On the job: A chat with HP’s Chief Inkologist, Thom Brown

Thom Brown talks ink, skunkworking your way to a dream job and (almost) defying physics.

By Garage Staff — January 22, 2018

In our "On the job" series, we’ll talk with a few of the remarkable talents that power HP and find out what gets them out of bed on Mondays — and out the door on Fridays. Because at HP, we believe that to truly love what you do, you have to bring your whole self to work. Know a talent deserving of the spotlight? Email

Do not doubt that HP’s original printer ink is worth every cent, Thom Brown will tell you, as he has told anyone who will listen for the past 20 years. Starting in HP’s lab in his hometown, San Diego, Brown has become HP most vocal ink advocate — its Chief Inkologist. Through dozens of online videos and talks at countless conferences and analyst meetings, Brown has perfected a unique blend of science and showmanship (with a little splash of lighthearted shtick) to demonstrate the superior value of Original HP Ink. Over the years, he’s been pummeled by paint balls, dunked in a water tank and hit by (fake studio) lightning — twice.

Still, it’s science that drives the fun. Brown joined HP’s San Diego lab as an lab technician, helping to develop a “time machine” that “aged” prints to simulate what they’d look like in 100 years. Then about a decade ago an engineer couldn’t make a talk — and Brown suddenly found himself onstage. He never left.

The Chief Inkologist spoke with The Garage from HP’s Barcelona offices, Brown’s base for the past year.  


Explain your job as HP’s Chief Inkologist.

My day-to-day job is to come up with stories based on testing — not marketing smoke and mirrors. To find that true story of why you should choose Original HP Ink.

People say, “Ink is just colored water, right? So why does it cost so much?” Well, a lot of the reason you bought that printer, whether it’s a $39 desktop printer or a $100,000 large-format printer, is because of the performance of the original inks. Every part of that system was formulated and optimized to work together to deliver that performance. If you change the ink, it’s no longer the printer you bought — it's a completely different system.


How did you land such a unique role?

Every job I've had within HP was because I started doing skunkworks programs that eventually turned into my full-time job. So I've kind of created my own jobs along the way.

When I started in the lab, I was developing photo paper. At that point, nobody at HP was really looking at competitors. I thought, "Hey, what happens if you use Kodak's photo paper and stick it in an HP printer?"  

What is it about paper and ink you find fascinating?

When I first started here, my friends would ask, "What do you do?" I’d say, "I help develop paper." And they’d say, "Oh, that sounds horrible. Paper is just paper." And I’d respond, "Oh my gosh, you do not realize how much testing and effort goes into designing paper.” It was…wow — the world doesn't know about these fascinating things, how we're almost defying physics while printing. So there's a story to tell.


What brought you to HP? 

I have a degree in psychology. What I always found fascinating is how people think and behave in different circumstances. Then I got to HP because my dad used to work here and I did a summer internship and I realized that it's almost the same setting, right? You're in a lab, and psychology is really about labs and variables and controlling variables. Except here you're just working on products instead of people. — and it's a lot easier to work with products than people!

“From a larger perspective, ink is how we’ve communicated for thousands of years.”    

What we would find on your desk right now?

Coffee, headphones (I always need music playing), remanufactured ink cartridges, a Rubik’s Cube, damaged printheads (due to use of third-party ink), an eye loop and a Spanish book, “Grámtica Básica del Estudiante de Español.”


What’s something printed that hangs on the walls of your home? 

One entire wall of my bedroom is a printed stone wall. Of course, HP’s latex print system was used to create the custom wallpaper. Oh — and Original HP Latex Ink is Green Guard Gold certifiedNice to know if it’s in your house.


What’s your favorite thing to do on a day off? 

Live life and enjoy surfing, riding a vintage scooter and playing or recording live music. Guitar is my main instrument along with vocals. I was in a ska/rocksteady/reggae band before I left San Diego.


Best advice for a recent college grad? 

Graduates have tons of energy and, given direction, they’ll sometimes start running full speed. Instead, try to step back from a project and see the larger outcome. What is that you’re trying to accomplish and why? How does this support the larger project? Knowing this will help guide you. Oh. And a lot of terms, requests and concepts will be thrown at you at once. No one expects you to fully understand everything, so don’t pretend to. Ask for clarification.


Why does working with ink still excite you after all these years? 

There's just so much technology that goes into this that people aren’t aware of. And from a larger perspective, ink is how we’ve communicated for thousands of years.

You know, for decades people have been talking about the paperless office. Yet today print is everywhere. Screens and print are both useful. Screens are best for fast information and short-lived information. But if you want to learn something, print is better — that’s been proven time and again. And if you value something, you know print is the way to go. You feel it.


For more stories on Thom Brown and his world of ink, follow him on Twitter @PrintWithThom and subscribe to HP’s videos on YouTube