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Bonus: Eric Snowden, Head of Adobe Design, on AI + Design

Bonus: Eric Snowden, Head of Adobe Design, on AI + Design

Adobe has been the big wrench in our creative toolbox for decades. But there’s a new tool shaking up our workflow —Generative AI. Eric Snowden, leader of Adobe’s design team, sees a big opportunity for designers to extend and enhance the creative process by folding generative AI into each of our tools and we wanted to get his take on what’s around the corner. 

We spoke with Eric about his journey from Atlantic records during a period of upheaval in the music industry and what he learned there, to his time on the Behance product team and working his way up through leadership roles at Adobe.

Eric leads a team of over 600 people, so we also talk about finding the right size for teams (and Amazon’s “Two Pizza Team” framework), as well as how R&D works at Adobe.


Eric Snowden is the Vice President of Design at Adobe overseeing a multidisciplinary team of designers responsible for the Creative Cloud & Document Cloud suite of product and services. His team is responsible for the Digital Video & Audio, Digital Imaging, Design & Web, Documents, Mobile, Portfolio, and Services across web, desktop, and mobile surfaces.

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Eric Snowden

Eric Snowden: [00:00:00] Most AI out there today is very good at making something generically beautiful, but not very good at making a specific idea you have in your head a reality. AI is going to help me explore more, but I'm still in charge, I'm still making all the decisions. I think that's a really important distinction.

Aarron Walter: For decades, Adobe has been the big wrench in our creative toolbox. But there's a new tool shaking up our workflow, Generative AI. Eric Snowden, leader of Adobe's design team, sees a big opportunity for designers to extend and enhance the creative process by folding Generative AI into each of our tools.

And we wanted to get his take on what's around the corner. 

Eli Woolery: We spoke with Eric about his journey from Atlantic Records during a period of upheaval in the music industry. And what he learned there to his time on the Behance product team and working his way up through leadership roles at Adobe. Eric leads a team of over 600 [00:01:00] people.

So we also talk about finding the right size for teams and Amazon's two pizza team framework, as well as how R& D works at Adobe. This is Design Better, where we explore creativity at the intersection of design and technology. I'm Eli Wooller. 

Aarron Walter: And I'm Aaron Walter. You can get ad free episodes a week early and get access to our monthly AMAs with big names in design and tech.

By becoming a DB plus subscriber. It's also the best way to support the show. Visit design better. plus to learn more.

Eric Snowden, welcome to the design better podcast. Awesome. Thank you for having me. So Eric, not to be confused with Edward Snowden, who's hiding somewhere in Russia, but Eric, you're leading design at Adobe, and you've been doing that for a little while. 

Eric Snowden: Yeah. And you wouldn't be the first to ask that question.

We're not related, even though my mom has told [00:02:00] me more than once that she thinks that we look alike, which I don't know if that's good or bad, but he's, uh, no relation. 

Aarron Walter: Yeah. So before you were at Adobe, and we want to dive into all the fun, interesting things happening at Adobe right now, because I know that our listeners in particular, they're almost all Adobe users, I'm sure, but you used to be at Atlantic, right?

records during a, you know, an interesting time in music history. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience and what you were doing? 

Eric Snowden: Yeah, it was a really fun and wonderful time, but it started out a little bit rocky when I joined first Warner music group before Atlantic records, it was right after a wave of layoffs that happened.

In the wake of file sharing. And I remember walking in on like the Monday I was hired and there was a whole cohort of us that started at the same time. And the vibe was like, not good. And we were trying to figure out what was going on. And we realized there had been layoffs like the previous couple of weeks [00:03:00] is the company was shifting.

Their strategy to be more about digital and about innovation. And so, you know, I sort of missed the crash. And when I joined the music industry was really when they were on the upswing and starting to think about, Oh, what does it mean to be in this new digital era? Like, how do we engage with companies like iTunes and Spotify?

How do we make our own products? How do we. start to more directly connect artists with their fans in a way that we have never done before. And so I experienced there having sort of missed that previous wave was just incredibly positive. And I was there through some enormous changes. And it also let me, as a leader, Really stretch my legs.

I came in as an art director. And by the time I left, I was VP of product for Atlantic records. So I was running, you know, a product design and engineering team. And as a design leader, running a product team for a period of time was not necessarily something I'm eager to do again, but was one of the [00:04:00] best learning experiences I've ever had in my career.

And I think really changed my perspective on design and really. Makes me kind of an unusual design leader because I was responsible for budgets and PNLs and other things and making revenue. And, you know, we were a direct to consumer business. We were revenue generating and I didn't get to sit on the sidelines with that.

I had to be actively participating in that. And it was a very different way for me to look at design, especially when I'm Also had engineers and product managers. I was responsible for, I'm glad I did it. And I'm glad I'm in a design role now. 

Eli Woolery: Eric, I'm curious if that experience helps you kind of orient yourself as a creative person, more towards business needs, because I'm sure Atlantic was operating under this business model that was quite lucrative for them of vinyl and then, you know, tapes and CDs, and they had to shift and, and kind of in essence, Figure out a way to disrupt themselves in order to survive.

Did you come out of that with some of that experience, you know, being oriented towards the business? [00:05:00] 

Eric Snowden: Yes, definitely. But even going back further into my past, like when I went to college, I was a chemistry major with a business minor, which is not the normal path. And I had drawn and taken photographs my entire life, but it never occurred to me until I was, you know, in school that this could actually be a career.

You know, I'd picked the class I liked the most in high school, went to get a degree in that thing. And when I decided that wasn't the right thing for me, I was debating between, uh, Chemistry, math, music, and art. And so that probably right there gives you a good sense of how my brain functions. And when I decided to go into graphic design, the one sort of handshake request my parents had with me was, okay, if you're going to go into design, you have to have a business minor, you have to have something to fall back on.

Now I ended up dropping that minor without telling them, but I did take a few classes. And so from the very beginning, there was a little bit of a balance there. But I also grew up around a lot of [00:06:00] entrepreneurs and my parents both had their own businesses. My first couple of design jobs were at small businesses where I got to see very closely what it takes to run a business.

And then when I was at Atlantic Records, I think that kicked into high gear when the digital groups there were responsible for helping the company make money. And I really had to think about that in a new and different way. But I'd had enough little bits of that in my background, that the idea that design and business were separate didn't really occur to me until much later in my career when I realized, oh, other people don't always think this way.

And there are amazing design leaders that focus a hundred percent on craft and other parts of design, but the business and making sure our customers are successful and making sure the companies I work for are successful, I don't think are antithetical. And I think they're really important to who I am as a leader.

Aarron Walter: So, definitely one theme that we've seen in people's careers in the creative field, it echoes a lot of what you're saying. You said, I [00:07:00] didn't really see the difference between, you know, being a designer and being business focused. And if you look at your career path, it's super buoyant. Wherever you go, you keep kind of floating upwards, floating upwards pretty quickly too, which is fascinating because you left Atlantic.

And you joined Behance as head of mobile, which is like, that's a pretty significant transition that ultimately would take you into Adobe via an acquisition. Could you talk to us a little bit about how do you go from Atlantic Records to Behance? And then take us further into stepping into Adobe. 

Eric Snowden: It's funny because titles mean such different things at different companies.

If I look at being head of mobile at Behance, I think at the time, the entire company was maybe 30 people. So it was a really small, like, team. We all sat With our desks connected to each other, like looking at each other all day long in the same room to Adobe, that's a 30, 000, you know, ish person [00:08:00] company.

And so it might on paper look different than it is. But I think the reason why that transition made sense was with Atlantic, especially after file sharing, the leaders there didn't want to be behind on any other new technology. They decided that was a one off thing. We were behind on that and it's not going to happen to us again.

And so. While I was there, we leaned really heavily into mobile and I was doing mobile design. From back in the days where it was long before there was an iPhone long before there were really good ways to work on a phone, basically from the very beginning, because we wanted to be ahead of the curve. And so by the time I joined Behance, I, as a design leader, I had been doing mobile.

Literally, as long as it had been a viable design platform and Behance was and still is this amazing place to go and view work. But when I joined, there were no mobile applications and the website wasn't responsive. And this was [00:09:00] over a decade ago. So it sounds anachronistic now to be like, Oh, the website doesn't work on mobile.

But at the time it didn't. And I remember the first day there. I tried to log into the Behance website on a mobile phone and. The sign in, like jumped off the screen because they were calculating position based on desktop sizes. I had met, you know, Matthias, who was the, one of the co founders of behance at a, at a design conference.

And we started talking and we kept in touch and became friends. And when he realized behance needed to lean into mobile, we'd already had that connection and we still joke that it was the longest. Job interview of all time because that was a three or four year journey from us meeting to me actually joining Behance And we're still good friends today.

But you know, I had this background in mobile that Transitioned to Behance really well and then also to my first sort of Adobe job post acquisition was running a mobile design Team and so that was a real thread in my career for [00:10:00] probably at least a decade hyperfocusing on mobile and devices 

Eli Woolery: Let's shift topics a little bit over to AI and design, and this is something Aaron and I have been intensely curious about and experimenting with, and playing with all the different tools.

I think we both find this generative AI space to just be endlessly fascinating, and At times, a little scary, possibly, but I think most of our attitude is optimistic about it. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about Firefly. It's something I've been playing around with a bit and I'm really enjoying it.

Eric Snowden: Yeah, Firefly has been an amazing project to work on. It's been the most fun I've had in a very long time working on software because The rate of change in the rate of possibility is so exponential. You know, when I think about Firefly, there are a couple of things that are really unique about it that often get lost, right?

Like I think the first one being it was designed to be commercially safe, right? And that was a conversation that my team was having with product and engineering very early [00:11:00] on as people who have worked in agencies. And who currently are designing for a big enterprise company. We knew that there was going to be sticking points around and I use this.

What happens if I use this? Is this okay for me to be used in the context of actual. Work. And we wanted to make sure that we were designing Firefly from the beginning to be usable in a work environment. And, you know, Adobe is for certain plans is indemnifying people for that usage, which I think is really important.

Also, we know what is in Firefly, which I'm not sure is something other AI companies could say. Firefly was trained on content. We have license for an Adobe stock and other content that we have licenses for. So. You know, we may be the only image model out there where we can actually tell you what's in it and that manifests itself in a couple of different ways.

One is if I go into Firefly and I type in Mickey Mouse, it's going to give you a mouse that probably doesn't look [00:12:00] like the one you're thinking of because Firefly has never seen Mickey Mouse because Adobe doesn't own the IP for Mickey Mouse. Disney does. And we don't know what Mickey Mouse looks like because we don't think we have the rights to look at that.

And so part of being commercially safe is being really thoughtful about IP. Another thing is if you're an artist, your content is not in Adobe Firefly. Unless you submitted it to Adobe stock. And so if I'm a famous, well known artist and I type in, in the style of shepherd fairy, like I won't get a result that I expect because firefly doesn't know who shepherd fairy is because shepherd fairy.

Hasn't said it's okay for Firefly to use his work. And so I think those are sort of like model level differences. And then the thing I really see as our biggest differentiator is how it's woven into existing tools, right? Like in order to create something at the level our customers expect, you need powerful creative tools and you need AI.

You can't have one or the [00:13:00] other. And we want to make sure that that marriage is really. Seamless and I can use generative fill as an example inside of photoshop, but then I also have access to Every other tool photoshop has ever made in the same place So it's really about This dialogue between traditional tooling and AI, and it's not an or it's an and, and at the highest level, we're really trying to accelerate the work of our customers of creative people who are trying to make things.

That's really where we come from. And, you know, the thing I'm most proud about with Firefly as a design leader is the depth of Involvement, the design team has had we've been from the very beginning testing and helping to validate the models that they do what we expect, right? We call our team customer zero with a lot of these things.

We test stuff long before any customer ever sees it. We're involved in harm and bias. We have a product equity team in Adobe design. That's looking at the firefly model to make sure we're mitigating it. [00:14:00] Potential harm and bias, and we get equitable results that represent the breadth of humanity and not just everybody looking the same or looking generically beautiful.

We've been involved obviously in the UX, but in the content strategy and really like every aspect of this. And when I think about. Adobe is a company that is mining for AI tools. The UX design is the tip of the iceberg and all of the work that our team has done on model is the actual iceberg. And I think that is a big paradigm shift for people who are designing at companies that are building tools with AI is design branching out well beyond.

Even the traditional design research content strategy disciplines into harm and bias into model quality Into ethics and helping guide the companies in the right way being voice of the customer It's just there's a ton of opportunity for advancement and transformation and design teams and I'm [00:15:00] really proud of the work that we've done there in the last year or two.

Aarron Walter: It's a really fascinating space. But one of the challenges is there are some creative people who feel this sense of fear or threat that will my creativity be usurped by. AI, are my skills still relevant? And I think maybe the best way to speak to that is if we could just talk about workflow, what a workflow looks like in a modern creative environment, you know, with Adobe tools.

So, if I'm an illustrator, I'm a photographer, I'm a UI designer, I'm a videographer, what does it look like for me to use Adobe AI tools like Firefly or some of the features that are already integrated in? How will I work differently with these tools? 

Eric Snowden: That's a great question. Maybe to pick a specific example, if we look at creating composition in Photoshop by doing digital imaging, whether that's photo bashing or more traditional compositing work, what we've seen from people that [00:16:00] do this work is.

They're having an order of magnitude, more output and exploration. So as a compositor, you know, if I'm trying to make some sort of a fantastical image, instead of doing three different versions and 10 sketches, I'm doing a hundred different versions. I'm getting to explore more canvas, just more ideas quickly.

And I think that's something as a creative person, I felt that pressure My whole life. It's like, Oh man, if I had a couple more days, I could take this just a little bit further. And we all know that timelines are being compressed, that expectations are higher than they've ever been. The time and space for exploration is just dwindling.

And so the way I look at it is like, how can I help me explore more and more ideas to get to the best possible idea? Once I know the direction I want to go in. The process, while there's a couple places where AI may be augmenting it, is still extremely [00:17:00] similar. I'm still using layers in Photoshop. I'm still making all the decisions myself as a creative.

I may be using traditional, like, brushing techniques on top of it. It's a tool or two, and it can definitely speed up the ideation process. But when we talk to AI artists, which we do all the time, the people that are using AI in commercial work, the end of their process is always And then I take it into Photoshop to do the work.

It's still like a core part of the workflow and what that means will change over time. But I think the place where we really want to be different is in the amount of creative control we give people. Most AI out there today. is very good at making something generically beautiful, but not very good at making a specific idea you have in your head a reality.

And Adobe is in the second business. We're in the helping you really express yourself with a level of detail and fidelity at like a [00:18:00] professional level. And, you know, that's, I think where we're really going to differentiate. It's not about typing in some words and hitting a button like a slot machine.

It's about like I have something very specific I need to express in a specific way and AI is going to help me explore more, but I'm still in charge and I'm still making all the decisions and I'm still Again, have all of the tools I've always had. None of that has gone away in order to make this my own.

I think that's a really important distinction. 

Eli Woolery: I'm not sure if this is within your domain, but one thing that Aaron and I've been curious about, given that we're podcasters is the AI and audio capabilities that Adobe is providing. So we've been experimenting with AI audio enhanced. For example, we had a conversation with David Sedaris where we had to talk to him.

He was on his cell phone in a car and you might imagine not the ideal setup for an interview. Yeah. But we ran it through the enhanced and it did an amazing job of just cleaning it up. And just curious if you have thoughts on where that's headed or ideas about that. [00:19:00] 

Eric Snowden: Audio has always been a passion for me playing music growing up.

My mom was a piano teacher. So it's something that I started with. Very early. And I think there's a ton of exciting explorations going on there across the board. And I think just the audio sweetening stuff that we have today is pretty incredible. And there was a time where I was doing a project for a friend and I had a day to turn around a voiceover.

And so I recorded it using mics. I have in the room. I'm sitting in. I ran it through all of Adobe's audio tech. And then I used a third party plugin to pitch shift the voice and was able to do something that was like studio quality in my office. But that would not have been possible without a lot of the technology.

Audio improvement technology that we have here at Adobe, you know, what we've talked about so far has been how AI can accelerate existing workflows, but there's so much opportunity for [00:20:00] the help and workflows that were impossible before. This is a great one. Like, how would you have fixed that David Sedaris audio in the past?

The answer is you probably wouldn't have. You would have just had kind of a bad sounding podcast, right? And so. That's something that I think is pretty easy for all of us to look at and go like, well, that's just a net positive. It's allowing me to do something that would have been near impossible, if not impossible before.

And those are the pieces of AI technology that I get the most excited about, the things that are allowing people to Like raise the ceiling and do things that they've never been able to do before. And so I think that's really exciting. 

Aarron Walter: Let's shift gears and maybe talk about working with large teams.

Cause there's definitely a theme in your career. You've been leading lots of different types of creative people. And, you know, it's not always easy. One of the great things about creative people is they're creative. And one of the challenges is they're creative. And sometimes need more care and feeding than [00:21:00] others and have ideas and ways that they want to do things.

And so when you have larger and larger teams, and at this point you're managing a team north of 600 people, are you responsible for them at least? Presumably with folks underneath you who are directly managing, you've all got to keep them oriented in the right direction. Everybody's singing from the same songbook.

Tell us a little bit about what you've learned through the years, about what's unique about creative people, creative teams, their collaboration style, and what are some unlocks that you've discovered for keeping them moving forward? 

Eric Snowden: I think the fascinating thing about Adobe is it's full of creative people in every discipline.

Engineers who have created tools that you'd be like, Oh, I know what that is that are like avid oil painters on the weekend or are accomplished musicians or other things like Adobe is a company full of creative people, not just in the design. And I think that creates a really [00:22:00] beautiful and interesting environment.

And when people. Look at how long I've been at Adobe and they asked me why like that's always one of my first answers I'm like, I'm surrounded by like really nice brilliant creative people. Why would I want to be anywhere else? But if I look back through my career and this is a little bit like me revising history after the fact I look at you know, teaching at Parsons.

I look at being at Anderson Ranch Art Center, which is an artist community, Colorado I I look at being Lynn Goldsmith's photo assistant. I look at being at Behance and Adobe. I have this thread of being around and helping creative people as really the crux of my career. And there's a couple of exceptions to that, but I would say 90 percent of my time as a designer and a design leader has been around, like, what can I do to make the lives of creative people better?

Who I consider like my friends and I consider myself a creative person. I'm like, I take that responsibility very [00:23:00] seriously. And at Adobe, I feel like I'm sort of at the pinnacle of that. I think the best way to manage creative people is really through honesty. I feel like a lot of leaders want to hold back or package things up in a certain way, or.

Appear a certain way to the world. And like, none of that is super interesting to me. I try to make myself extremely approachable. My team knows that they can all reach out to me. I have a policy that now I'm afraid to say out loud on a podcast, but I've said for years, if any intern at the company reaches out and asks us for time for me, I'll talk to that person, right?

Like I believe in one on one connections and I believe that. As a leader, not everything needs to be scalable. Sometimes when somebody is having a hard time, even an IC on my team, I'll take that time to talk to them. If we go through a big org chain, I'll talk to every single person individually. And on one hand, it's like, Oh my God, it's going to take a lot of time.

And on the other hand, people at Adobe regularly say like, all of your changes always go so [00:24:00] smoothly. And it's like, yeah, there's this direct human to human, honest, Connection that I try to make with people that I think goes a long way. They know that what I'm saying is to the best of my ability, the truth and honest.

And I think my team understands that about me and it takes time to build that up. And you only do it through. repetition and hopefully not messing up too much and proving yourself. But that direct, honest connection and also just being available really goes a long way. And also the fact that I'm a creative person too, like I get it.

Like I get it when something that you've toiled over, you know, Doesn't ship the way you want or me doesn't ship at all or a project gets killed. I know what that feels like. And so I'm not trying to imagine myself in their shoes. I've literally been there before. You know, I really think a lot as a leader, the scale part of the job is one, but like carving off time for things that are not scalable is actually a really [00:25:00] important part of my leadership philosophy.

I will talk to any candidate who wants to join Adobe, who's not sure if they want to join. I have a separate, what I call my IC staff where. I have a monthly meeting with individual contributors on my team where they're allowed to ask me anything they want to ask. It's basically like an AMA. The group is very small.

It's 10 to 15 people, and we have really in depth conversations about what matters to them as individuals, which is often. Extremely different to the conversation I'm having senior directors and VP report into me, but finding time and carving off those times to have those conversations is some of the most valuable stuff I do at Adobe.

And so I think just being available and having personal connections. doesn't solve all the problems, but it means that people have like a real outlet for their frustrations. And I also try to make sure my leaders do the same thing. And that's a good first step, right? Like I can't solve every problem, but if people feel like the problem isn't [00:26:00] completely on them, that's like 70 percent of it, in my opinion.

Aarron Walter: Is there anything in your origin story or upbringing that led to that philosophy? 

Eric Snowden: My sister's a psychologist. And so maybe there's something that. Neither one of us have properly analyzed, you know, when I think about how my mom treated us as kids She never talked to us like we were children. She was always pretty straightforward.

Tell us how it was We didn't have free reign or anything like that. We had medium strict parents I would say but they were always like really forthright and honest with us We always felt like we knew what was going on. And so I would assume that's part of it but I think The other thing is I've witnessed a lot of leaders who don't do that.

And like the outcomes for that are poor. And I think a lot about that. I think a lot about what I can learn from other leaders by doing the opposite of what they've done. I, you know, there are certain leaders that I've worked in the past where I asked myself. What would that person not do? And sometimes that's a good way to [00:27:00] guide yourself.

But I don't know, I've just been a pretty honest, open, straightforward, what you see is what you get person. And that's really resonated, I think, with my team. And then when I talk publicly about my design style, which I do on a fairly regular basis, I have so many people approaching me and being like, You're the only design leader I've seen up on this stage who isn't putting on a show.

Like, you're just talking to us like we're normal people. I was like, I don't know how else to be. So, I don't know that there's anything intentional about it, and I don't know, you'll probably send me down a spiral after this interview, going, I don't know why I'm the way I am. 

Eli Woolery: So, given all that, I'm wondering about how you think about finding the right team size?

You're the head of a very large team and you have these teams underneath you. Amazon has this concept of the two pizza team, which is like, you should only be as big as you could feed with two pizzas, which, you know, you could debate if that's the right approach, but do you have a metric or any way you approach team size?

Eric Snowden: Yeah. The way I think about it, at least in the leadership [00:28:00] level is more about aligning design leaders with the fewest number of cross functional leaders possible. And so the way my team is structured more or less is. For every SVP of product at the company, there is a singular design leader that they work with.

So they're not chasing down multiple people. There aren't too many squads. They've got their person. That person is deeply connected with them in their staff, in their off sites. It's an extended part of their team. They feel as much a part of that product leader's team as they do mine. And then you go a level below that.

And we've often got director level people mapped to VPs. So, We've tried lots of organizational structures over time, and I don't know if this works at every company, but at Adobe aligning leaders with leaders. And I guess it all goes back to my previous comment about relationships. It's about like creating.

These small groups of leaders who can have really trusted relationships with each other is more important than like how many [00:29:00] human beings report into that person. Ultimately, we don't want to get to a place of where someone has too many direct reports. I think it varies by level, but if you're not able to spend quality time with those people, you have too many people reporting to you because I don't think leadership should be tied to reporting structure.

I have tons of Very important leaders in my organization that don't report to me because how could they like the team to your point is Well north of 600 people at that point that would just be impossible but I think the reporting structure needs to be something where You're building a real relationship and spending time with people and so There have been times where i've looked at people who report to me and i've said I don't think they're getting much out of reporting to me They're not getting anything they would out of reporting to someone else and i'm not influencing their product in a way You That I think I could or should like, they probably belong elsewhere in the organization.

And there was always difficult conversations, [00:30:00] but I want things that matter. I don't want things that look a certain way on paper. I think that's maybe one of the most important things I've learned about running a big organization. Like the right organizational structure almost never looks the way on paper that you would design it in the abstract because There are relationships and human beings involved and that's always imperfect, but leads to the best results.

Aarron Walter: Let's talk a little bit about product philosophy. Adobe's got, you know, this huge suite of products for different types of audiences and a cycle. So, you know, every year there's a release of some sort, there's new stuff that's being added to products. And then there's also you spinning up new ideas, things like Firefly or reacting to culture and the marketplace and so forth.

Tell us a little bit about, your philosophy and your team's philosophies about supporting a mature product in a cycle. There's a [00:31:00] benefit of adding new features and making it feel like, Hey, this is fresh and new. And I've got new capabilities as a creative professional. And then there's also a cost that comes with that, that if we add eventually, you know, Marie Kondo has to come in and spark a joy, clean some stuff up so we can have a healthy workflow.

How do you think about adding and subtracting? 

Eric Snowden: One of the non intuitive things that I've learned about designing software that is used by professionals, borderline specialists at times, is sometimes you have to add to simplify. And so the best example I have of this is an illustrator, I want to guess it was about five years ago, we knew we wanted to add a properties panel.

We wanted to have a single place where people could go to edit objects without having to chase down 10 different panels to do work. Now, we can't take those 10 panels out because if you think of a professional workflow, people have configured their workspaces, they have multiple monitors, like, [00:32:00] we cannot change that.

It is a musical instrument for them. We are not moving the keys on the piano around for existing users. But for a new person, all that complexity is way too much. And so I think when we added the properties panel to illustrator, it was. Like the 46th panel, but what we found was by not disrupting existing workflows by clearly Onboarding people onto this new thing, but giving them a very easy way to say no.

Thank you It's set up the way I want we launch one of the most successful features We've ever launched an illustrator. Most people use it, but we didn't take anything away We didn't force existing users to use it. We just made sure Everybody knew it was there It was easy to say yes to, but it was also easy to say no to.

And I think that philosophy matters a lot. Like we run into things where tiny little changes can have huge ripple effects. I remember this one time where we changed the swatch [00:33:00] size in Photoshop, and this was sort of a little bit before my time, but as I was transitioning into this role and I had a comic book artist reach out to me, he's like, for the last 10 years, Superman's blue color has been the third color down on the left hand side in my swatches panel.

And because you change the swatch size by a couple pixels, it reflowed my swatches. And now Superman's blue is not where it used to be. And I need it to be there because I'm using it a hundred times a day. And so like literal pixel level changes can disrupt I think of Adobe software as a musical instrument, and when you watch people use it, they play it like an instrument.

They have two hands going at the same time, they're doing multiple things. Looks like they're playing the piano. And so changing that is really hard. And again, I use this metaphor of a piano. I'm like, well, which keys do you want and what order do you want them in? Right? Like, well, that's kind of a weird question.

Well, that's how we have to think of professional software. And so [00:34:00] there are times where we end up creating new software for new needs, because. Changing those behaviors is too disruptive, but there are other times like in illustrator where we introduce the 46 panel and it's okay because we didn't take anything away and for a new user, they don't need to know about all these other things, but we haven't subtracted from a professional's workflow.

It's a real challenge in a dance and I think the best way to do it is. Maybe going back to my own team philosophy, bleeding into product philosophy is with openness and transparency with customers, with getting feedback early on, with finding experts within Adobe who know these products, who can help us with this, like I've used Adobe products for a decade longer, two decades before joining Adobe, we don't get amnesia when we join the company.

Like we know how the products work. We know what we didn't like about them before we joined. We know what we loved about them before we joined that we want to keep. We remember, Oh, this [00:35:00] tool is hard to use, or this one was easy. And, and so we bring all that knowledge in, I think sometimes. People think we get a memory wipe when we walk in the door, but we don't.

Like we bring all this in and I bring in constant feedback from my friends who use our tools every day. My inbox, I should probably have a filter for people asking for changes or features. And we take that really seriously. When we meet with artists, we know that. This is someone's livelihood that we're tinkering around in.

But at the same time, we need to make sure we're helping them evolve. We're helping them work faster. We're giving them new capabilities. We're allowing them to do things they've never been able to do before. And so finding that balance is hard, but that is honestly the Fun part of this job. Like that's the thing as a designer and as someone who's curious about software and how people work, I could fall down that rabbit hole for the rest of my life and be pretty happy.

I think 

Eli Woolery: how does R and D work at Adobe? You invest a lot in it, obviously, [00:36:00] and it pays off with things like Firefly, but how do you support those teams when they might not be a part of the core business with a sort of idea in its infancy? 

Eric Snowden: Yeah, I can speak to how we do it as a company, but also like specifically on the design side.

We have a team within Adobe design called mint and mint stands for machine intelligence at new technologies And this is the team that is on the forefront of new technologies. That is pioneering emerging projects incubating things Every product team has a list of things that keeps them up at night that they don't have time to think about This is the team that can join you for a period of time and help you with that, right?

And so a lot of huge initiatives, including Firefly was Incubated through this team, obviously with tight partnership with product and engineering, but I've got a protected group of people whose entire job is to think about the future that said, we don't create a hard line between that and the other product teams like the worst thing I could do is [00:37:00] say these people think about the future and the rest of you think about the past, right?

Like, that's incredibly demoralizing. So every one of my teams. Is always sort of pushing and thinking about the future, but it's important to have a pool of protected resources that only do that. And there are some people who want to live in iteration and analytics and AB testing and all that stuff. And that is a great way to design.

We have teams that operate that way, but that doesn't solve every problem. And we do need people who are not afraid to take moon shots or big swings and lean into the future. And so within design, we have a dedicated team To do that kind of work outside of design, there is a good size Adobe research organization, which has.

I mean, just some of the smartest people I've ever met. And every time I meet with Adobe Research, I just get blown away by the things they're working on. Those are the most fun meetings. And we had a couple of those this week where we had an all day meeting where they just showed us what they're working on in the [00:38:00] labs.

And your mouth is open the whole time. It's just incredible. And, um, It reminds me of like why I love this company so much. There are really passionate people trying to push creativity forward and to help creative people solve new problems. And so often the Mint team is partnering directly with them, but there are times where product teams do as well.

So there's not one way where new ideas come into the world, but within design, we do have like a center of gravity around this Mint design team. 

Eli Woolery: So, Eric, we know that you and your team are working on a revamp of your visual design system called Spectrum. Could you tell us a little bit about where that's at?

Eric Snowden: Yeah, it's been something that's been in the works for a couple of years now that I'm super, super excited about. And I think, you know, Adobe was one of the first companies back in the early 2010s to have a design system with the first version of Spectrum. If we look back at when that was created, We had no mobile apps.

We had no AR [00:39:00] VR apps. We had no web applications. And most of the tools Adobe is making were for professionals or specialists. All of that has changed since then. We're making tools for a much broader audience. We're making tools for people in marketing as well on the creative side. The devices we're targeting have changed dramatically.

And while Spectrum has evolved really well, considering how much change has gone on, it became clear to us that in order to get to where we need to go as a company, we needed a bigger shift. And so we're calling it Spectrum 2, not to insinuate that there were not hundreds of iterations in the last, you know, 10 years between Spectrum 1 and 2, but this is a pretty, Like hard shifts were baking in accessibility and customization from the very beginning.

We're trying to make sure it's at home in more places on more platforms. So while it feels like you're using Adobe tool, it still feels [00:40:00] like you're a native citizen of that platform. It's brighter, it's lighter. It's a little bit fun in places like creativity is fun. And I would say a lot of Adobe's tools today are very.

austere looking. They're very gray on gray on gray, and we certainly don't want to, you know, have Kim Petty in your workspace. But at the same time, we think there's a little bit of space for white space, breathing room and other things in our products. But we also want to give users the ability, like I was talking about earlier with bringing new tools into our professional tools around illustrator.

We want to give people the ability to customize that out of the box. If I'm a brand new person coming to these tools, we think we can create a more hospitable environment for you than the one we have today. And we can also merge the various design languages. That have come into Adobe through different acquisitions over time and other divergences.

And so we're really excited about it. And we, we [00:41:00] announced it before shipping it in products. And I think a lot of people are like, why would you do that? And it goes back to principles I have around wanting us to design in the open and no surprises with our customers. I want them to be able to see where we're going, give us feedback, understand why we're doing it.

We're planning on rolling it out on. Web and mobile first, because those are places where we have the highest concentration of new users will eventually roll it out for desktop. But that plan is a little bit. It's going to take longer because we want to engage with our community in a deeper way. And the only way to do that is by talking about it publicly.

And so Yeah. I think it's really exciting. And, you know, we got some really great press about it at the end of last year, people were calling it beautiful and modern and all the words you want to hear about a design system. And, you know, we feel like we're at the beginning of this road, but the goal really is for us to go down that road with our customers hand in hand.

And I think what we end up ultimately shipping will be [00:42:00] different in a lot of ways from what we're concepting now, but we've really built it. flexibility and fluidity into the system. That's great. 

Aarron Walter: Eric, what are you watching, reading, listening to that is exciting, inspiring, got your attention right now?

Eric Snowden: It's really all over the place. I would say watching a lot of what my partner and I lovingly call murder shows, which I think is like, I'm not, I'm not sure what it is about the pandemic that is like, tickled that part of a lot of people's brains, but not super gruesome ones. Only murders in the building is like, A vibe that of right there's mystery.

It's funny. It's beautifully shot. It's a lot of really great things about it. All at once after party on Apple TV, which was like a funny murder mystery. That's in that sort of same vibe. So I'm not talking about like gruesome killer shows. I'm talking about things where. They're fun. There's some style [00:43:00] to them.

They keep your brain going, but they don't Force you to focus on the current state of the world. Like it's a disconnect and I find a lot of the media Unconsuming recently is to turn my brain off. The one thing you didn't ask about I play a lot of video games I play fortnight on a pretty regular basis and when it comes to music my biggest outlet and I certainly listen to a lot of things is Adobe gives us sabbaticals every five years, which is one of my favorite perks.

And my last sabbatical was during COVID. So we couldn't really travel. And I spent six weeks recording music all day, every day. And it was one of the most fun times of my entire life. And it was so creatively fulfilling. And I'm pretty sure no one, including my partner will ever hear a single note that I made.

And that's not what it was for, right? It was for me to have something creatively that was, I don't have to play for anyone if I don't want to, I don't have to care what anyone else thinks about it. It was really creatively freeing and I think that [00:44:00] feeds back into my design and my leadership and everything else.

I think for me, having that creative outlet is super, super important. 

Aarron Walter: Eric, where can people learn more about you and the work that you and your teams are doing? 

Eric Snowden: Yeah, thanks for asking that. Adobe Design actually has. Our own dedicated website. It's Adobe dot design. We talk about our process, the different disciplines we have, projects we've worked on, even super nerdy things about how to name colors in your design system, which is, which is our most popular article that we've ever put out.

Like, I think the more specific and technical and nerdy we get, the more excited people are, but it's really a place for the design team to tell their own story directly. And so please check that out. Awesome. Eric, thanks so much for being on the show. Thank you both for having me. This was super fun.

Aarron Walter: Have you seen the new Mac book air? Oh man, they are [00:45:00] so fast. They're super light and they are beautiful. And we're giving one away to a lucky winner to enter to win the new Mac book air. All you have to do is complete our listener survey. Tell us a bit about you and share your feedback about the show.

It'll help us improve and. You could soon be enjoying a brand new MacBook Air to take the survey visit dbtr. co slash 2024 survey that's dbtr. co slash 2024 survey and you'll automatically be entered to win. We'll randomly select a winner on Friday, March 1st. So be sure to complete the survey by then.

This episode was produced by Eli Woolery and me, Aaron Walter, with engineering and production support from Brian Paik of Pacific Audio. If you found this episode useful, we hope that you'll leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to finer shows. Or simply drop a link to the show in your team's Slack channel, [00:46:00] It'll really help others discover the show. Until next time.

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Design Better
Design Better
Design Better co-hosts Eli Woolery and Aarron Walter explore the intersection of design, technology, and the creative process through conversations with inspiring guests across many creative fields. Whether you’re design curious or a design pro, Design Better is guaranteed to inspire and inform. Episodes are released semi-weekly for free subscribers, weekly for premium subscribers. Vanity Fair calls Design Better, “sharp, to the point, and full of incredibly valuable information for anyone looking to better understand how to build a more innovative world.”