Design*Sponge founder Grace Bonney grew up knowing she wasn’t straight but not knowing what to do with that. Her love of Riot Grrrl music and angry collages informed her creative identity and after studying art and journalism in college, it all melted together in the creation of Design*Sponge. After 15 years and a lot of success, she’s just announced that she plans to shutter this year and she’s sending it out in a blaze of experimentation and celebration. We can’t wait to see what’s next!
What is your earliest memory?
I’m sure I can remember something earlier if I dig deep, but the most formative memory from my childhood that sticks out is being a very little girl and sitting on the counter at grandmother’s kitchen while she made chocolate chip cookies. She would let me eat the batter off the spoon by the handful and it was such an early memory of unbridled joy and unconditional love. Those moments feel harder to come by as you get older, so that one has always stayed with me.
How do you feel about democratic design?
I feel about democratic design the way I feel about the term feminist: it’s something we should all agree should be given. In the same way that all humans should be treated equally regardless of gender, all humans should have the right to design and objects that work for them and are accessible on all levels. That said, I know it’s a lot more complicated than simply agreeing to a concept. Deciding what is ‘accessible’ is complicated. The words “accessible” and “affordable” mean something different to everyone, and I rarely see people who are most affected by these issues being in positions of authority to actually affect change. So I 100% agree that design should be functional and accessible. But I also think we have to spend more time listening to the people most affected by those issues and including them not just in theoretical conversations but in positions of leadership and decision making. We also have to look at design production, too. If something is financially accessible because the means of production aren’t ethically or environmentally sound, does that really count as democratic?
What’s the best advice that you’ve ever gotten?
To embrace whatever works, until it doesn’t. I grew up in an editorial world where publishers and writers needed to have a seamless, pre-defined and “expert” tone at all costs. But that to me doesn’t leave room for people to change, evolve and grow as people. I think the strongest businesses and writers are the ones who are always learning, changing and course-correcting as they go along. So I’m thankful that along the way I learned to go with the flow and not fight it when things need to evolve and change.
How do you record your ideas?
Honestly, mostly through social media. I’ve learned to live and process so much online, through my blog and through things like Instagram. It’s kind of a weird way to understand a lot of personal issues, but it’s been really effective in reminding me that we’re rarely ever alone or the first person to have a feeling, a worry or an idea. I love the real-time feedback you can get when sharing ideas online (both good and bad) and am grateful that the internet has given so many introverts, like myself, a place to be social and collaborative in a way that feels a little bit safer and more in our control.
What’s your current favorite tool or material to work with?
Paper. Paper and scissors and collage will always be my go to tools. My favorite creative projects of every year are vision boards that my wife Julia and I make and it reminds me how powerful it is to see things in person, actually printed out and in your face every day. I don’t get that same impact from things that live on my screens and devices.
What book is on your nightstand?
I just finished reading a galley copy of Heather Armstrong’s new book, The Valedictorian of Being Dead. It was incredible. I cannot wait to see this on shelves and see the impact it will have on people living with severe depression. My family has a history of depression and seeing someone talk so openly about how it can affect every part of your life is so important and meaningful.
Why is authenticity in design important?
I don’t think it is. I think the idea of authenticity feels less important these days because I think the way we work and live makes authenticity a slightly outdated concept. What is authentic anymore? I think the best any of us can do is speak to what is authentic for our lives and our experiences- and to not pretend to be something different. The last thing I want is to see anyone criticizing someone else for not being authentic enough if they don’t know about the culture/community/history where someone/something is coming from. I see “authentic” used as a class signifier a lot in design and as a way to signal to other people on social media that you’re somehow better or more “authentic” than other people. But I think that’s all really dangerous and should be examined more closely.
Favorite restaurant in your city?
Top Taste. It’s an amazing Jamaican restaurant in Kingston, NY (the closest big city to us) and the owners, Sammy and Melinda, are so the kindest people. I could eat Melinda’s rum cake all day.
What might we find on your desk right now?
A stack of vision boards from the past 6 years. I’ve made them every year to try and get in touch with my inner thoughts a bit and they’ve always been so helpful. Now that I’m starting a new chapter, I dragged them all out to look at them and reflect on how much has happened over the years and it’s been interesting to see how much they’ve reflected who I was at the time and what was most important to me over the years.
Who do you look up to and why?
Maria Hinojosa. I respect journalists who are devoted to telling untold or unfairly represented stories so much right now (and always). She’s built one of the most amazing news rooms in the country (Futuro Media), started her own non-profit that is producing stories and a new generation of writers putting much needed stories from a POC-perspective out into the world. She doesn’t take guff from anyone and she isn’t afraid to speak her mind.
What’s your favorite project that you’ve done and why?
In the Company of Women. I got to meet so many of my heros and work with people I respected beyond words. But honestly, it’s the project that taught me how much I was missing in my work and that I needed to be listening a lot more than I was talking. It changed everything about the way I work. That said, the friendships I’ve made with my teammates at Design*Sponge is the greatest gift I’ve ever been given.
What are the last few songs you listened to?
Momentum, Aimee Mann
Crossfire, Nai Palm
Girl Anachronism, The Dresden Dolls
Money on my mind, Sam Smith
Mother, Ru Paul
You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) Sylvester
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