Comings & Goings | Jan 14, 2019 |
Behind Grace Bonney’s decision to close Design*Sponge

Last week, Design*Sponge founder Grace Bonney announced that, after 15 years online, the beloved site will be closing up shop. Over the past decade, Design*Sponge has grown from its origins as a personal home decor blog into a destination for content that makes “the art and design world personal,” reaching over 2 million readers per month. Fans can take some solace in the fact that the site will continue posting a while longer—it won’t officially go dark until August 30, its 15th birthday. Here, Bonney tells Business of Home about ending a chapter with celebration and joy, the pressures facing indie publishers and how Rookie magazine founder Tavi Gevinson inspired her to stay true to her vision.

First of all, sorry to hear the news! I’m sure a lot of others in the design community feel the same way. What’s been the reaction you’ve gotten so far?
Moving on to any new chapter is bittersweet, but I’m really proud of what we’ve done at DS. I feel like it’s a rare thing to be able to end a chapter and keep the focus on joy and gratitude. I’m going to miss working with my amazing teammates every day, but I’ll still be on social media (under my trusty @designsponge handle), so I’ll still be able to see and talk to people every day, which feels comforting to me. People’s reactions have been really kind and compassionate. Most people who’ve been blogging for over a decade know exactly how I feel and why we chose to make 2019 our last year blogging, so I think that sort of knowing support, comments and emails I’ve gotten have been really meaningful. We’ve been so lucky to be a small part of so many blogs and businesses that have launched over the past 15 years, and that’s a feeling that I’ll always carry with me.

How long have you known that this was the direction things were heading, and when did you make the final decision?
I’ve known for a long time that we’d all move on to new chapters in the not-so-distant future. It’s something I’ve talked about more concretely for the past year, and it wasn’t until I read Tavi Gevinson’s closing letter at Rookie that I started imagining what our closing could and should look like. I’d always imagined just closing with one letter the way she did, but watching my own reaction to that closing and how sad I felt, I knew I wanted to imagine something different, with more time built in to adjust and celebrate the final chapter, rather than just closing the door one day. Once I imagined telling people and enjoying that last year openly, it all fell into place and we made the decision with our team over the course of about two and a half weeks.

Behind Grace Bonney’s decision to close Design*SpongeI hope that indie press thats not ruled by sponsored content or celebrities or clicky headlines will still have a place online in the future—I think it's totally possible, and Im hopeful for that space and what the next generation can do with it.
—Grace Bonney

In your essay, you mention coming to peace with social media. I’m curious to know how you feel it has changed the conversation about design, and where things are headed.
Oh, it’s dramatically changed so many things, for better and worse. Ultimately, it’s made design more accessible and broadened the conversations we’re having, as well as whose voices get to be heard—and for that, I am eternally grateful. We need more meaningful and substantive diversity in our community and I’m seeing that happen on social media more than in print and even on blogs.

I have no idea where things are headed, though. Right now, I’m seeing a lot of blogs turning into more generalist publications, with a focus on pop culture stories and celebrities. I knew we’d have to do more and more of that to stay afloat and that just wasn’t why I got into this. I love niche publications and I love talking about regular people, not celebrities, so I knew it wouldn’t be true to our core to keep moving in that direction (which is where so many of the ad dollars are directed). I’m not saying it would be impossible to make that work, it just didn’t feel right for us. I hope that indie press that’s not ruled by sponsored content or celebrities or clicky headlines will still have a place online in the future—I think it’s totally possible, and I’m hopeful for that space and what the next generation can do with it.

In your essay, you mention Tavi Gevinson’s goodbye letter to Rookie, and how it encapsulates the pressures that weigh on indie publishers. What resonated with you most about her piece? What have been the biggest pressures on Design*Sponge in recent years?
Her honesty and transparency resonated with me. I met with Tavi during that year she wrote about (when she was considering venture capital). At the time, I knew that wasn’t right for us, but it was actually her closing letter than made me stop and think, Wait, why isn't that right for us? I really thought it through and came to the same conclusion that she did, that doing what it would take to stay afloat and be profitable (and be appealing to VC firms) just wasn’t in line with the reasons we started. And seeing the trajectory of the most profitable sites (which are more generalist and less niche) and imagining where we fit in that path, it just didn’t feel like a place I wanted to go.

The biggest pressures for us were always profitability and paying people fairly. For me to pay people fairly (and to ultimately pay them much more, which was always my goal), I’d need to sell so much more sponsored content (and hire people just to create that content) and that’s just not a thing I want to do. I couldn’t keep taking calls and meetings with brands (the types of brands that have enough money to keep us afloat) when those companies were typically the type that are in the media for not paying their employees well, not treating them well or not supporting employee unions. It just all started feeling too muddy and murky.

People must have approached you about buying Design*Sponge over the years. What have the offers been like, and why did you turn them down?We’ve been approached over the years, but I’ve never had any interest in selling. Design*Sponge has grown and changed, but it will always be my baby, my art project. I honestly can’t imagine someone else owning it and doing who knows what with it.

I’m sure everyone’s looking forward to your next move—any hints as to what it is?
I’m about to start working on a new book, and we’re still working on Good Company magazine, but other than that, I have no idea. I’m trying to let this year be open, to have some fun, and to not put too much pressure on myself to leap into something new until I’ve had time to enjoy and be present for this closing chapter of Design*Sponge. So much of the world of publishing and business is about what’s new, what’s next and what’s bigger, but I’m ready to slow down, focus on things that are smaller and more intentional and just see where they lead me.

Homepage photo by Jacqueline Harriet

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