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Meet Ethan Schoonover, the man behind Solarized

Designer of the iconic Solarized theme and storied multi-disciplinarian, Ethan Schoonover, has graciously agreed to answer a few questions for the Drop community. In fact, his answers were so thorough that we’ve decided to split them in two—this first post primarily about Ethan himself, and the second focusing on his development of the Solarized theme and the current state of his mech keys interest (spoiler: he has put together some impeccable workstations).  With that being said, let’s get started! 

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your history - relevant to mech keys or not. We want to get to know the person behind the iconic Solarized design. Where are you from, what is your “day career”, what are your other hobbies and interests? What is something we wouldn’t know about you from reading your About section?  I have a mixed technology and design background. Typical 80s kid story where I taught myself how to code, mixed in with having two professional artists for parents. I managed to worm my way into teaching “Design for the Internet” at a university back when HTML was still new. The university I taught at let me make ridiculous demands like mixing 50% art students and 50% comp sci students into a single class to see what would happen. I grew up in the states but spent about 12 years living overseas, mostly in Thailand and Hong Kong where I had a career in early online advertising. I left that to freelance (photography and design) which let me do a lot of travel and stay flexible. Eventually I moved back to the states to help a Mac software company develop my open source project (Kinkless) into OmniFocus. After spending several years as tech director at a local private school I currently do mostly system admin related work, though I keep my hand in design as well. I’ve done everything from magazines, websites, books, product packaging, to things like full scale museum exhibits. Other hobbies include role playing games (I play a lot of them), talking about horror movies with my daughter on her podcast at , and ham radio. I’m actually an emergency communications volunteer with the city of Seattle as part of an amateur radio organization, Seattle ACS.

Aside from the Solarized theme, do you have much experience with graphic design or UX work? Interpreting the question as liberally as you please, which of your own designs are you most proud of (and could you give us a window into any other design work you have done)?  I didn’t go to school for design or computer science, but ended up eventually working professionally in both areas. Most of my design work has been for corporate clients. A lot of brand identity work, logos, web design, etc. Back when I was working in advertising full time (at a large multinational British firm) we were making it up as we went along and ended up doing absolutely everything. We might start pitching a web site or online ad campaign to a client and end up doing packaging or print ads for them as well. It was a great way to touch a lot of different types of design work. Big clients have included HSBC, Unilever, Coca-Cola, etc. The usual suspects. What is your mech keys origin story? (What exposed you to mechanical keyboards, and why did you become involved in the community?)  That’s a two parter. First, I learned to type on an old IBM Selectric. Typing on a Selectric is pure joy. It’s halfway in between playing a concert piano and firing a Gatling gun. You can’t learn on it and not love mechanical keys. I spent a lot of time on physical terminals in the 90s, like the VT-220, and while its keyboard wasn’t amazing it still helped develop my appreciation for the form factor. Second: fast forward to 2012 or so and I started getting interested in building some keyboards. I was doing a fair amount of DIY hardware building and custom machining at the time, so it seemed like a thing I could do. I started out by buying, well, a little of everything. Some prebuilt boards (a couple Leopold 660M units that I later rebuilt with new PCBs for custom firmware), some switches, rings, etc. The hobby then was a little less of a rabbit hole but I still managed to get pretty deep into it. Built several ortholinear boards including some that were full one-off custom machined plates.

My “cartesian long board” design, build in progress


My “cartesian long board” design, fully dressed

What is your favorite design of someone else’s? Mech keys, architecture, whatever floats your boat.  That’s a pretty broad question so I’ll take the opportunity to go local. I moved back to the states in 2007 and landed here in Seattle. It is perhaps an unpopular thing to say but I simply do not like the Space Needle. I find it to be the worst of American techno-utopian pomposity. Sorry Seattle, but all is not lost! Situated right next to the Space Needle is the Pacific Science Center which was built as the U.S. Science Exhibit for the same 1962 World’s Fair. The centerpiece of the Science Center is a set of five arches that are like seeing pure math cast into elegant concrete towers. These were designed by Minoru Yamasaki and I find them to be timeless, beautiful, peaceful and an aesthetic palate cleanser after the bombast of the Space Needle. If you are ever in Seattle, they are worth a visit. What has been the hardest lesson you learned during your experience and career? This could be related to design, but does not have to be.  Saying no to opportunities. As a freelancer you can’t excel at the work you do if you overload yourself or lose focus with the wrong type of jobs. Saying no to work that doesn’t provide enough value or which takes you away from your core focus was a hard-won lesson. ______________________ Thank you Ethan for your time and these incredibly thoughtful answers. Check back next week for part two of Ethan’s responses as we continue to dive into his life and work! 

Mar 28, 2023
It took me a few years in consulting to realize some projects are sufficiently distracting they hurt you long-term. Saying no is a great skill.
Mar 25, 2023
Fellow amateur radio operator here… love it when my hobbies collide!
Mar 25, 2023
Or how about an Ergodox EZ set?
This is rad, the dude is a self-taught legend and one hell of nice guy. Though, I had assumed this would come out with some info on launch date or set info for Drop Solarized. Any ETA on that or answer to my question in the roadmap? I mean I get hype content but you seem to be clearly teasing variations on the tiny photo posted in the roadmap by the various arrow keys above, is it not possible to just pop one high res photo of the colorway in the roadmap or here instead of teasing a two part blog post and starting with no info about the set? Not trying to be contrary, it just seems like a lot of thought and planning went into, for instance, this interview, but it's also a two part blog post hyping a product that isn't actually mentioned in the post at all, for, you know...a store. So it feels fair to double down on an ask to see a better quality representation of the actual product. Or in the future, I would highly encourage Drop to either put high quality images in their roadmap or just not do any. It's just the half measure that feels almost like an intentionally frustrating move on your part. Hope that makes sense, I'm so ready to give you my money, I just want to feel like it's a two way street. That's part of the reason I love this community, the communication and feeling of mutual creation. This sort of feels like the Drop crew is super proud of a collab with Ethan Schoonover but not so much interested in giving solid info about the thing that would actually be what Drop supporters and patrons would be supporting or answering pretty simple questions that are now months old. All of that to say, it is frustrating, AND I'm not behind the scenes, nor do I have any idea what the team that holds this info looks like. Seems a bit like it's all on @HoffmanMyster to both manage comments and (thankfully) reinvigorate the Drop Discord. So just to reiterate, I wouldn't have any of these frustrations if Drop hadn't decided to do this in the first place, and I'm thankful you did. I don't want that to get lost in the fray. So cheers, it's not everyday you find a programmer turned designer/IDE revolutionizer (I'll be it in no way self-proclaimed because dude is rad - see above) gets the attention you're giving him, so good on you for that.
Mar 21, 2023
Love this! 😍 It's so cool of Ethan to collaborate on DCS Solarized Dark and now this DCX Solarized. As someone with Solarized everything (terminal, editor, browser, etc.), I'm looking forward to it!
Appreciate the kind words, and I hope you know I'm always available for any and all feedback if anything else comes to mind. :) As for the renders - right?? Can't wait for the full set pics to wrap up.
Will there be a Solarized dark set?
Mar 25, 2023
LionKeysDon't know if this will get me put out with the Oompa-loompas, but Kono sell a Cherry profile Solarized dark set. I wish I could get it in MT3 profile, though.
M0lesHaha you should be free to post dude. I do own that set but I think it needs to be reworked imho. And yes I still want it in DCX!
I’ve been using the solarized theme in IDEs (namely inteliJ) on and off for years now. Big fan and looking forward to the set.
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