Q&A: Milenda Lee Interviews Lisa Hamm on the Evolution of Book Design and Production Over the Course of a Twenty-Two-Year Career

This year marks the tenth anniversary of University Press Week, an annual celebration in which university presses (UPs) come together to bring to light the contributions of UP publishing. This year’s theme, “Keep UP,” focuses on the ways UP publishing has evolved in the past decade. Today, in particular, the AUP Blog Tour discussion focuses on innovation.

A twenty-two-year veteran of Columbia University Press (CUP), Lisa Hamm, recently retired as design services manager and senior designer, is no stranger to innovation. After a previous career at Adobe Systems, she was often at the forefront of innovations in book design at CUP. It is no exaggeration that Hamm’s role as a coordinator of digital technology in publishing workflows and a coordinator and liaison between the design team and CUP’s production, editorial, and marketing teams will leave a lasting legacy of innovation at the press. With her knowledge and understanding of digital design, XML workflows, and software solutions, Hamm often led the way in facilitating the use of new tools, more efficient workflows, and helping CUP adapt to the ever-evolving needs of the publishing and digital marketing landscape.

To honor Hamm’s career and this week’s UP theme, Milenda Lee, senior designer at CUP, sat down to discuss the changes in book design throughout Hamm’s career.

From designing for online search to paper selection to interior design for print and e-books to mentoring young designers, Hamm, who retired in September 2021, provides an intriguing insider look at book publishing design and production that will leave one in awe and appreciation of the process.

Milenda Lee: What do you think were the most significant changes during your career in design and production in general and at CUP specifically?

Lisa Hamm: The most significant change I observed in my career in design has been the rise of working in two realms, print and digital, and understanding the technical and design considerations that a digital presence entails. Designers have had to have a greater awareness of and attention to the online and electronic presence of books.

The majority of consumers purchase books online, and so how covers look online has changed what we do in our designs. There is a greater emphasis on text readability and image comprehension at a thumbnail size because larger type and less-complex images are more successfully presented on an e-commerce website. Success online is a major concern for the sales and marketing departments, and we’ve had to adapt.

For the interior layout and design, it is now a basic given that books are read both in print and electronically. Being able to produce a high-quality electronic book without diminishing the quality of the print edition is an ongoing concern, and learning what happens to text, art, and decorative elements when they go from print to e- has affected how files are prepared and the design choices we make.

Our goal has been to ensure a smooth conversion from print to electronic. This led to examining our backend processes and workflows so they are more effective and less cumbersome. This process always needs reevaluating as technology changes. 

ML: What were the most enjoyable, satisfying, and challenging aspects of your work at CUP?

LH: Enjoyable: Being able to work on both the cover and the interior design of a book. This is not a given in all publishing environments. Also, being able to work on books from various disciplines with a variety of content and addressing each one’s unique characteristics in design.

Satisfying: Always satisfying is a cover and book that come together into a pleasing package. Having a happy author. Receiving the physical book once its published. It’s like receiving a little gift.

Challenging: Being able to satisfy others as well as oneself. It doesn’t always happen, and that has to be okay. It’s not always easy, but we have to do our best and move on.

(I can’t leave “enjoyable” and “satisfying” without mentioning my work friends. Columbia University Press has really been a home away from home. I’ve had so much friendship and support over the years from my colleagues. It’s pure pleasure, and that’s a big deal. I will miss this.)

ML: From your perspective, what are the aspects of the design process that have improved the most, and what aspects have diminished or have been lost?

LH: Improved: A greater awareness of diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace as well as in design. Processes that are more effective. Most recently, more flexibility in the workplace, that is, the work-from-home option.

Lost: Without a doubt, the emphasis on print and the beauty of the book: the tactile quality of the materials (paper choices, use of inks, lamination); emphasis on good typography, well reproduced graphics, and a beautifully printed volume. Print and digital do not always have to be at odds with each other, but we need to make room for both. It’s important to appreciate physical engagement with the printed book as well as the positives of digital.

ML: Of the hundreds of covers and interior designs you worked on for CUP, what titles were you most proud of?

LH: I have books that were just pleasures to work on. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were easy, but the end result was just wonderful (at least to me). Books that came together the way I had hoped they would are just so satisfying for me. So many come to mind, but some are Spirals, by Nico Israel; Of Reality, by Gianni Vattimo; Chaos Imagined, by Martin Meisel; Disagreement or Recognition, by Axel Honneth and Jacques Rancière; and Longing and Other Stories, by Jun’ichiriō Tanizaki (I haven’t seen it yet, but I am hopeful).

ML: What do you see in the future for design and production?

LH: I’m not sure. My hope is that design in publishing is valued and not diminished. A well-designed product enhances the user’s experience in both print and digital.

ML: You have been a mentor and teacher to many designers at CUP, particularly students and designers just starting out in their careers. What did you enjoy the most about this and what would you like to say to them now?

LH: I love working with new designers. We designers acquire all this information over our work life, and it feels really good to pass it on. I’m so excited to see what these designers bring to the job. It helps me see things with new eyes.

There are so many common pitfalls that can be avoided if they’re just pointed out. It’s great to get people over those hurdles and give them a little guidance and head start.

I’m not sure what I would say to them now. So many of them have far surpassed me. They are art directors and designers who are winning awards and recognition. So impressive! Maybe, keep learning new things and stay open. Master your tools so you can interpret your ideas masterfully.

ML: What are your plans for the future?

LH: Honestly, it’s all still new, but I’m hoping to stay pretty wide open. I feel as though I’ve retired from my full-time position at CUP, but I am planning on using my skills in a more personal way now. I’d like to combine traditional media and digital processes in a way that will achieve what has been bubbling below the surface for a long time now. I’m sure they’ll be some freelance book design in my future as well.

Testimonials about Lisa Hamm

“Lisa was the one who brought us into the XML age, with some kicking and screaming from her fellow designers here at CUP. Actually, it’s possible that most of the kicking and screaming came from me. It wasn’t easy in the beginning—we had questions. Boy, did we have questions. But Lisa, in her usual manner, listened to us and soothed us in her wonderful and very calming way. Mostly she showed us, over and over again, how to use XML in our interior designs and why it was going to be so good for us once we mastered it. She was right, of course, and it’s proven to be a terrific tool for all of us. If it wasn’t for Lisa and her guidance the transition probably still would have happened eventually but we’d all probably still be foundering and muttering to ourselves. Thank you, Lisa, for your steady hand in so many ways and in your guiding spirit always.”

—Noah Arlow, designer

“Lisa is well known for being a master collaborator, but I particularly appreciated the surprises she would leave for us in designs. I would often open Lisa’s sample pages—even for books with relatively low sales expectations, where I wasn’t anticipating anything out of the ordinary—and find fish swimming across the half title page or a floral element in the running head that echoed the cover design. I think of her signature style as elegant, but her designs incorporate an element of play or whimsy that lightens the heart. And her presence in the office did the same. Both are already missed!”

—Christine Dunbar, editor

“All of us in the design department will find it very difficult if not impossible to describe how much Lisa means to us and CUP as a whole. Her expertise, absolute dedication, professionalism, and beautiful book design work have been integral to the success of CUP for many years, and her legacy will continue for years to come. For me, it will be a deep loss. Since I have known Lisa she has always been a trusted guide, mentor, advisor, and book design inspiration. But, most of all, Lisa has been a true friend and kind and compassionate colleague. We all wish Lisa the very best in her retirement, but we know that with her artistic talents and gifts, her enthusiasm and drive, this is just the beginning of a new chapter (no pun intended) in her life. Thank you Lisa, cheers!”

—Milenda Lee, senior designer

“Lisa is not only an incredible designer whose attention to detail is second to none. She is also a great teacher with unlimited patience and someone who will carve out time to help you even though she’s got a million of her own projects to work on. And on top of that, Lisa is a warm and caring person, and she’ll be missed around the CUP office.”

—Jessica Schwarz, production manager

“I have been fortunate enough to work closely with Lisa since I started as a design intern over six years ago. From my first day, Lisa has shown me tremendous care, engaging in meaningful discussion with me about each of my designs and celebrating with me when each is approved. During our conversations, she would explain to me not only why something wasn’t working but also why something was, and she would make sure that I understood the reasoning behind her suggestions. From this, I learned to match concept to intuition, and in encouraging me to try different things, she has helped expand my notion of what’s possible.”

—Elliott S. Cairns, designer

“Lisa has always been a supportive and caring colleague, always found time to help no matter how crazy her own schedule was. When we started working more closely together on creating digital assets for social media, I learned so much from her. Lisa was able not only to impart knowledge but also to encourage creativity, and her mentorship was invaluable to me. Lisa is truly a wonderful person, and I will miss her around the CUP. However, I am sure that Lisa will use her impeccable design skills to explore other paths, and I wish her all the best.”

—Elena Iaffa-Coln, advertising manager

“One of the best things about Lisa is that she’s always curious and open to experimenting with design and challenging her own skill set—and she’s fearless when it comes to cross-departmental projects. When she learned that I was trying to make our social media and blog more visually appealing, she happily volunteered to research and design graphics for our various platforms. Then she went a step further and helped mentor colleagues on the marketing team on what to consider when designing graphics for different platforms. Her endless patience, attention to detail, and willingness to experiment with new ideas and to teach and work with other teams played an essential part in the evolution of our social media. I’m going to miss my brainstorm buddy and will always cherish the knowledge she imparted to me.”

-Maritza Herrera-Diaz, metadata and social media manager

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