Abstract: The Art of Design // Episode 1

Unless you’ve been in a design-free bubble, you will have heard of the Netflix series that took the creative world by storm, Abstract, The Art of Design. Episode one drops us right into the centre of the hive; Christoph Neimann’s studio. If you haven’t heard of him, you’ll certainly have seen some of his wares. Notoriously pioneering the New Yorker’s augmented reality covers and feeding the #SundaySketches hashtag, Neimann has a unique, covetable skill of turning the everyday into witty observational drawings. As he says himself, Do something with what the viewer already knows. Let the image be the trigger”

So we cut back to a very clean Berlin studio, as the viewer anxiously awaits the key to his success. A mixture of disappointment and relief reveal themselves throughout the programme as it becomes obvious that’s not what we’re in for. Instead, viewers become privy to the vulnerabilities of a career that hinge so heavily on those aha!’ moments.

It is, to a very large degree, staring at blank paper. I have to do that to let the crazy moments happen.

— Christoph Niemann

Neimann does a great job of describing the anxieties that accompany illustration like his. Talking not only about the slippery, intangible creative process, but how he overcomes the physical and mental blank pages. We cut to one of those solutions: lego pieces. Something Neimann describes as the most simplified version of storytelling. He imagines it like working in singular pixels to create pictures. How much can be conveyed with one Lego brick? The restriction of those blocks ensures he strips away everything unessential. Leaving the pure idea or observation behind. It’s important to stay zoomed in” he adds, using the elusive grown ups in Charlie Brown as an example. You should show the bare minimum and let the viewers fill in the blanks.

But how does he keep plugging away on the days when the idea pool seems to have dried up? Cue something else we often hope to hear (but seldom do). 

Inspiration is for amateurs. Us professionals just go to work in the morning.

— Christoph Niemann

To help relieve the pressure of living up to past covers, or hitting a certain number of likes on Instagram, Neimann insists you have to just show up and get started. You need to enable a chance for something to happen, even if it doesn’t. The honesty is refreshing, and something most of us can identify with.

He talks about how uncomfortable accepting this can be, comparing the creative process to juggling. One ball must always be in the air (out of your control and unplanned) for something surprising to happen. It’s eloquently described as playing two roles –

The Creator. Loose, free-spirited, risk-taking, not a care in world.
The Editor. In control, asking why, if it’s appropriate, where does it belong.

Neimann says it’s exhausting to keep the two in check. Which is how Sunday Sketches was born. Prescribed free-time to draw with no pressure. As more often than not, his work-days are the exact opposite: You measure yourself against a lucky moment. How can I win the lottery again? Under this pressure, with a gun against my head?”

Often documentaries about other creatives can leave an aftertaste of self-doubt. Watching someone create with ease and confidence, with no real explanation or theory behind how it happens can make you assess your own (sometimes torturous) creative process. This one is different, as Neimann lets us see the in-betweens. The insecurities, the pressures, the blank pages. Until there it is – the reward of all those hours. And what rewards they are. Those magic moments are inspirational in a tangible, relatable way. Which is exactly the same reaction people have to his drawings.

You can watch this episode and the other prolific biographies over on Netflix.

Illustration: Katie Cad