Even if you don't know Christoph Niemann by name, you've probably seen his work. The graphic designer and illustrator's work has appeared on the covers of The New Yorker, Newsweek and the New York Times Magazine.
One of his recent covers for The New Yorker was a poignant commentary on the nuclear power plant meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, depicting the branch of a cherry tree with its blossoms replaced by symbols of nuclear radiation.
But Niemann's work can also be playful and funny. On his New York Times Magazine blog, Abstract Sunday, Niemann has rendered scenes of New York City in Legos, detailed his sleepless nights, and showed how he tiled his children's bathroom to look like the New York City subway map.
He also writes children's books, and his newest is called That's How, an illustrated collection of whimsical explanations of how things work. The book depicts a zoo's worth of animal illustrations — which is a common feature of Niemann's style. Even in his more serious work, he often incorporates animals into his drawings.
"I try to squeeze as many animals as I can into business illustrations ... like when I do the financial page for The New Yorker. I think animals are always — whether for kids or grown-ups — a fantastic tool for telling stories," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
He explains that animals are helpful illustration tools. "On the one hand, they're like humans — they have hands and feet, they can touch things, they can look in a certain way and have expressions," he says. But on the other hand, animals can communicate the illustrator's message more simply than the illustration of a human can. "[Animals are] not like us," he explains, "We can just give them one certain characteristic. ... When I draw a big and strong person, immediately it's a man or a woman, or he or she is being dressed this way or that way." But take, for example, the elephant. "The elephant is just big and strong and nothing else, so it really helps you establish a story and make a very simple point by cutting out all these other things that you would have to give as an attribution to a human being."
It's techniques like these that make Niemann's work so powerful — and fun. But it also helps that he truly believes in his medium. As an artist who has opted to work in magazines, newspapers and blogs, Niemann has chosen a different path than most illustrators.
"Definitely among my colleagues, probably a majority would rather be acknowledged as an artist in a museum or gallery. I'm pretty glad I'm not," he says.
"I care so much about magazines and newspapers and books — this is the world I live in as a consumer, and that's why I really care about contributing to this world. I get a much bigger kick out of having my image seen like a million times for like 20 seconds and then it ends up in a trash bin, rather than having my image over somebody's sofa for 20 years."