How A Side Project Became Australia’s Most Popular Design Website

There’s only a handful of people who are brave enough to dive head first into their passion, and it’s often the same few who say without hesitation that they truly love their job. We’re fascinated and inspired by their stories, and Lucy Feagins of The Design Files is one of them. KATE McCABE spoke with her about how – and why – she turned a labour of love side hustle into Australia’s most popular design website.

I’ve been fan-girling over The Design Files for years. Probably because I’ve spent my twenties in cluttered mismatched share houses, waiting patiently for the day I could have bare walls to hang art on or a kitchen nice enough to unpack my Riedel stemless wineglasses from their original boxes. In the interim, I’ve been living vicariously through The Design Files. More specifically through the architects, builders, collectors, designers, artists, florists, media personalities and everyday creatively inclined people who have been putting their homes and their wares on show through the site. And as the Founding Editor, it’s Lucy Feagins who’s been holding the spotlight.

Over time, The Design Files has branched out into profiling gardens, food, and international homes. It’s been named one of the Top 50 design blogs in the world by The Times (UK), and featured by Design Quarterly, Inside Out Magazine and Triple J (to name a few).

In the beginning

Lucy’s journey to success is not an unfamiliar one. After completing a Bachelor of Creative Arts (a course she describes as “a weird but wonderful creative course that no longer exists”), Lucy did what most other creatives have done: she worked tirelessly as an unpaid intern. Gradually – over five years – this turned into a sometimes-busy-sometimes-not freelance job as a film and TV set stylist.

“Like all freelance work,” she said, explaining her time in the film industry, “there’s times when your calendar is scarily quiet. I started The Design Files to fill in the gaps but it quickly became all-consuming. To be honest, it was never supposed to be a business.” It would be six years until she could give up her trusty casual retail job.

Things certainly didn’t happen overnight. “It’s been slow and organic. The Design Files is nine years old this year – the internet was a very different place when I published our first post in 2008. It started as a side project, a hobby that I worked on outside of my day job.” Lucy would do all the site’s daily work – writing articles, responding to emails and editing photos – in her spare time.

Taking the plunge

Her composed tone and unrelenting positivity makes it sound way too easy. She says things moved gradually which meant there wasn’t any anxiety about taking the plunge to make The Design Files a full-time gig. “I’ve never had a ‘real’ job or a secure source of income. I’ve always been a freelancer, which is essentially like being a one-person business. Ever since I finished studying at the age of 21 I’ve had an ABN, I’ve been invoicing people, chasing people to pay me, paying my own tax and super.”

“The world needs creative people, projects and businesses just as much as it needs doctors, lawyers and people who work at the council.”

“I started to accept a little paid advertising on the site about a year in – at first it came unexpectedly, I would just feature a business and they would see a great response… So I created a space for some small advertisements, offered them to local businesses at a set fee per month, and it grew from there. By end of 2010 (three years in) The Design Files was my full-time job.”

“I didn’t have to ‘quit’ a job per se, I just found that The Design Files was steadily getting busier and bringing in a pretty similar amount of income each month. I set myself a challenge to not take on any freelance work for three months and see how it went. It went pretty well and I never looked back. These days, there’s four staff plus me.”

Following her passion as a career was a no-brainer

I asked Lucy if she still had the same passion for design that she had before the site took off, and her answer was confident and honest. “If anything, I’m more passionate about design, but I’m also more discerning! I can be a bit judgemental sometimes because we see so many submissions. For instance, I instantly lose interest if something seems a bit unoriginal, or a bit fake, or a bit twee. I’ll always be passionate about great design, art and architecture… but I probably have a lower tolerance for PR hype.”

“My love of design has been shaped by running the website. I’m truly most inspired by the creative people we discover and feature. I love seeing what people are making and how they’re making it, getting to snoop in their studios, homes and workplaces, seeing the full story behind the finished product.”

The world needs creatives like it needs doctors and lawyers

Her take on working in creative industries is a breath of fresh air. “If you’re following a creative career path it’s not usually a choice, it’s just what you’re supposed to do. The world needs creative people, projects and businesses just as much as it needs doctors, lawyers and people who work at the council.”

“Don’t approach a creative career like it’s something special or weird. Just do it, and treat it like it’s serious (which it is!). Don’t be apologetic or flaky. Turn up every day as if you have a boss breathing down your neck, and whatever it is you’re doing, just go at it hard and treat it like it’s the most important thing in the world. Following a creative career path has been amazing and rewarding and just basically the best thing ever.”

Staying positive and responding to challenges

In essence, it’s her determination and positivity that’s shaped Lucy’s drive for creation. When asked about setbacks, she instead referred to them as ‘challenges’. “Last year I became a Mum, it’s been a big challenge figuring out how that works when you run your own business… Keeping up with people’s online habits has also been a never-ending challenge too. Online audiences have changed so much in the nine years. Instagram didn’t exist when we started and these days it’s a huge part of our brand.”

Being the boss isn’t always good thing

As her team has grown, so too has the responsibility. “It’s taken me a long time to work out how to be a good boss, and I’m still not sure I’m 100% there yet. I love being a boss but I feel the weight of it consciously. I’m very aware of the mood in the office, the happiness of my staff, the momentum of the team. I feel responsible for all of that. And I’m also super conscious of being responsible for peoples’ incomes, I’m not sure when or if that ever goes away.”

“I used to think that answering everyone’s questions all day was getting in the way of me doing my work – but DUH that actually is my work. My most important job is keeping our little team happy and efficient and firing on all cylinders.”

The big achievements

“Don’t approach a creative career like it’s something special or weird. Just do it, and treat it like it’s serious (which it is!)”

There’s been motivation for Lucy throughout the journey, and she remembers to celebrate the wins. When asked about her proudest moments it’s often been the professional recognition she’s received along the way, like being asked to be a monthly columnist for The Age Melbourne Magazine, or her soon-to-be weekly contribution to Domain. “Oh and one time I was on The Block as a guest judge which was completely surreal and a bit weird.”

Never stop growing

As far as The Design Files has come, it’s not slowing down. Lucy called 2016 a “year of maintenance” where she was learning how to be a Mum and keep her business ticking at the same time, but in 2017 she says she’s back onboard full time and ready to “shake some things up”.

“We’re working on some new features for the website – nerdy stuff like page layouts and navigation which probably sounds boring but we are very excited. We’ll be launching an online store which I have been wanting to do for about five years, and we’ll be hosting out fifth Open House event“.

The best career advice she’s been given?

‘Lean in to it’ has become Lucy’s “kind of” life motto. She explains, “If the big picture seems too overwhelming, just ‘lean’ in the direction you want to go, forget about the big scary decisions and just lean. It’s amazing how far just leaning a little bit at a time can get you.”

On a more practical level, “Get a book keeper,” she advises, “and get a cleaner for the office, and later on… a graphic designer. In other words – don’t do stuff yourself if someone else can do it better and quicker than you.”

Kate is the summer editor of The Cusp. She gets by in life as a publicist but finds time to regularly contribute to The Cusp and AWOL. Follow her travels on Instagram @katermac and Twitter @krmcc

Lead photo: Lucy Feagins/Sean Fennessy
All other photos by Eve Wilson for The Design Files