Grace Bonney on The Art of Thoughtful Emails and Clear Communication in Collaboration
Have you ever received a thoughtful email? Chances are you judged a person’s intentions or character based on how the email sounded. Reaching out to other creatives is a skill that can either close or open doors. You can send the most sparkly, thoughtful email and still get a no—but what you tailor in return is a reputation rooted in respect, integrity, and professionalism.
We spoke to Grace Bonney, the founder of Design*Sponge—a daily blog started in 2004 that has continuously empowered creative communities by making the design world personal through home decor tips and products with meaningful stories behind them.
Grace shares her approach to reaching out to other creatives to work together (and the requests that she loves), the beauty of collaboration and the way it enriches the content you create.
Since 2004, you’ve been leading Design*Sponge, spotlighting beautiful work from the creative community and putting their stories at the forefront. What’s something that you learned early in your career that’s still relevant for you today?
Grace: One of the earliest lessons I learned is that long-term success has more to do with cultivating kindness and compassion than it does with clicks, traffic or buzz.
I’ve made (and continue to make) mistakes along the way, but any growth and success Design*Sponge has experienced over the past 14 years is very much because of trust we’ve created with our community. And that comes from communicating openly, honestly and owning up to mistakes as much as successes.
So much of Design*Sponge’s content is collaborative. What does a professional email look, sound, and smell like?
Grace: I’m a big fan of keeping things short and sweet. Everyone is busy, so getting to the heart of the matter (especially if you’re asking for something), is important.
I like an email to:
- Start with the right name. No nicknames for people you don’t know and please spell names correctly and make sure you’re not pasting the name of another person/publication.
- Include a personal introduction. I always feel more connected when someone lets me know a little bit about who they are. A friendly tone is always helpful.
- Show me that you know who you’re reaching out to. I don’t mean compliments or praise. I want to simply know that you know who we are, what we’re about and what we do.
- Get to the point: Tell me what you’re looking for in detail. I respect people’s time and appreciate the same. So rather than being vague, tell me what you’d like, when it’s due and, if appropriate, what the budget is. The more efficient the communication is, the better.
One of the earliest lessons I learned is that long-term success has more to do with cultivating kindness and compassion than it does with clicks, traffic or buzz.
You’ve had to say no to opportunities even when you wanted to say yes. What are some strategies that have worked for you over the years?
Grace: I’m always fine-tuning this, but as I’ve gotten more protective of my personal time and health, it’s become easier to know if something is worth doing. That doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally wish I’d gone to something I said no to, but it mainly means that I’m making decisions that allow me to keep doing what I’m doing without burning out.
My main considerations are always:
- Do I have time for this? Is it worth the time away from home, family and other commitments?
- Is my time and contribution being valued? This obviously is a sliding scale when you’re talking about collaborating with non-profits and school groups, but if a huge corporation or event is asking me to create content or a speech, I believe that time and work is worth compensating. When we all work together to ensure that people creating content are financially supported, we help lift up the entire community. I don’t want to see any publishers, makers, artists, etc. creating work for free.
- Does this feel important and meaningful? This decision usually overrules the others for me. Right now I’m most interested in working with young people (either in college or grade school) and supporting any group that is giving back to the next generation of artists in our community or to those in need.
What are some of the hardest and meaningful lessons that you’ve learned in collaborating with others when creating content? Any challenges in ownership, creative direction, timing, etc., and how did you move forward?
Grace: To most important lesson is to always have a clear and defined contract that includes an out clause. Even the most wonderful beginnings sometimes have messy ends, so I think it’s best to spend the time up front defining how things will end (who will be credited, what the kill fee is, etc.) when things change or don’t go as planned.
I used to go into every collaboration with the assumption that it would all goes as planned because we all wanted that. But things change, and good contracts mean for good relationships in the long run. So now I won’t enter into anything if there isn’t a clear document outlining what we’re all expecting, what everyone’s roles are, and how we’ll handle things if they don’t go as planned.
What’s the best introduction email you’ve ever received? Could you highlight some elements or traits that you’ve read?
Grace: The email introduction that stands out most in my mind was from Maxwell Tielman, a former team member at Design*Sponge. He reached out to me after graduating from college and was looking for a job. I didn’t have the budget to hire anyone, but Max’s email was so compelling that I ended up re-structuring our budget so we could bring him aboard — he was (and still is) that talented.
His email was simple, straightforward and did exactly what I love: he let me know just how well he knew Design*Sponge, what we’re about, and where he could see adding value to the site. He basically wrote a new job description that I didn’t even know I needed, without being presumptuous. That tone isn’t easy to nail, but he did. It was the perfect mix of friendly, helpful and to the point. I knew what he wanted, what he would bring to the team and how much he understand what mattered to us and why. All in about four paragraphs.
What are your personal tactics before reaching out to someone who you want to work with? Any pre-rituals that set you up for success?
Grace: Research, research, research. I had to cold-call (or email, rather) over 100 women for my last book, In the Company of Women, and it was important to me that I respect their time and let them know how much I knew about their work and what was important to them.
I researched what they were currently working on, as well as any personal information they’d shared on social media so I could make sure it was an appropriate time to contact them. Then I condensed that down into three short paragraphs. I introduced myself and my work briefly, then I let them know what I loved about their work and why it would be an important part of this project and then I briefly outlined what we would need from them for their participation (time required, date ranges and how the photo shoot would work) and gave them the project deadline.
I always try to keep things as short and sweet as possible so people don’t end up in a long email chain with multiple questions going back and forth. That brevity allowed us to book and arrange 107 photo shoots in two months and I always swear by getting things done that way.
I won’t enter into anything if there isn’t a clear document outlining what we’re all expecting, what everyone’s roles are, and how we’ll handle things if they don’t go as planned.
What does the future of content look like to you?
Grace: I think the future of content is something I can’t even predict yet. I look at the next generation of writers, artists, performers and entertainers and the way they think about connecting with people is always completely new and unexpected to me.
I think the future will definitely be multi-disciplinary and multi-platform (video, social, print, online, merchandise, radio, etc.) but where it’s going feels like outer space right now. Anything feels possible, and I love that. I feel like a bit of an old dog trying to learn new tricks, but it’s exciting just to be in this next phase where I don’t feel competitive with that next generation — I feel excited to watch them and cheer them on and learn from the innovations they’ll bring into the community.
What is your definition of owning your content?
Grace: It’s two-fold for me. First, it means literally owning it and being able to control how it’s used, shared, presented and contextualized. I take everything we do, even a simple home tour, very seriously and try to make sure that we do everything we can to ensure that home, story and the people living there are respected, presented as they would like and that we contextualize their story so that people better understand—and connect with—where they’re coming from. That’s not something I could do if a larger company owned my content or distributed it in a different way.
Second, I think it’s important to own your content in the sense that you take responsibility for it. I’m proud of most of what we produce at Design*Sponge, but I’ve made a lot of publishing mistakes over the years. And owning those mistakes and talking about them publicly (and hopefully helping others avoid those pitfalls or mistakes) is a part of that accountability and trust you have to build with your audience. So I want to make sure that I can go to bed at night knowing I did my best to protect and celebrate the people we’re writing about and that when that goes wrong, I take responsibility and people reading know that we care and are doing our best.
Any final thoughts on this subject that you want to express that I haven’t asked as a question?
Grace: I think ownership is going to change and evolve over time as publishing independently becomes harder. With social media algorithms changing in a way that presents a big challenge to small publishers (favoring personal over brand updates), we’ll need to start producing content under other brands’ umbrellas because they’ll have the budgets, reach and access to larger audiences. Larger brands always want to own every part of that content from top to bottom, so negotiating ownership is going to be trickier. But it’s always worth that time and effort.
At the end of the day, when content producers of any type feel respected, they do better work. And that should always be the end goal for anyone putting work out into the world.
I’m proud of most of what we produce at Design*Sponge, but I’ve made a lot of publishing mistakes over the years. And owning those mistakes and talking about them publicly (and hopefully helping others avoid those pitfalls or mistakes) is a part of that accountability and trust you have to build with your audience.
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Recommended tools by Grace:
- Google everything: Gmail for email, Google Forms for our home tour submissions, Google Chat and Calendars for team meetings and planning.
- iPhone: Is there anyone that doesn’t use some sort of smart-phone for running a web business anymore? This thing is attached to my hip 24/7.
- Boomerang: This app is a game changer. My inbox would be even more chaotic without the ability to clear it out, send things back to me and set bounce backs when people don’t respond.
- Foam core boards: In the opposite direction, I like to “vision board” plan every project we do, from books to year-end goals. Seeing things physically represented is really helpful and getting to do something creative like collaging uses a different part of my brain and sometimes leads to ideas that I wouldn’t have had just typing away on my laptop.
- Tina Shoulders and Kristina Gill are two women responsible for a major change we made at Design*Sponge a few years ago. They consistently pointed out the lack of inclusivity on the site and helped me steer our tiny ship in a direction that would help all readers feel represented and celebrated.
- Anything Nikki Giovanni or Pema Chodron have ever written has inspired me to accept and love and to my best to radiate that back into the world (at work and at home). Nikki’s confidence and Pema’s sense of awareness and acceptance are always in the back of my mind.
- On Being with Krista Tippet and Oprah’s Super Soul Sundays are a constant source of balance and inspiration. It’s easy to think that home tours and design are just about surface and aesthetics, but there is SO much more there when you pay attention. Both of these shows constantly remind me to dig deeper to find those stories and discussions and to present them with respect and compassion.
- RuPaul’s Drag Race is my biggest source of inspiration these days. Not only because she is able to always find that balance between fun and art and meaning, but because she understands that any and every platform is a gift-—and that sharing it with the next generation and finding better ways to support them is a meaningful long term goal.
- Volunteering is a huge part of my life. It feels real and important and vital—which are feelings that aren’t always easy to come by working online. Father Greg Boyle who runs Homeboy Industries wrote two books that discuss the ways that giving back and connecting with those in need of support are so important. In Tattoos on the Heart he talks about being present with people in business and life. Before anyone steps in his office has says, “Now hear this.” I took that to heart and do that anytime I’m listening to someone or working on something. It’s helped me be more focused and productive at work and at home.
CreativeMornings talks on collaboration:
- Co-Founder and CEO of FiftyThree, Inc., Georg Petschnigg, looks at collaboration through the topics of network, tools, and creative process.
- Brandon Hill and Peter Chang of No Kings Collective on the importance of collaboration.
- Chad Littlefield presents a compelling and thoughtful perspective on the “fantasy of collaboration.”
- Milk & Bone, the popular Montreal duet, opens up about the many languages and collaborations they have had to develop in order to create their unique style.
- Parker Gates is a co-founder of stoke.d and discusses the importance of giving positive feedback to get the most of out of collaboration.
- Simon Curran & Lucien Law, the principal partners of Shine Ltd share five learnings from their collaborations across advertising, hospitality and community building.
- Dancer and frequent collaborator Edwin Olvera preaches the importance of project agreements.
- Lou Lenzi, the Design Director at GE Appliances, shares insight on how to create a creative environment of that encourages collaboration.
- Interior Designer Megan Moore and UX Designer Juan Sanchez discuss collaborating together to build a new co-working space that helps creative professionals collaborate with each other.
- Wilson Miner talks about collaboration and its crossover with appropriation.