Berlin-based illustrator Christoph Niemann has written and illustrated a Brexit explainer, called The Breakup, for The New York Times. Aiming to convey the mood of the country as well as the wider context and history, it features a mixture of his photographs, illustrations and text that weave together to form a nuanced (and charming) take on the current political situation.
“For me, the interesting thing from a design perspective was to constantly force myself and the editors not to look at it as a verbal story with drawings,” Niemann tells It’s Nice That. “I really want to have this story that was driven by the visuals.”
After devising the concept for the on-the-ground dispatch with The New York Times back in July, Niemann set about gathering the material for The Breakup during a stay in London in September. Throughout the day he would wander around the city, “taking a lot of notes, shooting a gazillion photographs and constantly sketching,” he says. “There’s a temptation, when you go to a place and work on a story like this, to immediately look for the moral of the story or a good angle, but I really tried to force myself to just take in information for the first two days – to sit, listen and take photographs, without overthinking what they mean – and basically everything starts to collect.”
Once back at the hotel in the evenings, Niemann had the mammoth task of wading through a day’s photographs, working out how his sketches and thoughts could fit together. “It’s a very very slow process, taking 2000 images to get two images out,” he says. Soon a narrative and flow started to emerge and, once back in Berlin, Niemann would go back to his photographs and sketches to see whether there was something that would relate to the historical angle, the daily politics or the general tension.
Because of the scale of the project and the rapidly changing news agenda, Niemann knew that the piece needed to be a story about the broad situation, without getting too caught up in the daily politics. “It would make no sense because the expiration date of everything that is happening is a few hours,” he says. However, even moments like Boris Johnson securing a deal in Brussels last week meant huge changes. “Actually, we were writing until yesterday,” he says. The deal changed so much because everything about Northern Ireland, the back-stop or Theresa May’s deal needed to be amended or dropped. “The story was too unpredictable or old at this point.”
The result is a clever yet accessible take on the Brexit story, filled with all of the wit and humour you’d expect from Niemann. “I didn’t want [to create] just another opinion piece. There’s so much intelligent writing out there [about Brexit], nobody needs it,” Niemann explains. “We wanted to do something where you get a little bit of the feeling of heartbreak and the confusion.”