Interview with Hazel Lam, Senior Book Designer at HarperCollins

You know what they say, don’t judge a book by its cover. But what if the cover is as beautiful as the work of Hazel Lam, Senior Book Designer at HarperCollins? That’s a book we’re definitely buying!

We were thrilled to welcome Hazel for an industry guest lecture at Shillington Sydney. Our students were so inspired by her work and advice about working in publishing.

Read on for Hazel’s insights on her typical day as a book designer, winning Emerging Designer of the Year at the Australian Book Design Awards (!), the process behind a recent book cover and tips for designers looking to get into publishing.

Tell us about your creative journey. Your passion for your work and how you discovered or nurtured it.

I remember doing work experience at an accounting firm when I was in high school and swore to myself that I would never end up in an office doing the same thing every day and I suppose that’s when my creative journey began. I received a Bachelor of Design in Visual Communication at UTS and graduated with hopes of being in motion graphics. After a few years working various design jobs, nothing really felt quite right. I moved to London for a couple of years and came back to Sydney and got the job at HarperCollins and that was when everything clicked. Designing books felt like a very natural process and it just felt right to me. Outside of work I have always liked to be working on something just for myself to keep the creativity flowing.

How long have you been working at HarperCollins? What’s a typical day like?

I got a laminated certificate a couple of weeks ago telling me I’ve been at HarperCollins for five years. Every day is different. I’d typically start the day by writing out a list of everything I needed to do that day. It could include starting briefs for new books, making amendments to previous briefs that have just been rejected at a cover meeting, designing the back cover of a book that has been approved months ago, prepping files to send to the printer or attending concept meetings.

What’s your proudest career achievement to date?

I just won Emerging Designer of the Year at the Australian Book Design Awards run which is incredibly exciting. But generally, seeing people fall in love with a cover I designed gives me the greatest sense of satisfaction.

Seeing covers being featured on Instagram and being able to create hype around a book because of a cover I designed is insanely satisfying.

In your guest lecture at Shillington Sydney, you walked the class through your process of designing a book cover. Can you summarise that step-by-step?

We usually start with a brief from the publisher for the book which includes a summary of the book, who the target audience is and comparative titles. Sometimes we also get to read the manuscript but we can also get a brief before the manuscript has even been written.

I usually try to read a manuscript before designing a fiction title to get a feel for the voice. I would start collecting imagery that reflects that feeling, that I could use on the cover, this could be images from stock libraries, trawling the net for illustrators who would be suitable or creating illustrations myself and then I would start integrating type and building the cover up. Once I’ve come up with a few designs I present them to our head of design, Mark Campbell. Once Mark approves them we show the publisher and once the publisher approves them we take them to cover meeting where we present the concepts to the CEO, directors and the marketing, sales and publicity teams. Once a concept has been chosen by the cover meeting, it is shown to the authour and literary agent if they have one. In all those rounds there are many possibilities for rejection. Sometimes it could be many weeks or even months before a cover is approved.

Tell us about the process behind one of your favourite book covers.

Recently, my favourite book covers has been for Holly Ringland’s debut, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart. We started this almost more than a year before the publishing date as we had high expectations for this book. As soon as I started reading the manuscript I thought of one of my favourite illustrators Edith Rewa, who does beautiful botanical illustrations of Australian natives. I’ve always wanted to collaborate with Edith. Holly and Edith are a match made in creative heaven. I excitedly mocked up some concepts using her illustrations but unfortunately they were rejected as they didn’t feel quite right. So I did a few more rounds using different photos and illustration styles but nothing was working.

My Art Director at the time Lisa White had a go and used a beautiful photo of a waratah for the first reader’s copy. She ran out of time to design the final cover so I was put back on it and used the waratah photo they liked and played with different type options. I fell in love with the elegant swashes of a font called Heroe Pro and the publisher loved the font but then the photo didn’t feel right. So I sneakily reintroduced Edith Rewa’s illustrations, we took it to cover meeting and everyone fell in love with it.

We commissioned Edith to illustrate 8 flowers featured in the book with a variety of shapes and colours. I was overjoyed when they came back and integrated them with the type. Each chapter opens with a flower that Edith has beautifully illustrated. It features gold foil and I spent about a day setting up the spot gloss file, painting in single petals and leaves so the final cover glimmers ever so subtly.

I love the final book so much and yelped with joy when it arrived in the office.

What other designers, artists or creative people are you loving at the moment?

So many, I feel like every day I find someone new to fall in love with. I recently got introduced to the wonderful work of Dutch graphic designer Hansje van Halem. Her typographic work is incredibly complex and intricate. Loving all the fun prints by We Are Out of Office and I’m obsessed with all the artists Slow Down Studio chooses to make their blankets with. Book design-wise, I love the work of US book designer Na Kim. Every cover she designs is just magic. Locally, I always love seeing what the clever Evi O, Alison Colpoys and Josh Durham (Design By Committee) does next.

What was the biggest mistake you made as a junior designer?

I think as a junior designer I had a lot of pride and was quite fearful of failure which made it impossible to create great work as I would try and design for other people and second guess what I felt was right. I’ve learnt to trust my gut and not take feedback on personally.

Any tips for design graduates hoping to break into book design?

Publishing is an incredibly small industry in Australia but we are a super friendly bunch.

I’d say to contact designers you love and approach art directors at publishing houses with your work. It’s always good to show you can design covers, so choose a couple of books you love and rejacket them. It’s a fun process, gives you a few extra projects in your folio and a good way to show off your ability to design covers. Also the Australian Book Design Association is a great community for book designers. They run events which give you the opportunity to meet designers already in the industry and every member gets a feature page where you can introduce yourself and upload a few images of your work. It’s a great way to get your foot in the door.

What’s on the horizon for you?

I won a Fellowship from Harpercollins last year, so I just went to Berlin to attend the TYPO conference and I had the opportunity to visit a few publishers and some amazing book designers where I got to pick their brains about their creative process.

I had the wonderful opportunity to work with the Indigenous Literacy Foundation last year on a few projects and have one coming up this year as well. I’ve also joined the ABDA committee this year, we just held the book design awards and hopefully, there will be a few more events later on this year and maybe even a Shillington partnership. Generally, just a whole lot more creative magic making.

Big thanks to Hazel for sharing these invaluable insights! Be sure to stalk her on Instagram!

Do you love book design? Check out 18 Inspiring Book Covers Created by Shillington Students. If you’d love to create work like that, discover more about studying graphic design 3 months full-time or 9 months part-time at Shillington in New York, London, Manchester, Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane –> shillingtoneducation.com

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