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