An Interview with Grace Bonney
Please briefly describe Design*Sponge and your role.
I'm the founder of Design*Sponge and wear a lot of hats, as we're a pretty small team. On any given day I'm writing posts, working with writers, planning outside projects like books and printed matter and managing our social media posts. I'm currently working on ways we can expand Design*Sponge to focus on non-profit and advocacy work, which is my primary passion.
Do you consider yourself more of a collaborator or a singular-vision director?
I think my life and work are a bit of both. I couldn't do anything I do without the help of our team, period. But I'm also someone who has strong opinions and isn't afraid to follow them on paths that might be unconventional. But I always respect the voices and opinions of the people I work with and I think the resulting process is one that allows everyone to have a say in what we do and publish.
What obstacles have you faced as a woman? What stereotypes have you encountered?
I'd like to say these obstacles fade away as you get older or further along in business, but I've found they only become more insidious and easier to spot as thinly veiled prejudice. I find myself constantly thinking about what my experiences we be like if I was a woman of color or a woman who was trans/GNC. I think, sadly, people and brands often feel "safe" around me to say offensive or stereotype-based things because of the way I present.
In the early days I was constantly doubted as someone who could run an ad program and was often asked to "Can I just talk to your ad guy?". These days I find people want to work with someone with an outspoken point of view, but don't actually want you to have that point of view when you're working with/for them. So while some brands seem drawn to D*S because we have taken bold stances on feminist, political and social justice issues, they want us to dial that back when we work with them. That's not something we've agreed to, but it's almost always something that comes up, which is frustrating. I find people expect me to want to get married and have children and seem constantly shocked at the points in my life when those haven't been goals of mine- as if I'm missing some sort of inherently "woman" chip from my mind. The list could go on for days, but these are just tips of the iceberg.
Your book, In the Company of Women, is, of course, a huge inspiration for this month. What made you want to switch gears a bit and write these interviews?
I've been wanting to write this book for a long time, but as with most things in publishing, publishers need to see momentum in a given direction to take the risk of investing in your book. So for me to branch out from design and focus on business and women's issues was a risk. But I felt strongly that this was a discussion that needed to be had- and that a discussion that needed to be focused on not just including but celebrating the voices of marginalized groups of women (LGBTQ women, differently abled women, women of color, women over 40, etc.). I've been a part of the problem in the lifestyle community for so long, which is focusing only on voices and people that look and sound like our own, and I've been slowly and steadily trying to right that ship (or at least ours) so we're pointing in the right direction. Once we made that decision every post and project was informed from that place. So the book felt like a natural extension of what we'd already been doing on the site- which celebrating an inclusive group of people telling their own stories (whether that was about their home or their business) in their own voices.
What has surprised you most in the process of writing the book, releasing it, and its reception?
The entire process has been a series of wonderful surprises, but the most important ones have been all of the new friends and mentors I've made from this experience- that continue to this day. I'm starting up a new series of events this year, similar to the book tour, but focused on speaking with younger girls and women. Those moments of watching the next generation of artists, writers and leaders are the most inspiring of all.
Was there anything you regret doing in the early days of Design*Sponge?
There are a lot of things I regret, but my biggest regret is simple: I hid behind an excuse of "just focusing on style and aesthetics" as a reason to not own up to the lack of inclusivity on my website. And that is no one's fault but my own.
I had been hearing from women of color in my personal life- and on my own team- that I wasn't reaching out to and including more people of color on the site and that it was a big problem. But I stuck my head in the sand. About which I am incredibly ashamed. I'm not sure what the tipping point was, but eventually I woke up and realized the egregious mistakes I was making and how bad of a job I was doing of making anyone who didn't look or think like me feel welcome at Design*Sponge. I was gutted to realize that the online home I had built wasn't a place where everyone was able to see themselves reflected or appreciated. It was a lightning rod moment for me and I stopped still in my tracks and immediately started working on righting the wrongs I had perpetuated.
Ever since that moment I've focused on making sure that not just our team and our content reflect the diverse community we're a part of, but that all of us expanded our sources of inspiration and reading to include different points of view and different groups of people. That change has affected every aspect of my life and work ever since and I regret not waking up and seeing that error earlier every day. I know I can't change what is in the past, but I see every new day as a chance for me to talk less, listen more and share more of our platform with people who have had their voices and their stories marginalized by society.
How do you define success?
Being able to lay my head on my pillow at night and knowing that I did good work. For me, good work is work that makes a difference in someone's life. Whether that's working at a food bank, helping someone find a support system to start their business or showing up at a local rally to support people and causes who need help, that is the sort of work that matters most to me now. I will always have fond memories for the early days of Design*Sponge when everything was about houses and crafts, but these days my heart is most strongly tied to the work we do that connects the world of art and design with the world of social justice.
What do you think is a key asset of yours that has contributed to your success?
For better and worse, I'm most motivated by problem solving. It doesn't always make me the greatest listener (I fall into that trap of thinking I can "solve" people's problems for them) but I'm always up for doing whatever it takes to help someone get through a tough moment or fill a gap that needs to be filled. I'm able to use that skill in its most positive sense when I'm working as a connector- connecting people who have a problem with people or resources that can provide a solution.
What keeps you happy + emotionally healthy?
My family. Especially our pets. They are a constant reminder that life exists outside of this laptop and away from the internet. They inspire me to get outside and walk and to reconnect with people and things that are in real life- and not just digital life.
You were very open with your personal experiences, like coming out, moving out of Brooklyn, and learning how to manage your diabetes. How do you determine what to share with followers? (I think this is very hard for creatives, who rely heavily on social media for work!)
I wish I had a perfect equation, but I typically find those boundaries by going over them. My rule of thumb now is to only share something when I'm ready to handle the most negative backlash that could come. And I try to do my best to phrase things in a way that doesn't invite suggestions if I don't want them. For example, every time I post anything about my diabetes (which isn't that often anymore), a small handful of people flood my comments and DMs with "cures" from "miracle" doctors. That sort of thing really gets under my skin, so I don't post about my diabetes anymore unless it's something specific that I think could benefit others affected by the same disease.
What are three things you need to have on hand while working?
Water, a power cord and Netflix. I weirdly do my best work when there's something else on in the background. So most of my work is fueled by hydration and 30 Rock re-runs these days.
What would be a dream project for you?
I am constantly looking for an outlet that will let me take the things I love most about Design*Sponge (the people, stories and struggles behind the spaces and products) and combine them with the work I love most right now- activism, volunteering and social justice work.
Many of our readers want me to "stay quiet" about anything that isn't pretty/happy/pink, but to me that's just not real life- and it feels irresponsible. Yes, it's nice to have a diversion from the scarier things in the world, but that's assuming you're someone who is able to unplug from those scary things. That's not an option for everyone reading my site, so I don't want to ignore "real life" in favor or aesthetics or design anymore. For me, creativity, activism and compassion go hand in hand.
What do you think you would you be doing (or what would you want to do) if not Design*Sponge?
For the past 12 years I've answered this question with something like, "I can't imagine doing anything else!" But these days I can imagine other things pretty easily, because it feels like the sort of odd assortment of skills I've learned working at D*S (social media, how to handle difficult conversations, how to work long hours and have no work/life separation) lend themselves very well to non-profit work in my area that needs to be done.
Right now I'm using all my free time to volunteer at different groups like Family of Woodstock, Ulster Corps, Angel Food East and Citizen Action, but I could easily see myself working (in a PT or FT capacity) at any of these groups applying what I've learned as a blogger to a cause that's near and dear to my heart.
What women inspire you most?
Women that aren't afraid to have a strong opinion but an open mind.
What advice do you have for friends who are thinking about going into business together?
Sit down with a mediator and business advisor before you start and think out a very detailed and very conservative contract. You need to be prepared for when things go wrong and ensure that there's a clear solution for any outcome. I didn't do this earlier on and it cost me a dear friendship. Unclear contracts and unclear outlines of expectations are bad for both parties involved and friends will always be more valuable then business ideas.
What are you most proud of?
That I'm not afraid to be wrong, fall on my face, or be at the bottom of a learning curve. When I stay in the spaces I feel safest I don't learn or grow or allow anyone else's story to inform my point of view and so I'm always striving to go toward those moments and places where I feel like I'm new and unexperienced.
"I volunteer with a local group called Family of Woodstock and I believe in their services and organization so much. It's a diverse staff of counselors, volunteers and professionals who serve thousands of women, children and families in our area to provide a range of services from food and shelter to domestic violence counseling and mental health support." -Grace Bonney