Phinney on Fonts About Thomas & the blog Phinney on Fonts main page

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« About Thomas Phinney (long)

I’m a typographer. If you just want to know a bit about what I do, read the short version instead. If you really want to know my entire professional life history and how I got into type in excruciating detail, this page is for you 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 in 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. As this is a world-​class special collection focused on the history of the book and of fonts and typography in particular, this was a fabulous experience.

Monotype’s Tom Rickner taught me the obscure techniques of TrueType hinting. 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 the company’s corporate headquarters in San Jose. The type group was much bigger then, about 25 people (as opposed to about nine at its nadir, when I left). 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, Adobe just had Type 1 fonts, with Adobe Standard Encoding, and matching fonts in printer ROM. Now they 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.

Even back in my Adobe days, I started getting involved in interesting typographic side 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 became my first solo patent – I had a couple of joint patents already, relating to glyph synthesis. After my design patent for Hypatia Sans was granted, I may have become the first Adobe employee to have both a utility patent and a design patent. I am also active with the international type society, ATypI, on the board of directors since 2004, and treasurer since 2006.

I was Adobe’s program manager for western fonts for a couple of years, then for fonts in general for a couple of 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 some of us 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, 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 Adobe’s SING technology for fonts.

After the Macromedia acquisition in the winter of 2005, Adobe things shifted again. I was no longer doing Core Tech at all, and instead full time on type. In November 2006 I became the product manager for “fonts and global typography.” This formalized the direction my work had been going in for some years anyway. I was responsible for strategic issues and decisions around type, as well as working quite a bit with core tech and other product teams on type-​related functionality. I established new standards for extended character sets in Adobe’s fonts, worked on Web font standards, and lots more. This was the role I held until my departure from Adobe in December 2008.

On April 1st, 2009, I began a new job as “senior product manager for font solutions” at Extensis, a company based in Portland, where we moved. See my blog post for more on this.

In May 2014, I left Extensis after five years, to join FontLab, and became President of FontLab in October 2015.

2 commentsto “About Thomas Phinney (long)”

  • April 3, 2014
    Tom Wahl wrote

    I teach business writing at a university and we have a document design unit. I try to get the students to understand fonts, but don’t have a good exercise, video, material, etc. about effectively using fonts. DO you have any tips, links, etc. that I might be able to use with the students to help them discover fonts beyond TR and arial and understand how to use them effectively? Thank! Tom

  • April 3, 2014
    Thomas Phinney wrote

    Check my blog tonight for a new post with a couple of useful pointers. 🙂

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