Meet the Artist: Niall Unger

We caught up with Niall Unger, the artist behind our Freshers’ Guide cover. Niall’s designs are characterised by his endearing illustrations of people and places we’re familiar with, as well as his lively colour palette. We spoke about the importance of community, the best bits of the city and his upcoming projects.

Hi Niall, how and when did you get into design?

I didn’t actually know what graphic design was until, maybe, Sixth Form. But I’ve been drawing and painting and doodling forever, I guess. My mum was really into buying us sketchbooks when we were little and things like that–  my mum’s very creative and she really encouraged that with me and all of my brothers. But yeah, when I came to university, that was my first experience of graphic design and, more generally, the creative industry. 

For a long time, I thought I was just going to do fine art, but I read The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd- he’s quite a big book jacket designer in America, he’s quite famous. He wrote these fictional stories about a guy who goes off to university to study graphic design and he puts all these bits in it about graphic design, just teaching some basic principles. I remember reading it and being like ‘Oh, this is like how I think’. I like to solve puzzles, so that was like me deciding I was going to study design.

You mentioned your mum, but what else inspires your work?

I think, for me, it’s very much community and people. I think the relationships that people have, and the relationships we have with our communities, is a big part of what really attracts me to create. I think graphic design more generally will always be a tool for communication and communication is so, so important between communities and between people. I really love highlighting the best of communities and the best of interactions between people. I’d say that’s the main thing for me.

You’ve made some murals in Leeds and you’ve worked with local businesses like Coffee on the Crescent, among others. Do you prefer doing these community-based commissions?

Yeah, I really love it. Coffee on the Crescent is quite a nice example, I suppose- I was contacted by them when lockdown was in full swing. After they had to close the shop, they were hoping to get a bit of revenue in through their own coffee, which they started selling (it’s really good by the way). But yeah, it was nice.

It goes both ways, I suppose, as they found me through work I’d done for the community; I was able to do something for them and they were able to do something for me, in terms of employment. It’s just really nice. It’s really, really lovely working with people when you know that what they’re doing is important to a community. And like, on top of that, feeling supported by a community, if that makes sense: Coffee on the Crescent asked a local artist to help them.

I know they run a lot of things for artists, they were organising some kind of exhibition before everything happened. So yeah, I think I much prefer to work within the community and with people that I can really understand where they’re coming from and what they need. I think that’s another really important thing; if you understand what somebody needs from a design perspective, it’s much easier to work with them and, generally, working within the community is a bit easier to get that as you end up being friends with the people you work with, I suppose. And also, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted which was quite fun!

I’ve always found that Leeds is really great for its sense of community- what are your favourite things about Leeds?

Yeah, I really, really love Leeds- I only put one uni down [on UCAS]; I thought ‘Yeah, this is the place for me’. I think, in terms of places to go- it depends on what mood I’m in. I love the arcades in town; there’s Village, the book store, which is really, really cool for design books and stuff. The comic shop there is really cool- I get all my comic books and graphic novels from there, it’s really nice. But, I mean, we’re incredibly lucky that we have the facilities of Leeds Uni, though I know it’ll be different this year. Even just Common Ground. I suppose because so much of my work revolves around community and people, I like being in and around people when I’m working. Places like Common Ground are really nice. I used to love sitting in the Union and sketching. I know it’s not as viable this year but it is nice. I think the University has a really nice atmosphere.

Community was a big theme in the cover you did for our Freshers’ Guide too. Can you talk to me a bit about the process behind that?

For me, everything always starts as a sketch. It’s nice coming from a design background but doing illustration, it means you can take the design process and apply it to an illustration process. I’ve got my little sketchbook for when I’m out and about, and my big sketchbook for when I’m doing a project. I’ll then do a little bit of research and I’ll have a think. For this specific project, I was thinking about what is the best of Leeds and the best of the university that is still going to exist this year. Things like the Great Hall, the Roger Stevens building and the wiggly bacon [Sign for Art] are all hallmarks. But beyond that, the idea of community. The clothes shopping thing [top left] referred to the stalls outside the Union on a Monday. These were always a big part of my uni experience: coming from a lecture and getting a muffin from the Cake Lady and then going to Common Ground to work. Then, I’ll try to write down some ideas and think about why I’m going to use certain things. I’ll then sketch out a few ideas and, by that point, I’ll have an idea of which are my favourites and if not, I’ll get in contact with whoever I’m working for- in this case The Gryphon- and see what they were thinking about. Umm, yeah- then I’ll take it over to the iPad and work it all up digitally. 

Obviously Freshers’ looks pretty different this year- how has coronavirus affected your practice?

I think the biggest thing is stuff like this: when we were doing the front cover, I would normally like to work with face-to-face conversations. I’m not always fantastic over text, which is gonna be a big thing for me this year, I’m just gonna have to be better! But, besides that, I think I’m very lucky because I’m in an industry that is trending towards being online. If you look at the way we design now, a lot of it can be done remotely. It’s obviously not as fun and there’s compromises which need to be made but, for the most opart, I’m ok, I’m fine with the process that I’m working with at the moment. So, not anything drastic, but little things that hinder.

Who are some designers and artists in Leeds that you’re excited about at the moment?

I started my Instagram page, which is where I get a lot of my work; with Instagram, there is a community of artists in Leeds; I’ve really gotten to know them over the years. Bobbi Rae, for instance, is really fantastic. There’s also Adam Allsuch Boardman, EV Hardaker and Clarice Tudor.

I’ve also got a lot of friends from the Fine Art school. There’s a guy called Preslav Kostov- he does a lot of oil painting, but in a really contemporary way. His work is really stunning, really, really cool. There’s also someone on my course, Alex Millar; she has done some stuff for some indie games recently, a lot of pixel art which is really cool as well.

There’s a lot of people, but I mean that’s just Leeds isn’t it- there are so many cool people out there.

Finally, have you got any more projects in the pipeline?

Yeah, so [Covid-permitting], I’ve got two more Coffee on the Crescent packages coming out. I’m doing another mural in Hyde Park and I’m doing some work for a clothing outlet in Leeds. And then I’ve got some personal projects that I’m working on; I’m trying to do some prints and stickers for the run up to Christmas. Yeah, and a few other things.

I’m also trying to do another community project. Last year, I did a workshop with a local school which was really fun. There’s an opportunity for me to do something again but I need to really figure out how I’m going to do that in the current circumstances. And then I’ve got uni starting this week! 

All images via Niall Unger.

You can follow Niall’s work on Instagram here