College of William and Mary - Art + Art History Major With a Concentration in Printmaking
When Brooklyn-based writer Grace Bonney clicked “publish” on her blog seven years ago, it was meant solely as a passion project; a way to express her love of design and decorating. Or, as Grace explains, an outlet to help “feel less like the crazy girl in the room who’s always going on about cool wallpaper.”
To Grace’s surprise, she was hardly alone. Today, the founder of Design*Sponge writes for a daily audience of 75,000 people — all as eager as her to chat about wallpaper and find original yet attainable design ideas. Posts on Design*Sponge range from do-it-yourself and before-and-after projects to home tours, food and cocktail recipes, city guides, flower arranging and more. And many of those favorite posts are now available in her book, "Design*Sponge at Home," published last year.
Yes, Grace has killer style, loads of passion and impressive business chops. But we also admire her efforts to support others' successes. In addition to her blog, Grace founded a series of national networking and support meetups for women running design-based businesses called the D*S Biz Lady Series. When she discovered many women were hampered by not knowing basic business techniques and tools, she expanded the series to include free advice in the areas of PR, marketing, production, retail and legal concerns, and later turned it into an online column. She also began the annual Design*Sponge Scholarship in 2007 to support up-and-coming art and design students.
I've always let my creative passions guide the business.
How did you discover your current job?
I stumbled into this job. I never had any goal or idea that running a design blog could be something sustainable or profitable in any way. And frankly, I didn't want it to be. It was 100% a passion project and it's slowly grown into more, but profitability is never really a driving factor for me. I try to follow my gut and my interests first, then find a way to fund them afterwards.
What is your typical day like?
There's really no typical day these days. We're always working on 10 different things at once, so it's a mix of email, research, writing, team management, writing proposals for outside projects so our ad team can help find funding, checking out stores/flea markets and any other activity that I think will inspire me and my team.
D*S has grown from a one-woman show to a team with full-time employees and contributors. As a business owner, what has that evolution been like - especially some of the challenges and lessons learned?
It's been a slow growth model spurred by passion projects the whole time. Adding team members was really about me being excited to learn more about areas in which I was by no means an expert. The only logical option to me was to hire those experts (from food and DIY to history and sewing) to lend their voices and advice to the existing audience. I've always let my creative passions guide the business. And I think that's why it's maintained a sense of authenticity: we never grow for the sake of growing.
The hardest part has been learning to manage a team. I never had any desire to oversee or edit other people's work, so that's been tough to adjust to. It's hard because you want to just be friends with these awesome people, but there's always got to be a level of professionalism that can be tougher to grasp. I'm continually working on that part of my job.
What unique challenges do producers of online content face compared to traditional media?
The pace of information, trends and ideas is lightening fast. We're all grasping for the same products and styles, so sometimes it can feel like a rat race -- or at least a race -- to post things first. That was the primary reason I stopped posting products so much; I wasn't interested in waking up at 1am to post something, just so I could be "first." It lead me to focus on original content and I've never looked back.
I think online content creators are both hurt and helped by the lack of a formal ruling body or guiding journalism board. So many bloggers use that as an excuse to ignore the importance of ethics, etiquette and good writing. I do my best to see it as an honor system (as long as it lasts) and try my best to make sure everything we publish is 100% accurate, honest and ethical.
What do you feel is the biggest challenge for women today, particularly females in your industry?
Well, sadly there are many big challenges. One of the biggest is the idea that we're all ONLY competing with each other. It's a concept from Tina Fey's book "Bossypants" that really stuck with me. Competition is healthy and good for our industry, but if you only see your other female colleagues as competition and not the community as a whole, it can lead to a lot of negativity and not the support that should be there.
I've dealt with a disgusting amount of sexism in my career so far and know that the best solution is to continue to work hard, build support systems and trust your own gut. Every time a man who thought he was in control of my career or destiny told me "no," I would find a way to make that "yes" possible without playing by the "rules." I think the key is to really create your own reality and try to operate as a good example of that. I try to be an example of the way I'd like to be treated and the community that I'd like to be a part of building. Eventually more people will see that behaving that way is a viable and sustainable alternative to playing by the rules of traditional business -- online and off.
What was the impetus for starting the Biz Lady Series?
It was simple: I had a dinner at a friend's house and was shocked at how we all had the same issues and struggles. Just airing them out and having a support system was infinitely helpful. I mentioned that dinner on my blog and people wrote to me in droves to ask for the chance to attend something similar. So I started a small meetup that drew around 200 girls (I expected 45) and that turned into the in-person series. When it became clear that a lot of these women were hampered by not knowing basic business techniques and tools, I expanded the series to become targeted (and free) advice in the areas of PR, marketing, production, retail and legal concerns. Then when it became cost prohibitive to travel and do them in person, I turned it into an online column.
You've said your takeaway from Tina Fey's book "Bossypants" was that women need to stop seeing each other as competing for the same few spaces. Tell us more about how the book influenced you and where you see opportunities for women to be more supportive of one another.
That was the biggest takeaway for me. That and the scene with Amy Poehler telling Jimmy Fallon that she didn't care if he didn't like something because it wasn't cute. Women need to think about intelligence, skill and talent first. It's completely fine to care about what you look like and value that, but it shouldn't be the criteria on which we're judged. And it shouldn't deter us from acting the way we want to act to achieve a goal.
You recently published "Design*Sponge at Home." Tell us about the process for you and what made the cut for the book and why.
It was a brutal process. I'm glad to have a break from that project. As much as I loved our publisher, I had a really hard time going from being the sole person in control of my voice and the way my brand was presented to have to convince 20 different people that we were right about something. I'm not sure I want to go through that again. I think a lot of book publishers are woefully out of date when it comes to understanding modern design readers and while I think our publisher was the most supportive (and best) option we could have made, I still hated giving up control over decisions that would have been easy and fast if I could trust my gut and just move forward.*
In terms of editing, that was actually the easiest part. I'm a curator by nature, so being able to restrict things down to the bare essentials was really gratifying for me. I knew what range of styles I wanted to show and I'd say half the book I came up with off the top of my head because my favorite homes, projects and makeovers always seem to live in the back of my mind.
*This is obviously a simplified view of the book process, but that was the overall feeling I was left with after the process: how much I hated having to justify my taste and style after proving for over six years (at the time) that I knew what I was doing and that that taste or style level was the reason they reached out to me in the first place.
What are some of the rules you live by?
Keep your head down and work. Period. I think all my biggest problems have happened when I've gotten caught up in someone else's opinion of me, my work, my business, etc. It's best to focus on what you do and what you love and trust your gut. No one else has your best (or your brand's best) interest in mind as much as you do.
What excites you right now in the design world?
The way Japanese design is really seeping back into the community in a big way. After years of pattern craziness, I'm craving something minimal and with a slightly more refined/masculine edge and much of the work I'm seeing from younger Japanese designers fits that description. I love that the Internet has really opened up the market and people like me who have never been to Japan can still discover and shop from designers across the globe.
What do you see in the future for design publications? Will print survive? Blogs? Online magazines? And where do you see D*S fitting in and evolving in all this?
I think all of them will survive in some way, but they'll need to constantly evolve to suit their medium. Magazines are no longer the places that most people go for what's most current; blogs seem to serve that purpose now. But I do think a large percentage of us still love printed materials. I think we'll see magazines go the way of zines, almost- a very niche-y, personal and tactile experience that gives you a sense of "handmade" in a way the web never will.
And I see us as a part of that evolution. I see myself as a curator and creator of content first; the medium is second. I always like trying out new ways to express myself and my interests. At this point, we've experimented with blogging, books, newspaper, video, podcasting and soon, radio.
What are three things you love aside from your job?
Both animals and animal rights, time with my family and travel. I also really love hockey in all forms (street, ice and field).
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Just that I feel very fortunate to be a part of this incredible community of female entrepreneurs. Whether or not people see themselves that way, I'm constantly inspired by the women around me who leave stable careers and choose to follow their passion. Having more examples of that in the field means more young girls will see running their own company as a viable and accessible option.
-Interview by Keriann Strickland
Photo by Jamie Beck