What does a head of typography do?

Tim Brown discusses the craft and practice of typography, driving type toward a future vision, and the instrumental playlists that help him focus

A digital illustration of a white man with short brown hair wearing a dark geen shirt. The background (in shades of mustard and green with black accents) is comprised of upper- and lowercase letters in serif and sans serif typefaces.

Illustration by Gracia Lam

We design and refine the Adobe tools and experiences that millions of creative people use every day. In this series, we introduce the bright and brilliant people behind the products: Meet the members of Adobe Design.

What do you do at Adobe?

Right now, I’m inventing typographic intelligence technologies and advising multiple product teams on text-related features and typography tools. I’m also welcoming people into typographic practice and studying how large companies can survive disruption by paying close attention to what customers value.

I perform regular customer research to find meaningful opportunities, then direct the prototyping of features that feel relevant. Last year, we used this continuous discovery process to develop four concepts, two of which became high priorities for the company. I’m currently working with product and service teams to launch these fledgling concepts into projects.

Since 2018, I’ve coordinated with hundreds of people on dozens of teams to align on clear, coherent text tools for Adobe’s new generation of web/app software. I often focus on actual interactions with text, working in a design guidance role to make sure we’re doing a thorough job and directing prototyping when we need clarity. It’s a privilege to work with so many skilled, collaborative colleagues, and to have witnessed Adobe’s transition from a variety of siloed product teams into a business where domain expertise drives decision-making.

What's your team working on?

Technically, I’m in a product management role on the incredible Adobe Fonts & Type team. Overall, we’re responsible for the Adobe Fonts library of almost 30,000 typefaces (curating, licensing, and serving them), Adobe Originals typefaces, and the Adobe Fonts website, as well as font choosing, text layout, and typography tooling within Adobe design apps. It’s made sense to merge typographic expertise on the Fonts & Type team, so our team does a lot of different kinds of work with this domain as our focus. We collaborate closely with Adobe’s international experts too. In most Adobe software, people use text and style it with fonts and we want customers to have a good experience—and a coherent one—as they move among different applications, platforms, languages, and cultures.

What essential tool, product, platform helps you do your best work?

Apple’s iPad and Mac computers are essential, and on these platforms I rely on a variety of apps and services to help me learn, plan, create, and share: Voice Memos and Notability help me think freely; Generative AI has proven helpful for divergent thinking; I use Readwise to collect and process ideas to research; Ulysses is where I write; Notion is what I use to organize my thoughts and strategies; I use Slack to coordinate with colleagues; and Figma, Keynote, or Google Docs to present my thinking.

What skill do you consider a superpower?

Being able to think big and have a realistic vision for the future (based on what you’re noticing now, and what you’ve learned about the past) is a superpower. It helps guide long term strategy, and it can be motivating even when the timeline extends beyond a career. Making the future imaginable can help teams deal with the ups and downs of project cycles and day-to-day work.

What’s on your heads-down, time-to-focus playlist?

Mostly instrumental music (like Daft Punk and Echo Wolf) that has a beat and doesn't catch my attention in a distracting way. I also have playlists for fielding (when I'm not focusing but receiving, organizing, and prioritizing inputs), and freeing (when I'm feeding my curiosity and letting my mind wander). I discovered these modes of working and then I built playlists to help myself lock into specific modes when I need to. Sometimes that means no music! Just quiet.

What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?

I don’t remember what was said exactly, because I was 12 and at Boy Scouts camp. We were all assigned camp chores, and I did mine grudgingly with a negative attitude. One of the leaders, Mr. Brady, called me aside and told me that I should stop acting like a jerk, start setting a good example, and focus on the impact I could have on others by changing my attitude and taking pride in my responsibilities. Afterwards, I started doing all my tasks to the best of my ability and taking on some of the other kids’ chores too. I became a leader that summer. And that behavioral change marked a turning point in my life.

What excites you most about the work you’re doing?

What excites me most is helping people understand and practice typography, one of the most powerful tools for personal and professional creative expression. And as it happens, I’m doing this during the biggest shift in the history of graphic design. More people than ever before can practice design, which is amazing! But design has also become flexible, which has made it more complex. Because of the web and advancements in personal computing, every reader brings their own unique perspective to a designed experience. Our tools don’t help us see from those different perspectives or design for them (yet). I wrote a book, Flexible Typesetting, about how typography can help us grasp this, and I’m thrilled to contribute each day toward a future where diversity, accessibility, and respect for others are fundamental.

What’s a dream project you’re currently involved with, or want to take on?

This gets back to the vision I mentioned earlier, thinking big. And continues my answer about what excites me most. Design has changed, and design tools haven't caught up. My dream project is to allow people to control typography by making high-level decisions, viewing their work from multiple perspectives at once, and blending their design intentions with any given individual’s custom settings for readability. Design tools that exist today are, in many ways, stuck in an old paradigm, so here is an unbelievable opportunity ahead to innovate, to provide a new set of basic tools more relevant for the future than anything that exists now.

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