Ethan Marcotte

Ethan is a web designer who is passionate about beautiful design, elegant code, and the intersection of the two. Besides being the man who established popular concepts and approaches such as fluid grids, flexible images, and media queries, Ethan coined the term "Responsive Web Design", which has become a widely adopted new way of thinking about designing for the ever-changing Web. Ethan has even written a book on the subject, published by A Book Apart. A popular and experienced speaker, Ethan is also the coauthor of Jeffrey Zeldman’s Designing With Web Standards (3rd Edition), and a contributing writer to Dan Cederholm’s Handcrafted CSS. Over the years Ethan's clientele has included the likes of Sundance Film Festival, Stanford University, New York Magazine, The Today Show and The Boston Globe.

Ethan lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has a blog, where he expresses his passion for robots, and tweets @beep.

Published Thoughts

I keep talking about making it easier to do certain things I used to love making time for. Writing, reading, designing—whatever. I’ve gotten very good at identifying a problem—it’s far too difficult to write blog entries on my phone! I don’t have enough free time to read! I’m hurting for decent ideas!—and focusing on solving it before I can, well, do the thing I’ve been missing. So I’ll schedule time to convert my blog to some more phone-friendly platform, or plan for the books I’ll read once my projects wrap up, or scribble down ideas for sites, for projects I’ll work on in the future.

The real problem is, of course, me. There is, as they say, no time like the present; maybe it’s worth remembering that, and starting to do the things I love in the moment. I miss them.

I’ve got a pretty simple ritual when I sign up for a new service, or install a new application:

  1. If it’s a web service:
    1. Check to see if it sends me any email.
    2. If it does, disable it.
  2. If it’s a new application:
    1. Check to see if it publishes any activity alerts.
    2. If it does, disable them.

Others have written about this more eloquently than I, but I wish more companies defaulted to a level of respect for a user’s inbox—and, by extension, their time. If it’s something I find genuinely valuable, I’ll find a way to turn on that notification. Trust me.

But until we reach some sort of understanding, I’d love to keep a few glaring red badges off my phone’s desktop, and a few more emails out of my inbox.

I had a discussion recently with an old friend over dinner about the whole concept of “luck.” Me, I’ve always felt incredibly lucky. I’ve been given many opportunities over my career: getting a good job; working with rather fantastic clients; speaking at conferences; writing an article and, eventually, a book I’m especially excited about. I like to think I’m a hard worker, sure, but I’ve been handed some remarkable opportunities by even more remarkable individuals. I’m really fortunate.

My friend had a slightly different take. She doesn’t believe in luck, or at least, not as such. Instead, she felt it’s a matter of working hard, of earning the work you’re given, and—this is the important bit—of agreeing to projects that leave you open to other, new opportunities.

I don’t know who’s right; hell, it was just an idle dinner conversation. (And an enjoyable one at that.) But my gut says we’re both right, or at least half-right. Maybe it’s not just about stumbling into new opportunities, but working hard enough so that you’re recognized for your efforts. And conversely, it’s not just about preserving your work ethic, but acknowledging, and being thankful to, the people who extend a helping hand your way.

I’m not sure. But I do think it’s worth taking a moment here and there to extend a little luck toward those that haven’t found any yet.

Nothing focuses the mind like a looming deadline.

…maybe bears, I guess. Yeah, that one’s pretty good too.

For the past few years, my office has consisted of a laptop, a cat, and not a few cups of coffee. As a dyed-in-the-wool hermit, this works remarkably well for me: I can use IM, Twitter, my phone, and text messages to bring other people into my tiny little room of a world, and I’m continually thankful (and not a little amazed) at how virtual I’m allowed to be in my work.

At the moment, however, I’m sitting in a studio looking out over a beautiful river, visiting another city for some meetings. I’m reminded that there’s no substitute for working side-by-side with talented people, turning your work around to get a quick reaction. At the end of the day, I’ll always yearn for that quiet, tiny little office, but sometimes breaking out of your routine—even if only a little—can be pretty powerful.

“Mobile broke everything,” is how the saying goes. Of course, the old saying was “the web broke everything.” Before that, I’m sure someone was grousing about internal combustion engines, steam power, and/or the wheel.

Nothing ever really breaks, of course.

I mean, really: the web’s still here. But maybe we broke. Or at least, we’re left to rediscover a new way to work. Or maybe an older, better way we’d forgotten. Because, really, I think that’s what mobile truly broke: we’re realizing megabyte-heavy pages don’t cut it on poor connections; busy pages make for poor experiences on smaller screens; progressive enhancement can help us design across an impressively broad spectrum of devices. We’re rediscovering focus. How to do more with a little bit less. Faster frameworks, leaner pages, less cruft.

Which, when you think about it, doesn’t sound broken at all. Quite the opposite, in fact.

I’ve written about this before, but I pace like crazy when I’m on the phone. I don’t know what it is, but I think my body has to wander a bit so that my mind doesn’t. So to stay focused, I walk little loops around the living room; I trace figure eights around my kitchen; I walk up and down the front hallway.

This is, I’ve realized, kind of the inverse of what I do most of the day: sitting mostly immobile, staring at glowing glass panes of various shapes and sizes, my mind racing up and down and through Photoshop, CSS issues, todo items, and inboxes, running without moving until the evening, when rest comes.

Walking while thinking; mind racing while sitting. I need a middle ground: more walks without phones, more focus in front of my computer.

Focus is a fleeting thing, and I wonder if I’ve already let mine slip away. In the time it took me to write that first sentence, I switched over to my browser to research something, and then popped over to Twitter, then fired up my RSS feeds. It’s possible I never had much of an attention span to begin with, but lately—more than I used to, certainly—I find myself missing life before wifi, before broadband, before browser tabs.

And then I wonder: is this a design problem? I find myself spending more and more time working through my reading backlog via apps like Readability and Readmill, and I dream of a web that rewards focus—one that lengthens my attention span, rather than simply competing for it.

Maybe it’s just me. But I do wonder if, instead of focusing on those three second rules, can we design something, y’know, slower?

…BRB twitter.

I’m a few thousand feet in the air as I write this, trapped in the center seat on an evening flight home. The plane is dark, but I’m surrounded by illuminated faces, each lit up as the passengers around me work or play on a laptop, tablet, or phone. After an hour or two, I realize just how, well, varied the devices are.

The diversity almost comes off as a bit contrived: I turn my head and count a couple Nokia smartphones, more than a few iOS devices, a Windows netbook, and a couple Mac laptops. I get up to fetch some water, and on the way back to my seat I notice a child guiding furious birds across the screen of his iPad; on the opposite aisle seat, a man swipes through his vacation photos on a PlayBook, while his wife drafts an email on an Android phone.

I couldn’t have dreamed of this Web when I started my career, but it’s the Web I want to build for. We all hold the promise of access in our hands, these miraculous little devices ensuring the content we want is nearby. And the means of accessing that content is almost secondary to my fellow passengers: these glowing faces work in clients both web-based and native, browsing sites both device-specific and responsive. A thousand flowers have bloomed, and we can pick the ones that best suit our work.

It only took a decade or so of my colleagues telling me to do so, but I’ve finally gotten into the habit of keeping a sketchbook with me at all times. I drew all the damned time as a boy, but as an adult I think I got a little intimidated by pencil and paper. But being able to quickly sketch out an layout or scribble down an idea is so, well, liberating.

Of all the things I’ve learned this year—and believe me, there’ve been a lot—I realize what an asset it was to have a wide array of mobile devices nearby as I worked, especially for a large-scale responsive site. As we design further and further beyond the desktop, device access is going to become a real challenge for our industry to overcome. Nothing shapes your design decisions like holding a device in your hand, and interacting with it just as your users might.