One Minute With…
Hi Ethan, thanks for taking time to chat with One Minute With. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.
Hey! Thanks so much for inviting me on One Minute With.
I’m an independent designer/developer, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Over the years I’ve worked for myself and for agencies, and for clients like New York Magazine, The Sundance Film Festival, and Stanford University. Also, I wrote an article back in 2010 and a book in 2011 on “responsive design,” describing a way to design more flexibly for the web—to think about how our designs and content can flex and grow and, well, respond to the changing size of the screen, allowing us another way to design across different devices.
Also, I like robots. And swearing. I do both on Twitter as @beep.
Walk us through a typical day in the life of Ethan Marcotte.
The short version? It involves a laptop, not a few Adobe applications, a few phones and tablets, a sketchbook, and tears.
I’m still waiting for the movie rights to be optioned.
Whilst we’re on the subject of your daily life, has your life changed much since your Responsive Web Design articles & book came out?
So here’s how I started to respond: “I don’t know as my life’s changed all that much.” But I realized that’s, well, patently false. There’s been a lot of interest and excitement around responsive design, which is fantastic and thrilling and weird and humbling. And as a result, I’ve been able to work on some impossibly great projects, travel to some wonderful corners of the Globe, and meet some generally great people. I feel incredibly lucky and fortunate, and I’ll enjoy this as long as it lasts.
How did you get into design?
I think it’s safe to say that when I started, most folks had found the web by accident. And I’m no exception. While I was in college, studying for a literature degree, I’d started messing around with Photoshop and HTML—nothing too fancy, just a few sites for some student groups. I enjoyed the hell out of it, but it wasn’t anything I ever seriously considered. But once school wrapped up, I thought, well, heck: why not try it professionally for a bit? Take a year or two off before grad school, see what this whole “web” thing is all about.
And man, that first job. I tell you.
The first studio I worked at was staffed by former musicians, architects, computer scientists, photographers—you name the discipline, it was probably working out of that tiny little Soho office in 2000. I’d somehow gotten hired to stand at this weird crossroads of every artistic medium ever, surrounded by a bunch of fun, ridiculously smart people, all of us trying to figure out how the hell this “web” thing actually worked.
So yeah. I fell in love with the web that year. And maybe a little bit with the people who work on it.
A few years ago, you left the world-renowned Happy Cog to go freelance. Why did you make that decision, and is it one you are glad you took? How does working freelance compare to working at an agency?
I wrote quite a bit about why I left back then, but it boiled down to wanting a few new challenges: to write a bit more, and to do a bit more public speaking. I still miss my coworkers daily, and we keep in touch as much as iChat and Twitter and the occasional phone call allows. But I haven’t regretted moving on one bit.
That’s not to say I wouldn’t ever take on another opportunity at some point. If the work’s exciting, the challenges involved enough, I’m up for anything. But I love what I’m doing right now.
Well, I’ve done healthy amounts of both: I worked freelance for a few years before joining up with Happy Cog’s West Coast office (née Airbag). The differences aren’t huge—I’m still doing plenty of client work—but I like having a bit more control over my schedule, over the projects I work on. There are scary bits, too, like ensuring you’ve enough work lined up, being more directly responsible for the health of a project, but even the scary bits are fun.
In addition to your design work itself, you’ve written an awful lot about design and development, and spoken at numerous conferences. If, in some crazy hypothetical universe, you could only do one of these things (Design, Writing, Conferences), which would it be, and why?
I’d write. As awful as that decision would be, there’s no question.
Where do you see yourself in, say, 5 or 10 years? Do you still hope to still be writing, designing and speaking, or do you want to have moved on to something bigger? Or do you happen to have another revolutionary web design practice up your sleeve?
Ha! I honestly have no idea. I’ve never been able to formulate a six month plan, much less one that looks five years down the road.
As for a new web design idea, I’ve totally got you covered. You ready? Here it is: imagemap all the things.
wait where are you going
What design tools could you not live without?
IconFactory’s xScope. TextMate. Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn. My Quattro sketchpad and a well-chewed pencil. Photoshop, for better or worse. Things, also for better or worse. My iPhone’s camera. Adam Greenfield’s Everyware. Any Charles Mingus album. (Extra points are awarded if it’s the “In Paris” compilation.)
And finally, what tips would you give to anybody who is looking to get started in design?
I’m paraphrasing Jeffrey Zeldman here, and badly, but something he said once sums it up for me: always show up early, be nice, and stay hungry.