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

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.

[HTML3]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.[HTML2]

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.[HTML2]

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.


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.[HTML2]


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.[HTML2]

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)


  1. 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.

  2. A very valuable contribution, thank you!

  3. […] Portland Web and graphic design community to the City: Spec work? Ur doin it wrong (66) […]

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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?

  11. […] Portland Web and graphic design community to the City: Spec work? Ur doin it wrong (56) […]

  12. […] Portland Web and graphic design community to the City: Spec work? Ur doin it wrong (56) […]

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

  16. 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’.

  17. 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


  18. 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?

  19. Rick,

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


  20. Chris,

    Google.com has one of the most statistically rigorous design processes imaginable. Google is famous for having testing 41 shades of blue to see which performed best (http://stopdesign.com/archive/2009/03/20/goodbye-google.html).

    That’s not to say your argument doesn’t have merit. Simply that the example given is not a good one.

    “When we hear sanctimonious lecturing from an interest group, most of us get turned off–regardless of the validity of the argument. So be careful. Converse. Be willing to agree to disagree.”

    That’s fair and sound advice. The line between taxpayer, interest group, and aggrieved party is a blurred one in this case.

    I’d like to believe that I can put on my taxpayer hat and say that this is a waste of time on par in my opinion with renaming streets, but it may be hard to see me switch invisible hats when I make the comment. 🙂


  21. Chris, I just have to correct your point about Google, which I fear is being a bit nitpicky, but might make a broader point.

    Saying google.com exists sans formal design process is ludicrous – although the initial site may have been an informal design fluke that happened to work, every addition to the site since then has been part of an exhaustive and deliberate design process. The key is that it doesn’t *look* that way now – it still looks effortless. But the company hasn’t been hiring hordes of UI and design talent for nothing.

    I agree that it will be a big challenge for designers to make their case without being offputting to the city. But I think this shows a lack of appreciation for the profession more than anything – perhaps because, as you tried to show with your example, when it works well it often looks effortless.

    Just my two cents.

  22. Chris, I hope you’ll consider joining us today. All perspectives are welcome and encouraged. We are planning on and committed to having a productive conversation that helps us move toward a solution that takes all factors into account.

    I, for one, have read many thorough and well-articulated arguments in the above comments (and on Pop Art’s post on the matter: http://blogs.popart.com/2009/07/open-letter-to-portlandonline-refresh-committee/). I don’t think its whining.

    You may be right that in the end an okay product will have to be fine, for whatever time/budget restrictions may exist. That still doesn’t address the issue of undervaluing what the design and web professions provide to the business community. I don’t agree that it will necessarily “be” fine or shouldn’t be better than fine. Google.com is successful despite it’s un-design. That has far more to do with the super-adaptability of humans as a species than it being a success sans formal design.

    I say let’s aim for better than fine and see where we land. Let’s not compromise the possibilities before we’ve even started.

    Come join the conversation if you can. You provide a valuable perspective, too.

  23. I’ll try to stop by the forum, but more than likely not. I hope it’s not a whinefest that is trying to convince the non-caring, naive, or unintentionally ignorant into caring about what’s important to the professional designer and may or may not be a part of the worldview of ones who solicit ideas from the crowd.

    Design is an important part of our lives, and I engage designers whenever I can afford to do so. I appreciate the results I get in thinking through a project with someone who looks at usability, has an aesthetic sense that complements or even contradicts my own, understands how people interact with objects on many levels, and so forth.

    The responses I’ve read on this topic are ignoring that many things are quite useable and successful sans formal design processes. (Check out google.com lately?)

    While I value, and pay for, services like design, newspaper reporters, working software, I also am one of many who realize they can get perfectly fine products without subscribing to business models that were good in the past but are shifting as we speak.

    Anyone who is whining that “they” don’t get it when “they” are commissioning spec work or crowdsourced work needs to spend some time reading Seth Godin and others who advocate speaking in customer terms and from the perspective of the customer.

    When we hear sanctimonious lecturing from an interest group, most of us get turned off–regardless of the validity of the argument. So be careful. Converse. Be willing to agree to disagree. Be willing to recognize that an okay product may be just fine. And recognize that by already having reacted negatively, the design community is starting from behind in helping an organization that began with the noble intention of engaging the larger community of Portland.

  24. Heather Dougherty July 20, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    Re: Creative Classless

    I hope you, and all who have so thoughtfully posted here, will join us tomorrow eve, Tues 7/21, at Souk from 4-7pm to engage in further discussion on tbs matter. AIGA is hosting (and moderating) a roundtable discussion between many of the local professional design org.s. and we invite you all to attend to witness and participate in the conversation. Admittance is free and open to all, though for capacity reasons we’ll need to limit it to around 60. The City is unfortunately unable to attend this first gathering on such short notice, but is busy assessing their calendar in order to schedule the next meeting. They are very open to discussing the matter with us but simply cannot attend tomorrow. We hope this won’t deter YOU from attending. The discussion promises to be lively and informative regardless.

    Hope to see many of you at Souk tomorrow. Thank you for your passion and willingness to speak up.


  25. The Creative Classless July 20, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    Dear Mayor and Citizens of Portland,

    I do dread being gauche but don’t you understand that community service, volunteerism and the “Portland Spirit” are not part of the “designer ethos”. Never mind that 4 out of 5 of the bids are competitive and pay for service. Never mind that the city is slashing budgets and lying off hundreds of employees due to the down economy. I need my hand out more than ever! Momikins and Popsie have cut off my trust fund. The real estate market in Monterey has tanked and after paying for my English degree and MFA we are simple in the poor house.

    Robby dear don’t be a bore. If you have some desire to be part of the dreadful contributor or community service class do as you will but the rest of us in the Creative Class will have no part of it.

    Exasperated and Offended,
    The Creative Classless

    Do you people have any idea how ridiculous you sound to the rational world?

  26. Steve Gifford July 17, 2009 at 8:55 am

    I’ll do it for free. I have the perfect design style in mind. It’s called “Goatse Nouveau”.

  27. from my response to Justin Spohn’s post:

    “Other cities look to Portland as an example of a great city. What sort of damage would it do to our reputation if our website turns out to be a clunky, confusing piece of dog doo? What happens when people aren’t able to access the important city services which represent the tax dollars they contribute? Embarrassing, if you ask me.”

    As a designer, I may not like this misguided “contest” put forth by the City. As a citizen, however, I just want a functioning, effective website from which to do my City business. I find it hard to believe that a silly contest would motivate anyone enough to engage on the level it takes to “get it right”.

  28. Setting aside the question of whether or not spec work is evil or not, I think there are more practical questions:

    1. Is it ethical for the city to send out an RFP for redesigning and restructuring the site and turn around and have a contest?

    Frankly writing a response to an RFP is a lot of freaking spec work on its own. Is the RFP even still happening?

    Can the RFP winner at least get credit on the web site as well?

    2. Does anyone think that a successful design is likely to come out of this contest? Especially one that satisfies the goals expressed in the RFP?

    I realize the contest is different than the RFP, but the design is a big part of how the RFP is accomplished. Even if the rest of the work is done by the winner of the RFP, if the home page design is completed independent of that work, the entire redesign will be ill-conceived.

    So setting aside whether or not spec work is evil, can anyone seriously argue that this is going to work out well for the web site, the city of portland or its citizens?

  29. Excellent comment Josh. This has become quite a contentious topic at my house, where me and my wife both do freelance web work. She believes that spec is not necessarily such a bad thing and has brought up many of your points. I am still not convinced that the city should ask for their site to be redesigned this way, but am keeping an open mind.

  30. This seems like a terrible idea (because it makes it sound like the city doesn’t value their local business ecosystem and it’s a big FU to Portland-based designers). But that’s the part to be upset about — not spec-work. There’s nothing wrong with spec-work on the whole. This is spec-work for a back link rather than money, which is definitely very lame (I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole), but like any other spec-work, if you don’t like it, don’t do it.

    Here’s why spec-work isn’t evil:

    1. I have yet to meet a /good/ designer who is struggling to find paying clients or is losing them to spec-work. I actually expected that to change as the economy turned south and sites have less money to spend on design — I thought more companies would turn to cheaper, on spec alternatives, and other designers would have fewer clients. But most designers I know are still doing fine.

    2. I do know tens of designers who have used contest sites like 99designs and crowdSPRING to launch their careers. Design sites introduced them to clients, helped them through slow times while they were establishing themselves, gave them client experience and experience synthesizing client feedback, and built up their portfolios.

    3. If you do engage in spec-work, you shouldn’t do it without a contract that ensures that your work remains yours if you don’t win the job (and better yet, that you can add it to your portfolio with “done on spec” written over it and can resell it as a template). It’s one thing to compete for a project and lose and not get paid — that’s your call if you want to participate in those types of projects. It’s quite another to have your work stolen — that is NOT okay.

    4. Can someone please explain to me how participating in contest sites is any different than an unpaid internship? And if you can’t, are you also against unpaid internships?

    5. A lot of industries are built on spec-work. No new writer (except celebrities or those who have been through some well publicized ordeal) gets a book or movie deal without first writing the manuscript or screenplay on spec, for example. Or how about American Idol? Next Food Network Star? Project Runway? Open mic nights at the comedy club? Battle of the bands at the local bar? Someone’s making money off those, but for the participants, it’s spec work — they might make money in the end, but it’s not guaranteed.

  31. @Darrel

    Actually, not quite. Although it was spec work, there was a $1500 prize given to the winner. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1314&dat=19871116&id=wR4SAAAAIBAJ&sjid=C_ADAAAAIBAJ&pg=4909,184842

    It should also be noted that there were controversies associated with that contest as well.

  32. This kind of contest is what got us the OR state license plate with the green tree and the purple mountains. Just sayin’.

  33. Oops! I mean the event format ISN’T nailed down. Sorry.

  34. Hi to all following this thread. In case you’re not following me on Twitter (@hdougherty), AIGA is hard at work trying to pull together an event for early next week where the City and the design community can come together to discuss the pros and cons of the contest approach to the PortlandOnline.com redesign. Where the implications (and possibilities) of crowdsourcing, spec work and the democratization of design can be explored and such.

    We’re pulling together the details – venue, time, attendees/availability, etc. but it looks like we’re kind of aiming for Tuesday, early evening. The exact event format is totally nailed down.

    Keep up the good convo and the energy/interest around this matter and I’ll be providing updates on Twitter and I’ll certainly come back and update via this thread. Rick Turoczy has graciously offered to help us get the word out as well. Thank you Rick!!

    Stay tuned. I shall return. 😉

  35. #26, Heather: great idea about spreading the word through the AIGA network. Marshaling that kind of muscle when it counts is exactly why I’m a member of the AIGA.

    If Portland truly does value the creative community — and to be sure, it’s heavily used the town’s burgeoning “creative class” as a marketing point — then it should treat that community like its work is in fact valuable.

    Obviously, the economy sucks, and the City’s budgets have shrunk accordingly. By that measure, it makes civic sense to see what can be done for as little money as possible. But the other side of the coin is the City’s clear (and you could argue, cynical) knowledge that there are enough hungry, under-employed designers out there who’d consider working on proposals with no hope of compensation, and be satisfied with a mere site credit if they’re successful.

    This really is an institutional dis on the design industry. Once the high profile gigs happen for free, all of our work is valued accordingly.

  36. andrea cutler July 15, 2009 at 8:45 am

    I am seeing more and more of this, Santa Monica summer concert series ran a contest through the chamber of comm, for posters for the festival on the pier. The stuff they got for free was absolute crap, and yet they picked a winner. An indie band I know ran a t-shirt contest, and the winner of that got tktx to a show and a 100 bucks (wow) A popular “green” website is promoting 3 contests for design work as we speak. THEY all think that the exposure for the designers should be reward enough! THE DANGLING CARROT approach, that doing their project will lead to oodles of paying work in the future! The problem is once they (the general public) realizes you (the designer) is willing to work for FREE, then WHY would they be willing to PAY you?! The’ll just turn around an run their own new contest for some other poor sucker to fall victim to. AGGGAAAHHHH, this pisses me off to no end.

  37. As a designer, I can honestly say this hurts—deeply. It says to me that the City of Portland does not value the talented many individuals/firms and the amazing creative services we offer. What they are proposing, in my opinion, is worse than spec work or crowdsourcing because in this particular scenario NO ONE gets compensated.

    It’s hard enough trying to compete for a living in the changing landscape of how design and creative services are offered, but to have own city who supposedly champions the creative class and has the funds to facilitate this project properly devalue what we do is down right FUCKED UP! Sorry for the obscenities, but It’s how I feel about it.

    An apology is in order, Portland.

    All that said, it makes me proud to see that we as a creative community aren’t willing to take this type of shit lying down.

  38. Damn. It just makes me sad. It definitely takes a potentially exciting opportunity and makes the whole thing feel cheap and dirty.

    I love Portland, but things like this do make me wonder about our officials.

  39. Jason, I think the key difference between X-Prize and design contests like PortlandOnline.com is that the X-Prize is meant to jump-start private-sector development of key, traditionally government-controlled, industries. The work people put into X-Prize submissions benefits the industry as a whole, not just the people paying the cash prize: a perfect example is Virgin Galactic using the winning version, SpaceShipOne.

    With designing on spec, you’re just guessing what one entity wants: the designs are specific to that one entity (at least speculatively), and only they are going to benefit from the collective work put into the contest. It’s also not serving to jump-start or further advance the field of web design: it’s a mature industry without the government or some major organization putting money into getting people interested in it.

  40. I found this post via the Twitters and have this question…

    When is a government run design contest OK and when is it not?

    The X-Prize is a NASA run “Design Contest” to find the next space shuttle — people seem to be ga-ga about that because the payoff is so great. But in reality, it is some really expensive spec work. DARPA also does its yearly challenge for autonomous vehicles — which is to design a car that can drive itself from point A to B.

    Is that different? Because the payout is greater? More fame and government contracts?

    What if this web design contest payed out a million dollars of tax payer money? Would the anger then be about wasting tax money or would the argument of “credit” be satisfied? Would the wager of doing spec work be more appealing with a bigger prize?

    And since the prize in this design contest is believed by the community to be nothing — is it really spec work?

    If there is no Compensation is there Speculation?

  41. City can’t budget for this right now

  42. Earlier today I was telling my coworkers about some interesting information I found in analytics from a customer site.

    One of the top referring pages was on a topic that also happened to be the top term in the site search. Unfortunately, no where on the site is this information covered. Not in the navigation. Not on the homepage.

    So here is something that drives a decent amount of traffic to the site, but the site doesn’t have any information about it that is readily visible, so people resort to searching for the information.

    We’re recommending that this information be included on the home page. The design will be better because of this analysis. And in the end, people will be able to find what they are looking for more quickly.

    That is good design. A design absent analysis is nothing more than painting a house without patching the holes in the wall first. Sure the colors may look pretty, but the critters still sneak through the cracks and the neighbors can see you showering.

    There may have been the greatest of intentions in creating this contest, but the end result is not going to benefit the city. Any developer worth their salt isn’t going to want to be hamstrung by a design that comes out of this contest.

    I don’t really find it insulting. It’s sort of hard to rankle me in that way. I find it ridiculous in the way that only government seems to be capable of.

    More than anything, I’m pleased that I didn’t waste my time responding to the city’s RFP. If the city should apologize to anyone, it is all of the people who put in the time to create serious responses to the RFP only to have any chance at a sensical design process undermined by this contest.

  43. “Jeremy Van Keuren, Contest Coordinator: email (jvankeuren_z@ci.portland.or.us) or (503) 823-3772”

    Anyone call or email Jeremy in addition to posting here/elsewhere?

  44. Haha Tyler. I meant MORE than that!

    Anyway, now that you bring it up, AIGA Portland’s disapproval has been communicated by our chapter President – thoroughly and eloquently recounting the organization’s position on spec work – and received what I thought was a somewhat lukewarm response. I am proposing this position be re-communicated to our membership and social media communities so that they might make an informed decision regarding participating in this contest.

    While I am hoppin’ mad about this, I do believe trying to arrange a meeting with the appropriate people so that a small, representative group of local web design professionals (from companies and prof. org.s) can calmly present why this solution is not ideal (for anyone, including themselves) and how the same goal can be achieved differently would be the most effective approach. One would hope anyway.

  45. The Steering Committee for this thing includes several City employees from the various Bureaus as you would expect but also has at least one person who doesn’t seem to be an employee but is from a firm called Response Interactive. Perhaps meant to give that outside advice?

    Committee and minutes of meetings posted at http://bit.ly/HjlrL

  46. Heather: I hear there’s a perfect org in town with whom they might have consulted. What’s their name again?

  47. So a first sentence on the design contest front page that says this:

    “Web developers, graphic artists and visionaries…”

    Actually means this?

    “Mr. Business Owner, the 16 year old with the 4-year old copy of Front Page, and my 11 year old.”


  48. Hmm, Steven. Thanks for diving in and going to the source. I’m not buying the City’s explaination though and here’s why:

    “Starting the week of July 19th until September 1st, we’ll be accepting submissions for new graphics and layouts for PortlandOnline.” and, “…web developers, graphic artists and visionaries to transform the navigation and design of PortlandOnline, the city’s primary web presence.”

    Sounds like a little more than “generating ideas” to me and they are specifically asking for web developers and graphic artists, along w/ “visionaries” (whatever the hell that is). Not to get all semantic here, but that sounds like development specs, graphics and layouts, which in my world means fairly complete work, done by professionals. And what does the winner contribute exactly? Does the City actually end up using the “winning” design? Or is it just ideas from a bunch of people? I don’t know about you, but when I work for the City or any other client I’m paid for my ideas. The City isn’t doing that, they are asking for spec work. Tsk-tsk. and a HUGE difference.

    Now, we could get into the “volunteer” or “pro-bono” nature of the thing. And I’m all for pro-bono and volunteer work. But, and I’ll state it again, not for an $83 million (sorry not 90k as previously stated) per year govt agency that has $10 million plus earmarked and budgeted for Portlandonline already. It’s unethical.

    Regardless, maybe the City can spend some of that $10 million earmarked and budgeted BTS money and work on their communications and PR a bit. They need to.

  49. re: Steven Walling

    I was privy to a similar communication and was no more convinced (or soothed for that matter) than it seems you were. There are plenty of ways to include the masses in making the site their own without being so literal about it. We do this for a living and frequently have to include many people from a large organization in contributing to and/or directing content development, providing assets, etc., without handing over the design to them.

    Furthermore, thank you, contest project manager, for the follow-up back-handed slap across our other cheek in suggesting DEVELOPMENT was worth paying for while free DESIGN is acceptable. Now we’ve at least narrowed down exactly WHOSE job isn’t worth anything.

    Did it ever occur to the City to consult a consortium of local web design professionals for input on how they might SUCCESSFULLY involve the community in the redesign? Doesn’t seem so (though they say they consulted designers).

  50. Typo: She would not confirm that any actual contract would be offered.

  51. Just a few minutes ago, I spoke on the phone with a project manager for the design contest. Here’s what I heard from her (these are paraphrases of her words, not my position or agreement with them):

    There will be more info on the contest posted tomorrow.
    The contest was conceived as a tool for generating lots of ideas, not for getting someone to do all the work for free. She said it was the first step in the process, not the vision for how the whole design process would work.
    They see the design contest as a way for the community of Portland at large, not just design companies, to get a crack at doing the “skinning” of what Portland’s home web site will look like. The actual development work will be paid for, supposedly.
    She specifically mentioned that it’s intended to include amateurs and hobbyists as well as people with business licenses, which is supposedly why they didn’t do an RFP.
    It was not done for budgetary reasons. It was done because they honestly thought this would be the best way to get the widest possible input.
    They have not ruled out the notion of doing a contract with whomever wins the contest. In other words, it’s still spec work, but they are maybe willing to pay for the design that floats to the top. She would confirm that any actual contract would be offered.

  52. You know, it’s not only an insult to the Portland web professionals – it’s an insult to the whole city and every potential site visitor since it basically says “you’re not worth our time.” A site of this size responsibly requires an experienced, multi-disciplinary team to create a site experience that truly communicates and demonstrates the Portland brand — the online us, if you will. Clearly, the city recognized the current site wasn’t doing this very well either, but if they think what they’re going to get from this little exercise is going to be any better, they’re in for a rude awakening (like a bad MySpace nightmare in the middle of the night awakening).

    The potentially bigger nightmare, that no one is yet talking about, is that one of our own lashes out in desperation and designs the site (well) and it gets made. That would not set a good precedent at all. That would effectively pull us all down a notch and nobody wants that. SO — please get the word out and encourage local designers (especially unemployed ones) NOT to participate.

    I get that not everybody understands the complexities of a successful site design, but, truly, to think just anyone can do it is an insult that makes my blood boil and, sadly, one I should be used to by now having done this for the last 10 years.

  53. Because I’m cynical, I can see the city spinning this contest in a couple of different ways:

    1. Following Allison’s interpretation, my kid can submit a design spec. Even though I’ll be the one staying up all night long (shades of those science night projects, anyone?) glueing cotton balls into the diorama, my kid will “win” the “prize”, while the City takes bows for their progressive, inclusive stance in public – while then paying real professionals to interpret a few random elements from her spec into the final version.

    2. The design spec will be awarded to some hungry startup. Everyone will take public bows. But the design will end up being ‘unusable’ since it won’t mesh with the CMS system the city’s using (hey – why *aren’t* there details about the CMS system, so designers can model their work on the content delivery mechanism, anyway?) Then the city will pay real professionals to interpret a few random elements from their spec into the final version.

    3. After months of ‘judging’ (who are these mythical arbiters of web design/usability, anyway? Can I jump into that gig, ostensibly for all the Starbucks coffee I can drink? Will the city at least pay for my parking while I sit through hours upon hours of meetings?), the contest will be scrapped for one reason or another. Then the city will pay real professionals…(rinse, repeat.)

    Sorry, I can’t help but think that this is nothing more than what was supposed to be a feel-good marketing campaign stunt gone horribly awry.

  54. great post you guys! seriously! thanks Lizzie for the excellent letter as well.

    I reblogged you (and posted my initial redesign concept, hahahah) at theblogblog.net: http://www.theblogblog.net/?p=3539

    keep up the great work!

  55. The early draft of the rules asks for 3-10 pages presenting a new design strategy. It isn’t asking for the whole site to be redone by a volunteer (no development work was requested). What’s the big deal? It’s not like a particular department has that much control over *their portion* of the budget anyway. At least they recognize the importance of design being part of the process.

    I don’t know about you, but I don’t slack off on volunteer work just because I am not getting paid for it. In fact, I trade services with people all the time, and it works out quite well. I also know a number of people who have remodeled parts of their homes with the help of friends and family willing to volunteer their time, and the projects have turned out great.

    I don’t know, it sounds like everyone just wants to shout “take me seriously!” I don’t see this as an insult to designers, but rather a request for some help from the city that we live and work in.

    -Allison (a designer and partner at Planet Argon)

  56. Robby,

    I think you should read Lizzy Caston’s letter before you jump to conclusions, such as “oh, the city can’t budget for this right now.”

    You also make a mockery of the work that you, your employees and everyone else in the web design and development industry do when you say:

    “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.”

    If I can’t afford to get my house remodeled by a professional (or a team of professionals), asking for people “to volunteer their time” would not be a very good way of “improving” my house. In fact, it would be far more likely that any volunteers willing to do the work in exchange, say, for a sign giving them credit for the remodel, would do such shoddy work as to make my house unlivable, or at least no better than before they started.

    If the city can’t–or won’t–pay professionals to improve their website, what makes you think that they can find volunteers who will have the skills, experience and willingness to put in the time to do it? Everyone I know who is capable of helping to improve a web site of this size is a professional–they do this for a living. Yes, we volunteer, as others have pointed out, for truly deserving (aka broke), small community organizations and non-profits, usually staffed themselves by volunteers. And even a non-profit community group is unlikely to get a good result from a volunteer-created website if they have 140,000 pages and serve 2 million visits a month.

    It simply has not been shown that “the city cannot afford to spend several hundred thousands of dollars on revamping the site,” or that volunteers could somehow be able to pull off such a task for free.

    It seems both you and the City of Portland need a serious dose of reality.

    Jay Cosnett
    Senior Interactive Producer
    Emerge Interactive
    Portland, Oregon

  57. @Robby R.: Small Business Advisory Council meeting minutes dated November 12, 2008 state that there is a budget for redesigning PortlandOnline.com in ’09:


    It’s near the bottom of pg1. It may be mentioned elsewhere in public documentation but this is one example that shows PDX allocated $$ for the project.

  58. Hi Robby,

    With all due respect, Bureau of Technology Services has close to a $90 million dollar annual budget. The City has over $10 million budgeted in the fiscal ’09-10 budget for Bureau of Technology Services business delivery services. This line items includes items such as website design for city websites. As comparison, BTS has over $725k just for “customer relations” alone. These funds can generally be moved around to different projects and shared as needed. They can certainly afford a “refresh” for their website.

    The City can not only afford it, they have budgeted for it. That’s the shameful part. You can see the budget at http://www.portlandonline. or you can access it here http://www.portlandonline.com/omf/index.cfm?c=49656&a=

    I, like many others also believe the city is being hypocritical. For the past couple of months we’ve heard from the Mayor and other members of Council (who control BTS) that the city’s main priority is to focus on the economy. Asking professionals in an industry that is suffering economic hardships to work for free for a multi-million dollar budgeted agency is hypocritical. And wrong.

    Also, I worked for PDC for 7 years. I worked with BTS closely on many, many web and other technology/communications projects. I know how much they spend on boxed lunches and Starbucks coffee at meetings. They can afford to pay a web designer. Trust me on this one.

  59. Apparently Robby missed the news that the City DOES have money and even budgeted for web improvements. See update from Lizzy.

  60. @Robby

    To borrow a point from @Mattg (on Twitter), you don’t see the city asking for volunteers to fill in pot holes, do you? Would that to be acceptable to you?

  61. What were they thinking? It makes no sense at all.

  62. 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.

  63. This is another sad indicator of our culture’s movement towards an entitlement mentality.

    The “spec work” argument is often defended by saying that this is how times are changing – the same argument that people use when they say that musicians are old-fashioned for wanting to be able to sell copies of their music rather than having them distributed on file sharing sites. Or play for free at an event for “exposure.”

    What else does this remind me of? People that aren’t willing to pay for news. Publications like the NYT send real reporters to the field – something that costs a lot of money to do.

    Sadly, all of these things are going by the wayside as people expect more and more for free.

  64. Hey Rick, good article. Nice to see you on here calling a spade a spade. CoP, value your design population appropriately.

    Yours truly,

    IT Talent..

  65. faddah yuetsu July 13, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    agreed. +1. this is shameful, esp. after mayor adams call @ open source bridge for us to be more “business-like” in open source community, to be more attractive for city gov’t. to work with. this is what we’ll get for being more business like and work to offer the city open source solutions? an “honorable mention” at best?? not much “honor” at all, city of portland.

    if it were a thing where pdx gov’t. & portlandonline.com were soliciting just some minor graphics as a contest to give the web site a more “of the people” feel, that’d be one thing (and i’d hope the contest would give a bit more than just a linked mention on the page. but if they’re talking, and i believe they are, and entire site graphic & design overhaul and web development on the back end, it’s time to pony up.

    someone needs to remind mayor sam & the city council the old adage that “open source” is “free” as “free speech” and the bill of rights, not “free” as in “free beer.” or in this case, budgeted city web site for free. ugh.

  66. @Jeff Thanks for the link. Adding the Pop Art post to my post.

  67. Really, no love for the PopArt company blog? The only reason the twittersphere is buzzing about this is their well written blog post.


  68. Oh yeah! Spec work!

    Fun times.

    I’ve written about this before, http://andrewhyde.net/spec-work-is-evil-why-i-hate-crowdspring/ and http://andrewhyde.net/spec-work-is-a-ponzi-scheme/

    Sad to see it still going around (and in Portland? really?).

    I don’t know what more to add, great article Rick.

  69. As a former full time self-employed web designer of many years I can honestly say that this is the most disrespectful thing that ANY entity, business or government or otherwise, can ask of their design community. The City of Portland prides itself (supposedly) in being something of design epicenter, our city government should know better and they should apologize for ever even suggesting such a thing.

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