July 13th, 2009

Portland Web and graphic design community to the City: Spec work? Ur doin it wrong

Portland Web and graphic design community to the City: Spec work? Ur doin it wrong

Sigh. And just when we thought things seemed to be going so well with the City of Portland. I mean, the City had committed to being more open, gone out for bid on fixing the PortlandOnline site, and just ratified the Portland Economic Development Strategy. Yet, now that string of victories risks being thoroughly undermined by a slap in the face to the Portland Web and graphic design community.

In a classic case of “one step forward, two steps back,” the City of Portland is now proposing a design contest to redesign PortlandOnline. And it’s spec work.

I can’t decide who said it better, Reid Beels or Robin Catesby.


robin-catesby-no-specNow, you can try as hard as you might, but few things can be as insulting to people as telling them their work is worthless. Which is basically what the City is doing by asking for designers to work on spec.

Web developers, graphic artists and visionaries to transform the navigation and design of PortlandOnline, the city’s primary web presence. Winners will be fully credited on the website for their work – a website that receives over two million visits a month and includes over 140,000 pages.

That’s right. Or to paraphrase, that work that you do? It isn’t worth anything more than a link.

Now, I’ve had the opportunity to work with graphic designers in Portland for years and years. And I’ve often been in awe of their ability. With good reason. Portland has one of the most brilliant graphic design communities in the United States, if not the world.

So great. Yes, definitely go to that community for help. But ask them to work for free? Are you kidding me? At best, that’s insulting. And whatever the case to not support the community that has played a huge role in making Portland what it is today? That’s downright shameful.

But don’t just take my word for it. Thanks to Reid, let’s check out the AIGA—the professional organization for design—position on spec:

AIGA, the professional association for design, believes that professional designers should be compensated fairly for the value of their work and should negotiate the ownership or use rights of their intellectual and creative property through an engagement with clients.

AIGA acknowledges that speculative work—that is, work done prior to engagement with a client in anticipation of being paid—occurs among clients and designers. Instead of working speculatively, AIGA strongly encourages designers to enter into projects with full engagement to continue to show the value of their creative endeavor. Designers and clients should be aware of all potential risks before entering into speculative work.

AIGA is committed to informing designers, students, educators, clients and the general public on the risks of compromising the design process though information, materials and services that can help in forging a healthy working relationship between designers and their clients.

Long story short, there is—in my opinion—absolutely no benefit to spec work. It devalues the work of designers and it delivers sub-par to design to the recipient.

The City of Portland should know better.

Given that the contest has yet to open, I’d strongly encourage the City of Portland to reconsider their position on this project. And I’d urge you to do the same.


Lizzy Caston‘s letter to the City of Portland in response to this contest.

City of Portland Shame on You -

UPDATE 2 (hat tip to Jeff)

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.”


Stacy Westbrook provides her thoughts on the PortlandOnline design contest:


Now, I know I sound angry and I kind of am, but mostly I’m disappointed. Even if these were good economic times, a “design contest” for such a complex project is never a good or ethical proposition. Mostly, this is a slap in the face for professionals who already have to struggle against the notion that being creative should be free (or close to free). Now we’re getting it from our own city?


Jerry Ketel of Leopold Ketel & Partners takes some time to weigh in on the PortlandOnline design contest—and appears to have started a new blog, to boot.

This is simply the wrong way to go about designing an important communication tool in our fair city. The idea of this kind of contest is a perfect example of how much the city fathers value the contribution of the design community in Portland.I am certain that there is a very good Web design firm here in town who would work for pennies on the dollar to help the City of Portland to polish its presence on the internet…. Our community wants to be a seen as a creative magnet in the world, it is a source of pride. So why don’t our elected leaders get that?

And leave it to Metroknow at OurPDX to unleash the full complement of snark by announcing a new design contest for Portland creatives:

But here’s the thing: times are tough for the likes of a creative-friendly person such as myself. I would love to have a completely redefined, resculpted, warm-to-the-touch, shapely, hopefully” spoonable”, and definitely unimpregnable brand spankin’ new intercontinental junk trunk installed smack dab between my Alaskan Tundra and my South American tip, ASAP. But times being what they are, and especially in light of current crowd sourcing trends, I have a brilliant idea: I would like this skilled service, this ass craft, this peASS de Resistance, designed for – you guessed it: Damn free.

UPDATE 5 (7/14/2009)

The City has posted the rules and criteria for the PortlandOnline Refresh redesign contest (PDF) and FAQs about the contest, including:


This community contest is the beginning step of developing a concept for the new look and feel of PortlandOnline. The City is inviting the entire community to participate in both generating graphic ideas and in voting on the winner(s) as a seventh member of the judge’s panel. Following the decision on one or more design concepts, the City will likely need the help of a design firm – through a separate contract – to implement the new design on the City’s main pages and for its sub‐pages for different City bureaus and projects.


Offering prize money would have turned the contest into a formal purchasing process. We would have had to issue an RFP and then make a decision to go with one firm. This would have precluded many from participating, including youth, those freelance designers and artists without a business license, City employees, design students, or individuals or firms without sufficient insurance to bid on a City RFP.

It also would have made it impossible for the people of Portland to vote on the final design. Holding the contest does not preclude future contract opportunities. If the contest is successful, it will likely lead to a contract for refining the design.

More updates as the story develops.

(Image courtesy I Can Has Cheezburger)

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70 Responses to “Portland Web and graphic design community to the City: Spec work? Ur doin it wrong”

  1. Dave Allen says:


    My pal Justin Spohn ( @adognamedpants ) said it well too -


  2. You have to question why the City can spend tens of thousands of dollars arguing over what street should be renamed Cesar Chavez — but they can’t “spare a dime” when it comes to something as important as the public face of the City to the rest of the world. Who elects these people?

  3. Carson Shold says:

    This is a slap in the face to graphic designers, as is all work on spec.

    Check out my latest blog post about how spec work is killing the graphic design industry – http://www.thehappinessmachine.com


  4. Kurt Morris says:

    While I agree with the sentiments expressed here about how misguided this “contest” is, I think they miss a broader, and arguably much more important point: A good usable website is much more than good — even professional — graphic design. Good visual design is but one piece of the puzzle. Without a solid information architecture, well-considered process flows, good interaction and information design, etc. — IOW, an *integrated* approach to the entire user experience — the graphic design is not much more than nice colors and fonts.

    This isn’t to argue against the importance of professional graphic design — far from it. It’s more akin to saying all the tasteful architectural detail, exotic hardwood floors, and designer paints are worthless if the house wiring is a fire hazard, the doorknobs are on the bottoms of the doors, and flushing the toilet requires a FAQ.

    Just sayin’.

  5. Design competitions for public spaces make more sense to me than most spec work. For example: http://www.wtcsitememorial.org/about.html

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  10. Hey sourpusses! Can’t you see that by not offering a “monetary prize”, our fair city is making it possible for designers of all levels of experience to be exploited equally? Way to go Portland!

    Now, about how the concept of ‘fee’ appears to have eroded into ‘prize’ – does this mean I can pay my taxes with the little plastic toys from the Crackerjack box? If private sector clients follow the city’s example, I may have to, so I thought I’d put it out there now. But then, we could have our own contest: all the city services that our tax dollars help pay for can compete for Most Worthy of Being Funded by The Creative Community and designers and artists can vote on which ones to give our money – I mean- little plastic toys to. And we can change the name from “Portland – the city that works!” to “Portland- the city that works for free!”.

    Can I get paid for that idea?

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  18. niewaznejak says:

    A very valuable contribution, thank you!

  19. Tyler Hurst says:

    Sheesh, people. I’d totally do this, and I’m not even a designer!

    Can’t wait to install WordPress and tweak a child theme.

    Any designers out there willing to help me learn how to make WordPress pretty? I’ll throw you a link in the blog roll.

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