Open Letter to PortlandOnline Refresh Committee

In May, one of the largest interactive firms in Portland announced it was closing its downtown Portland office, and that its staff would begin “working from home.” In the last 12 months, nearly every web development firm and design firm in the Portland area has laid off staff (thankfully, a situation Pop Art has avoided), the result of dwindling marketing budgets at these service firms’ client companies.

A city that has been long regarded as one of the leaders in the web industry (the “Silicon Forest”) appears to be on the economic ropes.

This week, the City of Portland announced a new web project, a redesign of Historically, a project like this would have been a great job for a local firm, offering the chance to work on a high-profile web site that receives a great deal of local traffic (2 million pageviews/month, according to the city) and a chance to serve the community we live in by producing something beautiful and usable.

It was with enormous disappointment, and more than a little indignation, that I read that the city has elected to “crowdsource” the project to any Portland resident, offering as compensation “credit on the finished web site.”

In general, I’m not opposed to the idea of crowdsourcing, which pits designers against one another to compete for small design projects. In a way, it’s very democratic, letting the best idea win, and it offers young designers the chance to stretch their wings on real design projects. In these contests, the stakes are usually very clear, and very small. A small business needs a logo, and has a very small budget, likely too small for an established agency to take seriously. For a young designer with small income requirements, or a designer in a country with a lower cost of living (India comes to mind), the job is a perfect fit.

However, for large organizations, crowdsourcing is not a good option. The legal liability of hiring a designer who may or may not be plagiarizing others’ work is great, and the burden of proof too large to bear. Any cost saved in cheaper asset production is offset by the due diligence required to research the assets’ sources and vetting them for potential intellectual property infringement. It’s far safer legally to use a professional whose credibility and ethics are well-established.

The larger issue is one of finished quality. Designing a 140,000 page web site is far different from designing a 5-page site for a friend’s band. The former requires careful attention to industry best practices, and uses specific experts within established disciplines. For example, Pop Art employs UX and UI experts, search engine and analytics experts, dedicated interactive writers and designers, in addition to industry leaders in production and development disciplines, most of whom have advanced degrees in their area of expertise. The latter requires a (likely pirated) copy of Adobe Photoshop and some freeware fonts, and treats web design as a decoration task, not the holistic, mature discipline it really is.

I fear the outcome of this design contest as a design professional and web user, but more than that, for the value judgement it implies. The city is telling us that Portland designers’ work, highly-valued by Fortune 100 clients, is in fact, worthless.

According to the ill-conceived contest rules, the winning design will be “credited” on the site. I wonder if I can use this “credit” to pay my taxes next year. I doubt the grocery store will accept it.

Shame on you, Portland.

Dave Selden

Design Director, Pop Art
Member, AIGA, PAF

56 Comments on Open Letter to PortlandOnline Refresh Committee

  1. I agree 100% with Dave. Credit is something I get for everything I design. Its like saying, “I take care of my kids” and expecting a pat on the back. Credit doesn’t keep my family in their house… Wait… The farmers markets accept food stamps. Maybe they’ll start taking site credits this year.

  2. Count me in as 100% agreeing with you, too, Dave. As a small business owner in the creative industry here in Portland, this just makes me shake my head — the gimmick of what they are doing is over-riding any supposed sincerity of what they are doing.

  3. Wow, great letter. I previously didn’t give the crowdsourcing concept a second thought. Now I am a little pissed at the city.

  4. Great post. Like you, I think sometimes crowdsourced design is appropriate, but the context of this project sends a disheartening message and is very amateurish of the city. Boo.

  5. I cannot agree more with the negative view expressed here of attempting to “crowdsource” an official, governmental website of this breadth & depth. Doing so denigrates the value of the design profession and definitely has the strong potential to deliver a sub-par user experience if it goes with proper application of design and development processes.

    I strongly encourage working designers to avoid any project that’s really a kind of spec work masquerading as “crowdsourcing”. In this case, there isn’t even any promise of compensation implied, and as noted, credit is worth relatively little. I encourage designers to take a look at AIGA for guidance here, for they have taken a clear position on the practice of spec work — see

    Liz, Portland small business owner

  6. I would very much like to see the Mayor work for free. Look at all the exposure he’s getting!

    Or better yet, he could just work for free for one month. Then, his salary for that month could be awarded to the winner of the design contest. What say Sam?

    Very disappointed in our city government to hold creatives in such low regard.

    Portland is a city that has so many creative people. It’s disappointing that our elected officials do not value them (us).

    Great letter Dave. I’m with you 100%.

  7. Having been on the losing end of several “cost is our only consideration” bids for city work, this move does not surprise me. It is extremely disappointing. Wouldn’t it be great if the main players in town refuse to participate?

    Here Eric Hillerns of Portland’s Pinch: a design office presents one of the better written arguments against crowd sourcing:

  8. If you really want this to spread, stumble and tweet it widely. This is a slippery slope and it’s worth making a very loud noise about it.

    You have my support

    (Lexington KY)

  9. Couldn’t agree with you more, Dave. It is absolutely ridiculous to leave such a well-visited site’s redesign to the whims of the amateur design public. I’m not a fan of “crowdsourcing” at any level because – at its very core – it devalues good design principles and standards in favor of getting work on the cheap.

    Unfortunately, it appears the City of Portland will likely learn a very hard lesson here. Mainly, that you still get what you are willing to pay for. And the public will make that decision for them. If the site’s not up to par, their visitors will leave in droves and someone else will eventually fill in the gaps.

  10. Wow. I am disappointed to see the city take this route. I believe spec work aka crowd sourcing devalues creative industries.

  11. Dear City of Portland,

    Shame on You.

    Your recently launched “contest” to “refresh” (read reconfigure and redesign) the Portlandonline website for free is probably one of the most unethical and idiotic ideas I’ve seen come out of the City. At least this week.

    We are in a City that is filled with serious professional design talent. Yet we are also a city with extremely high unemployment in a local economy where these same talented professional designers and their firms are currently struggling to get by on a basic business level. This is bad for the City, it is bad for the tax base and it is bad for individuals and families.

    It is unconscionable then, that the City is asking for free work for a government website within a city bureau that has a budget of close to $90 million dollars annually (over $10 million earmarked for internal business improvements, including web improvements in the ’09 budget alone). You have the money and budget to pay professionals. You are asking for work that requires professional technical skills and abilities. The City needs to pony up and pay.

    Portlandonline, as managed by the Bureau of Technology Services isn’t some small struggling non-profit. You aren’t a “community organization” like an underfunded school group or recreation center. It is unfair and a slap in the face to Portland’s creative professionals to ask them to work for free. And for what? Credit? Page views? Give me a break. People in Portland want to save their mortgages and rent, pay their staff, and be recognized and respected as professionals. Not treated like they are in an elementary school coloring contest.

    The City talks quite a bit about supporting the creative class, attracting and retaining talent and businesses, and supporting much needed economic recovery. Yet the city’s actions speak otherwise, once again illustrating a government out of touch with the needs of the citizens and city they are paid to serve.

    I urge you to stop this nonsense and put your well budgeted money where your mouth is.


    A concerned creative professional and business owner.

  12. Just sent this …

    Dear Jeremy,
    I am sure you think you are “doin’ good” with an art contest for the city. The fact is that asking for free design work and providing it are both unethical by the Graphic Artists Guild Pricing & Ethical Guidelines.

    Asking for what we call “spec work” is okay as long as we are talking about children and non-profits. The City is neither. You will get plenty of entries, no doubt, but this kind of contest asks the many who participate to waste their valuable time and talent so you can cherry-pick one you still won’t pay. Is that how you got this job? In the end, you are humiliating a group that knows no better, or worse still, knows better and is desperate enough to help you conduct yourself in regrettable behavior.

    Jeremy, you need to be better educated about the Portland design community and how designers conduct their profession. Please read the information provided in these links before going further with this contest as it is presented now.

    Trying to help you before you set off a shit storm,
    ~David Cox

  13. Excellent letter Dave, I agree on all of your points. Like you said, “designing a 140,000 page web site is far different from designing a 5-page site for a friend’s band”. It angers me because there are those of us in Portland that do that sort of thing for a living. We’ve worked and studied hard and we deserve to be paid for our efforts. If we decide to do a “pro bono” site for a charity or enter a contest that’s fine, but this is way more important than that.

    I think the City of Portland needs to read the “AIGA position on spec work” (Elizabeth Bacon provided a link above) and consider what it says.

  14. Apparently the Art Institute thinks it’s fine. They have it posted on their blog (right side column)…

  15. Right on Dave. I’m also part of the Portland creative community on the video production side of things. This year has been the worst I’ve experienced in my 18 years of being in the industry in the NW.

    More and more clients are asking for more work for less pay. They argue that they are struggling too (hard to believe when certain companies are still making huge profits, but that’s another story), and ask that us freelancers give them our services at a discount or worse, on spec.

    Not since I was just starting out have I had so many people asking me to donate my time, skills, experience or knowledge. For the City of Portland to join this trend is especially disheartening. It only serves to “legitimize” the culture of spec work. Hey, if the city is doing it, why shouldn’t we?

    Now some people are probably looking at this as a minor issue. Sure, it’s one design, one logo. No big deal right? I read someone pose the question “isn’t this a case of NIMBY?” Well, I can tell you from my perspective, no, it is not. It is a case of a city with a vital creative core that is essentially telling the creative class their services, skills, and creativity is not any more valuable than anyone else who can send in a design to a website in exchange for a (unpaid) credit.

    What PortlandOnline is asking for is something that people in this town create for a living. That living includes paying taxes (and a lot of taxes if you are self-employed or own a small business). While I can appreciate the idea of engaging the community to help create an identity, that should not be done at the expense of those of us who are trying to survive in these difficult days.

    The timing of this request from PortlandOnline really strikes a cord with me. Personally, I have been struggling the past 6 months to make a living in an industry that has been good to me for many years. I am holding on tightly to the hope that things will pick up here soon. I don’t want to leave Portland. I love living and working here. But the reality is, the paying work just isn’t happening enough to keep me afloat.

    Times are really tough. The city needs to be telling us our creative community is vital and appreciated. Instead, this sends a message that we just do something anyone can do, and we should be excited for the opportunity to have our name printed on a website in exchange for them owning our creative ideas.

    Sorry to have gone off on a rant like this. I guess it bothers me even more than I realized.

    Keep fighting the good fight everyone!!!


    (and if anyone needs a video editor, just give me a ring!)

  16. FYI, the mayor’s Twitter:

  17. I imagine local government could be crowd sourced quite nicely. Wouldn’t someone be mayor or city works supervisor just for the prestige and recognition? Sounds good to me….

  18. FYI @MayorSamAdams is also asking everyone what should be done with Memorial Coliseum.
    Seems like our city leaders need to be crowdsourced. Let’s do everything by committee.

    (sort of)

  19. In my opinion, the downfall of contests like this is the washing away of any responsibility of the client (in this case the city) to reflect upon the whys and hows of what they are proposing. As providers of a professional service, designers are trained to ask questions and actually figure out if a redesign, an update or a new logo, etc is the right thing to do.

    Typically, the contest holder does not providing enough or the right type of background information.

    I think the failing of this particular contest is some of the requirements they are asking the general public to solve in the site’s navigation.

    “With more than 100,000 pages of information, PortlandOnline needs intuitive navigation to help users find what they need faster. In addition to quickly reaching the main areas of our site, your navigation solution should take into account the needs of bureau-specific home pages (such as Police, Fire, or Water) which may have many sub-sections.”

    I’m no UI/UX expert, though I am a trained designer, but without any sort of technical documentation, statistics of site use or at least a face-to-face conversation, I wouldn’t even know where to begin redesigning this site. For free – er – credit, you know, in the spirit of competition.

    But as stated, that’s just my opinion.

  20. As a developer, I often hear about shops that only use a particular technology and the wars that emit from it. Open source or Microsoft, dynamic SQL or stored procedures, tabs or spaces, you name it. Rarely do I see battles like this around creative.

    So, as I understand the argument here, sites like and are insufficient for this size of a project. I’m guessing they’re going to say “say’s you” and figure out a way to be in the game.

    Nothing decides an argument like shipping a working product or failing in the attempt. This one is going to be fun to watch as it plays out over time.

  21. I agree with Dave as well – and 2nd what Liz said. it does degrade the “perception” of web design and production value is – if it was a community thing, yeah maybe. But not the City of Portland.

    I never like the design of the site in the first place.

    No matter who you’re working with, you get what you pay for.

  22. Backlash for the free redesign “contest” for PortlandOnline is harsh and swift. From @DaveSelden at Pop Art: #Portland

  23. [...] has already been some great commentary on the situation, especially from Dave Selden and Rick Turoczy. Not only does spec work – work created without promise of compensation, and [...]

  24. [...] Pop Art’s response to the City of Portland spec work request. It was with enormous disappointment, and more than a little indignation, that I read that the city has elected to “crowdsource” the project to any Portland resident, offering as compensation “credit on the finished web site.” [...]

  25. While the thought of doing that much work (for *free*) doesn’t sound very appealing, I can’t help but feel that people are overreacting.

    When I read this.. my immediate reaction was, “oh, the city can’t budget for this right now.” So… the city can a) choose to do nothing to improve the quality of their site right now or b) see if there are people willing to volunteer their time.

    Some people won’t mind volunteering their time contributing to a project like this. Some will. Some just can’t afford it. The only thing that I can conclude from this discussion is that there are a lot of designers who like to throw tantrums.

    With regard to local design companies going out of business, I don’t see how that is relevant to the discussion. You’re making a very weak correlation between these facts. If the city cannot afford to spend several hundred thousands of dollars on revamping the site, I commend them for taking the initiative to find another way to make it happen.

    Robby Russell, a partner at a Portland-based web design, development, and hosting company who doesn’t find this offensive.

  26. It is a shame that Portland Government doesn’t get it. Maybe someone there should get their nephew/niece to do a “jazzy” design in MS Front page and some print design out of MS Publisher. You get what you pay for.

  27. Well said, Dave!

  28. This blog post is a load of crap. It sounds like a bunch of winy designers are upset because they were somehow stripped of their god forsaken right to bid on local municipal web design projects.

    I took a look at the suggested terms for contest and it clearly isn’t for me. So maybe they won’t get a single half decent submission to this and they’ll be right back where they started with a little egg on their face. No harm in that.

    More likely some design firm with a lot of extra time on their hand will take this chance to highlight their design process and get a lot of publicity out of the deal. I’m not going to feel sorry for the folks who worked on the project and are paid in ‘recognition’. It doesn’t pay the rent but they signed onto the deal knowing the rewards and far be it from me to stand in their way.

    Either way, I applaud the effort to save tax dollars and give this creative (however misguided) attempt at saving money a shot.

  29. One of the problems I have with the design contest has to do more with “process” than the fact that no one will get paid for the design. The City issued an RFP last month for a person or firm to make recommendations on site architecture, functionality, ADA accessibility, and use of social media. I can’t imagine re-designing a 140,000 page site without making use of the recommendations that will be cited in the above deliverables. Having “design” be completely separate from site architecture, functionality of the site, ADA compliance and social media strategies seems at best like a recipe for a train wreck of a build-out, and at worst, just impossible.

  30. [...] Pop Art’s response to the City of Portland spec work request. It was with enormous disappointment, and more than a little indignation, that I read that the city has elected to “crowdsource” the project to any Portland resident, offering as compensation “credit on the finished web site.” [...]

  31. Robby – While it makes a certain sense that the city can’t budget for this right now, does that make crowdsourcing and a “design contest” the right idea? Or would it make more sense to shelve the redesign for the time being and limp along with Portland Online as it stands for a while longer?

    I’d be inclined to leave it alone in favor of a well-considered architecture, design, and communication strategy rather than rushing forward with a new design created without enough information to make a genuine improvement.

    I would no sooner ask City Council to work for free, or the Mayor, than ask designers to work for nothing more than a link and some credit for redesigning the site. I know it seems like folks – including myself – might be overreacting, but in this case I’d say that wants and needs aren’t matching up. This isn’t a volunteer job, it’s a question of asking professionals (and hobbyists) to bring their talents and best ideas to the table for little compensation.

    If I’m going to volunteer my time and abilities, I think I’ll stick to walking dogs at the Oregon Humane Society. At least the dogs love the attention, and the staff appreciates my involvement.

    – Stacy (yet another designer and small business owner)

  32. Now that this is settled. Let’s go take down a poetry contest somewhere. You with me?!!?!

  33. Open Letter to PortlandOnline Refresh Committee on the Pop Art Blog: Great job @daveselden

  34. [...] More here:  Open Letter to PortlandOnline Refresh Committee – Pop Art Blog [...]

  35. How is it that the word crowdsourcing got co-opted for this? This is a free pitching (spec creative) – based design contest and has absolutely nothing to do with the collaborative community implied in crowdsourcing.

    Blair Enns
    Win Without Pitching

  36. Robby – my concern is that the city is wasting a lot of time and effort on something my experience has shown to be a flawed process. A site of this scope deserves the kind of attention a professional would give it. While they may save some money in the short term, they will waste a great deal in executing a poorly-thought-out paint job, which will likely require a rework by a professional later. It’s a very expensive bandage, in my opinion.

    Matt – I prefer beer to wine! ;) And I don’t see city contracts as an entitlement, but I do think judicious use of tax dollars is important. In my opinion, this is a waste of city dollars in the form of implementing a flawed implementation, and a poor execution will cost the government a great deal in increased phone calls alone. A site with this amount of traffic, poorly executed, will cause MORE people to pick up the phone, which does cost the city money. There are many other ways this will cost, but that’s an obvious one.

    Blair – the promise of compensation has never been a part of the City’s proposal, so I wouldn’t call it spec work. They’re trying to get design work without any cost, which to me is more like crowdsourcing than spec work. Then again, you’re more of an expert in this field than I am, so I defer to you on the terminology.

    Everyone – thanks for all the great feedback and commentary. Keep it coming!

  37. I ran into a similar situation at our Idaho office in Sun Valley. I had a chat with Ric Grefe, the ED for AIGA. We decided it best for him to draft a letter to the offender and politely explain why this contest idea was ill conceived. I found it useful to then publish this letter in the local paper. The important lesson I learned was to take it to the voting public in a logical, non-histerical way and let them decide what is right.
    The case needs to be put in a manner that brings it home to the reader (make it personal). Then they can take the appropriate action at the next election.

    Karl Bischoff, President
    Phinney Bischoff Design House, Seattle

  38. It boggles my mind to consider the time investment required to do this job right. And that’s the key here — to do it RIGHT. To actually touch each of 100,000+ pages, whether writing/editing, designing, coding, scripting or any other parts of the process, would easily take the full-time commitment of 15, maybe 20, people who are not only highly skilled and talented but also very efficient and organized. All for the handsome reward of a site credit?

    Comments from Robby and Matt are naive. This is not a “volunteering your time contributing” kind of thing, like being PTA secretary/treasurer. If you’re in the business of doing it right, this is a hardcore, full-on, more than 40 hours a week kind of thing — for a LONG time, with ZERO pay. And to Matt, I’d wager that there’s no design firm, in Portland or otherwise, with that much “extra time on their hand.” If so, its days as a viable business are numbered.

  39. The people involved with the refresh project clearly have no idea how much work is involved with updating a site as big as Portland Online.
    I believe they are simply asking the public for ideas and inspiration on design. What’s so wrong about that? How long would it take you to fire up Photoshop, come up with a creative concept and present it on a one page document? May the best win!

    The scope of work is undefined which makes many of you very upset. How about asking questions or finding out who’s in charge and attend their meetings to better lead them?

  40. [...] This post was Twitted by ecogordo [...]

  41. Nice post Dave. Thank you for taking the time to do so.

    I only take one issue with your commentary. In the case of crowdsourcing – a hip sounding euphemism for ‘dumb contest for free work’ – while it may be sort of democratic (I would argue populist is a better term), it is nearly impossible for the best idea to win because a real research driven – which is to say, strategically design driven – process is not engaged. The best idea likely never even makes it onto anyone’s desktop.

    Brand problems – and this is a brand problem – are riddled with cultural, technical and behavioral contexts. A rigorous, professional design process is required to adequately solve these problems.

    Here in the studio we often begin brand conversations by stating that brands happen whether you plan them or not. The unplanned type rarely meet with much success in the market.

    This incident is but a symptom of much of what plagues our city leadership’s ‘brand’ at the moment.

  42. City of Portland crowdsourcing or free pitching? From the Pop Art Blog:

  43. portland screwed up big time! major thumbs down @samadams! citizens should demand better. #portlandonline

  44. The city of Portland is crowdsourcing an important project. Shame on you, Portland!

  45. I wanted to respond to your concerns above. First, I’d ask folks to take a look at the contest rules and the FAQ document posted at
    The most important point I want to make is that this design contest is in no way a sleight on the value of the work our design community creates; Mayor Adams recognizes and is incredibly proud of the many agencies, firms and freelancers who built Portland’s reputation for the creative economy we have.
    Instead, the design contest was, and is, an opportunity for any Portlander to take part in a small, but essential, piece of a very big project. As you’ll see in the FAQ we posted, this contest runs parallel to a number of RFP’s issued by the City to handle various needs for a PortlandOnline refresh. Moreover, while setting a cash prize for the contest would have required either a formal purchasing process from the City or private sponsorship, we do expect that there will be an additional RFP resulting from the design contest for a contractor to roll out and manage design across the many bureaus and city pages.
    I’d be happy to talk to you and discuss the matter further. Let me know your thoughts.

  46. Dear Roy:

    Many thanks for your note. I do appreciate hearing directly from Mayor Adams’ office about this; I supported Sam as a councilman and as a mayoral candidate; moreover, I continue to support him as mayor, this little hiccup aside.

    I have of course reviewed the contest rules and FAQ, and as a fellow who has earned his bread as a brand and Web development practitioner for over a decade, I must tell you in all candor that the City’s solution to the problem of redeveloping PortlandOnline is troublesome at best.

    Breaking the process of developing an important (and as of now, inadequate) Web entity such as PortlandOnline into four discrete RFPs to be serviced by four discrete suppliers — even if the user interface design was not additionally parted out to a contest — reveals the cumbersome nature of the City’s purchasing process in relation to creative (for the purposes of this note, I’ll use “creative” to mean the generative side of Web development, which includes but is not limited to accessibility, information architecture, CMS consulting, messaging and user interface design).

    The City, of course, tries to be as objective as it can in determining suppliers, grading proposals on an ostensibly objective numerical scale with respect to many laudable aspects of doing business.

    But creative is not objective. It is not a manufacturing or simple procurement process. And parting it out like the City has done in this case, with the “fun” or “artistic” part tossed off to an open contest with no compensation, shows that the City has no earthly idea how important an integrated approach to delivering information to its citizens is.

    Crowdsourcing may be superficially democratic. But it is bad business. Asking a developer (or layman) to come up with a good or even workable solution based upon a thin brief, a FAQ and no contact with research or the parties involved in the project is naïve. You’ll get something that looks like a Web site, certainly. You may even get something looks better than what you have. But you won’t have a solution to your problem.

    User interface is among the last steps in a successful Web development project, not the first. How the site looks should be a function of how it works. And right now, PortlandOnline doesn’t work very well. Oh, you can pay your water bill, and now you can pay your parking tickets and that’s fine. But doing it is a pain. Finding the proper phone number to call the police takes ten minutes of clicking around. The URL structure is inaccessible and contains ten-year-old scripting cruft.

    How do you solve the problem? By taking it seriously. By assembling a team of people who trust one another, and who can work hand-in-glove with one another over the long process of development. For example, accessibility is also a UI problem. Social media is also an architecture problem. All of this has to happen under the rubric of message, for which I notice you are not offering an RFP.

    PortlandOnline doesn’t serve the citizenry, and wouldn’t even if it looked nicer. I don’t mean to tell you your business, and I know that the City’s purchasing process and this contest are meant to be exercises in democracy, but the mediocrity of the result will not serve the public and will devalue your work as elected officials.

    The private sector doesn’t crowdsource or balkanize RFPs like this for a reason: the results don’t tend to be good. It’s hard enough to get a workable result with a coherent, disciplined team. I would suspect that if the City went about redeveloping PortlandOnline without the contest and the clumsy proposal process and presented the public with a simple, well-considered, well-architected site, the public wouldn’t notice the absence of this kind of direct-democracy kabuki at all. And I don’t think it would care.

    You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the value (or lack thereof) that I perceive Mayor Adams’ office places on creative. That’s because I’m more interested in results. If Mayor Adams doesn’t see the true economic (never mind cultural) value of the Portland’s creative community, well, then: he’s just another politician. John McCain, for example, holds a similar opinion. That also doesn’t matter to me so much; I can make a living without dealing with such people.

    But as a citizen, I am frankly embarrassed and frustrated by PortlandOnline. And I don’t see that the City is taking serious steps to address it.

    Apologies for the length of this note; one good outcome of this exercise has been to exercise our community a bit. I’m going to copy my business partner, Eric Hillerns, on this. As vice-president in the local chapter AIGA (our professional organization), he has taken a leadership role in opening this issue to a broader audience. I hope that we can include the Mayor’s office in this dialogue.

    Kind regards,

    Adam McIsaac

  47. Thank you, Adam for so thoroughly and eloquently articulating the issue. Much appreciated. And similar appreciation goes out to all the well-thought-out input on Silicon Florist’s post (

    I would like to add, as I stated on SF, that there are many ways to engage the Portland community in contributing to the site once it’s launched AND those solutions would allow them to continue to participate in a meaningful way as often as they like. Forums, photo galleries, mashups, you name it. Present web technologies, and the flexibility and portability thereof, present nearly endless opportunities to create ways for people to share their experiences. An experienced web team could (and would) incorporate these features into their solution resulting in a much more accessible (not everyone in PDX is going to feel qualified to participate in a design contest), meaningful and long-lasting solution than the design contest offers (by a long shot).

    I would like to reiterate what Adam said about the website representing the city. While the website serves the Portland community, it also represents them to non-PDX site visitors — tourists, potential future students, potential future residents, potential future businesses. They may have never been here before or know anything about it. The website is your “greeter”. A greeter the Portland community cannot speak out to if they get the wrong impression. It’s important (very, very important) to put your best foot forward with this freestanding representative of our fair city. The solutions I mentioned above would allow for a constant flow of Portland personality and voice to be a tour guide of sorts for site visitors (even PDXers learning new things about their city). This kind of participation would allow the website to grow, shift and evolve with the city over time. Much more valuable…and representative.

    Roy and others involved with this contest (and the RFP process outlined above), I think it’s time we all came together to discuss this matter openly (and professionally). What may seem like sheer resistance on the surface is actually an intense love for and pride in this city and what we do (and could do for it). We all want the same thing. Actually, I think we might want it more.

    There are potential plans under way, being led by AIGA, to pull people together in an open forum to discuss this matter further. I think we’ll all come out better for it. It’s time to get off the blogs and meet face to face.

    Heather Dougherty
    AIGA Programming Chair

  48. Roy Kaufmann from the City of Portland:

    Design is a “a small, but essential, piece”?

    I see.

    First off, disregarding the fact that I’m unsure if something can be both essential and yet ’small’ as those seem to be oxymoronic to me, you are basically stating that design is a small piece (of a site.)

    No wonder the community seems to be up in arms over this – you are devaluing what they do. I could tell you that industrial design, interactive design, print design, user experience design, information architecture design, etc actually are not small pieces of their perspective mediums. But let’s not belabor the fact. The point is this – you just stated that design is a small piece of a project, but then you ask those very same designers to essentially do what they do for you for free.

    A tip in communication design – insulting people’s work is not a very good way to get them to then do work for you. ;)

    -Sharon Greenfield

  49. [...] has posted on it with links to others criticizing this policy: Spec work? Ur doin it wrong Open Letter to PortlandOnline Refresh Committee Dear Portland, just say no to spec work City of Portland’s Message: We Don’t Respect [...]

  50. Here’s another way to think about this. The City is free to do what it wants. But so are we.

    The problem with the City’s offer isn’t just that it devalues the idea of ideas — our stock in trade. It’s that it publicly, loudly, and across an “average 1.8 million external visits and 640,000 internal visits every month” (as the contest RFP says), reinforces and legitimates that idea, making it that much more difficult to get other clients to value what we do and pay us a living wage to do it. The act is bad enough; the precedent it sets is worse.

    And we simply can’t let that mindset set any harder. Everyone who’s worked in design for more than a minute or two knows that one of the biggest hurdles we face is the notion that “ideas don’t have physical substance and seem to happen instantly, so they aren’t worth anything.” Sure, we can (and do) argue that creative ideas are critical in driving actions and products in meaningful directions — that ideas are the propulsion that sets those physical things on the right course to their destination — but for many people used to paying by the pound, it’s tough to wrap a mind around. “You sketched the logo in a few minutes, so at $100/hour, I owe you $4.99 plus the cost of the sheet of paper, right?”

    That’s clearly what the City’s thinking here, too. And who can blame them? They’ve got plenty of company thinking ideas are free. Add to that a shrinking tax base due to the economy, and a procurement process dominated by taxpayers’ demand for quantifiability, it would actually be surprising if the City didn’t try to get a site design for free.

    But in the end, the City can make any offer it wants. Any client can ask for the essence and driving force – the design, the propulsion – of a new site in exchange for a measly link. Heck, it can require that the design be created on an etch-a-sketch, in Illustrator 3, or with sticks and bits of string. It can even say we have to pay to design it. Why not?

    But that doesn’t mean we have to comply. The City doesn’t owe us anything, but that works both ways: our true power in this equation is in not taking the bait. If all designers with experience and chops refuse to work for free, clients trying to “crowdsource” work they ultimately profit from will probably still get a response, but it will be from the second, third, fourth string. And from there, the marketplace will judge, and probably not kindly.

    But that’s only if we don’t break ranks. Together, we win; divided, we all lose.

    City of Portland, do what you need to do: you’ll get a site of some kind. But if you want your core gateway to act as a true beacon, its ease of use, elegance, and effectiveness mirroring the city at its best and drawing the best and brightest to its banks (to say nothing of increasing the City’s tax base, clout, and flexibility to do good and nurture its citizens) — well that, my friend, can’t be bought for a link. At least not from anyone with the skill and experience to deliver it.

  51. Heather & Adam,
    Thank your for those letters. Very helpful, I think, to the growing understanding of why this contest is uncomfortable as it is currently presented.

  52. The City of Portland has clearly demonstrated by this “RFP” that they wouldn’t know a well-designed web site if it bit them on the ass. Furthermore, this should be a red-flag to all professionals who might otherwise bid on a job like this to turn and run as fast as they can.

  53. [...] members of the Portland graphic design and Web design community responded. And it wasn’t favorable. Because the contest carried with it the strong stench of [...]

  54. [...] as well as multisyllabic. A number of blog posts (and many comments) from several corners – designers and techies and agency executives – offered scathing critism of the City’s move. Almost [...]

  55. Dave, I agree with you one hundred percent. But my concern isn’t limited to what this means to, for, and in the industry. I am very concerned about what this means to us as citizens, of what my experience with the city will be, trying to use a final website not developed by competent professionals.

  56. [...] For more on this story, see my friend Dave Selden’s post on Pop Art’s blog. [...]