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Essay

Design*Sponge Turns 12: The Lessons I’ve Learned

by Grace Bonney

12yrsds
I’m not someone who takes time to stop and appreciate accomplishments. For the past 11 years, I’ve celebrated Design*Sponge’s birthday with a brief recognition (“Oh, that’s today!“), a few thoughtful moments, and then plowing forward onto the next task, never taking a moment to really soak in what this site has meant to me or to people in our community. But this year is different.

This year I was diagnosed with a life-changing chronic disease and suddenly everything — every day, every minute, every person — feels different. I have never been more present in my life than in this year and I am so thankful for that, because this year I get to celebrate Design*Sponge’s 12th birthday in a way that is slow, meaningful, reflective and with pride. One of my biggest fears is that if I stop and let myself feel proud of something, I will become too prideful to keep doing good work. I don’t ever want to lose sight of the fact that this website’s goal is to be a home and a voice for happiness, inspiration, community and inclusion.

2004

While that fear drives me, I’m also reminded that life is short. And if I don’t stop and appreciate the good along with the challenging, I’m missing the point. So this year I’m reflecting on 12 things I’m proud of, have learned from, or truly appreciate about Design*Sponge so far. I’m also sharing some of our old website designs above and below (in light of a redesign coming this fall — yay!), so whether you’re new to the site or a longtime reader, you can enjoy a little blast from the past. I still miss those ribbons.

2005

Read on for the full post and if you’re stopping here, please know just how much I appreciate you and everyone here for supporting this website. We are a small, dedicated and hardworking team, and each and every one of us is proud of what we do here and is so thankful to be able to share it with you all every day. Thank you for reading, thank you for talking, and thank you for being here to enjoy the ride with us. xo, grace 

*Images above, D*S circa 2004 and 2006. Revisit our 2007, 2008, 2011 and 2013 redesigns after the jump!

2007

Design*Sponge circa 2007

 

What I’ve Learned

  • Mistakes will always happen. There is no perfect place in business where everything stays the same and hurdles never appear. As your business grows and achieves, the hurdles just get bigger and more complex. I used to think that by working harder and achieving more, I could get to a plateau where that doesn’t happen. But if even if you and your business don’t change, the landscape around you will. So accepting that I will make a few big blunders now and then, but hopefully still learn from them, has been a valuable lesson.
  • The best and most challenging part of my job are people. Both the best and worst decisions I’ve made at Design*Sponge revolve around people. I am not a natural-born boss, and I’ve struggled to find my boundaries and voice as a leader. I have a hard time letting go, a hard time delegating and an even harder time knowing when it’s time to move on and end a working relationship. I regret not being braver and more direct in my earlier days and regret being a bit overly so in more recent days as I learn to protect myself and set new boundaries with compassion. I’m always (always) working on this part of a job, but am so grateful that it’s a constant reminder that I have a lot to learn and room to grow and improve. And those best moments with people? Those are the ones that make me happy to get up, open my laptop and get to work. I do what I do here for them as much as myself. Knowing that working hard and tackling big projects means getting to support people who feel like family is the greatest feeling ever.
  • If I’m not feeling inspired, I’m not trying hard enough. I spent a lot of time a few years ago complaining that I felt uninspired by new designs in the creative community. While yes, some of the things I was seeing at trade shows and in the media were less than mind-blowing, I also lacked real ownership in terms of what I was exposing myself to and the work I was (or wasn’t) putting into finding new sources of inspiration. There is always (ALWAYS!) plenty of new/exciting/different inspiration to find IF you step out of what you already know. I expected to see something unexpected in all my usual haunts and that’s my fault. Now I’ve learned that to find something that feels different, I have to look harder, search further and make it MY job to find people, places and products that are coming from a different background or point of view.
  • Numbers are nice, but meaningful connections are forever. I’m proud of being part of a website that has maintained a large and steady audience over 12 years, but I’m more proud of the individual emails, comments and messages we’ve received. Traffic reports, retweets and likes are great treats to get along the way, but the older I get, the more I find myself craving and appreciating something more nourishing. And for me, that’s a one-on-one connection. Whether it’s between me and a team member or a member of our community or a total stranger on social media, those moments of connection (and I don’t mean in a networking sense) and understanding, empathy, shared joy or sadness — any and ALL of them are what I will carry with me over the years as I start new chapters and tackle new challenges. It’s easy to fall into a trap of caring more about “branding” and “scaling” (not that either are inherently bad) than connection, and I work every day on making sure those connections are my top priority.

2008

Design*Sponge circa 2008. This was the version of the site people responded to the most positively. I love all that texture, but it was not kind to load times. 

 

What I’m Proud Of

  • Running a business for 12 years that pays, respects and values its employees and never loses sight of how important it is to work harder and be better every day. It is NOT easy to stay independent and pay a team a fair wage. It would be easier if we took every sponsored post that came our way or gave into the trend of paying people based solely on the traffic they bring in. But those aren’t decisions that feel in-line with our values and so we choose to run a (very) tight ship, focus on supporting our team as much as possible, and continue to value quality over quantity. I’ve never wanted to sell D*S, take investment money or bring on unpaid interns/writers/team-members because I’m afraid of this little home we’ve built together ever being turned into something it’s not. So the fact that we’ve stayed true to what we believe in, learned from our mistakes, and continue to push harder every year to produce free, original content that celebrates everyone reading makes me very proud.
  • Helping small businesses get off the ground: Whether it was the original Biz Ladies series of 2008 or the weekly advice column here on the site, I am so glad that we’ve made supporting the people behind the products a priority.
  • We’re always trying something new: Even if it is a little ahead of its time or doesn’t take off the way we want, we’re always trying to stretch our skills and produce something different. I produced my first (super low-quality) podcast 10 years ago, we launched a web shop and scholarship in 2007, a traveling Biz Ladies series in 2008, a book in 2011 and a 30-city book tour, a newspaper in 2012 and 2013, another podcast in 2012, and we have a new book coming out this fall. Our team is never afraid to dive in and try something fun and challenging, and I’m so happy this is a part of our work culture here at D*S.
  • This site has allowed not just me, but our team, to live out some lifelong dreams. Whether it’s writing books or meeting our personal idols, this blog has connected each of us in ways we never expected and has allowed for some incredible moments. Meeting Michelle Obama, Nikki Giovanni, Laura Jane Grace and Martha Stewart will remain in my head and heart forever. Those moments would not have happened without Design*Sponge.
  • Showing my future children that a young woman (or any young person) can achieve great things by working hard, working together and working to uplift others. My deepest desire in life is to be a parent, and with that not too far around the corner, I spend a lot of time thinking about the child, or children, that Julia and I will adopt and how to set the best example for them that I can. I remember how inspired I was by my Dad starting his own business and I hope our children will be inspired by seeing both of their mothers, and their mothers’ friends and co-workers, run their own businesses and succeed. I do this job every day because I love it, and because I love my co-workers and our community. But now, more than ever, I do it because I want to create something that has meaning and worth, to not just help support our family but to inspire our youngest members to dream big.

2011 copy

Design*Sponge circa 2011. I miss this design so much. People grew to love it (after vocally hating it) and sites across the web got darker, but eventually those visual ribbon elements took such a huge toll on our site loading time, which is always an issue for image-heavy sites like ours.

 

What I Appreciate

  • Your patience. I’m far from a perfect person and D*S is not a perfect website. I have made countless mistakes over the years, some more public than others, that I regret and have done my best to learn from. And throughout them all, so many of you have hung in there with us and inspired us to do better and work harder. Over the past few years I am particularly grateful for members of our community who have spoken up and asked us to do a better job of including and celebrating creative people of all races, religions, ages, sexualities, body types, abilities and geographic locations. We still have a lot of work to do, but your willingness to speak up and be patient while we work on constantly course-correcting our ship to move in the direction of progress and inclusiveness means the world to me. Thank you.
  • Your loyalty. To me, loyalty doesn’t mean reading every day, or reading only one website or blog. To me, loyalty means returning when you have time and caring about the people behind the content. So many of you have been overwhelmingly supportive of our team behind and in front of the screen and those moments mean so much to ALL of us.
  • The dozens of people who have worked, written and helped with this site over the past 12 years: There is no doubt in my mind that the most exciting thing about working at Design*Sponge is getting to work alongside some of the most creative, fun and talented people I know. This team works hard, works smart and works with heart to do their very best, and they treat each other with as much love and respect as they do our community. Some of the support I’ve seen shared between team members, and between team members and our community, brings me to tears. This is a good group of people who are always working harder to learn more and do their best. We’ve seen each other through tremendously tough times, and I know at the end of the day we’ll all be there for each other in a pinch. That sort of connection is priceless in my book.
  • Getting to do a job that I enjoy and that pays the bills. “Doing what you love” is a luxury in a difficult economy and workforce like today’s. And in some countries starting your own business, getting an education or doing something creative just isn’t an option. I try to never forget that, and remember that with the incredible privilege we have comes both great responsibility and joy. Our goal is to always share that joy with everyone reading.

2013

April Fools Day, 2013! This was SO much fun. We turned the entire site into a cat-themed project and some people genuinely believed it was real. I had SO much fun with this, as did our entire team. 

APRIL_PLAYLIST_CATS copy

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Comments

  • Congratulations to you and your team, Grace. It has really been a joy to read your blog, and to be inspired by the content you guys pour your hearts into. I also truly appreciate your inclusion of everyone and how you celebrate diversity in its many forms. Keep on keeping on…you’re making us proud! <3

  • D*S was the reason “this blog I read” became apart of my vocabulary. And it continues to be the design-world equivalent of my maturation. Certainly I am not alone.

    When a shift towards mindfulness replaced my empty, trend-focused consumption, you were right on time…

    when I wished my mother had been around to teach me the simple things, in came “Home Ec.”…

    when I felt my day-to-day was too commercial…
    Hello “Fine Art Focus”!

    hella “Biz Ladies” articles were bookmarked as I started my own business… now Adam J. Kurtz reminds me not to take the collapse of that business so harshly.

    And when the mainstream either ignored my blackness or treated it as a prop, you not only had something to say but something to hold yourself accountable for.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.
    And shoutout to those peachy ribbons.

    best wishes in this life and the next,
    jo

  • Happy anniversary! I’ve been reading since 2007 from across the pond as there’s little to match you and the DS vision here :) Always inspiring, always evolving and with real staying-power. Two houses and two kids later, I feel I’ve grown up since I started tuning in! Thanks Grace for the inspiration and good luck with future plans and your family-to-be…

  • Not gonna lie, this post made me tear up a bit! DS is one of those things I come back to, again and again, as the years go by – and what you describe here is why. It’s been a source of not just inspiration but support and comfort as I’ve struggled to find my place as a designer and a person, and it got me through years of challenges of all kinds. Thank you all for what you do, and congrats on 12 amazing years, and many more to come!

  • Grace, I’ve been reading DS for years. It’s been so wonderful to watch the site grow and to see how you’ve embraced your calling and platform. I second Krista’s comments. DS has been a tremendous source of inspiration to me and to thousands of other women, both creatively and professionally. Keep up the great work!

  • Yes, congratulations on helming such a warm and lovely part of the web. I’ve been reading on and off for ten years or so, and really enjoy coming back here every time. It’s been a pleasure watching the site grow and develop its personality, and I look forward to the next twelve years. Best wishes to all the team.

  • Seeing these old site designs made me realize just how long I have been quietly reading Design Sponge. Thanks for growing with dignity and vision!

  • Congratulations Design Sponge team! I discovered DS around 2008 and it has been a treat to watch the site grow and evolve. I really appreciate the original content and your honest voice about the design world and life in general. Thank you for being a source for inspiration and learning! We started planning our business around 2010 and surely I’ve read every single Biz Ladies post and listened to almost all of your podcasts with fellow creative entrepreneurs..they were invaluable!

  • Congrats Grace! I’ve been reading since the “dots” days and Design Sponge has remained one of my faves, so many years later! It’s hard to put into words how happy it makes me that you have retained such integrity while growing in a truly meaningful way. I’ve seen so many other sites change and evolve in ways that lost me, but D*S has somehow always held on.

    I feel honoured to have been included in a small way (you guys featured my first wedding (yup..now remarried) as well as that jewelry stand DIY I did AGES ago) and I feel so spoiled that I live in a time where I can just click onto a website and feel instantly inspired. It really is magic, and you keep the magic going. Thank you Grace, I hope you to this time to feel appreciated, you truly are!

  • Congratulations on completing 12 years, Grace! I’ve especially enjoyed the unique home tours that keep inspiring me and has widened my outlook.

  • Hi there! Congratulations! I’m relatively new to your blog (started reading sporadically over the past three years, now read very regularly), so it was nice to see old pages and hear about the history. I absolutely love to read your content; you and your team do a wonderful job!

  • Congratulations Grace! Lovely post. Design Sponge was one of the first blogs that I started reading… Can’t believe it was twelve years ago. Wishing you and Julia all the best on your adoption journey.

  • DS was one of the first blogs I ever started to read! I’ve been following your blog since 2008. Congratulations Grace from across the pond xx

  • Thank you for making DS so beautiful. Have been enjoying your pages for years.. you were my “perk up” page when I was working at a rather tough corporate job in my former life. :)

  • I am new to D*S, and first really took note of the blog when you posted an article on Medium about Black Lives Matter. I am very pleased to encounter a site with so much integrity and glad to hear how your team works, quality over quantity. When people feel valued I think that quality only increases.
    I’m looking forward to getting to know D*S better over time. Congratulations!

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