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An interview for Versioning.

Earlier this month, Adam Roberts invited me to do a brief Q&A session for Sitepoint’s Versioning newsletter. I happily accepted, and have published the results below. Our chat originally appeared in the 8 August 2018 edition of Versioning.

(Also, I feel compelled to note I’ve since subscribed to Versioning, and I’m really, really enjoying it.)


Who are you, and what do you do?

My name’s Ethan Marcotte, and I’m an independent web designer based in Boston. I’ve been independent since the early 2000s, and coined the term “responsive web design.” I wrote a book on the topic, and then I wrote another book about it. (If you read either book, or both of them: thank you.)

What are you most passionate about at the moment, and why?

In the last year, I’ve learned that stepping away from screens is incredibly good for a body. I joined a gym, and—for the first time! I think!—I’ve been going regularly, and also running a few times a week. When I do either of those things, I leave my phone at home, and I’m always surprised at how much calmer that makes me feel. I also recently joined a local choral group. I did a lot of singing when I was younger, and until we had our first rehearsal, I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it.

…uh i also like css grid, hello

Which dev/tech idea or trend is overrated, and why?

Capitalism—oh, wait, sorry. Wrong room.

So, hmm! I can’t think of any trend I’d presume to call overrated. I will say that a lot of my work involves thinking about the web as a design medium that’s prone to failure. As a fragile environment for design. (Trent wrote one of my favorite pieces on the matter. Frank wrote another of my favorites.) For my practice, that means thinking about what happens to an interface when a CSS feature’s not available, or JavaScript’s not available, or if someone’s not able to see my design as you and I might. As much as I love that work, I feel that kind of thinking’s seen as a little outmoded by many folks in our industry. And that’s always surprised me.

Do you feel there’s active opposition to this idea?

“Active opposition” feels a little strong to me. I do think—and I’m including myself in this statement—it’s hard for our industry to remember that we’re outliers among the people we design for. For example: we often design websites with decent hardware, and view them on reliable, fast networks. But it’s hard to overstate how incredibly, exceedingly rare that is among the global populace. In the United States alone, a large percentage of Americans don’t have broadband at home, and some 10% of American adults are smartphone-only internet users. So if I predominantly use a laptop to design a mobile website, I’ve already created a pretty significant distance between my experience of browsing the web, and their daily experience.

I feel strongly that it’s part of a web designer’s job to close that gap: to acknowledge that not everyone has the latest hardware, or that bandwidth is prohibitively expensive for some, and to design a digital experience that understands those concerns. I rarely hear opposition to that idea: rather, I often talk with designers who are already stretched thin, dealing with deadlines and other constraints, and they’re unsure how to balance yet another requirement in their practice.

Do you struggle to make the case for this stuff?

Generally, no—not to my clients, at least. Here’s an example: a few years ago, I worked with a large retail brand that was launching a new product in several developing markets. For projects like that, my client leads aren’t rambling waxing poetic about “the fragility of the web as a design medium.” They may care about those things, of course, but they are also thinking about ensuring their company’s services can be accessed on high latency networks, and on older, less robust devices. Designing for broad access isn’t just a nice thing to have: it’s a business imperative for them. The resilience of a product’s design directly correlates to the breadth of its reach.

How do you argue for this kind of consideration?

As early as possible, use real devices in design reviews. Ever since helping launch the Boston Globe’s responsive site, I’ve asked clients to look at in-process responsive prototypes on different devices—iPads, Kindles, older phones, what-have-you. Putting a design in someone’s hand is incredibly powerful, and using different devices helps reinforce the idea there’s no single “true” version of a responsive website.

Describe (or link to!) something cool you built, designed or produced recently. Why is it cool, why are you proud of it?

I don’t know if it’s “cool,” but I’m especially proud of my little website. It feels remarkably good to have a place of my own to write again.

How did you build it?

It was stuck in Sketch for ages, mainly as a series of color swatches, possible type pairings, and half-finished page layouts. 2016 had quite a focusing effect, so I stripped down the design considerably, and took a few of those concepts into a prototype. The site leans on CSS Grid for the layout, if your browser understands it; Jekyll manages all the content. I don’t think it’s anything especially fancy, but it doesn’t need to be: I wanted a place to write, and to show some of my work, and I think the site does those two things well enough.

Did you have to actively resist the temptation to crack open half a dozen frameworks and toolsets?

Not really, if only because the site’s pretty modest. I’ve never been one for layout frameworks, and CSS Grid Layout has reduced my need for them even further. And there’s not much JavaScript on the site, other than some light font-loading work.

It also seems like your site is an embodiment of your attitudes around access here - could you explain how you went from principle to reality here?

It hasn’t been a big departure from how I build anything else, I suppose. While I’m working on a design, I try to ask myself as frequently as possible, “what happens if someone doesn’t browse the web like I do?” The font loading I mentioned above is a great example. If web fonts aren’t available, what’s the baseline experience going to be? That’s something I can design. If someone’s tabbing through the document, or having it read aloud, how can I structure the underlying markup to support them? That’s something I can design, too.

What’s the best tech thing you read, heard or watched recently, and why?

For the last few months I’ve been listening to Ursula Franklin’s lectures on “The Real World of Technology” on my morning runs. I’d read the book version a few times—and I love it, dearly—but there’s something special about the audio recordings. Because, well, Franklin’s outlining a vision for a more just form of technology, and it’s electrifying to hear her do so in her own voice.

What’s the best funny or interesting off-topic link you’ve sent to a friend recently?

Most recently? Well, the two last links I sent to friends were this video of someone’s overjoyed reaction to hearing a classic album for the first time; and the story of an elephant who gently nudged her human rescuer over to a young elephant calf to sing it a lullaby.

My browser history contains multitudes.

Who should I talk to next?

I would read the heck out of any interview that had Stephanie Lawrence, Mina Markham, Daniel Shannon, Charlie Owen, Chappell Ellison, Amélie Lamont, Onyeka Aghanenu, or Sally Lait in it.


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