“In times like these,” Christoph Niemann says, “we all have to be political. We can do that by listening more, being more considerate and empathetic, and speaking out louder.”
It’s Nice That is talking to the animator, author, and artist ahead of this year’s AGI Open, which takes place in Mexico City’s National Conservatory of Music at the end of September. We’re on the topics of politics for a good reason, as this year’s event has the central theme of ‘El otro lado/The other side’ – we don’t think we need to spell out why.
You know why borders and walls and division are hot topics in 2018, just as you know about Christoph’s ability to convey the the multiplicity of Earth and its myriad inhabitants in a way that is as fun as it is thought-provoking.
Like Madeleine Morley says in a profile of the artist" published on this very website back in 2015, “he has a magician-like ability to transform the way we look at the world around us with nothing other than a pen and a page. With just a few lines Christoph can turn one thing into something else completely – he uses drawing to capture the joy and transformative potential of the imagination.”
What you might not know, however, is that every year, those lucky enough to make up the Alliance Graphique Internationale – a handpicked group of the world’s leading graphic artists and designers – meet in a different city for a weekend’s worth of intense debate about the present and future of visual communications, while sharing knowledge and offering inspiration to the big names of the future. Christoph himself was inducted into the AGI back in 1999.
Enough history; back to the politics. While still convinced that graphic design is an important — and ultimately necessary — tool for political communication, Christoph is less sure that it has the power to actually start important — and ultimately necessary — conversations. Or at least not the kind of conversations that end up with walls being broken down.
The New Yorker cover artist, prolific publisher, and firm It’s Nice That favourite, puts it thusly. “Design often works by simplifying a complex idea into a simple message. That’s fun to look at – but usually not helpful in a bitterly divided political climate. Even if you locked the greatest living design minds into a room for a month, I don’t think they could come up with a poster that could convince me Brexit was a good idea.”
For Christoph, it isn’t the world itself is getting worse, or more divided. We can blame those feelings of disquieting and near-constant anxiety on the way the internet funnels fear, disinformation, and confusion straight into the palms of our hands from the second we wake up to the minute we fall into the ruptured quasi-slumber we now know as sleep. The louder, scarier news stories are, naturally, the ones that get amplified. “But I grew up in the West Germany of the 80s,” he says. “Just imagine what Twitter would feel like with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation?”
When it comes to that platform, his rules are are as delightfully simple, and simply delightful as the illustrative work he’s known and loved for. Don’t follow Trump, don’t engage in digital shouting matches, and mute Kanye.
Joined by the likes of Javier Mariscal, Paula Scher, and Selva Hernández, the bulk of his time at the AGI Open will likely be spent discussing, and listening to discussions about, the concept of what it means to live on opposite sides of an imaginary walls. But there’ll also be time to think about design on a broader, bigger scale. Even if that means shrinking the frame.
“What’s new and scary these days is that we can measure the impact a piece of design has,” Christoph says. The way this impact is measured, he thinks, is both “deeply flawed” and more importantly, “skews our visual language to anything that looks good in 2×2 inches and gets a quick laugh or a frown after 0.8 seconds.”
The changes aren’t just size-related. “Our opponent used to be another designer with a different idea, or an executive with terrible taste. Now it’s an algorithmically tested and enhanced piece of Franken-design.” Which leaves designers having to convince the world that their slower, weirder, and subjective solutions are just as valid.”
For Christoph, events like the AGI Open are brilliant chances to examine and explore new territories. “Through the local organisers you usually get unique access to a great place,” he says, evidently looking forward to his Mexican excursion. More importantly, though, he gets to hang out with old and new friends for a few inspiring, informative, and entertaining days.
Oh, and if you’re lucky enough to be in attendance and you bump into Christoph Niemann, offer him a coffee. “I’m pretty sure I’d get through a day with no coffee at all,” he says, “but why would I? Life is so much more rewarding with three to four cups of the stuff.”
The AGI Open 2018 takes place in Mexico City 28 – 29 September 2018.