Posted by Thomas Phinney

 Comments (6)


October 5, 2005

I’m Adobe’s product manager for fonts and global typography. Some might wonder how I got here – this posting is for those few inquisitive souls.


I started in DTP in the mid-80s, so my early background is as an end user, and I try very hard to retain this perspective. I gradually became more and more interested in typography and fonts in particular. Finally, I bought a font editor, and I was immediately hooked. I was working a full-time day job, and spending another 20 hours a week designing fonts. Ultimately this led me to choose typography and printing over a career in journalism, psychology or the theater (my undergraduate degree was in psychology, I worked full-time in commercial theater for a couple of stints in the mid and late 80s, and I was news editor of the university newspaper in my last year of undergrad). It was in this early period that I wrote versions of my essay “A brief history of Type” (which I have an unfinished rewrite of sitting on my laptop).

So in 1995-96 I went to the school of printing at RIT, the Rochester (NY) Institute of Technology, and got my MS in printing, specializing in design and typography….

While at RIT, I got into a number of typographically interesting things. I was lucky to get the Alexander S Lawson fellowship, which paid for me to work p/t as a graduate assistant at the Cary Library, with David Pankow.

I also learned the obscure techniques of TrueType hinting from Tom Rickner, then with Monotype. Tom is responsible for the remarkable screen tuning of Microsoft’s core Web typefaces Verdana and Georgia, among many others. Under his tutelage I did the TT hinting for Microsoft’s versions of Franklin Gothic Medium Condensed and Demi Condensed (or was it Bold Condensed? Darn, that was a long time ago now). This was also when I created the first version of my oft-updated article on font formats (TrueType, PostScript Type 1 & OpenType).

I then spent a year as a consultant in 1996-97, during which time I also created and taught a class on font production at RIT. This was a fun period, in which I worked with many companies, including Apple, Adobe, Microsoft and Agfa. One project I consulted on was creating a new paper for inkjet printing. I was also a contributing editor to a newsletter for prepress professionals.

In June 1997 I started in the type group at Adobe, at our corporate headquarters in San Jose. The department was bigger then, about 25 people (as opposed to about 10 today). It took years for the sense of awe to wear off completely. This was where I had wanted to work from the first time I thought seriously of a career in type.

One of the first big projects I took on was trying to make everything come together for the font subsystem of PostScript 3. Before that, we just had Type 1 fonts, with Adobe Standard Encoding, and matching fonts in printer ROM. Now we were trying to have printer fonts match up with both Type 1 and TrueType fonts on the “host” computer, support both “standard” and Central European (CE) encodings, and also allow for an optional new compressed “Chameleon” Type 14 format in ROM. Things did not immediately all come together, and that experience dramatically impressed on me the importance of understanding the entire workflow. Components may seem fine by themselves – heck, they may even be fine by themselves – but that does not mean they are actually compatible in an end-to-end workflow.

After a couple of years at Adobe I went back to school part time, while continuing to work full time. This time I did an MBA at UC Berkeley. I thought that learning more about the business side of things would be handy.

In my off hours, I have been involved in quite a few interesting typographic projects. I have been consulted as an expert on several cases of allegedly forged documents, including testifying in court over a forged will. My most high-profile case was my research and commentary on the disputed Bush national guard memos. My research there later turned into another software patent idea, which if granted will be my first solo patent – I have a couple of joint patents already. I have also been increasingly active with the international type society, ATypI, joining its board of directors and later becoming treasurer.

Meanwhile, work hasn’t been static, either. After being the program manager for fonts for a few years, in January 2004 my responsibilities shifted around: for the next year and a half, I remained half-time on type, but spent half my time being the liaison for our core technology components going into Adobe InDesign. As part of this realignment I moved up to Seattle. This was desirable for several reasons, including the more temperate weather (San Jose is too warm for Canadians) and the cheaper housing (Seattlites think it’s expensive, but almost anywhere is cheaper than San Jose). It also broadened and deepened my understanding of Adobe technologies and InDesign.

In summer 2005, after InDesign CS2 shipped, my responsibilities shifted again. I handed off InDesign core tech bits to somebody else (Hi Elba!), and took on an equivalent role for two less demanding products, Version Cue and GoLive. This gave me a bunch of time (30-40%) to dedicate to our SING technology, which I will write about at more length some other time.

Of course, with the Macromedia acquisition looming near, things may shift again. But I’m pretty sure that much of my emphasis will continue to be on fonts and text, that I will continue to learn new things and be challenged, and that Adobe will still be a fun place to work where we are bringing cool technologies to our customers, making their creative work both easier and more enjoyable.

[Update 17 Nov 2006: My title and duties changed two months after I wrote this, so that I was no longer in Core Tech at all, and instead full time on type. They've just shifted a bit again, so now I'm the product manager for "fonts and global typography." In some places this just formalizes what I've already been doing, but in other places I am swapping some more administrative functions in favor of more strategic ones.]

(edited slightly 6 Jul 2007 to correct a typo, improve flow and make more current by changing the opening sentence.)


  • By Dave - 3:44 AM on October 14, 2005  

    I laughed out loud when I read “It took years for the sense of awe to wear off completely”, because it kinda made sense of the similar sense of awe I get when I meet you at the type conferences. Funny how these things go round in circles :-)

  • By Thomas Phinney - 12:47 PM on October 16, 2005  

    I inspire awe in person? What, is it the beard or something? :)Really, I don’t bite or anything. Feel free to come up and say “hi” if you haven’t already done so.Cheers,T

  • By CJ - 11:36 AM on December 27, 2005  

    “Really, I don’t bite or anything.”And I’d like to thank you for setting up this blog. It narrows the distinction between technician and user (in my experience the best programmers are co-participants in the community with their users — after all, it takes geeks like us to get all the details right to make a program usable, not just a collection of features the marketing staff can tick off), and makes (like the various MSFT blogs) it clear that a huge corporation has a diversity of individuals and points of view. That way when something like the Skylarov affair happens a company like Adobe doesn’t lose respect for the actions of a single department or individual.For example, I attended my first ever InDesign User group meeting earlier this year in Seattle, and when I attempted to ask a question about what programs are currently being used for font design the spokesman wouldn’t even allow me to finish the question, apparently because I’d mentioned Fontographer and that sent up a red flag. “Fontographer is dead, dead, DEAD!” he proclaimed. Well, duh! (Though I hear it’s being revived.) It was deeply unprofessional behavior, and I haven’t been back since.Thanks again for offering this more human and approachable channel into Adobe’s font development. I’ve learned a lot about OTF so far and look forward to learning more.

  • By Thomas Phinney - 1:07 AM on December 29, 2005  

    Hi CJ,You’re welcome. Sorry I wasn’t at that particular InDesign user group meeting – I do go to them sometimes. Maybe I’ll meet you at a future one. These days, you can use any number of things for initial design, but for serious font work, at least the final production (and sometimes the design as well) is generally done using FontLab or perhaps DTL FontMaster. The FontLab guys have distribution and updating rights for Fontographer now, and are thinking of keeping it as their “mid-range” tool, in between TypeTool and FontLab.Later,T

  • By Doug Nelson - 8:12 PM on March 12, 2006  

    This is a cute type story I thought you might enjoy:

  • By Arizona HR Consulting - 12:15 PM on April 24, 2007  

    Doug, could you post an updated link to the story, please? The above link gives me the following message: Error 404 – Not Found