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Respond Speaker Insight: The inimitable Ethan Marcotte

In the leadup to our Responsive Web Design focussed event, Respond, in Sydney and Melbourne in April 2016, and as part of a special new project we’ll be announcing at the conference, we’ve been speaking with some of our speakers, and getting to know them a little better.

This week, Ethan Marcotte, our opening keynote speaker.

Places are still available, so don’t miss this very rare chance to see Ethan, and a dozen other amazing speakers in Sydney and Melbourne.


Q Describe your family.

I’m in my late thirties, and I’m the oldest of five children. My family’s from Northern Vermont, a fairly rural corner of the United States.

I’m married to an incredible person who works for a large software company, but who has more interests than I can keep track of – knitting, writing, reading, cooking, and running– and generally keeps me inspired. No family to speak of, save for our impossibly surly murdercat.

Q What book has changed your life in some way?

A Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn was once described to me as “a book that has nothing to do with web design, yet has everything to do with web design.” And I think that’s true. (What’s more, it’s just a lovely read.)

Q What formal qualifications do you have? How did you end up doing web work?

A I studied English literature in college, and spent most of my last undergraduate year writing a stultifyingly dull essay about Milton’s use of allegory in three of his major poems. (I wrote that sentence and I fell asleep halfway through: my apologies.) I nearly cobbled together enough credits for a dual major in music, but figured I was unemployable enough with my literature degree, so.

I kid! But: I got into web design almost as a lark, getting my hands on a copy of Photoshop at college. From there, I eventually stumbled into learning HTML by view source, and started copying/pasting my way through my first tiny web projects. When it came time to leave school, I was feeling a bit burned out on my studies, and didn’t exactly relish the idea of committing to advanced degrees. An advisor suggested I find another job for a year or two –“put the books away until you miss them,” she said–so I decided to try my hand at working as a web designer.

So I suppose I’m more than a decade into “taking some time off before graduate school.”

Q Describe what you do. What’s your job? Is presenting at web conferences part of that job?

A I’m an independent designer, based just outside of Boston, Massachusetts.

I coined the term responsive design a few years ago, which has really shaped my practice of late: I’m asked to speak about the topic at conferences, work on responsive redesigns, and consult with clients on their responsive projects.

I also co-host a podcast with Karen McGrane about responsive redesigns, and we also offer workshops to help companies prepare for the ways responsive might change their organization.

Oh, and sometimes I write books, too.

Q Do you give much thought to the title you apply to yourself? Does it matter?

A I don’t think I’ve ever had a title that fits what I do. Titles are, I think, primarily for the people you work with (or for). Which doesn’t mean they’re not valuable! But at least for me, they’re rarely a part of the conversation with clients.

Q Describe the first time you gave a presentation on a web topic.

A The very first talk I gave was for a small gathering of designers and developers at Harvard, where I was working at the time. I was terrified! Also, I’m pretty sure most of my talk was incoherent, if not plain wrong.

Q In The Graduate, Mr McGuire has just one word to say to aimless college graduate Benjamin Braddock: “Plastics”. What one word would you give to today’s prospective web professional?

A Empathy.

The word’s probably in danger of being overused, but it’s one of the more useful parts of my design practice. At every turn of a design process,

I try to remind myself to consider how a website should change if, say, someone’s using older hardware, or if they’re on a slower connection.

We web designers and developers need to step out of their own contexts, biases, and assumptions, and empathy’s one of the best ways to design universal, inclusive experiences for a properly World Wide Web.

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Three days of talks, two of them in the engineering room. Web Directions you have broken my brain.

Cheryl Gledhill Product Manager, BlueChilli