Responsive Patterns with Ethan Marcotte

Veteran AEA presenter Ethan Marcotte is the inventor of responsive web design (which he debuted on our stage), the author of Responsive Web Design and Responsive Design Patterns & Principles, and the co-author (with Jeffrey Zeldman) of Designing With Web Standards, 3rd Edition. We caught up with the Boston-based designer/developer to get his perspective on what’s new and exciting in our field.

How’d you get your start in design, and on the web (if the two are different)?

Professionally, my design career started in the last years of the dot-com bubble. I’d been tinkering on the web for some time before that. But, once I got my first agency job, I was surrounded by folks who’d fallen into the web from different career paths, like fine art, photography, and even medical school.

In other words, they were folks like me. Somehow, I’d landed a job working alongside great, inquisitive people, each figuring the web out at the same time I was. And to do so, they each brought a different background—a different perspective—to the table. And even someone like me, who was a year or three behind most of them in experience, was welcome to contribute.

That’s something I’ve always remembered; it’s critical to make space on teams for different perspectives, and to listen to—and encourage—newer, younger voices.

What’s new and interesting in the land of responsive web design?

Hmm! Well, this probably isn’t a surprise, given my biases, but the overlap between responsive design and design patterns is a big part of my work right now. Because, as both concepts move further into the mainstream, the focus for most organizations shifts from just creating a style guide, to figuring out how to maintain and govern those patterns at scale. Folks like Jina Bolton and Stef Rewis have really been leading the way here.

As our designs get more modular, there’s been discussion about adding new tools to responsive design’s toolkit. There’s always been interest in “container queries” (née “element queries”) from various responsive designers and developers, but interest has really picked up in the last few months. I’m hopeful it’ll get some momentum this year, as it’d be flat-out invaluable to my work.

You recently redesigned and relaunched your blog. Very retro! Tell us a bit about that process and your goals for doing so.

Hey, thanks for noticing! I wrote about this when I launched the site, but my goals for the redesign changed pretty dramatically over a couple years. Yeah, yeah—I know, “years.” Cobbler’s children, and all that. My portfolio site was a simple one-pager, and pretty sorely out of date. But redesigning that page quickly turned into a massive content migration project, where I started moving over a decade’s worth of content from two separate blogs into one, Jekyll-managed website.

But, uh, none of that happened. And in light of [cough] recent geopolitical events, the scope got considerably more manageable, and quick. I refocused on a straightforward homepage outlining my services, and a simple space to get a few thoughts down. There’s more—much, much more—I want to do, but it feels like a good foundation to build on.

What are some tools, tricks, and/or techniques you can’t work without?

Ages ago, a writer friend once told me the secret to his work lay in “the regular and earnest application of the seat to the bench”—that is, showing up, sitting down, and doing the work. I’ve only recently learned that’s most effective when paired with disengaging the seat from the bench. In other words, when I get stuck on a particular problem, I need to remember it’s okay to get away from the screen, and do basically anything else. Going for a run, a long walk, or, heck, even making a cup of coffee can help me come back to the problem with a renewed focus, and a few new ideas.

Oh, um, I also like Sketch.

What has you most excited these days?

Various and sundry newsletters, Chance the rapper, and Sewing circles.

What GIF has you most excited these days?

Not sure about “excited,” but this one feels especially timely.


Ethan Marcotte will be an integral part of An Event Apart Seattle, April 3-5, 2017. Don’t miss a chance to learn from Ethan and eleven other fantastic speakers—register today!