As of today, this is our final month of posting here at Design*Sponge. After almost 15 years, it’s time to head on to a new chapter — but not without talking about some important ideas and issues before we go. If there’s one thing I’m the most thankful for here after all these years, it’s been our community’s willingness to talk, learn, and grow together as we discuss home and all things related to it. So this final month, I’ll be writing a series of posts on bigger topics that touch on design and are rooted in universal human issues we are all trying to make better. The goal of these posts isn’t to provide some sort of definitive fix, but instead to open up the conversation to all of us and hopefully inspire some meaningful connections that will continue on long after our posts are gone.
Today I wanted to start with a topic that’s near and dear to my heart: how design can make a difference in the world. And, more importantly, how each of us — as individuals — can make a difference. I wanted to share six ideas (small and large) that I’ve received or learned from my experiences here in the design community, but I’d also love to know what you see as ways we can all do our part to make the design world a more inclusive, supportive, and connected community. Before we dive in, I want to note: these are just suggestions. No one “has” to do anything, nor should there be any judgement for people who choose to do (or not do) any of these ideas. We all do our best with what we have to learn, grow, and contribute and the goal of today’s post is to open up a discussion on all the ways we can continue to move our community in a direction that feels open and welcoming.
- Open your home to those with different points of view and different life experiences. It took me leaving one of the most diverse cities in the world to finally open my mind on a number of different issues, namely economic hardship. In the town we now call home, over 35% of our full-time community lives below the poverty line. We’ve gotten to know people from a greater range of economic, educational, and political backgrounds here and I am grateful for that. They have taught me to listen more, talk less, and assume nothing. Is it always easy to talk about hard issues we don’t have in common? No. But is it an important part of better understanding just how meaningful our homes and our communities are to us all? Absolutely. I’m not saying anyone has to open their safe space to anyone that makes them feel unsafe, but if you’ve never welcomed people in your home for a meal, coffee, or a quick chat who is on a different part of any type of identity spectrum, please consider opening your doors if you’re able. Getting to know and understand each other (especially when we have different life experiences and backgrounds) is one of the most powerful ways to better connect with and learn from our community.
- Shop locally when you can. Living in a rural area, I’ve learned how difficult it can be to shop locally for a lot of things. That often means you have to drive further, spend more, and have less flexible delivery or purchase options. But if there’s one thing that’s stuck with me the most over these past 15 years, it’s noticing how quickly our city guides became out-of-date because of smaller indie shops closing. Almost as soon as we were publishing them, shops were closing because of large box shop competition or the loss of customers to huge online retailers. I don’t know how to curb the spread of businesses like that as an individual (and I certainly think they should be paying more in federal taxes than they are), but I know that shop owners from every part of the country have told me that if people shopped in their stores just once a month, it would make a huge difference. So if indie design is something we want to see flourish, supporting it in person, whenever possible, is a helpful step.
- Learn about the cost of production and goods. The single biggest complaint I listened to over the past 15 years was, “Why does this cost so much?” I tried my best to talk about the struggle between handmade/indie work and big box shop prices, but I’m not sure I was able to move the needle at all if I’m being totally honest. I still hear from people who want sofas under $250 and handmade ceramics that cost the same as a discount box store price. And believe me, I know why. Our economy is struggling and jobs don’t pay what they used to (and are hard to come by in the first place). But I also know that asking independent artists to not charge what they need to stay afloat isn’t the answer. So if I can leave you with one shopping related request, it would be this: take a few moments to Google or read about the people, materials, and products that are a part of our community. The people making these sofas, ceramics, and furniture are hardworking business owners and employees like the rest of us and those costs are often the way they get paid and support their families. A better understanding of costs and labor doesn’t mean we can all magically afford everything (or that we should be judging anyone for shopping at box/discount stores), but I believe it might lead to greater compassion and understanding, which would go a long way in supporting members of the design community who are trying to go it on their own and produce here in the US.
- Remember that homes are owned by real people, with real feelings. One of the most difficult trends of the past five years has been seeing how we all (myself included) talk about each other online. I think one of the downsides (although there are many upsides!) of online living has been the way we tend to perceive or imagine another person (and their home or lifestyle) as both open for extreme judgement and able to handle hyperbolic feedback without damage. As someone who chose to live a lot of their life online, I can say from experience that building a thick skin to internet criticism is hard. It took me 10 years. And still, some things really hurt. So imagine being a “regular” person, who does NOT spend most of their life online, choosing to share their home on the internet. Now imagine someone telling them they “should be ashamed of themselves” for painting over wood, or that they “must be a terrible parent” if they chose to decorate their child’s room in a certain style. These are comments we see on the regular on both social and our comment pages here. I moderate a lot of them (and email the commenter to talk about why), but it’s honestly been a very disheartening part of my work here lately. I think social media has been a part of thinking of people as brands and not humans — and we don’t have compassion for brands in the same way we may have for humans. So all of this is to say — please remember that people sharing their lives online are real people. Talk to them (and take the time to take a deep breath before laying into someone over design) like you would someone you know and care about in your life. If you think “well this is what you get when you choose to share online,” please imagine these comments coming toward you, your family, or someone you love. Online cruelty and hyperbolic claims don’t connect us, they divide. Someone wrote to tell me they thought our living room was a, “Pepto Bismol-colored hell.” Thankfully Winky, Julia and I love our Pepto Bismol-colored hell.
- Encourage design to include, not exclude. Clickbait has changed the way we work and speak online. There’s much less room for nuance, so we’ve seen most media outlets have to rely on catchy or extreme headlines that will get attention, for better or worse. I’ve seen this affect the design community in the following way: an overwhelming swell of articles and outlets claiming that there actually IS a right and wrong way to decorate and scaring people into thinking they’re making “mistakes” that can’t be changed. Yes, sometimes there are decisions that are costly, structurally unsound, or that are just worth giving a second thought before investing in them. But these articles are never about those. They’re about furniture layout or upholstery color or wallpaper. And those have never “ruined” anyone’s lives or homes, period. Design should be FUN. It should make us HAPPY. It shouldn’t make us afraid that if we paint a wall purple, we’re making the biggest mistake of our lives. And people shouldn’t feel like their home is less beautiful if they do embrace a trend, don’t embrace a trend, or do something that’s deemed out-of-date or uncool. Let’s celebrate and encourage a design world that looks as diverse and exciting and colorful and fun as our community actually is. So yes, there’s always room for minimalism and people who want all-white everything, but there should also be room for people who want an all-orange house, or maximalism or something that falls anywhere else in the spectrum of design. What we need to do is encourage our design outlets and media to talk about design from a place of inclusivity and not exclusivity. Not every publication has to love all types of design, but it would be helpful for our community if we spoke about things that weren’t our personal cup of tea from a place of appreciation and not “this is wrong.” And honestly, in 10 years there will probably be people ripping out all the subway tile, wallpaper, waterfall marble counters and adding walls to the open floor plans that we’ve all loved for the past few years. Every design era has its day and understanding that these things come and go and making room for them all to be someone’s favorite look would be a great start.
- Speaking of inclusion: speak up about it! I spent far too long not noticing the lack of inclusion in our design community. And I’m ashamed of that. I didn’t just not notice it and not speak up, but I benefitted from that lack of inclusion and furthered it. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but that doesn’t change the end result: that I created an online space where I didn’t actively support and present the stories of people whose lives and identities were different than mine. I am forever grateful for patience and guidance of friends and readers who took the time to point out to me all the ways in which I wasn’t speaking up to support people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people (before I openly identified as a member of that community), and people from other marginalized communities. Now that I see how many people aren’t being included in conversations and opportunities in our community, it’s all I can see. It reminds me of how much more vibrant and special and exciting our community would be if all people, and their cultures and styles and voices, were included. So what does that mean for all of us as individuals? It means that we have to start speaking up. Speaking up when we see design outlets, events, expos, trade shows, panels, and networking events that don’t include people of color, disabled people, LGBTQ+ people, people from different economic backgrounds and people who don’t already have numerous platforms for their identities and points of view. If you see this happening (and it’s hard not to see it everywhere in our community), please say something. Speak up online, via email, and in person and ask the organizers and founders why they aren’t including these voices and what they are going to do to change. And if they don’t, please support organizations and events that ARE doing more to be inclusive. And if you don’t see them, please consider starting your own. Part of my personal work for the past few years has been trying to create these new outlets or financially support others that are trying to be the change they want to see. So if you don’t want to speak up publicly yet (or can’t, for fear of personal safety), support these groups (buy their magazines, attend their events, donate to their crowd funding, or follow their newsletters and social feeds) trying to be the difference our community needs.
What are the changes you’d like to see our community members make on a personal level? What are the changes or steps you’re already taking? I’d love to hear from all of you and work to collect a wide range of ideas and steps here that we can all learn from and add to. With love and compassion and support, Grace