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You are fluent in this language (and don’t even know it) | Christoph Niemann

You are fluent in this language (and don’t even know it) | Christoph Niemann


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)

100 thoughts on “You are fluent in this language (and don’t even know it) | Christoph Niemann

  1. Kind of cringey how he shows his New Yorker cover and expects the audience to clap even though most of them likely have no idea that it’s a reference to Fukushima (nuclear warning symbol as Sakura petals ☢️🌸)

  2. Aphantasia is a condition where a person cannot picture images in their head. No matter if it is something realistic or unrealistic.

  3. Art is subjective ( whether visual or aural)and open to interpretation, hence, we do not speak the same language.. if I don't understand German, and I listen to Rammstein, certain emotions may be invoked, that are akin to say sumone who does understand German and Rammstein.. we will have parallels, but on different planes, likewise, 2 people can listen to same song and have completely different emotions if one doesn't care for Rammstein while the other does.. 2 people looking at a cat, very well might be speaking a different language, even tho they are looking at a cat. One may hate cats, while the other loves cats, and if compounded that one speaks a different language, it gets messier. A painting of a cow may mean milk to one, beef to another, or even global warming to a third.. so what is the language of that painting? c):~)

  4. kissing test****hold ur breath,then copy+paste this to another vid. if u can without having 2 gasp 4 air ur an awesome kisser

  5. He says: pick a random object and see if it triggers an idea that has nothing to do with the object.
    Me: I see a leopard in my plate of crummies

  6. Trump is in Japan for next 4 days…pray he seeks ways to stop the damage being done by this horrible accident !!! Fukushima should be a world headline…"FUKUSHIMA"…Investigate !!!!

  7. Educated in Basel, my guess? Armin Hoffman’s design philosophy? Great designers must also be capable of great thinking. It is rare that one could also speak this precisely. Few do.

  8. Every painting or drawing needs a viewer to complete the image. Otherwise, it's just some blobs of paint, graphite or ink just dirtying up some paper or canvas. It's the viewer's brain that completes the image.

  9. The filmmaker Jean Cocteau called himself a "poet" and so I call this man a poet and his creations poems.

  10. The thumbnail made me think that I’m fluent in cat language (meowing ?) .

    What’s funny is that when I’m alone I sometimes communicate with my self by meowing, sadly it seems that I didn’t practice enough yet (meow).

  11. Odd how the people still kept laughing when he gets serious about the topic, I wonder if they even understood what he’s trying to say or did they just think they’re in a comedy show

  12. 9:06 I noticed the sign language interpreter in the bottom left corner and thought it was cool hoe Ted hires an interpreter 👌🏼👌🏼

  13. A word is a quantum data packet (information) which creates an image in the mind. As he said, he seeks the minimum amount of information required to maintain an image's identity.
    The sound wave vibration of the spoken word (lion), which upon observation of the mind's eye, collapses into its image.

  14. Hieroglyphics was originally a picture language. Cuneiform is our first attempt to create alphabet. This fellow is very funny. Niemann is right that our minds fill in. Cartoons and comic books are along these lines. Some of us still prefer reading and imaging. What he calls "word people". Ha.

  15. I think its safe to say lots do these days (illuminati) fine leaders you illuminated ones

    howz about we figure out how to give our children a terror-free Holiday season this year by standing up to the gnostic filth and the resultant inflitration of foreign influences rotting out our Government.

    The folks down in the communities are really getting addled with the media situation
    so yaknow, get something done.

  16. My guess from the thumbnail was cat. My response was "Oh yes, I am well aware of the language of my slave masters."

  17. I've been following him on Instagram for a while now, so this is really interesting to hear him describe his thought processes. His art is really cool.

  18. Amazing! I'm an animator and I've seen almost every picture Christoph showed but I never thought they could be made by one same person!

  19. One of the best TED talks. Too many of them are by people who just want to do a TED talk and, as a result, they come up with contrived and boring topics. This was interesting from the subject perspective but then the humour really made it. Could be the best TED talk I've watched.

  20. You know in language and you probably don't even know what the language of Art you already know the language because she retarded if you didn't already understand where all these images mean you would be sitting and wondering what am I looking at the this guy's not intelligent and he's far from a real artist this man strikes me as one of those people that throw paint on on a canvas with a brush I think they are an artist not creating art you're throwing paint on a canvas that's not art this video is extremely annoying

  21. Non Sense = nonsense. Abstraction = what I like to do = my view. By the way = masturbation = self gratification = hope you agree. Then again is the world flat or round?

  22. I could tell he is german right away but i dont hear the thick comical accent is it because i´m german aswell so i´m familiar with the accent or does he spoke long enough english that the accent got less overtime?
    Does he have a thick accent to a native english speaker?

  23. Reminds me of what I got in school when I was about 14 in Holland as "merkwaardige producten".
    Anyone know what these formulas are called in English?
    (a + b)(a + b) = a2 + 2ab + b2
    (a – b)(a – b) = a2 – 2ab + b2
    (a + b)(a – b) = a2 – b2
    (a + b)3 = a3 + 3a2b + 3ab2 + b3
    (a – b)3 = a3 – 3a2b + 3ab2 – b3
    It helps for sums like this: 14 x 18 = 252
    14=(16 – 2) and 18= (16 + 2)
    so… applying (a + b)(a – b) = a2 – b2
    gives us
    (16 – 2) * (16 + 2) = 16 x 16 – 2 x 2= 256 – 4 = 252

    These are all quite simple tricks, that can be easily combined with the tricks he showed us, if you know what you are doing.
    I don´t know if this is vedic math as well, but we were never told.

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