Gabrielle Blair is best known as Design Mom, the founder of one of the most popular design and motherhood blogs on the web, named as one of Time magazine’s Top Websites of 2010. In this interview, Gabrielle reveals the spiritual and personal motivations behind the blog’s origins and purpose, as well as her own philosophies about mothering her six children and developing all mothers’ innate creativity.
Have you always been a creative person, and how was this instilled in you growing up?
I’m the only one in the family that actually studied design but everyone in the family has creative instincts and I think this is from both my mom and my dad.
One of my earliest memories is when I was six years old, and we moved into the new home that our family had built. My mom, who could see that I had an instinct for art and design, let me decorate my bedroom. She let me have input on what the room would look like, the fixtures, the wallpapers, and what would look good together. She guided me through the process of interior design. She wouldn’t let me make a major mistake because she was spending money on this room, but I really did feel like I got to make some of those decisions and knew what it was like to live with those choices and the impact they had on me.
We ate great meals, but I remember just as much the table setting and the plates and the silverware. Thanksgiving would come around and the table presentation was at least as big a deal as what we were cooking. It was a very visual thing. There wasn’t a ton of money but thankfully creativity is a free thing, and when we needed a little centerpiece, my mom would just ask us to go out into the yard and find something pretty. I am sure she would have loved to order fresh flowers for the table weeks in advance. That wasn’t an option, but it didn’t mean that you couldn’t do something pretty or beautiful. I feel like there was always a lot of beauty in our home.
I don’t think of my dad as an artist at all, but he was a real entrepreneur. He was always starting a new business, or side opportunity. It’s natural for me to start a business. The businesses I own now are not the first ones I have owned; I have always had something like this going on. I think I was very much influenced by growing up with a mix of entrepreneurial adventures and creative pursuits.
Would you describe the path that led you to a career in graphic design?
When I was sixteen, I received my patriarchal blessing. One of the lines in it said that I would be blessed to be able to make a living should that ever become necessary. This was at a time when all you ever heard at Church was “Moms, you need to stay home with your kids!” I know different things are being said now, but at the time this statement in my patriarchal blessing was just mind-blowing to me. My mom and I walked out afterward and the only interpretation I could put on it was that my husband was going to die! There was no concept where you would need to provide for your family unless your husband couldn’t. That was a pretty bold statement in my patriarchal blessing.
When I went to college a couple of years later, I was very conscious of what I could do from home with the large family that I hoped to have. It was always in my head. I was accepted into the design program at BYU, initially in interior design, because that was the only design I was familiar with. One day I found myself walking around the Brimhall Building on campus looking at different work on the walls from different design majors. I could see neat CD covers that someone had done for different bands, and there were some typography studies, and I remember being told it was the work of the graphic design majors. I started looking into it and found it even more interesting to me than interior design, and more easily done from home. The only thing I needed was a computer. The Internet was just getting huge then and I could see that I wouldn’t even have to go and make presentations in person. It felt revolutionary, and so I reapplied to the graphic design program. This changed the way I could approach work and the way I could approach motherhood.
I graduated from college at the same time as my husband, and then two weeks later I had my first baby. Although I completed my work experience in advertising design and art direction at Ogilvy & Mather in Greece as a student, I have never known work without having children. We have always done some form of trading off the childcare while we have worked, and it has turned out brilliantly for us. I know it wouldn’t work for all couples, but that is how we have done it and my major and my patriarchal blessing influenced all of that.
As I interpret it now, my patriarchal blessing could refer to a specific time when we moved to New York and my husband was doing a PhD at Columbia University. We had been very prayerful about this move and what we should do as a family. Our third child was born just weeks after we moved and at first, we were making it work financially through student loans and my husband’s campus office job. A year later it wasn’t working anymore. My husband lost his job and couldn’t find another one. We prayed about it and the answer was that I should go and get a full-time job. Although I had been doing some freelance work, I was terrified! It had been several years since I had worked full-time and we were in New York instead of Utah so it was really intimidating to me. I put my portfolio together and went out. Within the week I had three great offers at the salary that I wanted and, reflective of my patriarchal blessing, I felt clearly that I was supposed to work while my husband completed his degree. I ended up taking the job that seemed the best fit for my family and I still have wonderful contacts from that. It was a blessing in a lot of different ways.
How did DesignMom come about and how has it helped you maintain a sense of self?
Since having my third baby, I have always been aware of my need to have a creative outlet. It was a challenging time, having just completed a big move and going from two children to three. It was financially stressful, and then three weeks later the September 11th attacks occurred. Sometime before the baby’s first birthday I had a total breakdown. I didn’t connect it to my baby, but I was diagnosed with postpartum depression. I was able to return to health pretty quickly and started working full time not long after that, which also helped a lot. Since then, I have tried to be very conscious of having something that helps me stay positive after each baby, and I have really never had a problem with depression since, in part because I was making sure I was doing something creative immediately after having a baby. I know this isn’t the case for everyone, but a creative outlet is key for me to stay mentally healthy.
I quit working full time after my fourth baby, and had the fifth baby 16 months later, and knew for sure that I couldn’t go back to full time work. It was just too overwhelming to have any sort of commitment or deadlines. Right after I had baby number five, I started thinking about what I could do that would be a creative outlet because even freelance design, which had worked so well for me in the past, was too much.
It just so happened that when I had my fifth baby, my sister started her blog, “Oh Happy Day.” I loved it because it was so fresh to me, and it was a daily place I could visit that had pretty things and inspiring ideas. A couple of months later, I decided I could write my own blog, modeled on my sister’s, about being a designer and being a mother and how that changes how I look at motherhood. I realize that many mothers are also designers, but someone writing about that felt unique at the time.
There was this huge design boom going on, and design was a big deal. A popular magazine at the time had the tag line, “design your life,” and the idea of being deliberate about your life resonated with me. Ben and I had very much tried to design our lives and to be very conscious about things like what kind of books we were bringing into our home, and the kind of artwork we collected.
Then there was the fact I was a mother. I was 31, and I had just had baby number five. Most of the women around me in New York were having their first baby! So I was their peer in age, but then I could confidently talk about surviving potty training or putting together a birthday party and how motherhood works. I just hit this really hot spot where design was cool and being a mother was cool. And here I was, an actual designer and I actually had five kids.
I started blogging and I tried to post frequently because it seemed to be this great creative outlet. And it was amazing! There was no boss; I could blog if and when I felt like it, at any time of day. In the same way that graphic design had felt like a better fit than interior design, suddenly blogging felt like an even better fit than graphic design. I could totally mesh it with motherhood in a way that no other job that existed before blogging could.
At first it wasn’t even a job, it was a hobby. But pretty quickly I had a readership base and although it didn’t make money for a while, I could see that there was potential and could start treating it like a business. What started as something to keep me from going crazy has turned into this accidental career. A few months in I ended up co-founding a website called Kirsty, and now I am a “social media expert” that speaks at and puts on conferences and is doing the blog. Of course, I could not have picked this for a career because it did not exist when I was a kid, and I don’t know how long it will last, but I cannot believe I get to do this for work! It is this huge blessing in my life and I love that I enjoy it. At the same time, I do work hard, I put in lots of hours, and I am constantly trying to be innovative.
Do you feel that you are able to empower women inside and outside of the Church through your blogging?
I really do hope so. I have a memory of pre-blog days, when I had three kids. We were walking to the library, I had on a cute dress, my kids looked clean and cute, and everyone was in a good mood. I remember a friend driving up and very sweetly saying, “You make motherhood look good, you make it look so fun.” I know motherhood isn’t always fun, believe me! But that was such a compliment. I hope I make motherhood look good.
Through my blog, I am not going to pretend that motherhood is always blissful, but I am going to try and show the joy in it and a way to find beauty in it, even when it is challenging. Yes, it is frustrating to make Halloween costumes, but let’s make it fun. I think it is about finding what is interesting to you, and making that work in your motherhood. For me it is art and design but for someone else it might be literature or science.
As a parent, I find it helpful when people model things that I do not know how to do well. I appreciate seeing what’s working for others so I can have a template and try that in my own life. For example, I’m always on the lookout for models of how to speak gently to your children. I need help with that! Likewise, I hope I am modeling for other people where I have strengths. I can model how to love your husband and how to speak kindly to him. I know how to do that and I am good at that. I can model how to do a fun activity with your kid because I know how to do that.
I know people do not come to my blog to have spiritual discussions or learn about the beliefs of my church–that’s not what my blog is about. But I am trying to portray a Mormon who is pretty normal. Someone you could be friends with. I’m always fascinated that the further I get from Utah, the more I realize no one knows anything about Mormons, or if they do there are a lot of misconceptions. I know I am not overtly religious on my blog but I hope I am still modeling a religious person. I like to mention things like we went to church on Sunday, or we blessed the baby, or I did girls’ camp last summer. I know we like to be a peculiar people, but I also see benefits to showing Mormons as regular sorts of people.
Do you feel your evolution in social media has enriched your life as a mother?
Yes, absolutely. I am prone to tell new mothers who email me that they should start a blog! We live in such isolation now compared to the past, when you had your mother in the home and there were other people around. Now we live our lives separately, but we still need people, especially when our babies are young. Blogging to the rescue! There is this blogging community that you can access 24 hours a day that provides comfort and encouragement and real advice. When I was a new mother, this did not exist and I was on the phone with my sisters and my mom for hours at a time, because I needed help. I remember feeling sorry for people who didn’t have their mom or their sister, but now blogging has changed that. All of a sudden you have many many people to ask for help and you can connect with a whole world of people you never could have before.
The other thing that blogging has done is glorify in a good way what moms do. For example, I detest the task of buying my kids shoes. If I take them with me so I can get the right fit, I am going to have to fight with them about getting the Buzz Lightyear shoes. If I go without them, then I am going to have to buy three pairs of the same shoe in different sizes to bring home and get the right fit. I used to dread the task because no one seemed to appreciate what a pain in the neck it was. But now, if I write about buying toddler shoes on my blog, all of a sudden that task is legitimate; it’s a part of motherhood that all these other women relate to, and can genuinely appreciate, and they leave comments with their own tales of shoe buying.
So many things that mothers didn’t get credit for (like potty training, or figuring out a birthday party) are now acknowledged through blog posts and comments, and it validates what you are doing. Of course, we know those tasks were valuable all along and don’t require validation to be worthy, but validation is important. When you become a mother you just don’t get validation often, but a blog can provide that.
Blogging has been this huge personal thing that has helped me grow and appreciate what I do each day: what we’re cooking for dinner, how to put together a room, what chores to assign the kids, etc. I am now constantly looking for the beauty in whatever it is we are doing.
As a mother of six children, how do you balance everything that you do, and what tools of the gospel do you use frequently?
Balance is elusive. I don’t even know what people mean by “balance” anymore. But I know there are very specific things that allow me to have the big family and the job. One is that my husband and I have flexibility in our work. If one or both of us had a job that required us to be in a specific place at a specific time each day, the way we are living our life now wouldn’t work. The fact that both of us have a flexible schedule makes a huge difference and just makes life easier.
Every few months we re-evaluate our family’s needs. One of the things we have found is that if I work between the hours of 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., the house and family life fall apart. So from 3:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. is sacred time. We’re doing homework, we’re doing dinner, we’re doing reading, and I do not look at my email or take phone calls. At another time in my life, that probably won’t matter as much, and when the kids were younger and home all day, it didn’t matter. But it matters now. Evaluating regularly and making changes accordingly works for us as far as keeping balance goes.
In addition to evaluations, we try to do a monthly interview with each of the kids where we talk with them two on one. There’s a scripture about Christ as a child that says, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52). So we base their interview on those four categories: wisdom concerns their schooling and education; stature is their physical health; and favour with God and man is their spirituality and their social life. Ben and I interview them together, and we keep a little journal where we record these interviews. In some years we’re really great at it and we do it often, and some years we laugh because we’re not so great at it. We don’t have guilt around it, we just do the best we can. At the start of the school year or at any time there is something important going on, we make sure the kids have access to priesthood blessings to offer extra encouragement.
We like being together and we look for ways that we can spend time together. I feel like we get that basic structure from the gospel. Family prayer is part of our day; we do our best with scripture study; we’re at church every Sunday and the kids know we take our callings seriously. They look forward to Family Home Evening, which is part fun, part learning, and very much part practical where we go over the calendar for the week and address needs.
How has your husband supported you as you have worked inside and outside of the home?
Not all men would be comfortable with their wife taking a turn as breadwinner, or would be comfortable with both spouses adding to the income in major ways. But it does work for us and I think a huge part of that is my husband. One thing that is unique about our relationship is that we have experienced the opposite “traditional” roles. He has seen how hard it is being at home with children, since we had a period where he was the stay-at-home dad when he was doing his graduate work. He knows the schedule for our kids as well as I do. If I have to travel for work now, there is no sense of handing the kids off to the dad who is sort of clumsy and doesn’t know what he is doing. The house doesn’t fall apart if I’m gone.
At the same time, it was really good for me to be the full-time breadwinner, so I could be compassionate toward someone who works full time. Before I worked full time, I assumed Ben had it easy at work with lunch breaks and adult conversation and not being interrupted any time he needed to use the bathroom. But working full-time, I realized that when the breadwinner gets home, he is exhausted, and it is hard to dive right back into the family. Experiencing each others roles was really great for us.
Interestingly enough, we switched back because I ended up having a couple more babies so I needed to be home with them, but I don’t feel that we ever switched back as fully. I feel like we have carefully built these careers that we can be flexible with. Once I was done working full time, we started a business together doing after-school language programs, where I did the design of the company and he was doing the curriculum. From there he started working as a professor, which is a very flexible schedule, and I started blogging at the same time. Now, four years later, we have this great situation where we both can work from home. Ben has a very steady job where as long as he puts his hours in and gets his projects done, he can be flexible. And of course, my schedule is completely determined by me.
I know it wouldn’t work for all couples to work side by side and be with each other this much, but we love it and it works really well for us.
How has the Spirit guided you in having a family and pursuing a career?
I don’t feel it is as big a deal now because women are working more, but when I was starting to have a family, it was hard for me to say to fellow church members, “Staying at home with my children and not doing anything else is not working for me” and not feel judged. No one was talking about any alternatives at that time, and all I was being told was not to fight against it, and that if I’m doing it right, I’ll love it, that’s just the way it is. In response to that, I tried to cope by filling my evenings with creative projects like designing a logo for someone, but I knew that if I abandoned all creative pursuits outside of motherhood, I would go crazy.
I wanted to do what was right by my family and by the Lord, and so from the outset of our marriage we were very prayerful about what we should do that would keep me sane and keep me loving my children and excited to be spending time with them instead of discouraged. I didn’t want to rebel and I remember having a conversation in prayer and saying to Heavenly Father that if He really wanted me to stay at home then I would submit to that. But I never had the sense that that was what He wanted of me.
I absolutely feel that Ben and I have been guided through our different experiences as we have gone to the Lord and outlined our concerns and our desires. I remember when we moved to New York, we were not comfortable with the expectation of working from 9:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. We knew many New Yorkers did it and made it work, but we knew it wouldn’t work for us. So we took it to the Lord and asked Him to help us see another path that would work for our family. And an alternative path was shown. We could never have seen the path we are on now, as the careers we have now did not exist. There really is no one pattern; it is about going to the Lord and being willing to receive what He will send us.
I really appreciated President Uchtdorf’s talk a couple of years ago about creativity, which was such a shift from how I felt women had been spoken to previously. I was so grateful for it because he emphasized that it is good to create, it is good to be happy! I believe it is okay to make motherhood what you need it to be so that you can value this time in your life, take joy in your children and help your children love life. There is no one fixed model for being a good mother. I believe that the Lord designs paths for us that we can’t see, or even imagine. If you keep your heart in the right place and know where your priorities are, you can find a way to make your motherhood work for you and for your family.
At A Glance
Gabrielle Stanley Blair
Location: Denver, CO
Marital status: Married to Ben Blair on August 19, 1995. Still married.
Children: Ralph 13, Maude 11, Olive 9, Oscar 5, Betty 4, June 5 mos.
Occupation: Blogger (formerly a graphic designer)
Schools Attended: Brigham Young University
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “All Creatures Of Our God And King”
On The Web: http://designmom.com and http://kirtsy.com
Interview by Louise Elder. Portraits by Justin Hackworth.
At A Glance