Ethan Marcotte

Ethan Marcotte

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In: Interviews

By Carolyn Wood

Published on July 25, 2005

Digital Web Magazine: We are finally seeing CSS come of age, with the publication of books that move beyond basics and evangelism to an integration of high-quality graphic design and Web standards. Is your chapter on planning and development focused solely on XHTML/CSS, or does it also address the frequently neglected issues of visually appealing design and branding?

Ethan Marcotte: I suppose it might strike folks as a bit odd that the first chapter of a book on CSS design has practically zero code in it. Instead, I try to put the need for CSS in context: Before you can even fire up your favorite text editor and begin coding, there’s an impressive amount of planning and design that needs to happen. While I don’t have words or skill enough to accurately describe how revolutionary a tool style sheets are, they are a tool. CSS can’t provide you with a solid understanding of your users’ goals and needs, a well-reasoned information architecture, or an attractive yet usable design. By painting CSS against the backdrop of the other aspects of your project, the chapter establishes a more pragmatic take on style sheets: CSS will make our sites better, but they can’t do all the work for us.

DW: You had the good fortune to interview Andy Clarke and Dan Cederholm for Professional CSS: Cascading Style Sheets for Web Design. Was working with first-rate designers the most exciting part of this project for you?

EM: Oh, good lord—easily. I mean, it certainly wasn’t hearing myself speak at length.

There were very few things about Professional CSS that weren’t ridiculously exciting. Working with the likes of Dunstan, Todd, Mark, and Christopher was impossibly fun—I’m still convinced they’re going to realize some day that they meant to invite the other Ethan Marcotte. And as for how Christopher managed to get Molly Holzschlag to tech edit our book and Jeffrey Zeldman to write our foreword? I can’t be sure, but I bet there were Polaroids involved.

And as you mentioned, I was fortunate enough to interview Andy and Dan for two of my chapters. That was, in the parlance of our times, a truckload of fun.

DW: Any surprises?

EM: I wouldn’t say there were any surprises, per se; I knew both of them from their work online, and they proved every bit as passionate about design as I thought they would be. It was some of the less Web-centric moments that proved the most interesting: hearing Dan talk about how CD packaging design keeps him inspired, or how Andy’s creative process works. That kind of insight into what motivates two members of my Rockstar Designer Pantheon was one of the best parts of working on the book.

DW: One of the chapters you wrote for Professional CSS is on XHTML/CSS best practices. When I viewed your blog’s CSS file I found a bunny haiku, insults and even a warning about hell. Is this what you mean by “best practices”?

EM: Well, sidesh0w isn’t representative of anything I’d consider a “best practice.” It’s a personal site where I can experiment and learn—which isn’t, as you’ve noticed, always the most elegant process. There’s a lot of cruft in the code that powers sidesh0w, “cruft” being street for “the occasional bout of browser-induced cursing.” So if there are some unsanded parts of sidesh0w, it’s a result of that not-so-pretty learning curve; those remarks I’ve left for myself are how I keep myself focused when I’m about to toss the keyboard through the window.

DW: What are some of the “best practices” in the chapter that you’ve started using most recently in your own professional work?

EM: Two of the things I focused on in the chapter strike me as pretty important, but they might not be exactly, well, glamorous. A good chunk of the chapter deals with the—I don’t know, the “mental model” of CSS-based design. Making the transition from page mockup to semantic markup is probably one that’s old hat to experienced standardistas, but intimidating to folks first making the transition between spacer.gifs and style sheets. By dissecting a mockup into its component content areas, the chapter then discusses how you might turn those areas into lightweight, descriptive XHTML.

The other section I’m especially excited about deals with managing CSS hacks effectively, which owes a heavy debt to an article that Molly Holzschlag wrote last year. By moving hacks and workarounds out of my core style sheet and into browser-specific CSS files, I can build sites so much more quickly than before, which in turn allows me to get past the code and focus on the design. By covering some of these strategies in a more in-depth fashion in Professional CSS, I hope other folks can reap a few of those benefits.

DW: Molly Holzschlag refers to your “endless good cheer.” Is this buoyancy derived from your oft-mentioned fondness for beer, or from a deep-seated passion for all things Web?

EM: Actually, the secret is enough espresso to fell a horse. Seriously: there are very few problems that near-illicit amounts of caffeine can’t solve.

DW: Why are you so passionate about Web standards, and how do you participate in the Web standards community?

EM: When I came across the Web Standards Project (WaSP) in 2000, “standards” seemed a pipe dream at best. Every project I was staffed on counted on a bevy of markup hacks to make our pages play nice with contemporary browsers. I think I was actually in the middle of debugging 50 or so pages of tables when I found the WaSP site—I might even have laughed out loud. So I’m a few hours of spacer.gifs and leftmargin/topmargin hacks away from a usable client site, and here comes this seemingly self-appointed Project that tells me there’s one unified way of building for the Web? Sounded too good to be true… and, well, for a time, it definitely was.

But thanks largely to the advocacy of groups like WaSP, Accessify, and the Web Standards Group, the landscape’s changed so radically for the better since then. We’re still dealing with cross-browser inconsistencies, sure—but the situation’s improved by an order of magnitude. So if I’m passionate (read: “occasionally overzealous”) about Web standards, it’s because those days of markup hackery aren’t enough of a distant memory. I’m amazed at the ground we’ve gained in such a short time, and excited about what might be next.

As for my own participation in the standards community, it’s a bit varied. I’ve had the chance to act as a technical editor for some really excellent books, like Molly’s 250 HTML & Web Design Secrets or Dan’s upcoming Bulletproof Web Design. Between opportunities like that, working with Dan to organize meetups for Boston-area standards wonks, and my own client work, I manage to stay pretty occupied.

DW: Can you also enlighten us about your recent resignation from WaSP?

EM: I’ve gotten tons of e-mail inquiring after the reasons behind my decision, and there’s really nothing all that exciting there. For the most part, it’s as I mentioned in my farewell post: my main reasons for leaving really were grounded in a need to refocus. This summer’s an incredibly busy one for me, and I’m fortunate to have some really exciting projects clamoring for my attention.

So, for the most part, it mostly came down to a case of not enough hours in the day. Rather than lurking on the mailing lists and collecting dust on the membership roster, I thought it best to be honest with the group (and myself) about what I could actually commit to.

DW: The chapter on Andy Clarke includes a look at his Invasion of the Body Switchers technique. Do you sense that we haven’t begun to tap the potential of the tools we already have, just as we had CSS around for years before Dave Shea and others demonstrated where we could really go with it?

EM: I think I’d have to be a far more influential fellow to talk authoritatively about the “potential” of Web standards: honestly, it feels like far too much of a moving target, as we’re constantly asked to reevaluate and refine our techniques, and learn a better way of working.

So, yeah. I do think we’re still mining the potential of Web standards, if only because our own knowledge is still maturing. With all of the clamor surrounding DOM scripting and AJAX (my Telamonian peoples, holla back), we’ve old technologies—namely, JavaScript—made new again by intelligent and innovative application.

Andy Clarke and James Edwards’s Invasion of the Body Switchers (IOTBS) style sheet switcher is a perfect example of this. IOTBS isn’t the first style sheet switcher on the block, but I’d argue that’s what makes it so very good; by making it an accessible, multiple-media switcher, they’ve refined and expanded on the original idea. This constant reuse and reinvention is what makes Web design so exciting for me. I don’t think any of us got into this business to be bored.

DW: When you were still an active WaSP member, you designed and helped build the site for the Browse Happy campaign. What, in your view, will mean that this campaign was a success?

EM: I think we marked it successful the minute we launched it. To be clear, I was never responsible for the site’s message—I was just the designer/builder/fetch-Drew-coffee-and-be-quick-about-it person. But as far as I can tell, Browse Happy was never about numbers, or shoring up a particular browser’s market share at the expense of another. It was about getting the word out at a time when alternative browsers could be a very helpful thing indeed. So if we managed to convince a few people that they do have a choice in how they browse the Web, I think the entire team would be thrilled.

DW: Your excellent Digital Web Magazine article A Matter of Styles: Producing Quality CSS in a Team Environment was written almost a year ago. Are you still confident that we are moving rapidly from CSS as an “indie-rock” technology to a time when corporations will be summoning teams of “CSS samurai” to overhaul their sites?

EM: Absolutely. Eric Meyer‘s Redesign Watch provides better testament to that than I ever could.

DW: The main image on sidesh0w’s home page is lovely—er, attractive in a manly way. Do you have any formal design training, and where do you look for design inspiration?

EM: Actually, I don’t have any formal design training, which I’m sure is immediately obvious to any DW readers that do. And to be honest, I’m more than willing to pigeonhole myself as one of those “developer with an eye for design” types. If I’ve had any luck in the design realm (translation: “I haven’t yet choked on my Wacom tablet”), it’s because I’m damned fortunate to constantly work with so many talented folks.

As for inspiration…well. I decided quite some time ago that when I grow up, I’d like to be Saul Bass, Red Labor, James Venable, Mike Birbiglia, Daniel Clowes, Chali 2na, Alex Sacui, John Linnell, Denis Radenkovic, Russell Banks, Shinichiro Watanabe, Paul Ford, Bing Ji Ling, Terry Gilliam, Tim Schafer, Tchad Blake, Gina Trapani, Robertson Davies, Roots Manuva, Adam Greenfield, Kazuto Nakazawa, Angela Carter, Mike Doughty, or Garret Keizer. Of course, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, the real tragedy of my life is that all of those positions have been filled.

Yeah, that whole list thing I did right there? That wasn’t too annoying or anything. Not in the least.

DW: Sidesh0w’s entries range from Web-related issues (I Hate Tables) to beautifully written, almost lyrical vignettes from your personal life (These Chicago Women). Does writing make you giddy as a schoolgirl, the way Web design does?

EM: Well, I don’t know about “giddy.” “Schoolgirl,” however…

I do enjoy writing quite a bit—or at the very least, I’ve been doing it for some time. To hear my parents tell it, the first thing I wrote was an illustrated short story about a curly-haired space pirate who could fire forest-leveling laser blasts from his right arm. I was six, I thought lasers were cool, and I apparently thought space pirates had nothing better to do than a little clear-cutting. Borges, I wasn’t.

At any rate, writing’d been something of an afterthought for quite awhile—but toward the end of 2003, I decided to shift gears on sidesh0w and focus on my writing a bit more. At some point, I got tired of being just another Web standards blog, especially since there were an army of people like Derek Featherstone and Roger Johansson doing it with far more eloquence and style than I ever could. So, I decided that I really wanted to focus on my writing, be it biographical, fiction, or a bit of both. So while I haven’t stopped caring about designing and developing for the Web, I don’t publicly stand on that particular soapbox that much anymore.

DW: You’ve got that handy degree in English lit and the four copies of Paradise Lost for inspiration—can we expect a solo venture in the book world?

EM: Oh, sure. That’s exactly what the publishing industry needs: a guy who thinks he can write a book just because he’s toting a few trillion lines of Biblical blank verse-cum-literary baggage. I don’t think I hate myself or the book-buying public enough to subject either of us to that.

I guess I’d be all for writing a book at some point. Though I suppose the trick for any author is to find an idea that fires you up enough to hear yourself speak (or rather, type) at length for a few hundred pages—without wanting to put your own eyes out with a bottle of correction fluid, that is. I haven’t quite gotten there yet, though working on Professional CSS may have put the bug in my ear.

Additionally, I’d like to congratulate you for using the terms English lit degree and handy in the same sentence.

DW: You often refer to the three people who read your blog. Have you identified who they are yet?

EM: As with most things, Shaun Inman’s come up with a far better answer than I ever could: they’re you and me and She.

DW: Your bio says, “wants to be an unstoppable robot ninja when he grows up,” and your Amazon wish list seems to verify this. Can you give us a glimpse of your personal life, and how it intersects with Cowboy Bebop and The Blind Swordsman?

EM: What can I say? A growing robot ninja needs his anime and Zatoichi movies.

I don’t think my interests are really all that unique in Web design circles—a twentysomething who likes computers, watches far too many cartoons, and has an unhealthy addiction to UK electronica and old movies? What is happening to the youth of America, I ask you.

DW: You’ve been a speaker at MIT, a C-list blogger, a Zeldman External, Slashdotted and even called CSSexy. A recent Web guru test reveals that you are actually Shaun Inman. What’s in store for you next?

EM: When you lay it all out like that, I’m not sure whether I should do a victory lap, or just have a good cry.

Buy Professional CSS: Cascading Style Sheets for Web Design now!

Related Topics: CSS, XHTML, Web Standards

Ethan Marcotte is a web designer/developer/something situated in Cambridge, MA. He blogs intermittently as the curator of sidesh0w, and spends much of his time thinking that the float model was a pretty neat idea. Ethan is also the design lead at Vertua Studios, and would like to be an unstoppable robot ninja when he grows up.

Carolyn Wood of pixelingo is a web designer, copywriter, content strategist, and the Editor in Chief of Digital Web Magazine. Her long list of loves includes the web, design, storytelling, and making lists. If you meet her, ask her to tell you the story about the midwife and the bank robber.