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EssayLife & Business

How to Know When It’s Time to Go (and How it Feels to Say Goodbye)

by Grace Bonney

Artwork by Nick Misani

When I posted on Instagram about these final essay spots in our calendar, so many of you wanted to know how I knew it was time to close Design*Sponge and what ending a chapter feels like. I’ve been sharing some of the ups and downs on social media since we first made our announcement in January, and honestly — it’s been rollercoaster. I knew that when I made the decision to announce our closing, but still post for 8 months afterward, it would mean really living in those feelings for a while. I wanted to take time to soak in this end of an era for us and not miss a second of what this would all feel like — both the good and the sad. I am so glad I waited to do things both in this way and not until it felt absolutely right.

I’ve gotten so many kind and honest emails from a lot of you in similar places. A lot of us are wondering how to know when it’s time move on to the next chapter. I wish I had an easy answer, but I don’t. The truth is, you just have to know what feels right for you. But what I can do is share my story and what helped me get to this decision — and what it’s felt like.

I think the most powerful tool in making any decision like this is knowing why you decided to start something in the first place. For me, Design*Sponge was always about creating a space to connect with likeminded people (ie: design geeks). Nothing more, nothing less. It grew to be more (for which I am so thankful), but I never had dreams of it turning it into a giant company. I knew I wanted to follow a model like Merge Records and focus on getting bigger on our own terms — while still staying small. And every step of the way, that “why” has informed our choices. Were all my choices perfect? Definitely not. But the overall course of Design*Sponge is one I’m proud of: we worked hard to stay true to our mission and evolve with and for our community.

But as the community around us changed (and the financial systems most media rely on to stay afloat), it became clear that staying true to our mission (and staying afloat) would be harder. And for a few years that was okay. We adapted, we stayed small, we made cuts in places that made sense, and we kept our minds open to expansion that made sense for us. But nothing ever felt quite right. We considered all sorts of additional revenue sources: product lines, a conference series, DS branded materials, consulting, online classes, Patreon pages, crowd funding, venture capital, and bank loans. But ultimately we found ourselves in situations time and time again where we felt like a round peg trying to fit in a square hole. And honestly, nothing is wrong with a round peg. Or a square hole. Both are okay. It’s just that when things stop fitting naturally, it can be a sign that it’s time to move on.

I would say it took me a few years of feeling these “maybe it’s time to go” feelings before I decided to act on them. Julia has listened to hours upon hours of me worrying about how to make things work, how to handle it with love, and, most importantly, how to support my team in the process. It wasn’t until I read Tavi Gevinson’s closing letter at Rookie that I knew my time was here. She outlined all the issues we were facing and all the possible solutions and none of them felt right to me, either. But what I was struck by was the vacuum that swift closing left and watching the Rookie community talk to each other and wish for just a few more weeks or months with the community they loved. That’s when I realized: why couldn’t we share our decision now, but stay open for a bit longer, as a sort of homecoming for people to connect, talk, and share one last time? That time period would also allow our team time to adjust, find new work homes, and, hopefully, have a less strenuous transition.

Once I made the decision in my head, I knew it was time. I told our team, worked on the announcement and within a few weeks, it was public. And since then, it’s been a wild mix of feelings. Here’s what they’ve been:

Telling our team: This was honestly the single hardest part. I expected that everyone would be a bit sad, but that they’d be in a similar place of knowing that it was probably time for us to move on. But they had a more emotional and surprised response than I imagined. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I got off the call and cried. A lot. I felt so awful. I felt like I’d let everyone down. I had thought staying open for 8 more months would be some sort of immediate band aid for the news, but I don’t think it felt that way. In reality, I should have known better. They hadn’t been listening to me worry and wonder how I was going to make this all work for years. I didn’t want them to know (or worry) about any of that. But that meant that my decision would, of course, be more of a surprise. So I guess my thoughts here for anyone in the same place are: be prepared to support and love and connect with your team as much as possible when you close. Those connections and being there to thank and be grateful for the people who have made any project possible are a really important part of ending a chapter.

Telling the world: For some reason, this part was easier. Not because I didn’t care (quite the opposite), but because I’d been imagining this part for some time. I knew it would be a mix of responses, and that’s exactly what I experienced. What I didn’t expect was how many people would come out of out the woodwork (people from my high school or teachers from college!) to tell me they’d been quietly reading for years and then sharing their thoughts on what we’d all built together here. Those notes were so meaningful and special. And having them trickle in slowly over the past 8 months has allowed me to soak in so many different points of views and responses. I am so grateful for that. One small hitch has been this: tons of people missed our first (and subsequent) closing announcements. So any time I’ve mentioned this since January I’ve needed to answer the same questions and relive that moment over and over. That was a tough part I didn’t anticipate.

Leaving a “platform” behind: I’ve never felt Design*Sponge was some sort of behemoth of a site, but I’m very aware and very (very) grateful for the large numbers of people we’ve been able to access and connect with on a daily basis for 15 years. When I first told my friends we were closing, one of them said, “Woah, what’s it gonna feel like when people don’t know who you are or care what you have to say as much?” I laughed and rolled my eyes and then… that last part stuck with me a bit.

I have benefitted so much from being able to launch projects and share ideas or points of view with a large number of people who have chosen to follow Design*Sponge on different platforms. In these last years, it’s been so meaningful to have deeper conversations about life, loss, race, class, disability, and inclusion with a wide range of people from different backgrounds. And I know that some of you weren’t coming for those types of talks, but because you came for other things originally, we were fortunate enough to still have your ears and eyes in ways we might not have had without the platform of Design*Sponge. What I care most about these days is being of service to people in need. And I always assumed I’d find some way to do that after DS closed. But it’s started to creep in that I won’t have the same type of access to people and the possibility of change and big impact in the same way.

And if I’m being brutally honest, that scares me. And it makes me wonder if I’m making a mistake and if I’m giving up something important that I could have worked harder to transform. Those are worries that still pop into my head at night. Because I’ve been able to connect with our community in such meaningful ways over the years that have allowed us to work together to raise large amounts of money and supplies for people in need and various non-profits. You’ve all banded together through our social platforms or posts here to stand up for families that need support, businesses and people that could benefit from your time and expertise, and all types of tough situations that Design*Sponge readers have heard about and come together to help with in overwhelming numbers. I’m going to keep doing my best to do meaningful work and support communities in need, but I can’t pretend that probably losing these larger groups of people (or not? I have no idea.) who used to follow us will mean we may not be able to help out on the scale we used to. And for that, I’m really still struggling with a lot of feelings of guilt.

Self-Worth: As you can tell from above, I’m still struggling also with not finding all of my self-worth in work. It’s an ongoing battle — and a high percentage of what I talk about in therapy. But I’ve found things that have helped me counteract this. Because it’s no secret that leaving (or losing) a job can have a huge impact on your self-esteem. One thing that has helped me is making volunteering a weekly part of my life. Julia introduced us to Angel Food, and that led to our late friend Georgine and well, everything that we’ve experienced from this part of our lives has been a complete gift.

I didn’t realize how much I needed to get out of my head, use my hands, be of service to others, and connect with people who did not know (or care) about my work life. But those friendships started teaching me, at least a year before closing Design*Sponge, that I had worth and value outside of what I do and what people may know me for in my work life. I did a talk about this for Creative Mornings earlier this year that gets to the core of how powerful this all was for me. I cannot recommend regular volunteering more highly— it has had the most powerful and positive impact on my life. For anyone wondering about self-worth and closing a chapter, please know that building a support system of people who don’t know you as your job is so valuable and so meaningful — and volunteering is a great way to do this.

The Unknown: My very patient therapist has listened to me go back and forth and back and forth all year about whether or not I know what I’m doing after Design*Sponge. Spoiler alert: I have no plans and no idea. And worrying about whether I did or not all year hasn’t changed a darn thing. Letting go and trusting it will just all work out is not an easy (or practical) thing for most people. It’s financially risky, health insurance costs a ton (especially if you have a chronic disease like I do), and sometimes that “letting go” can turn into depression really quickly.

I’ve been worrying about all of these things, and dealing with bouts of depression, off and on since January. But I have been remembering a piece of advice from one kind woman at my Creative Mornings talk. She said, “I know it doesn’t feel like it right now, but THIS is the juiciest time. Don’t rush through it. The freedom of the unknown is something you’ll come to enjoy more as you get older. Don’t try to make it go faster. Breathe it all in.” I’m not exactly luxuriating in the unknown right now, but I am starting to understand what she said a bit more. I know I’ll have to find a job sooner than later, but I should let my mind stay open and imagine a future that perhaps I didn’t even realize was possible. That is indeed a juicy and exciting possibility. And one that she and my therapist are right about — it shouldn’t be rushed, if possible.

A Final Goodbye: I have no idea how I will feel on August 30th, when our site turns 15 years old and is all officially closed. It happens to be the day before my Mom’s birthday, so I’ll probably be calling her and celebrating that, but otherwise, I have no idea what that day will feel like. I can tell you that our final team retreat with everyone in one place felt glorious. I felt freer to be myself and relax a bit and I relished watching how our team has become friends and knows so much about each other’s lives. I loved making plans to go visit them and trying to find times to get around the world to see them all as soon as possible. I drove home feeling so loved and full of love for them all.

Then the next day I couldn’t get off the couch. I was deeply sad and felt like I was drowning. So the ups and downs have been real. Julia kindly offered to distract me from my sadness that day but I remember saying, “Thanks, but I think I need to feel this.” And if I can offer one bit of advice for anyone else in this place, it’s this: try as best as you can to feel it all. Don’t rush your goodbyes if you can avoid it. Soak them all in. Say thank you to everyone you can. Hug everyone you can. Take time to see people in person. Stay present for all the sweet moments in this bittersweet time. You will get through this. New chapters will come. But for now, stay in gratitude as often as you can and don’t be afraid to ask for a hug of your own when you need one. xo, Grace

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Comments

  • Thank you Grace, I will miss you so. Being witness to your life unfolding has been the true pleasure of Design Sponge for me. I feel as if I have watched you grow into a wise woman with a great big heart and a wide open consciousness. Your bravery in living your life out loud has been an inspiration that I am truly grateful for. I know you have your worries about what is next, but those of us who have been with you all along know that you will wind up exactly where you need to be, and that you will thrive.
    All the best to you, and thanks,
    Karen

    • Thanks for writing this, Karen, because I feel the same way but couldn’t have written it as you have.

  • I am reading this the day after I quit my job to travel around South America with my husband and then…who knows. I have been extremely anxious about this change, feeling like I am bonkers for I letting go of something secure like a job and insurance and run off into the unknown. This post spoke to me so much and made me feel so seen. I will also try to enjoy this “juicy time”. Thank you for all of your years of work and inspiration and I can’t wait to see what you do next!

    • If it’s any comfort. I did this years ago and it was amazing! I have never regretted it, not for one moment.
      Happy Exploring!
      Steph

  • I will miss you! The DS voice is unique, and the focus on inclusiveness is much needed in the field. As a parent of a child with a complex neurodevelopment disability, I feel that DS is one of the only places that recognizes the needs of individuals across all of society and elevates the conversations about design to the values and human needs that underscore our design choices. It’s a perspective that is needed in a field that’s all-too-often cookie-cutter and “aesthetics-first” not “people-first.” What I mean to say is thank you and heartfelt wishes in the new chapters that will come.

  • Much daughter and I closed our little retail art store last year and I know how sad and freeing all at the same time it can feel. I agree with what you said – take your time to feel I think all for a short time. ITs grief Andy although it passes much more quickly than if you lost a loved one, you still have to work through the stages. Then you will be able to look back fondly at all of the great things you were able to accomplish and be nothing’s but proud. ALso somebody with your creativity and work ethic is not going to sit around long. Now you have the luxury of consciously deciding what you want to do. Your experience and reputation will open so many doors but make sure you actively choose the one you want to walk through, because remember this is the start of the next thing !

  • Simply beautiful. And I say that with tears, both sad and happy, in my eyes. Brava, Grace!

  • Thank you for introducing me to interior design almost nine years ago. I have loved the house tours and personalized interviews, the before and afters, and how authentic your site always was. I am sad to see you close shop, but I wish you and your team all the best. Thank you for starting many of my mornings out so beautifully.

  • Grace, thank you so much for sharing your vulnerability and honesty during these last few months. In January just as you were announcing the next phase of your life, I was quitting my agency job for something equally unknown. Reading your essays, watching you parse out your identity from your work, helped me see that I’m not alone and that other passionate creatives can sometimes have a hard time separating themselves from what they make. I wish you the best of luck in whatever you choose to do next! Change has been great for me, and made me feel much more daring. Like Teddy Roosevelt said (via Brene Brown in my case): “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

  • Thank you for everything Grace. I know your next chapter will be just what you need, and I am inspired by your commitment to stay true to you and your message. I am also encouraged by your bravery to jump into the unknown. I can’t imagine how scary it must be, but at the same time, it must be very exciting. Sometimes, when I’m overwhelmed I confuse excitement for anxiety. I hope you are able to dig out the excitement in all this even on days that might seem challenging. You and Julia are extremely lucky to have each other to lean on for support, and you always have this wonderful community here rooting for you! Thank you again!

  • First time post from a long-time reader
    Thank you Grace, for DS in general, these words in particular and your social presence which were/are reassuring about being creative/free/adult/good. That’s a lot :)
    Best

  • Grace..I can’t believe how quickly the 15 years have gone by. It has been so fun following your story and Design Sponge and it will be fun to see what doors open when you close this one. I remember when my former husband passed away at a young age and feeling so sad about the unknown future and life I was about to start living. How was I going to breath again? But, I eventually did. And this year celebrated my tenth year wedding anniversary with my college sweetheart who I reconnected with several years later. Sending you tons of good in your new adventure…can’t wait to see what that is! xo Elizabeth

  • Grace, you embody your name.

    Blessings be on you and Julia and the DS team, thank you for all the beauty you have shared.

  • Grace, thank you SO VERY MUCH for this post. I am 90% sure I will have to close my studio very quickly this month. It feels like kismet internet camaraderie to hear you talk about this journey for you. While my business is not as old or developed as yours, I feel many of the same feelings, fears. Sending love + I’m excited to see what transformations the future holds. __ mary grace

  • Reading this with tears coursing down my face.

    So heartbroken about the end of an era (I’m sure I’m not alone in using that phrase here), but am smiling thru my tears at reading how deep and wide a perspective you have about your experience, Grace.

    Yes, relish this time of the unknown.

    So excited to see what’s next for you.

  • Wish you all the best Grace, change is hard and good, yes? And you and DS will live on in so many of our houses through projects, paint colors, design choices, your books etc. Good Luck, good health…All my best

  • Thank you for all the mornings that I started off by viewing Design Sponge; that’s a lot of mornings! Change can be bittersweet, but you have such insight, which I can truly appreciate. (I just retired (a term I can’t accept!), from being a product designer), my children are grown and gone, as has my spouse! So many changes, but it helps greatly to read this post.
    I will miss your design insight, and your insight and sharing of yourself. Good luck to you and your new adventures. I think that’s what life should be; an adventure!

  • So I’m sad… I liked reading your blog. I’m French and it was a different vision of lifestyle and it was refreshing ! I wish you a lot of good things for after. As we say in French: Bonne continuation ! Thanks a lot for all your posts

  • Dear Grace, Your essay live up to and beyond your name. It had to have been 15 years ago when a friend shared D*S with me (how is THAT possible). I bookmarked it and there it has stayed. There have been times when I followed it regularly and other times when I dropped in just for some visual relief and went back to the undesigned world. But I always, always was engaged and noticed growth and unexpected paths. So tonight when I wondered what you were up to (seemingly out of nowhere), I clicked the bookmark to find the most unexpected path. I am sad for myself yet very happy for you. It was so generous for you to give us this time and your thoughts. Thank you for the intention you set and the content you created. Be gentle, be proud. Best, Victor

  • I still remember a post from roughly two or three years ago where you hinted at something percolating behind the scenes, and asked us to tell you what business-oriented subjects we wanted more in-depth discussions on. In retrospect, that’s probably when Good Company was taking shape. I responded to the question with a request for a deeper dive into the idea of branding (particularly treating human beings as brands). Thinking about it now, the last few years of watching DS (and Good Company) unfold have been that conversation for me – the struggle to stay financially viable as a “brand” (as one must do now) while maintaining authenticity and inclusiveness, and promoting stories about a diverse array of real people and sometimes difficult and “unsexy” topics over click bait; your quest to be truly yourself rather than settling for performing the role of the archetypal, successful business woman brand. I hope you can appreciate on some level how brave you’ve been over the years, and how brave you’re being now :) Your courage emboldens us all to keep striving and evolving in our own lives, and your honesty about the doubts and fears helps us feel less alone when we too inevitably stumble. As much as I will miss this site (a lot!), I’m glad you’re letting go before DS starts to feel like an obligation, or worse, handcuffs. That wouldn’t be good for anyone. Wishing you space and peace to feel the juicy potential of the unknown (love that!), and to savor the sweetness of the first bite when that “next thing” finds you.

  • I quit my well paid, creative, ‘dream’ job after 21 years, much to everyone’s surprise, and with no clear plan of what to do next. I’m in the first few weeks of freedom, and loving it! Having the time to reconnect with people, rebalance, reboot, relax and recharge is amazing. Enjoy your time, and good luck for the future! X

  • Your open-heartedness is stunning. Been a reader for all of your 15 years, and as others have said, there will be a giant Design Sponged-shaped hole in my inbox. As I read your closing essays, I think of the many ways my life has changed in 15 years, too. From saving my DS feed as a treat over lunch in my office – to scrolling one-handed as I pumped for my babies in the middle of the night – and now experiencing my own unknown with kids in school. Thru all, DS has been a constant of inspiration. Blessings to you and Julia in your next adventures! ❤️

  • This is awesome and thanks for sharing. Best of luck for whatever the future holds for you!

  • Thank you for this wonderful site! I’m so sorry that you need to shut it down, but I understand. I used to write for another website that had to go through some major upheavals and now is barely recognizable. Wishing you the best on your future steps!

  • I use your site as a tool for learning/discovering, so I don’t normally read weekly and go post by post. Now today, I decide to take a peek at what’s happening lately and I see you are shuttering up. Goodness, what a shock. I know that closing a business is freeing and scary. I didn’t realize how much pressure was on my shoulders until we closed, but when it was all said and done I was lighter. I was a part of a family coffeehouse and closing day was epic. It is a date that I often refer to — “did such and such happen before the coffeehouse closed or after?” The space that you will have in your life after DS will surly be filled with new things, new priorities and new weights on your shoulders. Enjoy the after.

    I just hope that Design*Sponge, the website, stays open and readable. I read so much of it and rely on so much information that I’d hate to not be able to access it in the future.

    • Hi Kristin

      Sadly the site won’t stay open indefinitely. But we are hoping for at least 6 months or a year. It costs a lot of money to host every month, so sadly I can’t just let it stay online forever :(

      Grace

  • Hi Grace,
    I’m sorry if you’ve answered this question a million times already.
    I wanted to know if your site would still be available after you close.

    I was late to the party but for the four-odd years I’ve been lurking on your site, I’ve enjoyed reading your musings and been inspired by your design sensibilities.

    Wish you all the very best for wherever your heart takes you next.
    Here’s to new beginnings.

    • Hi Swati

      It will be up for at least 6 months. I sadly can’t afford to host the site indefinitely. All the images we host from home tours cost a lot to keep online.

      Grace

  • Grace, You will know your next direction when it comes. I am in awe of your bravery and transparency. In great appreciation and thanks, again. (ooh I will miss your site, but know I will survive. No choice! Ha!)

  • It’s funny what life brings your way. I used to write a blog called Design Hole. It was yanked offline by my ex husband. That was seriously depressing. I left that world and focused entirely on my interior design business. That’s been slow lately. Time to do something else. But what?

    I decided to turn a sort of nerdy hobby into a new career. Genealogy. How was I going to make that happen? About a week later, sitting in jury duty, I found myself next to a professional genealogist. We exchanged emails. Then I got in touch with the Maryland Mayflower Society to pick their brains. I’m now their Asst Genealogist. It’s volunteer. It’s also a great opportunity to learn before I leap. So you never know where your next chapter will find you. Maybe Alaska?

    I’ve enjoyed your blog since the beginning. I know you’ll find ways to continue inspiring others. Have fun!

  • I have followed your blog for at least ten years if not more. It is the only blog I regularly follow. Anytime I’m looking for a new and fun recipe, project, travel destination, culture, etc. I turn to the blog first. What you have created is wonderful and brave and will always be something that I will have loved. Thank you so much for sharing this part of yourself with us. This site will be greatly missed. Over the last few months I have selfishly hoped that you would change your mind or have some grand plan to “improve.” But I completely understand. Again, thank you for what you have brought me and brought the world. You will be missed.

  • @design*sponge
    Your obvious wisdom and talent got your back. I appreciate your words and encouragement as a person who is also in transition in the unknown. This was a pleasant thing to stumble upon. First time visitor to the site. Goodluck!

  • Dear Grace – I wish you every happiness. You are very special – I say this not as someone who has followed Design Sponge (I’ve loved dipping in here and there over the time but have not been a regular reader), but as someone who came here on reading that you’re wrapping up soon and have read your honest and beautiful post here today on a subject that resonates with so many. It would not matter whether you’d created Design Sponge or not – it’s ginormously plain to see how kind, caring and generous you are. And those are gifts that will always be yours to give, no matter what work you are doing. Take good care of you ~ bless your fuzzy huge heart and thank you. x0

  • Hi Grace! I was a verrrry early reader of your blog back in the early days (2007ish?). It was such an inspiration and catalyst in my creative professional life, on and offline. I’ve come back many times over the yeras, and although I’m not a regular reader now (just catching up on this news about the site closing!), I feel compelled to say “Hello!” and “Thank you!” It has been such a pleasure to watch, learn, and grow along with you and your web presence all these years. L.

  • Good luck with what comes next and thank you for all your work and love you’ve poured into the space over the last fifteen years. I’ll miss the little spot on the internet, but I’m wishing you and the whole tea all the best in this juicy season and the future beyond, whatever it brings.