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Ethan Marcotte, Founder of Responsive Web Design

Posted on May 6, 2014 by

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Ethan Marcotte is a true polymath. In addition to being an exceptional designer, he wrote a book, writes a blog, and keeps one of the most prolific design feeds in the Twitterverse. Oh yeah, and he’s pretty much the founder of responsive web design, one of the central principles of the modern internet.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself & your background.

I’m an independent designer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to work with the likes of The Boston Globe, the Sundance Film Festival, and People Magazine.

Most recently, I suppose I’m known for coining the term “responsive web design” to talk about a more flexible method of designing for the web. I wrote an article about the topic a few years back, and then a little book followed.


How did you become a digital designer?

Accidentally! There wasn’t much in the way of a web design curriculum when I was in school. I did, however, manage to get my grubby mitts on a copy of Photoshop, and fell in love with it. I picked up a few freelance gigs here and there, and along the way got into tinkering with HTML. (CSS wasn’t much of a thing, back then.) (…damn, I’m old.)

Once I got out of school, I landed my first studio job. That’s what really hooked me on the web, I think: most of my coworkers had, like me, sorta stumbled into the web from various backgrounds—former photographers, fine artists, a former architect—and each of us were trying to figure out how this young-ish medium would work. So I guess I came to the web from Photoshop, but stayed for the people.

When did you decide that you wanted to head into digital design professionally and why?

I dearly loved that first studio job, but that’s all it was to me—a job. But during that first year, I read John Allsopp’s “A Dao of Web Design” and Jeffrey Zeldman’s “To Hell With Bad Browsers”—two articles that showed this whole “web” thing wasn’t just a job, but it had the potential for, well, craft. It could be a place to do good work—to design not just for the latest and greatest browsers and devices, but to design for access.

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Where do you get your design inspiration from?

Entirely too much coffee. A couple used bookstores in Cambridge. The occasional skip through Dribbble. A few favorite movies. Talks with good friends. More coffee.

What do you think it takes to become a good [digital] designer?

Heh. I don’t presume to think I’m a good designer.

But I can say that Cennydd Bowles‘ recent “Letter to a Junior Designer” sums up a lot of what I wish I’d learned when I started my career. (Hell, they’re lessons I’m still trying to learn.)

What are some industry sites or blogs that you read on a regular basis?

A List Apart, The Great Discontent, and The Pastry Box are my most regular stops. For my quick design/architecture/whatever fixes, BibliOdyssey, The Atlantic Cities, Ministry of Type, and I Love Typography are some frequent reads. Typekit’s new Practice site also looks like it’s gonna be kind of incredible.

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What are a few of your favorite design software tools, and why? (Web frameworks, Adobe software, etc.)

Photoshop and Illustrator are still my standbys, I suppose. But we don’t really have a “web-native” design tool yet: much of our design software is, as my friend Jason once said, still very much informed by the constraints of print.

Some applications like Macaw are trying to give us a more flexible design environment, which is exciting to see. But in the meantime, I’ve been stapling a bunch of other tools onto my design process—applications like Gridset, throwaway code from frameworks like Foundation—to supplement some of my up-front design exploration. The closer I can get to how the design will feel in the browser, the better the product usually ends up being.

Do you have any thoughts on what the future of digital design is?

Well, the only thing I know for certain is the web keeps defying easy prediction. Right now, we’re excited about mobile and device diversity—but what’s next? I mean, the web’s more broadly accessed than ever before, but that access is happening over networks that are far, far slower—and much more volatile—than we might think. How does that shape the way we design?

My guess is that we’re going to need to think more flexibly about how our work is delivered, to plan for—and design for—failure. I mean, the Eames were known for, among other things, using cheaper, more lightweight materials to inform their work; can we do the same on the web?

I don’t have any easy answers here—these are just a couple pre-coffee thoughts. But I’m excited to see what happens next.

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