Last week we had a community discussion about trends. I wanted to talk about why my thoughts on them had changed and what that shift taught me about judgement in design. More so than any other post in the past few years, people joined in the conversation in a big way and the viewpoints and feedback you all shared (both in the post and on social) opened my mind and renewed my faith in talking about deeper issues here. Hearing everyone share their thoughts in such open, vulnerable, and constructive ways was powerful.
Several important issues arose in those conversations that we’ll be addressing in posts over the next few weeks, but one in particular stayed with me because it’s a conversation we’ve been having internally here at Design*Sponge for a long time: can we ethically support handmade/independent work and big box stores at the same time?
For me, the answer is complex. And it’s one that’s still evolving because we are always discussing this issue amongst ourselves at Design*Sponge. Whether it’s related to ad campaigns with large retailers, sourcing shopping posts, choosing where to host events, or finding new and better ways to support handmade and independent work that allows us to still stay afloat as a business — this topic is always on our minds. And no matter where you fall on the spectrum of feelings about retail, my biggest hope for this discussion is to understand each other better and then work together to unpack and clear away the judgement that happens when we talk about where and how people shop.
For the past 10 or so years, we’ve been hearing from readers who are very concerned about retail choices and how they’re presented. Their points of view are best represented up by four comments we get almost every week at Design*Sponge. They sound like this:
Behind these comments are some very important points and concerns and I want to unpack them a bit (and hear your points of view on them) so we can look at things more closely and try to understand everyone’s concerns.
The single biggest concern we hear about retail here is cost. The vast majority of comments we receive are a strong and passionate request for more affordable design options. Things under $100, under $25, and under $10.
When it comes to cost, it’s important to remember a few things:
- High-quality goods and handmade work typically come with higher price tags.
- People need things for their home and life that they can afford.
- People who produce things (which includes indie makers AND people working for and producing goods sold at box stores) deserve fair wages and safe working conditions — which come with a cost.
I completely understand why a lot of people want, say, sofa options that are under $500. But I also understand why most people making and selling sofas can’t afford to sell them for that price. But does that mean that the people who need someplace to sit don’t deserve to have options? The answer is complex, because I want to work hard to provide resources for everyone, but I also don’t want to promote and provide resources that are connected to companies that don’t pay workers fair wages so they can ensure low low prices.
So what should we do? For me the answer is to work harder to provide a wider buying (and non-buying) range of options for as many people reading as possible. That means options from independent designers who make things by hand, things from mid-range stores that produce in factories but offer more specification, things from box stores that offer lower prices and resources for reused, thrifted or upcycled pieces that don’t require purchasing necessarily or, if they do, come with reduced price tags (which is something I need to work harder on).
One of the issues I overlooked for a long time was accessibility. I spent most of my life living in a large metropolitan area and failed to think outside of my own bubble to consider what everyone in our broader community has access to. This is a concern so many readers (and our own team members) discuss regularly. So let’s look at some of the issues to consider when talking about accessibility:
- Regional availability: Not everyone has access to small studios, indie shops or retailers that provide a broader range of options, both style-wise and financially.
- Accessibility: Not everyone is able to travel and and use stores (of any kind) because of mobility issues or financial concerns.
- Financial accessibility: Everyone has different budgets, which means that even if a certain type of retail IS available in a given area, it may not be financially accessible.
This issue has really opened my eyes to the wealth of accessibility in my life and how much I’ve taken it for granted. On most days I can leave my house, get in my car, and drive somewhere to pick up something (be it groceries or a home good) that I need at a small range of stores, from small local to big box brand. This isn’t the case for everyone in our community and I want to do better to think about what sort of stores are truly accessible (in all the ways described above) for all of us and how to better represent and provide those resources here.
This issue is probably the most “hot button” topic in comment sections when it comes to retail and it’s honestly quite sticky. Because questionable ethics are not limited to the decisions of “faceless corporations,” they’re something we unfortunately see in the world of indie design, too. The primary concerns I hear most about are:
- Environmental impact: People’s concerns about environmental impact are most often mentioned in relation to big box stores and their effect on the environment from shipping and production to the ethical sourcing of materials. And while their scale of production definitely makes their decisions have a larger impact, it’s important to remember that not all independent makers source things in a low-impact way. For me, this is an issue to examine in relation to transparency and how important that is in retail.
- Labor ethics: This is my biggest personal concern and one I struggle with a lot. From how workers are paid to their working conditions to how the brands that are carried in a store are treated, the concerns about labor/production ethics in retail are real. Again, this falls into transparency for me and means that I’d really like to see more honesty and openness from stores about how their employees and brands are treated so we can make informed decisions about how and where we choose to spend our money.
Like so many issues related to retail, I think greater transparency is an important step for all brands, big and small. To better explain their methods — from hiring and worker support, to sourcing and environmental impact — would be helpful in making sure anyone that chooses to shop at their store knows what practices that shop uses.
One of the comment threads that’s started to appear a lot is the way in which retail is perceived as being more or less “original” – with indie design being assumed as the inherently more original option.
I think a lot of the concern comes from the all-too-frequent examples of indie artists being copied by some larger brands. I share that concern whole-heartedly and spend a lot of time behind-the-scenes talking with designers about options for handling this. (Note: please don’t call out a brand publicly before addressing the issue with counsel. It can save you from a counter-suit and can also help with settlements if things come to that. I’ve seen too many artists counter-sued for calling out brands, even when they’ve been copied and the case is clear.) While the scales definitely seem to tip in the direction of large brands knocking off smaller brands, indie design isn’t immune from copying either.
The bottom line is this: “originality” in the larger sense is hard to pin down. So many trends and styles have their roots in pre-existing looks/designs, both past and present. That type of trend-adjacent design doesn’t bother me in the same way that copying does.
So for me, the bottom line comes down to supporting artists who aren’t copying from other designers (that topic could be its own post and has way too much nuance to go into in detail here) and trying to avoid some of the judgement that surrounds comments about box stores’ styles being “unoriginal.”
Quality and Quantity
Last but not least, the issues of quality and quantity are always present when we discuss indie and box store design. The prevailing perception seems to be that indie stores are inherently higher quality and that smaller quantities are inherently “better” than larger ones.
But let’s break the issue of quality down a bit. We’ve all seen indie work that isn’t high quality and we’ve all seen box store work that isn’t high quality. So while I don’t think either retail form has a monopoly on goods that aren’t made well or with high-quality materials, it’s of course important to be concerned about quality because we all want to make sure we get the most for our money.
When it comes to quantity, I’ve seen a lot of discussion around the idea that higher quantities of goods somehow equal “bad” design. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. One thing I think about a lot with this issue is how many designers who would love to be able to make a living selling their work through their own company. And part of making that possible (i.e.: paying yourself a living wage and being able to afford healthcare) is scaling your business (or, alternately – but less popularly – your prices) to produce more that can be distributed more widely. So when I think about supporting indie design, I think about the importance of supporting those designers at all chosen stages of their career, whether that’s producing limited quantities at a local makers fair or taking the leap to expand to hiring more employees and producing larger quantities that get sold at larger stores around the country.
Final Thoughts (for now…)
This topic is one we will probably always be thinking about, discussing, and evolving our feelings and decisions on. Because ultimately we all care about independent design, it’s the reason we write here and the reason I started Design*Sponge in the first place. But we also care deeply about offering inspiration and resources that are accessible to everyone in our community, regardless of budget, location, or accessibility.
I’d love to know how you feel about this topic. Do you have a strong feeling about retail options? What are the options where you live? Have you ever felt judged by the way you shop? Have you ever judged the way someone else shops and now understand that issue a bit more clearly (I know I have, unfortunately). Do you see retail evolving or do you feel like options are becoming more limited? Do your decisions about retail have more to do with budget, location, accessibility or ethics? Or all of the above? Let me know in the comment section below. I would love to hear YOUR thoughts and stories so we can all understand each other better and learn to talk about retail options with less judgement and more compassion and connection. xo, Grace
*Note: I know there are some people who feel any and all retail is negative and don’t like or want to support that in any way. I respect that decision as well, so please understand I know that is a choice for some people. But the overwhelming feedback I’ve received over the past 14 years from our readers here is that people want to talk about how and why and where they shop.