Here at Design*Sponge, we’ve covered a wide spectrum of topics, from DIY how-to’s, to artist profiles and studios, to recipes, to pop culture topics and essays that run the gamut in subject matter. But through the years, our main focus has always been home tours. They’re our bread and butter. They’re our window to the world, and after publishing, reading and editing thousands of them, we still can’t get enough of them.
Year after year, readers entrust us with showcasing their homes — an intimate look at their life — and it’s something we don’t take lightly. We honor this trust by handling the home tours of others the way we’d want someone to tell the stories of our own homes, and we work to get the details just right — “What personal pronouns would you prefer we use?” and “Are you comfortable including the names of your children?” and “Are there ways we could better and more respectfully describe these cultural family heirlooms?” — because those details all work together to tell the story of you. After all is said and done, the greater conversation is not about design, it’s about life at home.
Our very first home tour published in 2007 — a small, one-photo peek inside the Portland home of artist Amy Ruppel — and it was written by Grace. She tells me, “I didn’t have any idea that people would want to see more content like this (at the time I mainly wrote about new product designs) and so I called it a ‘sneak peek’ because it felt like we briefly stepped inside Amy’s entryway, snapped a picture, and then ran out!”
“Over the past 11 years of running weekly home tours,” Grace continues, “we’ve featured almost 2,000 interiors and we’ve gone from running primarily submissions to spending the bulk of our time reaching out directly to people from a broad range of backgrounds and styles. I was the first and only home tour writer for years, and then we expanded to a small freelance team of three writers, then to two full-time writers (Amy and Max!) and now we’re a team of seven freelance writers spread across the world from Finland to California.”
As part of my Managing Editor duties involves editing all of our content (and writing home tours myself), I’ve had my hands on nearly every single home tour that’s published in the last 4+ years (aside from when I took two short breaks to give birth to my daughters); and before that, I was a hardcore D*S fangirl. I know our process like the back of my hand — a process that often takes 3-4 months per home tour — and with input from our talented team, today we’re going to pull back the curtain for you on The Anatomy of a Home Tour. —Kelli
How We Choose Them
Our primary objective here at D*S is to represent homes, and people, from all backgrounds. We pay special attention to ensure that people from underrepresented groups (people of color, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, etc.) are represented and celebrated here. We want everyone to feel seen, heard and safe on this site. We are constantly working to expand our search techniques for new homes while staying abreast of changes in the outside world and ways to be more inclusive.
That main focus leads me to our next criteria — we are always listening to you. In the past several months we’ve worked to track down homes that are more colorful and unique, preferably with interesting architectural details, because we’ve received a large amount of reader feedback requesting those aspects. While we are cool with trends and fans of many trends ourselves, we try not to feature the same types of styles over and over again, in an effort to offer our audience the best variety possible. These days, that entails us passing up more and more homes that might have, for example, all-white walls, plenty of plants and modern farmhouse details in a muted color palette — because while that look is beautiful, we’ve already shown it here before and there’s plenty of examples of that style to find all over the Internet and social media.
Lastly, and this is a big one for us: we don’t publish content that’s been published elsewhere. Why? Because we deeply value originality, and we also respect our colleagues in the interior design world. We don’t want to step on the toes of competing publications (especially online), so one of the first questions we ask someone we’re considering for a home tour feature is, “Has your project/home been submitted or run elsewhere online or in print?” If the answer is “yes,” we will sadly have to pass on publishing the home tour.
The most exciting thing about the process is seeing the final home tour photos for the first time, it’s like opening a present! -Sofia
How We Write Them
First, we either reach out to someone for a potential home tour, or we receive a submission (in our mailbox at email@example.com). If the homeowner is game to have their home featured, they send us a round of what we call scouting shots — these aren’t perfectly polished, but they give our team an idea as to whether or not the home will be a good fit for Design*Sponge. If the scouting shots are approved, we then ask the homeowner to submit their final images within two weeks — while following our photo guidelines. (We don’t currently have the budget for an in-house photographer, so we love to work with homeowners to snap their own pictures, with our help and guidance.) Once we receive final images and approve them, we send our homeowners a questionnaire for them to complete within two weeks, and their answers to those questions heavily inform how we write each home tour.
When it comes to writing home tours, Garrett, Sofia, Erin, Rebekah, Lauren, Grace and I have our own quirks and methods, but I think Garrett really sums up what makes a home tour memorable. “Stand-out interiors features really start with the homeowner,” he says. “The more vulnerable and forthcoming they are, the more personal and captivating their story will be. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. We are in an age where our online personas are just as important, if not more so, than our real selves. Oftentimes, this preoccupation with keeping up appearances gets in the way of homeowners presenting their authentic selves. When this happens, the story suffers greatly.”
Rebekah echoes this sentiment: “It’s great when people write like they’re telling me a story,” she says. “It’s up to me to retell it to our audience, but it feels even more intimate when I feel like I was brought into the home and painted a picture of what life is like in that house.”
Sofia imagines each person living in the home when she writes each tour, relying on gems of interesting tidbits that are provided to her by the homeowner to drive the narrative. “The most rewarding thing for me about the home tour process is that people open up not only their homes but their lives to us,” she shares. “My favorite thing is learning about the homeowners and envisioning their lives while I write. I never really plan a home tour — I start with a piece of information that intrigues me and let that take the story where it wants to go. Home tours are really just glimpses into the world of others — often there are so many wonderful stories and details that don’t make it in simply because there’s no room!”
Erin’s preferred method is to approach all technical parts of a home tour first (uploading photos, tagging the blog post to optimize search functionality on our site, writing the photo captions) and writes the story last — which is the complete opposite of how I write them. “I save the story for the end, because after looking at the images and getting everything together, it helps me see what direction to take the story,” she says.
No matter who on our team writes the story of your home, you can be assured that it will be handled with care. We’re constantly tweaking our processes to ensure that we help the homeowners tell their stories to us in the best way possible. “The recent revamp of our questionnaire to make it more personal has been fantastic,” Garrett adds. “Not only has it made our stories more interesting, but it has kept all of the writers on our toes, resulting in some of the best writing Design*Sponge has ever featured.”
One thing that I love about doing home tours is the hunt. I could search for homes all day long. -Erin
The process of producing a home tour for publication on D*S isn’t always smooth sailing. One of the biggest issues we encounter is finding out, usually last-minute, that someone has been working with a similar site or publication without telling us (even though we ask upfront). While we understand the desire to have as much press and attention on an interior as possible, we work hard to offer fresh content to our audience, so we occasionally have to back out of a home tour (often after months of work) if it appears elsewhere before our publish date. It’s definitely a tough day when you see the home tour you’re about to publish show up on a similar site, after being told there are not competing stories in the works, but it happens.
Another problem we run into is not finding the right fit or angle for final photography. Because we’re an independent site with no in-house photographer, we spent a lot of our time working with homeowners to help them take their own simple, bright photos of their home. But sometimes communicating those needs and descriptions remotely doesn’t always work out.
And, of course, there’s just plain ol’ ghosting: someone will verbally commit to a tour, send us photos, and then disappear! That’s always a bummer, too.
We are always working to be more inclusive, and appreciate your feedback in ways we can improve upon that. Along with continuing this focus, we also will continue to reach further outside the same circles of social media or popular pages of the online world to find new homes to feature that haven’t been showcased elsewhere.
We are in a constant pursuit of homes that drive inspiration and creativity forward into new aesthetic realms that might feature a room or detail that makes you say, “Wow, I have never seen that before!“ If you know of a home like that — including your own — we want to know. To that end, we are also always in search of spaces that embody home to whomever lives there, a celebration of self, family, heritage, personality, and so many more facets that make someone who they are.
“During my three and a half years at Design*Sponge, our features have become much more about the stories a home holds as opposed to its look,” Garrett says. “I’m so honored I get to be a part of this shift in focus.”
We all feel that way here at D*S: it’s an honor to tell the story of your space, and we thank you for allowing us to do so for the last 11 years. I’ll let Sofia take this thing home: “Having had the opportunity to work with homeowners all over the world has been so rewarding — not only do I now have a never-ending list of places I want to visit, I’ve made so many meaningful connections. I’m yet to meet a homeowner I’ve worked with in person, but I can’t wait for that to happen.”