Sundays used to be sacred, reserved for prayer, family or sightseeing. Today, a third of busy Americans let work seep into their weekends, according to a 2014 National Bureau of Economic Research study.
But Christoph Niemann, the hyper-prolific illustrator behind many memorable New Yorker, WIRED and the New York Times covers attests to the benefits of keeping Sundays free from any paid work assignments. Instead, he has designed a mind-freeing Sunday ritual of doodling that shows everyday objects from startling new angles: A pair of bananas becomes the back of a horse; a pair of sharpies become dueling light sabers; a tangle of iPhone earbuds transformed to a mosquito.
Niemann has completed 11 books, 2 mobile apps and once “live doodled” while running the New York City marathon. He says that Google’s legendary 20% free time policy inspired his weekly creative retreat from clients and deadlines.
Google has since abandoned the practice of encouraging its engineers to allocate paid work hours to passion projects, but the idea of pouring one’s creative energy into undirected play resonated with the 45-year old illustrator. “It sounds like a license to look at interesting solutions without worrying about what kinds of problems they might solve,” he writes.
To the delight of his 139,000 Instagram fans, Niemann shares the results of his weekly doodling and free object associations on his account aptly called Abstract Sunday.
Niemann’s Sunday drawings are often brilliantly nutty—teeming with charm and expertly deploying startling visual puns that rewards the attentive viewer with a smile in the mind.
“The kind of humor that I’m interested in is the kind that requires your intelligence,” explains Niemann of his signature approach. “You [readers] put things together. All I do is put the building blocks out there, but you have to do the connecting.”
Introspective and soft-spoken in person, Niemann admits that he’s not a natural jokester and has to work very hard to create his funny drawings. A successful joke involves calculated decisions about setting up expectation and creating an unexpected twist, he says. “This is a designed experience,” Niemann explains, noting the illustrator’s struggle to toe the line between being too obvious and too obscure. “It’s often about withholding information. There’s nothing sadder than a joke where you expect a punchline.”