Beautiful Thinking.

“A child’s imagination in the mind of an adult. It’s quite a gift.”

There was something inevitable, something written in the stars about James Hardy joining Free The Birds. And it was intertwined with James’s inspiration, his top Beautiful Thinker, Christoph Niemann.

The young designer had been studying at the University of Northumbria and in particular working on a project to highlight how straws were bad for the environment.

“At the time, the subject was at the peak of its news interest, it was a hot topic”, recalls James. “I wanted to do something memorable and recognisable and hard-hitting. The World Wildlife Fund was doing such impactful work in the area of conservation and the environment.”

Seeking inspiration for the project, James discovered Christoph Niemann on the internet. Christoph is an illustrator, a graphic designer and a children’s book author. He became well-known after his work became regularly published inside and on the covers of The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine. His humorous drawings play with scale, perspective and composition.

“What I love about Niemann’s work is that it is so simple and yet so surprising. He takes everyday objects and makes you see them in a completely different light. It is, for me, the definition of Beautiful Thinking.”

The illustrator’s impact on James’s work was huge and ultimately led to great success. James won a D&AD pencil for his project in the New Blood category and the work went on to be featured on Wolf & Player and in a Design Forum held that year. Out of respect and gratitude to his ‘Muse’, James sent the work to Christoph Niemann. The artist greatly appreciated the imagination of James’s images and congratulated him on his award.

No greater praise than that of your hero.

At the New Blood awards event, James’s work caught the eye of two of our designers, Seila Suleman and Matt Taylor. He was called in for an interview.

“I knew it was meant to be when I saw Niemann’s work on the wall in the Free The Birds offices. I thought these are my kind of people.”

He really is the perfect representation of the company’s Beautiful Thinking ethos. Also, the agency was doing a lot of work on Instagram and other social media with simple but clever pencil sketches so the whole style and feel chimed with my kind of creativity. We’re all about the power of the pencil and the potential and freedom of pencil on paper.

“I watched a Netflix programme on Niemann and noticed how he puts himself under a lot of pressure. So much so that he gives himself headaches. I could relate to that. Something so simple can take so long to come up with. From the initial thought to getting the execution just right. It might look that his illustrations are straightforward but that’s the deception. They are such brilliant bits of thinking.”

And James identifies what he thinks is the secret of Niemann’s work and the basis of his own design philosophy.

“Does it make you instantly smile? Has it got that obvious wit?”

James believe that it is ‘wit’ which is at the heart of the best designs.

“Wit takes something mundane and boring and elevates it, makes it more meaningful, creates a connection. Once you have worked it out, it feels more personal. Christoph is an illustrator who thinks like a cartoonist”, James observes.”He has such a vivid imagination. He can see a yawn in a cup of coffee. A child’s imagination in an adult’s mind. It’s quite a gift.”

And Niemann’s adaptation of his style to digital platforms has shown James how creativity needs to evolve constantly.

“He has pushed into a more digital space to fit the ‘now’ but he has proven how Beautiful Thinking will always endure whatever you move it into. You can adapt.”

James shows the same kind of dedication to seeking out the best ideas that his mentor has shown. At Free The Birds this shines through in his work on many clients such as Karapincha, Liz Earle and Alleyn’s as well as the social media content of the Agency. But, over his shoulder, he always feels the presence of the humour and unique everyday perspective of Christophe Niemann.

“He is a constant inspiration. I am indebted to him for where I am today.”
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