Tiffani Jones Brown, Creative Director at Pinterest
Tiffani Jones Brown is the Creative Director at Pinterest in San Francisco. Her first role at Pinterest was to define the character and personality of their brand and voice. With her background in philosophical ethics and creative writing, Tiffani has both a creative and methodical way of looking at things. She talks about her role at Pinterest, how she ended up there, and the challenges she faces on a daily basis. Her advice for young professionals and professionals at any stage in their career about practicing your passion, is spot on.
Original interview at wayswework.io.
Tell us a little bit more about your role at Pinterest?
I’m the Creative Director for the brand, which means I oversee a team of writers, designers, and filmmakers. I work closely with marketers, researchers and our PR team to define the character and soul of the Pinterest brand, based on our company values and what we care about. Then I make sure that we express that character through everything that we do.
Pinterest is a boundless catalog of ideas, so my job is also to help people understand, through brand campaigns, how they can use it in everyday life (like when you’re trying to figure out what’s for dinner, how to tie a bowtie, or what your taste in architecture is.)
How did you end up working in writing and content strategy? What was your path like?
Growing up I was always into writing — I did a lot of creative writing. I went to grad school for philosophical ethics and I was going to be a professor. A little ways into my PhD I remembered, “oh wait, I’m going to have to move to the middle of nowhere and oh my god, I’m going to have to live in the middle of nowhere, and I want to move to NYC or whatever.” So I ended up bailing on that.
My husband was working as a designer at the time, and I was always helping him with design work, writing and crafting brand voices. Slowly I just got into writing and messaging and coming up with concepts. My husband and I started an agency where I helped to define a voice and content strategy for businesses. With philosophy, it’s about what the big idea is and that’s a lot of my job now actually, pulling out what the actual concept is, what’s the idea? What’s the story? So it all kind of fits together but in a cobbled way.
After Facebook acquired our agency, I joined their team as a writer and content strategist, responsible for defining the “brand voice” — and eventually I made my way to Pinterest to do the same thing. At Pinterest, my first job was to define our character and personality, so I spent a lot of time trying to codify the “Pinterest magic.” I thought a lot about how pinners thought about Pinterest (we have this “put pinners first motto”) and worked closely with our community manager to define and incorporate our voice, which used to be “warm, down-to-earth, clear, honest and delightful” but has now evolved to “simple, playful, real and clever.”
“Anytime you’re learning there’s a lot of fear underneath. There’s always a little bit of excitement and anxiety whenever you’re pushing yourself. To me, that is the essence of creativity.”
I read a piece that you wrote for The Manual where you talk about passion not being a thing that you pursue but instead something you should constantly be practicing. I loved what you wrote about how with every new skill you develop, there is still always more to learn and more to be afraid of. In your role right now, how do you deal with new fears and new challenges?
Oh, gosh — yeah I’m definitely still dealing with them on a regular basis, I don’t think they go away. Anytime you’re learning there’s a lot of fear underneath. There’s always a little bit of excitement and anxiety whenever you’re pushing yourself. To me, that is the essence of creativity. I deal with it every day. If I want to be creative, if I want to try something new I have to push out against the edge of what I’m comfortable with.
At Pinterest, one thing that’s interesting is we hear from a lot of people who use our product that say: “oh I didn’t think that I was all that creative but I tried it out and now I feel a little bit more creative, like I can do this or that.” What we try to do at Pinterest is create an environment where employees can bang around and experiment and push the edge of their creativity. So for me that’s what work is about. It’s about finding an open space in your head to bump up against what you know and bring in new ideas.
We have this concept called ‘knitting’, it’s one of our company values. It sounds like actual knitting but what it means is knitting together ideas and thoughts from different disciplines. To me that is really helpful to overcoming that anxiety. I know I’ve got an amazing researcher on my team who understands people really well, and an engineer who understands their discipline really well. If you bring together those different perspectives it’s helpful and gives you what you need to work in those areas where you don’t feel as comfortable. My personal opinion is just that fear is such a natural part of life and a welcome part of the creative process, even though it doesn’t always feel great [laughs].
“I’m learning a lot right now. I’m learning how to manage disciplines that I’ve never managed before. I’m also learning to not just be a concept thinker and writer, but also an art director.”
What would you say are some of the main challenges that you face in your work right now?
It was just five months ago that I took over this role as Creative Director, so I’m now managing not just the writing team — which was where I started — but also a design team and filmmakers. It’s a very different kind of role that requires overseeing the entirety of how we express our brand. I’m learning a lot right now. I’m learning how to manage disciplines that I’ve never managed before. I’m also learning to not just be a concept thinker and writer, but also an art director. I’m learning to operate in a creative capacity at an organization that is about creativity but is still an organization, you know? You’re not doing art, you’re trying to make a product that really helps people. So trying to put all of that together means learning a lot all the time.
Oh, and another challenge is making sure that everyone, all over the world, understands how Pinterest is useful to them. Understanding cultural nuances as we grow into a global company is a big deal (do you show photos of spaghetti dishes to folks in France? What kind of shoes do you show for a photo shoot in Japan?). Because Pinterest is so personal for people, it’s important that everything my team designs and writes feels relevant to you — whether it’s an email, a launch of a feature like buyable Pins (you can buy pins now!) or a campaign about Halloween costumes. Tricky.
What does a typical day look like for you?
So I get up, I have a two-year-old and I take her to daycare, often in the morning these days I’ll throw her in the stroller and we’ll go on a run together.
Then I come to work and I usually have a series of meetings. I have a regular cadence of meetings and creative workshops throughout the week. On Tuesday there’s a writing workshop and right after that there’s a brand design workshop. On Thursday there’s a writing, design, and film workshop. On Fridays all of the work comes through for a creative review, there’s this regular cadence of creative work getting pulled through, so I spend a lot of time in that just workshopping stuff.
I write a lot for the company still, so there’ll be things I’m writing. I’m in meetings reviewing tons of work, photography, reviewing a launch, reviewing an idea that somebody has. Then I try to spend a lot of time with the people that I manage, just getting to know them and helping them.
It’s a mixture — I’d say the creative workshop is what is the heartbeat of the week and then sort of meetings all around that. Creative director jobs, you’re in a lot of meetings and you have to make sure that you carve out space for reflection and creativity.
“If I don’t have an hour or two mixed throughout my day where I can just reflect, or goof off, get a coffee or do email, I start being less productive.”
What are the 5 tools that you’re using most regularly in your work?
Pinterest — I use Pinterest a lot actually, especially if I’m thinking of brand stuff and art direction, I use it a lot for that. We’re going through a refresh right now of evolving the Pinterest voice, so I use the Pinterest product to get at what the voice attributes mean and how to show them in images. And I go to Pinterest for general creative inspiration — I’ll often do this on my phone, on the way to work or while I wait in line for a coffee or something — Pinterest is hugely helpful.
Google Docs — I’m in docs a lot because I’m writing.
Slack — As a company we use Slack to communicate with one another.
Email — I’m on email a lot just because it’s an easy way of getting in touch with people.
Smartling — The writing team in particular, we review — we call them strings — every single piece of writing that comes through our code base and that goes through a tool called Smartling. We’re always in there making sure that everything we publish has been looked at and is on voice. We also work with the Localization team and Style Owners in each of our local markets to help make sure we maintain the Pinterest voice globally.
I imagine being in a leadership role like you are, you’re getting a lot of email and feedback from a lot of different channels. How do you manage staying on top of all of that, in addition to all your meetings and time to reflect and do your own work?
I think it’s tricky. What you want to do is, especially with certain people, is just get to know how they like to communicate and then know how you like to communicate too. You try to find some balance of all of that. On a team level, I try to go with where the teams are. For example, the product designers use Slack a lot, if I need to talk to a product designer that might be a great place for me to go.
As far as staying on top of my own schedule there’s sort of a discipline to it. For me to do my best work and my most creative work, I know that when I get up to around 7 meetings a day, my brain starts to fall apart a little bit. If I don’t have an hour or two mixed throughout my day where I can just reflect, or goof off, get a coffee or do email, I start being less productive. It’s about knowing yourself and trying to honor what’s going to make you a creative person. Then trying to understand the communication styles of the people you work with and fitting yourself to that when it makes sense.
“With storytelling of any kind you have an opportunity to establish sort of a meaningful emotional connection with people if you do it really well. There’s something really fulfilling in that for me.”
When I was in University our professors would often say they were preparing us for jobs that didn’t exist yet, I think that’s true for a lot of young professionals. What would your advice be for someone who’s younger and wants to get into a role like yours?
It’s a good time to be a writer. For the first time since I don’t know when there’s this crossover of creative writers and journalists and people from more traditional writing backgrounds coming in through the tech industry and these jobs are really interesting. You’re able to do tons of writing and you can help define the voice of a company if that’s interesting to you. There’s a lot to be done if you’re a writer right now. I have found it very interesting work, even as somebody who comes from a hardcore humanities background.
So I think for me, there’s two things: learning how to write and how to be clear, it starts with the idea and focusing on that and then focusing on the tactics of writing after that. Secondly, there’s some advice that I’ve been given before which is just to be courageous and brave. Don’t look at the thing that’s just right in front of you, think about your vision for what would be the most amazing job you could think of in your imagination and head towards the mountain in that way. Look at these companies, talk to them, get in touch with them.
When I was first starting out I’d use the internet a lot, I’d read articles by other people in my field or adjacent to my field. I read a lot of ‘A List Apart’ back in the day and it was so helpful to me just to see what other people were doing. I tried to set in my head in a vague way, what I would imagine myself doing in the best case scenario in 5 years and letting that be the thing that pulled me along. Once you get into a company I think there’s value in just being able to really go and make yourself indispensable. It’s about doing the work that is important and needs to be done and being able to prioritize and figure out what matters in that role and what does that company need? Being able to think about that and then tying that to your vision. That I think is the trick.
“Don’t look at the thing that’s just right in front of you, think about your vision for what would be the most amazing job you could think of in your imagination and head towards the mountain in that way.”
Why do you do what you do and what makes it all worth it to you?
I’ve personally always had a bit of a love affair with Pinterest the product, so I started using it way, way back when and not being an early adopter of much technology, really loved it. I loved using it and really enjoyed it. So that for me was what drew me. It was this thing that I really loved, a reflective space, it’s an inspiring space and kind of a relaxing product to use.
There’s also something about the product itself and the character of the company that I just personally think is unique. It’s a product that’s about yourself, your self-expression, your creativity. It’s about trying things out, little things, whether it’s something that you want to make for dinner or who you want to be in the next ten years. It’s got this full range. I think there’s something unique about that and for me what fascinates me is if you’re a brand person and you’re trying to tell the story of what that is, you want to think about who people really are and what they really care about and tap into that. We have a unique opportunity to tap into some zeitgeist around everyday creativity for people. I love thinking about that.
The culture here, it fits me. This idea of bringing together lots of different disciplines and letting them go nuts on a problem. The space to try things out and bumble around and figure it out as you go appeals to me. I think I’m keyed on storytelling in general and that’s what brand work is about so it gives me this outlet for the thing that comes more naturally to me.
Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?
Right now I’m really obsessed with old school fashion editors. I’ve been pinning a ton about Diana Vreeland and Grace Coddington and the old-guard at Vogue, I’m on a kick right now. What I like about them is they’re writers who have this aesthetic sense and a storytelling sense. They’re like this hybrid of a designer and writer and a fashion designer. I would love to work with these old school fashion editors. I’m also a little obsessed with Freunde von Freunden — it’s this magazine that shows you the homes and inner-lives of artists, writers, photographers and architects all over the world–it’s all very romantic, and makes you want to build a glass bungalow in Buenos Aires. You can follow them on Pinterest. I pin all their stuff.
Read more interviews like this on wayswework.io.