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 PortlandOnline.com. 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.