little fragile egg about the creative process, then you’re not going to go anywhere.

And I definitely believe in the back and forth that’s involved. The editors know the magazine, they know where they’re going with a story. And ultimately, if something doesn’t work, the editor has a real problem, not me. So I understand why people sometimes kill stuff. The back and forth, the dialogue I have with an editor and an art director is a necessary part of what makes a piece good.

With collaborations, for me it’s sitting there together and yes, I come up with something but then I discuss it with them. And then you start tweaking, you start exchanging and modifying ideas. And ultimately that’s what makes a piece stronger. And very often I talk a lot of politics and content with people. When I do a piece for the financial page for the New Yorker for example, a lot of the discussions are about which part of the story to illustrate. Like if its an article about taxes, are we talking about the problem the consumer has or the problems the IRS has or is the message ‘the Government is greedy’ or what is it exactly. It’s really something that goes to the context and in these discussions a lot of good things come out. Ultimately, I think you need to have this dialogue with the team to make work that’s understood by a million people. That said: I can’t pretend I don’t complain if an idea I am very fond of gets shot down.

Continued in
Part 2

Get It, Got It ... And It's Good!

An Interview with Illustrator and Graphic Designer Christoph Niemann
(Part 2 of 2, link to Part 1)
Note: all pictures may be enlarged by clicking on them.
I loved the input that begins with ‘Art Shmart’, shown in the work here. What were you aiming for here in this message?
That piece was really nothing but a pun on art and making graphic design. I love 20th century art, I love abstract art and I love what you can do with these simplistic, recognizable images. So it was really in that case it was nothing but a silly joke.

Of course, the whole thing with fine art and especially illustration is a very vividly discussed subject. In terms of making fine art, it’s just something that I don’t really care about. For instance, if someone said to me ‘we want to show your work in the Museum of Modern Art’, I wouldn’t say ‘oh no way, it’s only illustration!’ I try to get my work done but I don’t think about creating anything that will eventually end up in a museum or a gallery. If it does, great, I would be extremely flattered and thrilled; but I don’t aim for my assignments to eventually be hanging above someone’s sofa or on a museum wall.

Still, even though I don’t care about that, I do know that a lot of my colleagues – colleagues that I highly value and really admire – are not happy being ‘just’ illustrators. They’d much rather have a gallery show and sell their art and not have to deal with art directors and space content and other restrictions. It’s just to them being an illustrator is a means to ultimately becoming accepted as a true artist. But I’m definitely not like that. I’m completely happy being an illustrator and I could easily see doing it for the rest of my life without having any regrets or in any way feeling like a 2nd league fine artist.

I’ve see you (or others) refer to you as an ‘illustrator, animator, graphic designer, conceptual artist’, etc. Looking at this slightly differently: how would you argue (if at all) with someone who might challenge you and say ‘your work is not design!’?
This would be a discussion I would gladly take on. When I first started school in Stuttgart, they had just renamed the studies I was going to be doing from ‘graphic design’ to ‘visual communication’. And we all made fun of it, we just thought it was ridiculous and so pretentious.

Ultimately, I think visual communication is actually a good way to describe what I do. For me, illustration is a part of design. For example, when you do a pixel drawing and at some point you put the red square against the black square and see whether it works out, well, this is pretty much what a designer does. And so many of the choices that I make every day – when I draw or when I come up with my other stuff – are design choices. It’s about finding the right line weight, it’s about finding the right colors, it’s even about finding the right color balance. You’re picking images that fit together. And so much of that is so similar to what I did when I was doing magazine design or packaging.

How has your work changed in the last years and how do you see it evolving?
When I was studying, I was doing working a lot more ‘experimentally’ than after I first started working as an illustrator. Back then I always tried to use lots of different styles and I definitely feel I did much, much crazier things. But when I work now as an illustrator, I am completely obsessed about working very predictably because again, I know the other side. I know when somebody calls you and they need the drawing in 5 hours, they need the drawing in 5 hours! The pressure simply limits everyone’s taste for surprises. On the other hand, you cut out a certain amount of chance, of ambiguity and maybe poetic force if you work too professionally.

I know for the work that I do, you can’t substitute for professionalism. Still, I would be curious to see what happens if I loosen up a little bit more. That’s definitely something I want to see in the long run. While I would love to still do editorial illustrations on assignment for the next 50 years, I just don’t think that kind of thing will be around as much as it is today. I think it’s just the normal and natural thing to find other ways of creating images for your own stories rather than for the ones that people give you, which will also allow for more experimental executions.

Have you thought about illustrating for movies or doing more high end animation?
I’ve done a couple more animations recently and it’s always fun. The problem with animation is that it’s such a time-consuming thing. There is such an intense amount of labor involved that a 5 minute film is automatically a 3 month project.

Another problem is that I love to work by myself rather than having an assistant that collects cells and fills in frames, etc.. So I don’t really see myself doing that much animation, at least for now. What I could imagine though is writing a screenplay – not right now or in 2 years but perhaps maybe in 5 years. It would be something where I could say here’s what it looks like and we have an image of a person walking from here to there. But again, right now I’m too obsessed with doing every little aspect of it.

I do see that what I’m doing with the Times blog and with the children’s books is helping because I’m trying to think in terms of expressing myself over more than one panel. Now I’m thinking more about stories, about drawing up a little world rather than just one angle that fits in with an assignment. But there’s plenty of challenges right now in my life and I want to explore these first before taking the next big steps.

Your imagery about Asia seems to be somewhat mixed to me. There are playful images either from your book or even other pictures compared to such images as the ‘Panda’ that addresses sending emails to China that may include political content. What is your attraction to Asian art and how has this influenced various works in your collection?
Well, I was never too crazy about manga and that aspect. That was never a big thing for me. It was more the ancient Chinese and Japanese woodcuts and paintings which I think are absolutely stunningly beautiful.

As far as these pieces – really as all of my illustration works go – I don’t have aspirations of creating a new style, rather I want to use what’s already out there. I want to be able to use them to communicate certain ideas. That’s why I love 20th century advertising graphics, that’s why I love Renaissance painting. I was at an opening here recently where they had the most amazing Egyptian hieroglyphics painted in orange on blue. It looked absolutely gorgeous. I’m not keen on learning what they mean but graphically they were just stunning. So for me the whole world is full of these beautiful styles that can be used to tell certain stories.

When I came up with the idea for the book on Chinese characters, I was excited to study older Chinese art in order to come up with a style that somehow incorporated the historic aspect of Chinese art, but still felt modern and helped me tell my story. I wanted to make a mix of computer images but also use what I think is an amazing blend of gradients and colors inspired again by the woodcuts. They have these fantastically smooth backgrounds and smooth shadings but yet these very precise drawings in between, which is something that I think is just visually so great.

In terms of your blog: how did you get such a fantastic gig? Was it your idea or were you approached to do this by the NYT staff?
It was kind of both. The NYT was the 1st place I really started working for when I came to NY and I worked a lot for the Op-Ed page. I’ve worked with a lot of their art directors fairly closely. And I’ve even built relationships with some of the editors.

When I decided to move back to Berlin I felt I was ready to try something a little larger in scope that the things I had done for them before. I had seen what
Maira Kalman and Jeff Scher had done with this format and was inspired to try it out for myself. This leap of faith into story telling was very scary: like this is your story and there’s no excuse of ‘oh it’s just an assignment, I wouldn’t have picked this topic’.

Then I talked to the art director at that time for the Op-Ed page, Brian Rea (the blog is part of the Op-Ed page) and we talked to his editor whom I also knew. And then they called back and said they’d love to do it. So I initiated it but they were very receptive to it.

Also, it seems that for so many viewers the main attraction is that the blog works on so many levels (meaning = we get it!). The illustrations have both a child-like innocence and simplicity to them, yet they are creative enough to draw in a large fan-base and keep the adults in the audience laughing as well. How do you balance the almost Disney-esque stylization of keeping ‘all’ ages interested, for example, with your recent piece using Lego blocks to illustrate scenes in the area of NYC?
That could be but I think the
Lego piece is more of a grown-up thing. I showed it to my boys who liked it for the Lego part of it. But ultimately it’s more for grown-ups because it’s about New York culture, architecture and pop reference, rather than about abstraction per se.

But even when dealing with just ‘grown-ups’, that still leaves you with a huge span of people. And I try very consciously to keep it as wide as possible, especially for the blog. I try to keep things in there that are challenging even for somebody whom I would consider very much visually literate. I want start a bit less complex, to give the reader the chance to acquaint himself with the concept. When I introduce a new way of visualizing a story I think it has to start a little slower before you go all crazy.

An example with the Lego chapter: one of the first frames includes ‘No Smoking’ and ‘Union Square.’ A good friend of mind said these were a little lame, they were so obvious. I just felt that the 1st two or three (images) were necessary to kind of establish the rules, then I could start messing with it and come up with metaphors like NYC’s worst building. I knew that only a few people would understand which one I was referring to, but I felt in the context of a blog that’s actually fun. Because you have the comments section – and if it comes up there, someone else will comment what it actually is. It makes it a little bit like a riddle, it makes it more fun.

I once saw a lecture on design, called something like ‘what makes good design’ given by
Alexander Gelman, the famous Russian designer who lived in New York for a long time and has been in Tokyo for the last ten years. As an example, he took a glass of water and moved it around the table. He showed that you can put it on the left or you can put it on the right of the table, and said ‘this is what a designer does.’. But then he put it on the edge of the table, literally like where 51% of the glass was on the table and 49% was hanging over the edge. And he pointed out that it’s when your audience wants to jump up and grab it, when they think oh god it’s going to fall down: then that’s good design!

And I thought that was such a great metaphor. Having this thing that’s still thrilling, where you want to be challenged. After all, you don’t want a crossword that’s too easy to solve, it’s no fun. But if you have one that can’t be solved, that’s no fun either. So it was the same with the Lego pieces. I wanted to have a couple of pieces where everybody could feel like they were just challenged enough. And then they would have the great thrill of solving something. But it has to be a little bit of a struggle before you actually get all of it.

What’s next for Christoph Niemann?
Right now I feel like that with the blog I’m faced with a huge challenge to come up with something again and again. In terms of timing, we had talked about doing one every month which I’m finding is actually incredibly hard. But my editors are nice enough – and smart enough – to know that if I did these in a rush it just wouldn’t work out. It’s a lot effort. I have to come up with a story, I have to come up with a problem and a solution. It’s just so complex that I don’t think it would work on a deadline. I always feel like ‘oh god, I have to stop now, it’s too painful, it’s too hard, it’s impossible.’ Trying to get a couple of new chapters for that out is definitely all I can creatively obsess about right now.

But I love the whole blog experience. The chance to interact with the reader, of actually knowing what people think about what you’re doing, is great. Whereas when you have something in a magazine, you get like 1 angry letter to the Editor a year and that’s about it. Apart from that people might like it but you’ll never find out about it, there’s just no reaction. So I really want to use this experience to my full advantage.


If I could borrow a bit of Christoph’s biography input straight from his blog links at the New York Times – especially as this is one of the few inputs you’ll find on the web that has the latest status on he and his family in terms of living in Berlin with not 2 but now 3 children – plus one or two additional inputs:

Christoph Niemann was born in Waiblingen in the German Southwest in 1970. After his studies at the Stuttgart Academy of Fine Arts with
Heinz Edelmann, he did the whole New York thing we talked about. His illustrations have appeared on the covers of The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone (the magazine, not the band), Entertainment Weekly, BusinessWeek and American Illustration. His work has won numerous awards including from the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), the Talent of the Year Award from the Art Directors’ Club (ADC)in Germany in 1998, SPD and American Illustration, as well as from the Lead Academy in Germany in 2006 and 2007. He is a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale. He has taught a class on conceptual design at the School on Visual Arts in New York, and lectured widely in the U.S. and Germany, as well as Japan, South Africa, and Mexico.

He is the author of two children's books,
"The Pet Dragon," which teaches Chinese characters to young readers, and "The Police Cloud." He also illustrated the interestingly titled children’s book ‘The Boy with Two Belly Buttons’, written by the, quote, fabulous Stephen Dubner (of Freakonomics fame). In addition, along with co-conspirator Nicholas Blechman, he is the publisher of the artist’s book series 100%, which he describes as presenting “editorial illustration without an editor.” The latest issue, 100% EVIL, was published by Princeton Architectural Press.

After about 11 continuous years in New York, he moved to Berlin with his wife, Lisa, and their sons, Arthur, Gustav and Fritz, which indeed comes to three in the kids department. And he welcomes any and all comments you’d like to send in about his work including his blog. Just maybe drop him a line and tell him ‘I got it!’

For additional links of interest, ZN highly recommends (perhaps even marked earlier):
- A great descriptive about the creation of ‘The Police Cloud’ found
- Also some great examples of Christoph’s illustrations for ‘The Boy With Two Belly Buttons’ can be seen
here (that Director character in the picture above looks oddly familiar);
- A
presentation that Christoph made to the AIGA in 2007. It’s very well done, just don’t let the solo act at the end by the moderator put you off;
- WARNING: unless you’re prone to seizures caused by flashing lights, check out
Christoph’s MySpace page. The fancy effects are a result of his own hacking and trying to see how far he could push the software before the system broke. Oh, and if you’ll notice, one of his ‘Top 6 Friends’ is a famous fellow with the mailing address of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue;
- And of course, there’s his collection of
blogs at the NY Times, titled ‘Abstract City’, which can also be accessed here. Whether you’re a fan of NY or not, its worthwhile to visit and let your imagination run wild as you enjoy Christoph’s coffee-based drawings (seriously), an adventure into decorating his bathroom, or even how his boys loved riding the subway.


All pictures used with the express written consent of Christoph Niemann. Remember: he lived in New York for 10 years. I have no idea if that matters or not, but still... If you’d like to see more of his work – or even want to buy a copy of a particular cover or print – please see his home page where he’s put together several really terrific galleries and more.

Portrait photo by Jason Fulford.