When Grace Bonney started Design*Sponge in 2004, her expectations were low. In the beginning the design blog was a side project she did in addition to her real job, first at a design PR firm and later as a freelance writer for House and Garden, Domino, and Craft, among other publications. “I thought that maybe in a few years I could use it as a digital portfolio to one day apply for a job at a magazine,” she says.
As Design*Sponge developed a loyal following and interest from advertisers, “the blog kind of became the magazine job that I wanted,” she says. By 2009, the site was generating enough money for her to focus on it full-time. Since then Design*Sponge has continued to grow — it now reaches roughly 2 million readers a month — and its focus has evolved to reflect Bonney’s own shifting interests, moving away from products to center on people, and, in the past few years, address topics such as how gender, classism, and racism, social issues, and diversity connect to and influence design.
But as Design*Sponge changed, so has the ad industry. The rise of social media and proliferation of design sites has tipped the scale back in the advertisers’ favor, enabling them to demand more for less. Over the past few years, it became clear to Bonney that the blog could not continue to support itself through ad revenue unless she overhauled the content strategy. Instead of chasing clicks, Bonney decided that she would end the blog on her own terms; in early January, she announced that this year, Design*Sponge’s 15th, would be its last. “For me, this will always be a place to simply connect with, learn from, and listen to friends, new and old, who happen to love design and creative pursuits in the same way we do,” she wrote in a heartfelt post explaining the decision.
Bonney is working on a book about intergenerational friendships between women and she recently launched Good Company, a print magazine for women and nonbinary creatives. That said, she doesn’t know what her day-to-day will look like this time next year. “I think everyone expects there is this hidden project, but no,” she says, laughing.
Whatever the next chapter might be, she’s ready for it. Among many other things, Design*Sponge taught her how to balance doing what you love with the realities of making a living. Here, she shares how she’s navigated the tension between art and money and offers advice to creatives on how to the walk that tightrope for themselves.
Q: Why do you think Design*Sponge resonated with people in the beginning?
A: Any early era blogger would be disingenuous for saying that we didn’t benefit from being early adopters. There was so little competition and no social media landscape. When you went on the internet and looked for furniture or interior design, there was only going to be a few of us that popped up. We grew in a way that is nearly impossible to do today, organically.
I was also talking about things that were affordable. I focused on young people, students, and people who were upcycling before that was a hot trend. A lot of other sites were catering to people who wanted to buy brand new things, or buy expensive things or fancy things. We were kind of the opposite of that. I think it was the right time and style for that particular moment.
Q: As the design media landscape grew more crowded, did your approach to promoting Design*Sponge in order to reach a new audience change?
A: In 15 years we’ve never sat down and said, “How does this apply to gaining a bigger audience?” I think I’m one of the few bloggers from that era that never approached this as a money-making venture. I absolutely made money from Design*Sponge, but it was never the thing I wanted to make money from. I always thought Design*Sponge would be the bridge between whatever I was interested in and a bigger, more stable project.
Q: In your blog post announcing that this year will be Design*Sponge’s last, you mentioned that you’ve “written and re-written a letter like this dozens of times.” Why did you decide it was time to move on to something new?
A: The ad market was great in the beginning. We could sit back and be slightly comfortable in the fact that advertisers would come to us. We were able to think about: what’s important to us?
Now advertisers demand more content and more blatant placement for less money. It’s become a really crappy game to play. It limits how much we can talk about things that are important to us. I heard from people when we started talking about Black Lives Matter; that wasn’t a popular opinion for a lot of advertisers. The change in the ad market is definitely a big part of what inspired us to say, “Hey, I think we’ve had a great run, let’s all go do something different now.”
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Starting next month I am hitting the road to work on a new book, and we have a third issue our magazine, Good Company, coming out. We are waiting to see how cumulative sales are for the first three issues to decide whether or not to put out a fourth issue.
Q: When evaluating a new project’s potential, how do you weigh how excited you are about it versus its ability to pay your bills?
A: I’m not making so much money that I can take on any project that doesn’t pay, but I’m not making so little money that I can’t afford to take a little bit of a hit. I live in a two-income household. My wife and I both get paid. It’s important to be open about that. I don’t want someone to look at any of my projects and think, “Oh wow, all of this is so profitable, she can just jump from project to project.”
When I started Good Company, I talked to tons of independent magazines. No one was making money! But you wouldn’t know that from the media coverage they receive; I hear from people everyday who want to know how to start a magazine. The answer is: you have to have a ton of money or some sort of outside funding. It is wildly expensive and most of us aren’t profitable. If you have family money, cool. If you have venture capital money, cool. But be honest about it so people understand the financial reality of projects like these.
Q: How do you feel about having a day job that pays your bills and doing your creative project as a side hustle versus going all in and trying to turn your passion into a full-time career?
A: There’s a strain of discussion in the creative entrepreneur world right now that it’s all or nothing. It’s like, “follow your bliss, do what you love, everything else is compromise.” I don’t think that’s true. I know a lot of people who have stable jobs with health insurance and a decent salary that allows them to do their creative work on the nights and weekends. There’s nothing “less creative” about that. If that gives you the creativity and security to take risks in your creative life, even better. I think my message is: don’t have any shame of judgement for how you get creative projects off the ground. If you are able to do them full time, awesome. But be honest about why you can. I think a lot of people see new businesses with shiny branding pop up overnight, and it seems like that’s a feasible thing to do. And it’s probably not. Those things cost lots of money.
Q: In your post announcing that this year will be Design*Sponge’s last, you mentioned that you’re at peace with how social media has changed the design landscape, but that wasn’t always the case. How do you maintain a healthy relationship with social media when it’s an integral part of your professional life?
A: As a user, it makes me sad to not see half the content from the people that I am following because of the hashtag, or what time it went out, or whatever. But there’s a lot of really good stuff happening there, too. It’s like anything: with all the really bad stuff there is really good stuff. You have to have the ability to put it in perspective. Social media is not the end all be all.
The most important thing for me was understanding what I’m getting out of it. That’s something I’ve had to figure out through conversations in therapy and at home with my wife and my friends: Why am I going there? If I go to Instagram to be inspired, I don’t have any guilt about how much time I spend. But if I am going on there to read things that will make me feel good about myself or connected to people, I need to understand why am I going there and not to real people in my real life.
Q: What do you hope is next for the design media?
A: I hope it’s more diverse. The voice of the young white design blogger — which is me! — we’ve had our moment. There’s been enough of us. It’s time for a lot of us to step to the side and give space to voices and stories that haven’t been heard yet.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.