America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) is the home of the highly respected and successful magazines Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country, which are also known for their related cookbooks, TV series, websites, and tablet apps.

In an interview with Technology for Publishing’s Founder and CEO, Margot Knorr Mancini, ATK’s Design Director, Amy Klee, discusses the challenges and opportunities designers face in today’s rapidly evolving media environment, what it takes to be successful in the industry, and the path that led her to where she is today.

Tell me about your company and your role there.

America’s Test Kitchen is a multimedia company with the mission of teaching people how to become better cooks. In my role as Design Director, I’m responsible for the visual representation of everything ATK produces. I oversee page layout for print and digital publications, photography, and our websites. In addition to our two magazines, we publish an array of newsstand-only magazines and about 10 cookbooks a year. We have three paid-membership-driven websites and an online cooking school, and we produce two highly rated cooking programs on public television. In the past 14 years, we’ve gone from publishing a print magazine to publishing content across a wide variety of platforms.

How did you get started in this industry?
My career in publishing and graphic design was a serendipitous shift from my first career. It wasn’t something I planned. I was trained as an architect and practiced architecture for almost 10 years before becoming an editorial designer. When I had my children and was looking for a way to do some work from home, I started to work as a graphic designer. Desktop publishing was still quite new, and personal computers created a lot of opportunity for people like me. An acquaintance at ATK hired me as a freelancer, and that relationship just grew and evolved over the years.

For four years, I designed all sorts of things for ATK from my home office—magazines, books, and marketing pieces. In 1997, I redesigned Cook’s Illustrated and became its art director. In 2004, with the launch of  Cook’s Country magazine, I started working on-site and began to build an in-house art department. Today, there are 13 designers and two photographers in the department.

How would you describe the unique challenges that exist today in media or publishing, with everything you’ve been immersed in in the last couple of years?
The primary one is that our customers’ media consumption habits are changing. Today, consumers have so many choices, and there’s tremendous competition for people’s attention and time. A big challenge is discoverability—how do you help people to find your product? And once they find it, how do you keep them engaged, so they keep coming back?

I recently had a conversation with some people from another publishing company, and the topic was the decline of newsstand sales across the entire industry. In addition to people’s changing reading habits in general, it was suggested that the decline in sales at checkout could be partially related to the prevalence of smartphones. When people are in checkout lines, they now have choices beyond browsing the magazines. They’re on their phones and aren’t the captive audience they once were. I thought that was an interesting observation.

What advice would you give other women in the industry, whether they’re just starting out or already established?
Be flexible, keep learning new skills, and assert yourself.

One of the challenges—and one of the exciting things—we face is the rate at which technology and our design tools are evolving. It’s important for designers to find a way to stay up to date with those changes. This past year, we began creating apps for our magazines on the iPad. It was a bit of a challenge because the designers had to learn how to use the software on the fly. We haven’t added dedicated resources to our magazine team to create the apps, but the designers who are working on them were excited to learn a new skill and were enthusiastic about the project. It also required the team to be flexible and open to new ways of working. Even though it’s been additional work, I think everyone’s been motivated to try to find efficiencies in our workflow to be able to incorporate the iPad edition. That’s exciting to see as a manager, and it’s been exciting to be part of that process. It has also been gratifying for the print designers to see their work in a digital format.

When I look at young designers coming out of school, I’m so impressed with the array of skills that they bring with them. It’s just amazing. The young designers can design for the web, for print, and they can build apps. It’s really interesting to see people who have grown up with technology and see how comfortable they are with it. I think it’s important for young designers to try and be as versatile as possible—to have a variety of skills and experiences. Young motivated designers, whether they are women or men, are finding and creating opportunities even when they’re still in school. I see lots of people graduating not just with impressive portfolios, but also with impressive experience.

In terms of the workplace, it’s key for designers to speak up and contribute on a level that goes beyond the design. The people that I see who are most successful are the ones who are able to articulate what they’re trying to do and understand how their work connects with other people’s work. Oftentimes, people who are just beginning their careers think it’s not their place to speak up in an organization, but it’s the people who are willing to share their ideas and say what they think who stand out.

What is something most people don’t know about you?
I am a decent watercolorist. I don’t paint nearly as much as I would like to, but I’m hoping now that my kids are nearly grown, I’m going to have more time to do that.

Is there anything else you would add to our discussion today?
To be successful in today’s publishing environment, it’s important to be more than just a good designer. You also have to think like an editor—to think about the content that you’re designing, what it means, and how it’s going to be used. For both print and digital, design needs to be beautiful and useful. The products that people are going to come back to again and again are ones that really provide value to them.

Technology for Publishing’s Women in Media blog highlights the news and achievements of female leaders and role models in the publishing and media industry. Look for our monthly in-depth profiles and interviews of top women to watch. Is there someone you’d like to nominate for an upcoming Q&A? Drop us a note!

Posted by: Margot Knorr Mancini

A thought leader in the publishing industry, Margot Knorr Mancini has helped numerous publishers redefine their missions to become nimble content generators with the ability to repurpose content easily and efficiently. As Founder & CEO of Technology for Publishing, her analytical mind allows her to remain a step ahead of the industry, recognizing early trends and developing pivotal best practices.