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Posted 20.09.15

Introducing Neil Leonard — BA (Hons) Graphic Design Programme Leader

By Sarah Packer

Neil Leonard, BA (Hons) Graphic Design programme leader.

Neil Leonard is one of a number of new additions to our teaching staff this academic year – joining as Programme Leader on our BA (Hons) Graphic Design programme.


And, like all of our programme leaders, lecturers, and technical staff, Neil has a busy life away from his time teaching at the college.

Neil is a graphic designer and author with a number of introductory books on the topic, and his practice has led to him landing work with big name clients like BT, John Lewis and Sony. 

With a new studio, new students and a whole programme to sink his teeth into, we catch up with Neil to discuss his practice, industry and his plans for the programme.

Hi Neil! Welcome to the college. What brought you to Plymouth and this role in particular?

Thanks! I think initially it was the job more than anything as I didn’t really know Plymouth. I think I was here when I was 12 for a day trip but that was a number of years ago now! I saw the job and it was perfect timing as I had just decided that I wanted to go back to teaching full time. Everything happened really quickly which was good, so the move just seemed to go so much more smoothly.

Extract from Neil's book 'Becoming a Successful Graphic Designer', published by Bloomsbury.

And it’s funny coming down here because when I mentioned about coming to Plymouth, there’s that thing that people outside of the city say – which is always ‘there’s loads of concrete and it was bombed during the second world war’. And you get here and it’s actually really nice. When I got off the train it was not what I was expecting at all. I grew up in Swindon which is concrete central and Plymouth is beautifully scenic in comparison.

I think it can surprise people when they come here – the Barbican and the Hoe are such beautiful parts of the city.

Yeah and I think the parts that were bombed remind me a bit of Bristol, which I really like, and then when I saw some of the areas like the Barbican and the Hoe it really proved how lovely the area is... And my wife really loved it when she came to have a look around.

"They are the future of Graphic Design, and they should go into industry with that mind-set and the confidence to make things better."

But mainly it was the job that brought me here as I was trying to find a course that I would be happy working on and with a similar ethos to myself. I felt from looking at the graduate work from here, it was definitely in line with courses I have worked on previously.

We’ve had lots of success at D&AD and New Designers and all those things just felt like it was a programme that was moving forward and one that I would fit into and also be able to help and develop.

'Hard Times' designed by Neil Leonard.

What did you do before coming here?

I was at AUB (Arts University Bournemouth) for about 12 years and watched it grow from quite a small place to a large institution. I started running the ND Multi-media course there, so that was my first job and I did that for about two years. Then I moved onto the FDA in Visual Communication and I was also programme leader for all sorts of different roles within that at various points which was quite fun.

But then I stopped teaching full time to concentrate on doing other things and after that period I taught on graphics and illustration and model making and textiles as well.

Wow, quite a range of subjects then!

Yeah and that was really nice actually because I did all sorts for a number of years at AUB which then led to me working on fashion journalism at Southampton.

So I just suddenly started teaching fashion journalism and I did that for a while, before moving on to Advertising at Southampton and then teaching Graphic Design at Brighton, alongside Design Management at LCC (London College of Communications). So a real mix of experience!

Double page spread from Neil Leonard's book 'Idea Generation' about a project by Morag Myerscough.

So how did you get into Graphic Design?

As a student I picked up Photoshop before it was widely known, so this led to me doing freelance image manipulation and restoration for a few clients. In turn, this then led to me being offered work at a local newspaper.

I did a few evenings a week and had to turn around a great number of births, deaths and marriages for the paper, and this taught me two things: the ability to work quickly and accurately, and also how to use Quark.  

"The screen printing here is amazing and I think all students love doing that and the letterpress is great as well. I think those facilities, I mean even if you look at LCC, are getting knocked back and back and there’s not the access you’d really like so it’s nice to see here that there is still access to these things and they are growing rather than shrinking."

During the third year of my degree I got into web design, Dreamweaver mainly, and I was offered the chance to teach an ND group one afternoon a week. I also started teaching apprentices how to use various print related applications at a small training institution in Wokingham.

While I was keen to maintain a freelance practice, I started teaching more and more. Eventually I was offered a senior lecturer role in Bournemouth around a year after I completed my PGCE.  

That's quite a journey! It’s great that you have worked in so many different areas as our students all have such varying ideas of what they would like to do and go on to shape a huge variety of careers.

That's the big entrepreneurial thing because you can go that standard route of junior designer and then in about six years you might be a middleweight designer and then from there you go on to be a senior designer. Or just do your own thing. I know that some of the more successful graduates I have had have just done their own thing – they’ve started their own companies or worked freelance.

Students get full access to our brilliant facilities including our print workshops.

I spoke to one not long ago who has just decided to start her own studio in Berlin. She does fashion branding and I think that came from the fact that the course I was previously on was so diverse. And actually it's very similar to this course with the ethos of how you can’t identify the course from the graduate, like you can with some courses, because they are all so different.

For example there are some stands at D&AD and it looks like the one they did last year, you know, you can tell a graduate is from a certain place because it’s the same type of work that is always being produced there.

I’ve certainly noticed that our graduates tend to go into freelance work or set up their own studio. It’s great that they have the freedom to try out what they want and aren't constrained by any rigid structure of what a graphic design graduate should be.

Yeah I agree, I think it’s just about making your own plan and making your own career because there is the flexibility to do that now and you can do it from Plymouth, you don’t need to live in London. You can be in any of those sorts of smaller cities and the transport links are great and you can Skype with clients and I think there’s not that expectation that you need to be in Central London or Shoreditch anymore.

Like many of our staff, you are also a practising artist. What does your personal practice involve?

Yes, I've always maintained some freelance practice, and between 2012 and 2015 this has been the focus of my work. Website design makes up around 80% of my design work, but I also do branding and print projects.  

Writing is one area I would like to develop. I've published two books through Bloomsbury, and a third is coming out soon – fingers crossed! This work all came about through chance; I did my MA at LCC and was fortunate enough to have Dr. Russell Bestley, as well as Paul McNeil, as a tutor, and he had recently published 'Visual Research' through AVA and it was an inspiration.

"You’ve had lots of success at D&AD and New Designers and all those things just felt like it was a course that was moving forward and one that I would fit into and also be able to help and develop."

Shortly after I completed the course I was fortunate enough to meet AVA Publishing at New Designers graduate show. I got to know a few of the team over the week there, and by the end they were talking to me about writing for them. AVA Publishing then became part of Bloomsbury, and I'm now on book number three.

And what do you think so far of the college itself?

It's a great building. I think one of the things I liked about it, which I’ve not had elsewhere, is the fact it is so close to the city centre – it’s literally right across the other side of the road. When I was at Bournemouth it was about a half hour or 45 minute walk to the town centre so you really didn’t feel connected to the local population, but I think here you have that wonderful craft space and the buses go right outside and you feel part of the city.

And everyone I’ve met here has been really nice. And we're in the process of moving into this larger studio. It’s nice because it feels like I’m setting up home at the same time as the staff, so we’re all doing that together. I’m looking forward to seeing the place busy with students, it’s certainly going to be an experience.

And it’s really great that you have that cross-disciplinary working. The screen printing here is amazing and I think all students love doing that. And the letterpresses are great as well. I think those facilities, even if you look at LCC, are getting knocked back and back and there’s not the access you’d really like else. So it’s nice to see here that there is still access to those things and they are growing rather than shrinking.

So what are your plans for the programme?

The overall objective for the course it to have graduates that are ready for industry, but that don't just respond – we want industry leaders. One thing that I really liked in the college's previous shows was that all the students had an individual personality, not a course stamp.

The students already use a good mix of digital and traditional tools, plus they have great ideas. Developing on this, I want to look more at areas of entrepreneurialism and equip students with a positive DIY attitude. They are the future of graphic design, and they should go into industry with that mind-set and the confidence to make things better.

Spread from Neil's book ‘Creative Careers: Becoming a Successful Graphic Designer‘.

We will always offer an excellent level of teaching graphic principals. We will always look at letterpress as that teaches students to handle type, as screen-printing is a wonderful intro to the print process as well as a discipline in itself.

The thought process behind these traditional processes will influence and inform the students’ development through the course in terms of problem solving, mechanics, and work ethic.

I’d also really like to encourage and develop international links and also work experience in cities like Berlin, London and Paris so that students get a real taste of what is happening out there.  

Check out Neil’s work on his website.