How an Unexpected Surgery Launched HeartSpark Design

An accessiBe Spotlight Session with our founder, Lauren Atherton, about the story behind HeartSpark Design, including her personal challenges and aha moments running a creative agency alongside a chronic illness.

This interview was originally published by accessiBe on August 28, 2022. accessiBe Spotlight Sessions is a series dedicated to conversations with change-makers and people that have made an impact on the community of people with disabilities. Watch more Spotlight Sessions on Youtube

Ilan Fisher: Hello, and welcome to another episode of spotlight sessions. My name’s Ilan Fisher, I’m the host. I also head up on nonprofit partnerships here at accessibility today. I’m gonna be speaking to a really interesting guest Lauren Atherton. She’s the CEO and founder of HeartSpark Design and HeartSpark Design really has a very interesting message and story about why it’s actually called HeartSpark Design. So I’m going to kind of let Lauren really introduce yourself and understand a little bit about HeartSpark Design also about your story and really how we’re having this conversation today.

Lauren Atherton: Absolutely. So I’m Lauren Atherton. I own HeartSpark Design. We’re based outta Denver, Colorado, and I always, I got my career started in advertising and small agencies, internal teams, all sorts of different creative enterprises working with big clients, small clients. And roughly let’s see, five years ago I had emergency open heart surgery. <Laugh> like no history of heart disease, nothing. And that kinda rocked my world into you know, just trying to take care of myself more, really realizing a dream that I had to own an agency for nonprofits. So I went from working all hours of the day, all the time to really focusing on, you know, okay, what do I really wanna be known for and what am I really good at? Okay. I’m really good at design. So let’s build a team around that and start this agency that works with nonprofit organizations and quite a few health organizations that we work with.

And so after my surgery, I was diagnosed with Loeys-Dietz syndrome. And so it’s been quite a challenge to try to figure out how to run a business with a chronic illness and also serve nonprofits. So it’s really a mesh of you know, helping people really trying to bring good design to the nonprofit space in the United States. And that’s where I got introduced to accessibility. And so just trying to make sure that all of our websites are accessible and especially with a few health scares in my books, <laugh>, you know, making sure that we make that the web accessible for all.

Ilan: Thank you, Lauren. And for people who don’t know about Loeys-Dietz syndrome and, and I myself, and just at the beginning of my journey and learning about it, what is it and kind of, how, how is your journey been, been with it navigating?

Lauren: Yeah. So Loeys-Dietz syndrome is a connective tissue disorder and so it presents most frequently with heart aneurysms. So it’s really like that, and I’m still learning it myself. I’ve only been diagnosed for five years and I feel like I’m always learning something new. It’s closely related to Marfan syndrome. So if you’re aware of Marfan syndrome, Loeys-Dietz is like a cousin of that mm-hmm <affirmative> condition and in a wild turn of event. So with my first open heart surgery I had no. And the only way that you discover that you have it is through genetic testing and or if you have an emergency event or if there’s symptoms and signs, you know, that maybe your parents are aware of or your doctor’s aware of. So it’s not very well known. And it’s just starting to get more and more traction.

But with my open heart surgery being emergency, I was told afterward that I had a one in 3% chance of living wow. After open-heart surgery, because essentially the walls of my aorta had weakened. And then there was blood leaking through, I don’t wanna get too much into the nitty gritty, but <laugh>, but there was, you know, a leak in my heart and that was what I mean most people who have low deeds and don’t know it die before they’re 28 because you don’t get scanned, you don’t get checked, you’re just living life and then a major event happens and you don’t really think much about it. So yeah, really wild.

Ilan: And, in terms of HeartSpark Design, there’s obviously imagery and, and the name there, but what kind of drifted you toward your passion of creating websites or designing websites for, for nonprofits?

Lauren: Yeah, so I, funny enough I was circling and circling a name and trying to find the right name for the business. And I worked with another agency cause I’m like, I just need a second opinion. They presented the name HeartSpark and I was like, this is it, that’s perfectly it, you know, and they just like hit the nail on the head Pollywog Inc. out of Minnesota, I’ll do a shameless plug for them. But yeah, just realizing that your life, you wanna do more with your life than just sell pizza or an ad world sell shoes and these different things, you know? And so I really wanted to leave a legacy that was beyond me and beyond you know, just selling things and I really saw the value that creativity had for the for-profit world. And I’m like, why are nonprofits not taking advantage of this? They could do so much more you know, good if they just had good design, good branding, not saying it’s like the coolest, you know, websites in the world, but just functional. And a lot of nonprofits don’t have that.

Ilan: And, and very, very interestingly you mentioned that a lot of nonprofits don’t necessarily have the resources or the right design or branding, but is there something that, you know, the business world is getting? I don’t, I don’t wanna say wrong, but could be doing better when it comes to people with disabilities or, you know, engaging with the nonprofit world.

Lauren: Yeah. I think a bit of both, I think it really aligns with your values. So like if a business has I think about Bombas or even like Toms with vision and then connecting that with like, okay, what does vision mean overall? And I think accessibility does a huge part of that and making sure that people maybe who don’t have vision or prone to seizures or different, you know, conditions that people deal with tapping into that audience and making sure that you’re accessible your website at the very least is accessible, but that your brand is also accessible, easy to read, clear type, you know, fonts, things like that. So I can learn out on that all day <laugh> but yes, and,

Ilan: And, and I love that. And in the past five years, has that really accelerated your journey about accessibility or is accessibility always something that you were looking at?

Lauren: Yeah, I honestly, I wasn’t and I was just kind of like, okay, we’ll just make functional websites for nonprofits, but then once you’re presented with a community of people in my community and Loeys-Dietz syndrome, that they have a lot of limitations and a lot of, I wouldn’t say disabilities, but maybe you know, just limitations with site with, you know, motor skills functionality, things like that, that it just makes you that much more empathetic and just like, gosh, yeah. Thinking about it in a different way. I actually had an interesting thing happen to me a couple weeks ago where I lost vision in my right eye. And I was like, that’s weird, that’s new, you know? And so you’re kind of always, at least in the past five years, for me kind of at, not at odds with your body, but just like, okay, I have this condition, what does that mean? And you’re just paying more attention to, okay, what does it need? What do, like, what do I need compared to just going and going and going, like I was doing in ad world <laugh>

Ilan: And, and I’m, I’m really interested to see kind of also, you said, you mentioned that you, you didn’t work so much on accessibility prior and, and now you are like, kind of, what is your definition of accessibility and or access? Cause you mentioned also like writing clear and clear fonts, but I think it’s also a lot more of kind of having your brand out there. So I’d be super interested to hear what your take is on that.

Lauren: Yeah. Oh, that’s a good question. I think it’s like looking at something from someone else’s perspective and not just assuming something about someone. And I think that’s a big thing that we’re all learning about. Each other is like, oh, I shouldn’t just assume something about you. You shouldn’t assume, you know, and so really try to just think through, okay, if I make this look really cool, but it’s really hard to use. Like what’s the point of that? So it kind of makes function come over form and then, you know, ask people to try it or, you know, I feel like it just opens the conversation. So accessibility to me is just empathy in a practical form.

Ilan: I love that. And I also like, as well as a practical form, it’s also just a mindset of really including people in the conversation when you are in the design processes all the way to the implementation and, and Lauren, I wanted to kind of, you mentioned that HeartSpark Design start in 2020, what are some of the goals in 20, 22 and beyond in, on, on just not just your business, but also the, I get to, I mispronounced every day, the Loeys-Dietz Syndrome Foundation as well.

Lauren: Yeah. Loeys-Dietz Syndrome Foundation. I know it’s a mouthful, so don’t worry about it. <Laugh> I mean really I’ll start with the foundation. So with the Loeys-Dietz Syndrome Foundation, it’s really, our awareness month is coming up in June. And so really that’s a whole month we take to just help spread awareness, bring more, just help people become aware that this is a thing. And if you see these certain signs, you know signs that I saw, my parents saw when I was growing up, but they’re minor. And, but then when you put ’em all together, it’s like, okay, yeah, that could be something, you know, more serious. So bringing awareness, we always are about building community and making sure that people know that they’re not alone. Especially when you just realize that you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic condition or, you know, a genetic condition it’s really scary.

And so just trying to make sure people know they’re not alone. And then educating, so doctors therapists go through all of the gamut, making sure people have the support that they need. So that’s the goals for the foundation for this year, which will continue doing <laugh> every year. And you can check out the foundation at And then for HeartSpark Design, it’s really, I just had my second open heart surgery last March. So I feel like we’re finally getting a little bit of uninterrupted momentum to just keep moving forward and keep, you know, trying to help more and more non-profits. And my goal for this year is to get all of our nonprofits that we’ve built previous websites accessible because now I’m like, oh my gosh, we need this <laugh>. And so yeah, just kind of putting that lens on past work and making sure that everything is up to standard.

Ilan: And, and thank, and thank you so much for, for sharing that. And really, I, I wish you all the success I have, no, I have no doubt you’re gonna reach the goals. And just my last question is if people are listening, there’s either a nonprofit that’s looking to, you know, scale up their branding or design or somebody looking to get more involved in the foundation. How can they get in contact with you?

Lauren: Yeah! or you can email me directly at

Ilan: Awesome. Lauren, I just wanted to thank you so much for really giving a perspective. I love when really people are always meshing the business world and the nonprofit world. I think it’s super, super important. And your lens on accessibility has been really valuable. So I hope the listeners take something from this episode and I look forward to our next conversation.

Lauren: Yeah, my pleasure.