Map maker and illustrator extraordinaire Mercedes Leon is responsible for some of our best-selling products, including her "Walk Around" map series. We sat down with Mercedes to discuss her background, love of cities and top tips for those looking to start a design career.

Although you live in the UK now, you’re originally from Spain. Is there anything you miss about Spain, and what do you love most about the UK?

I miss some things, but not a lot as here there’s a bit of everything here. Maybe the weather, and certain foods and friends, but when I close my eyes and think of the things I love about England, I don’t feel homesick but really proud and happy to be here. I adore jacket potatoes, curries, bacon rolls for breakfast, double decker buses, the arts scene, the high streets and the markets. Above all I love London (what a wonderful city) and its variety of people, and the people in God’s Own Country - Yorkshire, where I live now!

Did you always know that you wanted to be an illustrator when you were growing up, or is it something you’ve ended up doing unexpectedly?

From a young age I found comfort and entertainment in books and also atlases, encyclopaedias and magazines. So I developed a kind of talent for writing and drawing, but it wasn’t until I turned around fourteen or fifteen that started to have more of an interest in making a living from arts. I was quite good at drawing, and a bit of it was probably to contradict my parents’ plans for me to do a degree in law or architecture!

So when I had chance to choose a path in secondary school, I went for Arts subjects. Since then I’ve never regretted it. Once I started Fine Arts at uni I specialised in graphic design and illustration. When I finished my degree got a Junior Designer role at a small advertising agency, and after short a year there I left Spain, with my then-boyfriend and now-husband, to take a Masters in Illustration at Camberwell. We did our final degree show and from there I got asked to illustrate "101 Business Ideas" by its author. That was the first book to be published with my name in it, which made me feel very proud and gave me the confidence to carry on. Just before graduation I also took part in an online design competition, part of New Designers, and got awarded a paid freelance placement at Tigerprint (now Hallmark) studios in London, and after some months I finally got a full time creative job.

I’d say being able to make a living from my illustration work was a combination of good luck, some hard work, a lot of determination and support from my loved ones. It is a privilege and a very rewarding and fulfilling profession, despite the challenges. I feel very grateful and it gives me a sense of purpose, and a way to say things otherwise I might not have an opportunity to let out!

Do you have any particular process you go through when working on a new illustration?

I like to do some research first, and maybe lose half a day in sketching ideas (be it on post-its, sketchbooks or digital) and thinking about how best to approach it. But I do also let myself go off the plan if I feel like it, as I believe that happy accidents and diversions are a key part of the creative process. Once I make a start I am still open to changes of direction, so keep my eyes open for lucky mistakes, an unexpected solution, colour combination or scene. You never know how things might end up or what else you might find!

Through embracing mistakes and the unknown, I have been learning how to make the most of limitations and how to turn imperfections into something attractive; perhaps even even into your unique selling point! Lately, that’s what I love about the arts.

What advice would you give to other women looking to start a career in illustration?

Get familiar with how the industry works. Women of Illustration is an amazing non-profit showcase I recommend checking out, so you feel you’re not alone! Of course the Association of Illustrators (which is mostly run by super professional lovely ladies) offers great support and advice to anyone wanting to make a living from illustration. Any Artist Union is good too.

Other advice - try to network, make relationships, contacts (the essence of doing any business) and if you fancy social media do it, but if you don’t there are also fairs, online portfolios and other places to help you connect with people and projects. Work on your personal marketing and branding, but also do work that’s meaningful to you. Don’t undersell or undervalue yourself, if you want to keep working on things that matter to you. It’s a competitive industry, but there are ways to get a feeling of community and belonging, although you have to search for it. The people waiting on the other side are worth it.

Following on from this, what’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever been given yourself?

"You can only be as good as your taste." That’s a quote I read on Pinterest and think it’s spot on!

I used to tell myself in the old dark days, (and I am still very much a believer) you DO have chances to get there if you work on it. I read somewhere that it only takes like 10000 hours of learning and practice, to become decent at something. After that there are other challenges, but as one friend of mine says, "just one goal" (easier said than done). I’d say keep it up, and take it step by step, like you’re on a mission! Oh and "be yourself- everyone else is already taken" is a nice one too. "Steal like an artist" - I’d recommend as well!

Do you have any past illustration work that you are particularly proud or fond of?

Tote Modern
Screenprinted Bag

Political and Mental Map of London
A conversation starter at my degree show, and believe it or not, I’ve sold a few!

But above all, the "Walk Around" series. The first one was Clerkenwell back in 2012. I guess because they’re hard work and geography and the city was the subject of my research and end of year dissertation. Cities have always fascinated me (probably since I moved to Barcelona when I was 12 - to then move again at 16 - so interestingly, what was initially a big challenge and a stressful life event, became my greatest source of inspiration). Since then, I like to pay attention to the images of places that we hold in our memories.

Your “Walk Around” maps are some of Place in Print’s most popular designs. Do you have a favourite building/landmark that you’ve drawn as part of one of the maps?

I have a soft spot for Peckham Library to be honest, as I used to walk past it and get the bus on the stop around the corner so many times. Also some Bermondsey spots - I am especially fond of those places because they’re close to where I used to live and have walked past them so many times. Brixton has some of my faves too!

Last question - can you try to describe your illustration style in five words or less?

Simple, bright, charming, minimalist, uncomplicated, innocent, and fun (hopefully!). [That's more than 5, but we'll let her off!]