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Christoph Niemann’s recipe to make apps

Interactivity, collaboration with other professionals of the digital sector, simplicity, Christoph Niemann describes the contraints he has and the principles he follows to make apps for children.

Can you introduce yourself ?

I’m an author and illustrator. I work for magazines and newspapers (the New Yorker, Times...), then I moved to animation and recently I started doing apps for kids. The apps I have being doing are Petting Zoo, which is an app where you can touch the drawing and the drawing does hopefully unexpected things, and most recently Chomp, an app where your own video becomes part of the cartoon image, and where you can interact with yourself as a cartoon.

How different is the storytelling for a book and for an app?

With a traditional book, the author has the absolute control. I can decide what the character does or doesn’t do, where the story goes, where tension happens, where tension gets released. At the moment I give interaction, it means I give control to the audience, to the reader. And of course, giving control to the reader means I give up my control, which I actually don’t like, but of course it creates so many more possibilities, once you have the reader’s imagination interacting with your own. Sometimes, unexpected fun things happen.

As an artist, how difficult is it to make an app?

It’s not easy to make an app unfortunately. The main problem is coming up with an idea because with this new medium, there is no set way. For a book, you know what a book is, even if it is still hard to make a book. But with an app, nobody actually knows what an app is and can be. And if somebody knows, in tow months it’s a completely new definition. The way I do apps: I draw every frame by itself so it’s 8 000, 10 000 frames. Or actually, it’s 20 000 frames and then you kick out 10 000 which don’t work. It’s just a huge amount of work.

And then lastly, it’s collaboration. I usually work all by myself, I love drawing by myself, being my own master, being able to edit, take in and take out things just as I please. With an app, it’s too complicated: you need developers; you need help with production and promotion. The big secret is to find the right people. It took me a long time but I was incredibly lucky to meet John Huang, the developer I work with. Not only he is a fantastic developer, but he has an amazing visual sensibility, and that’s the most important. So when I do something, when I want to tell a certain visual story, he gets it as a reader. So when we have a discussion, I don’t have to explain my philosophy to him, he gets it the same way I try to get his technical angle. I work with Fox & Sheep, they work on the production and promotion side. Again, they have an artist’s mind, and that is so crucial with collaboration, because if you constantly have to explain everything you do to somebody, all the energy gets sucked up and there’s no more energy for the art.


Can you explain the concept of simplicity that you develop in your creation?

Technologies are evolving; now more and more things are possible, there’s a tendency to show off all the technical possibilities, which creates very dense, very cluster experiences, which I personally often find are not as joyful, because there’s too much information in the app.

I like things that are fairly simple and straightforward. However simplicity cannot be mixed up with something that is easy. It’s not like if you go from zero to one and you just think “Oh I have a great idea, it’s just a little box with feet walking around…” But much rather is: I first have to create this very complex crazy universe, and then I start saying, “that part is not necessary and that part is not necessary either”. So it’s almost like clipping down a tree until the end, when you have this one branch that you feel it exemplifies the whole idea. So it’s not going from zero to one, it’s going from zero to a thousand and then slowly walking back to one, but at the end you have the one, but the very particular one, the one thing that captures the essence of your idea.