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C2C Digital Magazine (Fall 2019 / Winter 2020)

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Mary Hammel on 40 Years of Graphic Design Work in Higher Education: “I’m still working at my first job”

By Mary Hammel, Kansas State University 

Figure 1.  Mary Hammel, Then and Now 

Q:  Would you mind sharing some information about your professional background as a graphic artist in higher education?  How did you get started?  Why did you choose to go the public sector route instead of private industry?  

A:  I went to school at K-State, where I received a bachelor of fine arts degree in graphic design. When I was a student, I got a part-time job in the K-State Cooperative Extension Media Center. That’s kind of what got me started.  We were creating slide/tape shows and brochures that were related to agriculture. I found out right before I graduated that the media center in the College of Education was looking for someone. It was a half-time position, and I applied, and I got it. I also applied for and got a half-time position in Extension for a project producing a series of slide/tape shows. That was in 1980 when I graduated and started working at the university. So that’s how I got my start here. 

After the Extension project was done, they hired me full-time here in the College of Education. I started here, and I stayed. The educational technology faculty suggested that I should go ahead and get my master’s degree since I was already practicing a lot of what they taught, I just needed the “education” pedagogy part of it. I received my master's degree in educational technology in 1985. Technology back then was different before computers came onto the scene... slide projectors, overhead projectors, cassette tapes! I was creating slideshows and overhead transparencies and other classroom materials.  

Figure 2.  Early Work Before Computers 

Like I said, I just kind of stayed. So I’m still working at my first job.  

I always thought about continuing studies in design, but at the time K-State did not have a master's program in graphic design. Eventually they did, and I applied. I was 47 years old so I decided to go for it and finish before I turned 50. I was successful and I have an MFA in Visual Communication.  

Q:   What is your formal training in this area?  What were some of the highlights of that experience?  What did your art portfolio look like in early days?  

A:  Because we didn’t have computers, we did layout by hand. I did hand lettering on posters. I liked working with images, so I took many of my own photos. I wasn’t much of an illustrator, but I liked to use Chartpak graphic tapes – they came in different widths – to create logos and illustrations with crisp lines. We were using rubylith and amberlith to create color separations for artwork that went to the print shop. We used stat cameras to create copies of artwork for film positives or photo stencils. After a while, I progressed from hand lettering to a Kroytype 80 lettering machine for setting type. The machine had big discs with various sized fonts. It worked like a label maker, creating these big long tapes with adhesive backing, and I would paste these up on vellum to create type layouts for brochures and posters. 

And then I got my first Macintosh in 1985. 128K memory! When desktop computers first came out, it was exciting – some of the early tools like MacPaint produced artwork that were very pixelated but we loved it. I would print overhead masters on a dot-matrix printer, and at the time we thought that was really amazing. Eventually we got a laser printer, and that made a big difference. Aldus PageMaker was also a game changer. I taught myself how to use it. That’s when I started big-time desktop publishing at work.  

Early in my career, I sometimes worked with faculty who had grants to facilitate educational projects with technologies such as Palm Pilots, laser disks and CD-ROMs. I also participated in collaborative projects with teachers in schools and museums to create educational pieces, particularly with the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

Q:  What did you imagine your work life would be like in early days?  Did you have particular career goals?  

A:  When I was still in school, we all dreamed we’d work in an advertising agency. When I started working at K-State, I thought, “This is a career, too!” And then I got married in 1981 and I started working on my master's degree. I started out as an assistant instructor, then I became an instructor after I received my master's. I saw that this was my career pathway. I became coordinator of our college's media center, in addition to being the graphic designer. Eventually our college added a technology director, and we merged our technology services with our media center. For a short while, I directed the merged services, but I really liked and wanted to do the creative work, especially after I got my MFA, so I decided to accept an associate director position over the creative services.  

Work Life

Q:  What is a typical day-in-the-life-of for you (if there is such a thing)?  Or if each day is different, what might a week of work be like?  

A:  Sometimes I never know from day to day. People either walk in to my office or email me projects every single day – I never know what's coming. There are some projects that are at specific times of the semester or the year that I have that are the same year-in year-out, like graduation… but sometimes I don’t know what’s hit me. Some projects people want right away, so that sometimes throws me off other things – it basically throws my whole schedule off and I have to juggle and prioritize.  

Q:  What are some typical things you create in academia?  Website branding? Logos? Drawings? Brochures?  Posters?  Video intros and outros?  E-book covers and contents?  College magazines?  Reports?  

A:  All of the above!  In recent years, I've done artwork for our elevator doors, artwork for our building lobby, digital ads, print posters, certificates, retractable banners, graphics for videos, photo editing, maps, several complete eBooks, and lots of logos. I never know what people are going to ask me to do.  One day, people might ask me to remove people from a photograph, and the next day I’m doing elevator doors. It’s an interesting job.  

I do a lot of photography for my projects also. I like taking my own photos for my work because I can control what I specifically need. When I was working on my MFA, my fellow grad students would tease me and suggest that I should get my degree in photography. My work is very image based.  

Figure 3.  Posters Examples from Recent Years 

Figure 4.  Book and eBook Cover Examples 

Figure 5.  Recent Brochure Spreads 

Figure 6.  Sampling of Recent Logo Work 

Q:  What are some critical skills you use daily?  What are some important technologies that you use daily?  

A:  I like organization, I insist on it. As soon as a project comes in, I put it on my online task list and start a paper work ticket. I create a folder on my computer for all files and assets related to that project. I have so many projects I have done over the years, I have to have this organizational system or I would not be able to find anything on my computer. 

I love working with composition and layout, how things should be arranged, whether it’s on print, digital, or photography. When I am taking photos, in my mind’s eye and my viewfinder I am thinking about composition and the rule of thirds. I used to tell people that I have composition grids inside my eyeballs, always thinking about how to successfully arrange things in the viewfinder.  

As far as technologies go, I'm pretty much wrapped up in the Adobe Creative Cloud. I use InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator – the design trinity – on a daily basis. And since I do a lot of photography, I also use Lightroom. I have most of the photographs, even the older stuff, that I have taken throughout the years in a Lightroom library that we have on a virtual server. I also sometimes use my iPad for preliminary work because with the Creative Cloud iPad apps, I can transfer work back and forth to my computer.  

Figure 7.  Miscellaneous Projects:  Magazine Cover and Spreads, Map, Wall Art, Concept Diagram, and DVD Wrap 

Q:  How do you try to make sure that a design will pass muster with a client?  If there are different visions for the work, how do you arrive at a resolution?  Do you make a few thumbnails early on, or do you do whole competing designs?  

A:  Most of the time people email me their projects with the necessary details, but I actually like to meet with people to discuss the project parameters. Sometimes they haven’t thought about things such as what works best for certain audiences, or the costs of printing vs. distributing digitally. Usually I can give them some insight on what might work best for their particular situation or budget. 

Sometimes clients might have something in mind but they don’t tell me until after I’ve started working on designs. With logos, you typically want to start with a specific concept. I usually try to come up with two different designs, especially if they haven’t given me any direction. Sometimes, I’m off the mark. That’s why I like meeting with them, throwing out some possible concept directions before I start designing anything.  

Sometimes they don’t like what I’ve come up with or they didn’t really know what they wanted yet, so we just sit on things for a month or two, and they’ll come back with ideas on how to proceed. Most of the time, it’s a hit, not a miss. Most of the time, they like what I’ve done, but they want me to tweak specific things. Sometimes I end up really disliking the end product, but it’s exactly what they want. It’s frustrating for me because it’s out there, and they love it, but I can’t stand even looking at it! It’s often just a matter of style or taste. But if it’s what they want, that’s… they’re happy. And they’re the client, so that’s what matters.   
Q:  In your artwork, you don’t sign off on your pieces…like with an artist signature.  Does that bother you? 

A:  No, that’s kind of the role of a graphic designer. Your work usually isn’t signed. On some publications, like our college magazine, print books and ePubs, I get a credit. Most of the time, I don’t, and I’m okay with that. I don’t consider it something that I need to have. My ego is not that big.  

Q:  But you do have records of all of your work in a portfolio, right?  

A:  Since I’m still in my first job and haven’t had to go looking for another job, having a portfolio is not that important to me. But I do have a large stack of projects through the years in my file cabinet! 

Q:  How do you know when a work is “done”?  How do you know when to stop, so as not to over-work or over-design something?  

A:  Well, I tend to be a perfectionist, especially when it involves layout and brochures. I want everything to be arranged just right, so sometimes I keep tweaking it and printing it out and looking at it until I'm satisfied. I’m especially fussy if a project is going to a printer – I have to have everything just right, making sure that I have all the files, images and fonts printer-ready for them. 

For logos and illustrative projects, I tend to do variations of similar ideas to find the right look. I like to make sure that things are not sloppy-looking. I’ve seen a lot of that in recent years, where people just kind of throw things together with online tools. Sometimes I am asked to fix or re-create these things that other people have created. Let’s give it to Mary, and she’ll fix it!  

Q:  What is the role of deadlines in your work? What are some constructive ways to work with deadlines?  

A:  I have a lot of short deadlines. A lot of times clients will have been planning something big that involves my services, but they don't involve me in the planning process. Then they drop the project on me and say that they've been working toward this and need it very soon. That’s frustrating. I would hope that I would be in on the planning stage because sometimes they don’t realize what is involved. My tendency over my career has been if someone asks me to do something for them, I do it for them. In recent years I have started saying no. Sometimes that backfires on me...  

Q:  What is the role of collaboration in graphic design work?  Do you ever work with other graphic designers?  

A:  I am a one-person shop here, so I don’t have any other designers to collaborate with, but I know a lot of faculty members that have great ideas that I have collaborated with. Years ago, I used to have a student helping me, but sometimes students add another layer of frustration. So even though I’m over-burdened sometimes, it’s easier for me to just stay a one-person shop.  

Artist Preferences

Q:  Which sorts of projects do you like the most?  Which do you like the least, and why?  

A:  I like doing logo work. I always have. And books. I also love working with and creating maps. Whenever I get a map project, I’m all excited. My MFA thesis work involved graphic design and mapping. Last year I created a large digital map for the History department that was stitched together from a series of old maps from around 1900. It focuses specifically on the middle Kansas River and all of the creeks that are part of its watershed, encompassing about 7 counties.

I’ve been doing web work since about 2007 when I became responsible for the college’s website. I do it, but I don’t really like doing it. Especially now that we’re template-based, I find the html work a little boring.  I'm not really that fond of it. But I do enjoy creating banners and other web graphics. That's where the creativity comes in. 

Figure 8.  Recent Web Banners and Buttons

Q:   What is your process when you have a particular assignment?  

A:  Usually when something comes in, I will start on paper just to get an idea of which chunks of information are going to go on each section or page. I'll do a quick rough sketch, especially if it involves folds, so I can visualize how the finished product is going to work. Then I go directly to digital and work on the computer. It’s interesting because with logos, I used to just doodle or sketch on paper first. Now, I usually go directly into Illustrator to do electronic doodling instead. I also start looking for fonts that work with the style and concept that I’m trying to draw or lay out.  

Q:  How do you know if you are on to a good idea or not in your graphic design work?  

A:  A few years back when the university was rebranding, we were given branding guidelines, so a lot of my work has to fit within those. A lot of graphic artists on campus felt constrained by that. We had to use certain fonts and colors that we thought made everything look cookie-cutter. Now I realize I can put more creativity into my work and still follow their guidelines. Every now and then, I’ll be walking during lunchtime and just emptying my mind and think of a more interesting way of approaching a project. Sometimes I'll think, “That’s a cool idea! Why didn’t I think of this before?” Sometimes it helps just to sit on it and think about it. On book projects, I try to read through some of the content and come up with a way that conveys the content in a meaningful way. I did an e-book earlier this year that was edited by an art educator. After talking to her and seeing her enthusiasm for her topic, I found a way to work a lot of color and children’s artwork into the design of the book.  

Q:  What are some legal considerations you have to be aware of in your work?  

A:  Copyright, copyright, copyright.  Clients send me images to use in their projects that come right off the Internet all the time, and I have to explain to them that we can’t do that unless we have permission. These people know better but they still send me stuff like that. That’s why I like taking my own photos to use in projects because I have complete control over where the image came from and if it has a release form. I try to use graphics and photos that we’ve either purchased or are have a Creative Commons license for the correct usage.  

We have an education subscription to the Noun Project website. Graphic designers can create and upload icons for others to use in projects. Since we do a lot of infographics, they come in very handy.  

Q:  What sorts of responses do you want from people who see your work?  

A:  Well, first and foremost, I want the people I created it with and for to be happy with it. You always want things to be well-received, but I don’t necessarily expect it. A lot of my stuff is out there (published). I have created—I suppose it has been thousands of projects over the past 40 years—so some things have more staying power than others. 

This past fall, I did the design and layout of our college’s 20-page annual magazine. I hadn’t been doing it for the past eight years, as it had been sent over to the university's Communications & Marketing division. We brought it back to the college this year, and the dean was just ecstatic over how it turned out! As she and I were discussing it, we decided that the fact that I know our college, and had that valuable background of being part of the college, really helped with the look and feel of the magazine because I could more easily express who our college is through the design – versus someone who was just working on a design and didn’t really know who we were as a college. 

Q:  How would you describe your artist “hand”?  What makes your work unique?  

A:  I feel that my work is clean. I like to use fonts that are expressive to what the content is. I like using images. I don’t like fussy work.  

Artful Inspirations

Q:  Do you ever get artist’s block?  If so, how do you “unblock” or get past the “pause”?  

A:  I do get artist’s block sometimes. I like to look at other things for inspiration – books, magazines.  Doing Google searches sometimes brings up a lot of garbage, so that doesn’t really work for me. I have some books that I’ve collected over the years about graphic design and specific designers, and I like going to their websites and looking at things they’re working on. Sometimes I just like getting out of my office and going for a walk… I always have time for coffee.  

Q:  How do you keep honing your art skills?  What are some skills that you want to develop further?  Areas of interest for exploration?  

A:  For the past 9 years, I have gone to a design conference every summer. It started out as PePCon (Print and ePublishing Conference), now it’s expanded and called Creative Pro Week. I love going to that because it has taught me a lot about print and e-publishing. It’s very Adobe-focused but not totally. It brings in people from the print and design industry, and it’s fairly small, so you have easy access to talk to the presenters, who are leaders in the industry. It’s very inspiring also to see what some other people are doing. I learn a lot of tips and tricks, mostly related to InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator. 

I watch some of the free videos on the CreativeLive website. They have a lot of design and photography courses. I’m not much of a YouTube person. I do sometimes prefer reading through steps on a website than watching a video.

Q:  How do you stay inspired in your work?  What activities do you engage in?  You write, take photographs, and read broadly.  Do these other activities also inspire the muse? 

A:  I don’t consider myself a writer, but I do a lot of photography. I read a lot. And recently, I have taken up watercolor again, something I haven’t done since college. My next challenge is sewing, quilting, and fiber arts. I’ve started learning how to do some quilting – I’m very much a beginner. I’ve also become fascinated with needle felting. I'm going on a trip next summer to Ireland with a study abroad group of art educators, and we will be doing lots of art-based things. We'll be going to a sheep farm, doing some needle-felting with wool, and visiting a lace-making center. Plus we’ll be on the southwest coast of Ireland, so the photography opportunities will be awesome.  

Q:  If you were to create original works for a gallery show, what would the show look like?  

A:  When I was working on my MFA, I had several shows. For one of my research projects, I create a series of handmade books about myself and three of my friends who had dealt with cancer diagnoses. These were image-based books, so for my solo show at the Manhattan Arts Center, I decided to print the pages of the books as spreads that were displayed throughout the gallery room. My MFA show was entitled "Quo Vadis?" (Where are you going?) and involved mapping in design, specifically mapping our experiences by visually interpreting emotional places, physical places, and visitor viewpoint. It featured a Chicago-based interactive house of cards architectural structure, a Las Vegas-based deck of cards, and delineated landscapes of the Mojave Desert and the Konza Prairie.  

Figure 9.  Quo Vadis?  MFA Show 

On Figure 10, book pages unfold throughout the Manhattan Arts Center gallery, where one could walk beside and read the four books I created for my show entitled “Survival Stories.” 

Figure 10.  "Survival Stories" -- First Gallery Exhibit 

At this point in my design life, it would probably mainly be photography. For the past ten years, the Manhattan Arts Center has had juried photography shows, and I have had pieces selected every single time, winning several awards. The last time I won an award, it was best of the illustrative category with a photo I took inside the old Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. I do a lot of nature photography. I don’t do much portraits because I have found that people don’t like having their pictures taken.  

I like the relationship between nature, landscape, travel photography, and the whole mapping concept. 

About 12 years into my career, I was diagnosed with leukemia and had to have a bone marrow transplant, which meant I was off of work for about 18 months. During that time, I started drawing with pen and ink and colored pencils, as it was easy to work with in a hospital. I liked creating both hand-drawn images based on photos that I had taken and intricate patterns of nonsense. 

Figure 11.  "Brand New Day" (pen and ink and colored pencil, 1993) 

Q:  Do you have preferred art styles from particular periods? Why or why not?  And are there styles that you do not like? Why or why not?  

A:  I went to art school during the ‘70s, so I was awash in postmodernism, inspired by many older design styles. I liked clean styles, but mixing things up with photo collages was popular. I guess I still have that mind set for design. I wasn't into the psychedelic and punk style. 

I am not fond of the grunge look. That’s just not my thing. I have had clients ask me to do things like that, and I’ve done it for them, but that’s not my style at all.

Q:  Anything else you would like to add?  

A:  Nope

Q:  Thanks, Mary!  It's been a pleasure.  

About the Author 

Mary Hammel is Associate Director of the Catalyst Technology and Media Services, College of Education Kansas State University.  Her work involves design and production of print and digital materials for educational publications and classroom use.  She may be reached at

Shalin Hai-Jew created the questions in this Q&A and facilitated the work.  Her email is  

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