AVA talks to…designer Neil Leonard

Neil Leonard header

A chat to the designer and lecturer who is writing a new AVA graphic design title…

AVA: Can you tell us a bit about your book?

NL: Well the title is Basics Graphic Design: Research Methods, and it is being co-authored by Gavin Ambrose. The idea is to take some of the academic theories in AVA’s Required Reading Range texts, such as Visual Research, and pitch them at students who are perhaps just starting Graphic Design and Visual Communication courses. We are only a third of the way through the writing – so there’s a long way to go, as we still need to get feedback to make sure that we’re on the right track!


AVA: What was your motivation for writing the book?

NL: I am the senior lecturer for Visual Communication at the Arts University College Bournemouth. Within the programme I teach Editorial Design, Web Design and Motion Graphics. I’ve also worked in different areas around the country, and on every course I have been involved in I come across a fear of research. Students need to know how to ask people the right questions, in order to get the answers that will lead them in the right direction. I want to help them understand that research is a valuable process, and it’s possible not just on a corporate level, but for the individual. If the book lets them know about the resources that are available it will make it more manageable – and hopefully as fun as design. The two shouldn’t be separate from each other; they are part of the same process.

As for writing the book, it all began 6 or 7 years ago when I first got in touch with AVA regarding inspection copies and giving feedback. I’ve always liked the large format books you publish but titles like Visual Research and Visible Signs can be too advanced for first year degree or foundation students. I put forward a book proposal which couldn’t go ahead at the time but recently one of your editors, Leafy Robinson, came across the table of contents and realised it would fit in with the new graphic design series that Gavin has already been involved in. We knew there was a gap in the market for a book on research theories aimed at undergraduate students. I write so much anyway – briefs, handouts, lectures – that I thought it would be great to put it all in a concise volume which could help students.


AVA: What is the key point you want students to take away from reading Basics Graphic Design: Research Methods? 

NL: I want the book to show students how to research and present information in a practical way, so the aim is to present goals and ideas which are achievable rather than abstract.

The first part has been quite straightforward, because it covers issues which I speak to students about every day. I am always encouraging them to research. But now I am doing my own research on more diverse topics such as Coolhunting. Companies like Coca Cola and MTV do this – they send out trend-spotters to go and do research and then target their marketing accordingly. I’ve firmed up my own knowledge on the subject and already introduced new ideas to the classroom. I’m finding that the current briefings I’m doing for students’ projects are already more practical.


AVA: How does the book reflect current design practice?

NL: I teach across quite a broad area but I have also gone to lecturers in other disciplines, such as Architectural Studies, for their input, as they do things in a different way. Our course is linked to industry practice so we often get involved with local companies, which enables me to talk to them about the skills they use daily.


AVA: How do you see Visual Communication/Graphic Design education progressing?

NL: I think it’s going in two different directions. There are lots of people who want to explore theoretical concepts, to fully understand and appreciate the theory and therefore the future possibilities of the discipline. But the government is also exploring the option of shorter, more vocational courses. There are many people who desire to find a course with a vocational aspect: they want an employer waiting for them at the end. We have lots of that type of student here – very understandably, they’d like the skills they are taught to be focused on getting them a job. In the book, as much as possible I’m basing research skills in real-life practice, but underpinned by relevant theories.


AVA: AVA titles have been very successful and widely adopted. Why do you think that might be?

NL: I own most of these titles [pointing at the book sale going on in the background]. I have been accumulating them for years! I started buying them when I was a student. I studied my MA at LCC and Russell Bestley was my tutor. I bought his book, Visual Research, and then realised that a large number of the books already on my shelves were AVA books. I found that even studying at MA level I would refer back to the Basics books – where I could always find the information I needed straight away – and then get a greater understanding of the subject matter from the Required Reading Range titles like Visual Research and Visible Signs. Those are my favourites. Along with Basics Design 06: Print & Finish, I refer back to them often in my teaching. I enjoy the way that, once you know how the books are structured, you can drop in and out of them at any point.

I once took some students to Berlin on a trip and we found an English language bookshop. Students came away with AVA books and I remember thinking, ‘You can buy these at home!’


AVA: AVA are planning a series of online supplementary resources. What would you find useful?

NL: Ellen Lupton’s Thinking with Type archive is incredibly useful. PowerPoints and activities for the students, like type quizzes or motion pieces are great. There are lots of exciting things being developed with the iPad too. I think lots of people would be willing to share their resources because there is a community element involved. People are willing to contribute if they are getting something back for their students – I know I would be. 


SL373302 blog


Many thanks to Neil for helping us out with our recent book sale at Bournemouth and answering our questions.

More of his designs are available from his blog, shop and Flickr page. You can also see work he does with his students on the Flickr page for the course here.