PortlandOnline design contest redux: City of Portland revises its stance but there’s still more to discuss

[Editor: The following is a guest post by Eric Hillerns who has been helping to lead discussions around the City of Portland’s PortlandOnline design contest with both the City and the design community of Portland. I think it’s an important discussion for both the Web design community and—if the City is to engage more closely with the development and startup community—all of us, so I wanted to keep you up-to-date.]

Following our meeting with the City, AIGA Portland delivered our recommendations for addressing the issues surrounding the PortlandOnline “Challenge.” Since our exchange, the City of Portland has posted a revised challenge. Some suggestions were adopted and others were not. We were well aware that the City would make their own decisions, and we respect the outcomes of their position.

We aren’t required to like every aspect of their approach. As creative professionals, we can make our own decisions of whether to participate or not. Aside from this challenge, we believe that this case marks the beginning of an open conversation with the City and the creative community to develop a creative “Bill of Rights” and establish best practices for working together. We are hopeful.

We have established a date for our next Town Hall meeting. Tuesday, September 8 at 6-8 p.m. The discussion will be held at The Rose Room at City Hall. All are welcome to attend. Further details will be posted through various media outlets, including the Silicon Florist and the AIGA Portland.

To bring you up to speed on what has transpired since our last meeting, our two most recent e-mails follow. (Laurel Butman’s response on 21 August to our recommendations on 17 August is listed first.)

On Aug 21, 2009, at 2:00 PM, Butman, Laurel wrote:

Johnny & Eric –

Thank you so much for your feedback on the banner challenge rules and criteria. We were able to incorporate many of your excellent suggestions into the final document, which we will post online Monday when we launch the challenge. I wanted to share some specifics with you and then lay out some next steps for continuing the dialogue that this experience has started.

First, your comments about a) underscoring the value of design professionals, b) the ability of participants to remove themselves from association with the challenge, and c) pointing out the need to clarify the definition of “commission” that we are using in this context were all extremely helpful. Also, thank you for catching the remaining POL acronyms.

You also recommended that we work with a single design firm at this time and NOT request submissions for the completed design of a banner. We believe this may signify the largest misunderstanding in this process since the City is not requesting submissions for a completed design of a banner. Now significantly altered in its direction and name, our “challenge” will not request finished work from the public. Rather, it will welcome pictures, concepts, and banner suggestions that will then be incorporated into a redesign by in-house or contracted designers. I hope this helps clarify further.

You were also somewhat concerned that repurposing this effort as a “challenge” might be considered political posturing. We are aware of the potential for such criticism. However, because the nature of our query for public input has so significantly changed — from one that originally solicited multiple layouts and information architecture, to one that now asks for unfinished images to inform our direction on the banner’s look and feel —we felt it appropriate to alter the name of our project’s title in a permanent way in order to avoid confusion, and to communicate the significance of this change.

We are excited about moving forward with the challenge in order to stimulate community involvement in and ownership of PortlandOnline, the City of Portland’’s official web site, and once again thank you for your willingness to work with the City to improve this process. We have learned a great deal and value the new understandings and relationships that are emerging.

On that note, we are now looking forward to continuing the dialogue, as planned, in September. When we spoke, I believe we came to the agreement that the City would like to work with you to convene the attendees from your previous meeting at Souk and anyone else who wants to join in mid-September for further discussion. Some items for that discussion included:

  1. An opportunity for the City to hear from this group and listen to folks’ perspectives
  2. An opportunity for the City to clarify and dispel any remaining misapprehensions
  3. An opportunity to use our recent experiences as a “case study” to discuss future improvements
  4. A beginning to a discussion of a creative community “bill of rights” & best practices for working together

I am anxious to book a room before they are snatched up in September. We’ll set the time for 5-7 or 6-8 on a weekday if you think that’s optimal. Can you give me a guesstimate of how many to plan for so I can get a room of the right size? Also, please inform my of any evenings that would be problematic for your members and constituents.

Looking forward to hearing from you, Laurel

Laurel Butman, Principal Management Analyst
Business Operations, Office of Management & Finance

—–Your Original Message as Forwarded from Jeremy—————

From: Eric Hillerns

Sent: Monday, August 17, 2009 10:30 AM

To: Van Keuren, Jeremy

Cc: Johnny Levenson
Subject: AIGA Portland Feedback on PortlandOnline Challenge Draft

Dear Jeremy,

Thank you for submitting your latest rules and criteria draft to AIGA Portland for our review. We greatly appreciate your desire to create a mutually satisfying endeavor for the advancing needs of PortlandOnline.com. To date, this has proven to be a satisfying exchange and it appears that together, we can continue to take great strides. We understand that our suggestions are for consideration only and that it is incumbent upon the City to determine what is in its best interest. Within the creative community, we have heard positive responses with regard to the City clarifying its scope and certain language regarding the “Challenge”. We applaud your team in these efforts and we realize that it hasn’t been easy on the City or Mayor’s Office.

However, with those steps taken, there remains certain questions and concerns that AIGA Portland has with the current Challenge language. The recommendations that follow are drawn from AIGA’s position on speculative work and considers feedback that we’ve received from our board as well as others within the creative community.

As discussed, we believe that the City aims (and claims) to value the contributions of the community, yet won’t (or can’t) adequately compensate for the time and effort to create finished work. The design community is willing to go to great lengths to contribute. AIGA Portland is concerned that the Mayor’s repeated call for creative contributions may fall flat without a statement from him about the value of design and the need for reasonable compensation to design professionals. Of equal concern, and due to the language associated with the Challenge, we believe that other professional associations’
positions on speculative work will also limit the contributions by the most qualified suppliers in the industry. These concerns are consistent with what other professional associations’ members (and individuals) have expressed.

Furthermore, we believe that simply changing the name to “Challenge” will be viewed as an attempt to reframe the “contest” format. As you know, the idea of a contest carries a negative connotation within the design community. “Challenge” is a much better term, to be sure, but we are concerned that it may be considered political posturing. The City should be aware of the potential for criticism.

Page 6: Item 1 of the Challenge rules and criteria draft asks all participants to transfer rights to their designs to the City. The City then reserves the right to alter or use the designs for any City-sponsored promotional materials. This establishes a difficult precedent for the City’s ability to select a single winner, or multiple winners. This has been a serious and consistent flaw in the “crowd sourcing” model simply because (1) entrants believe that a winner will be selected, and (2) they will wish to see the winning submissions and will require an understanding of the criteria by which the submissions were selected. If this doesn’t occur as promised, there is often considerable backlash. If the City can alter submitted work, to what extent can it be altered? And is this still the work that was originally submitted? To what extent can it be used? We believe that it should be clearly stated that an entrant may quickly and legally remove any and all association with the design if an image is significantly altered and/or used by the City in other promotional materials. We recommend that the clause be removed.

Page 6: Item 4 states that credit will be given for the work being “commissioned” by the City, but the term “commissioned” suggests a prearranged assignment between a client and supplier. That is not the case here. Obviously, it would be ideal if a relationship could be established between client and designer. As it reads now it is misleading. “Commissioned” should be changed to “”used””.

In our most recent draft, there are inconsistencies in the use of the PortlandOnline acronym. Is it “PoL” or “POL”?

AIGA Portland understands that this project, and its myriad components, must move forward on some level. It is AIGA’s recommendation that you do not pursue this banner redesign with your current Challenge, but rather work to establish a manner of soliciting citizen and community feedback without requesting completed design work. Citizen and community feedback should be encouraged throughout the project, in the form of comments or simple polls.

We recommend that a single design firm be contracted to design a simple template for the banner format for the PortlandOnline Web site. It could easily be produced by one of the firms currently under contract, with the understanding that the template may be redesigned in the future. It need not be a complicated or an expensive process.

In keeping with the spirit of the Challenge, we suggest that the City should focus on facilitating community contributions by creating a positive collaboration between the City and its citizens, but NOT request submissions for the completed design of a banner. The City should establish a framework for many participants to submit images, audio, video, or text, and then, to provide proper attribution. The site could display these contributions as rotating images embedded within the header banner format designed by the contracted firm. This provides an opportunity for individual attribution and alleviates the issue of speculative design work altogether. Furthermore this collection of user-supplied images (or other content) will assist in stitching together the unique and diverse visual patchwork that is Portland. The template can then establish or support the proper brand attributes for the site, and serve as an all-inclusive envelope for the submissions from Portland’s citizenry at large.

If you need examples of positions on speculative work, we’d be happy to supply a list. Within the last couple of weeks, the issue seems to have bubbled up yet again. You might also be interested in articles regarding “crowd sourcing” and how government has used this model and related tools to solicit feedback and establish future strategy based on input from various sources.

We look forward to continuing this discussion in person and we hope that these recommendations are helpful. We appreciate the opportunity to assist in this effort.

Kindest regards,

Eric Hillerns and Johnny Levenson


Eric Hillerns
AIGA Portland, Vice President

Johnny Levenson
AIGA Portland, President


  1. It is true, design is hugely undervalued. I deal with it everyday with clients wanting quality design at unsustainably cheap prices. I make a point to show new and potential clients the value of what they are getting as best as I can. So, on that note, I just want to say, I really appreciate all the people involved that are making our voices heard to the City of Portland; to show the value of professional graphic design and that it should be respected.

  2. I think the whole debate is indicative of a larger societal issue. Design work is all to commonly undervalued. Everywhere “contests” for logos or web design offer paltry “prizes” that aren’t worth a tenth of the work’s value. (Craig’s List is inundated with them.) Pair those with the glut of jobs expecting a designer to know everything from illustration to web design to print design and programs from Qwark to Indesign to photoshop to Flash to Dreamweaver to god knows what else AND have a bachelor’s degree and years of working experience all for an hourly salary that doesnt top $30,000 a year and what we have is a huge lack of respect for the time and effort and knowledge it takes to put together and implement really good design. It’s good the city is listening and revising. I am still waiting for the day when design is recognized and respected for the massive impact it has on all areas of life and how it influences the people it’s targeting. Where would Target or Apple or any other major brand be without it’s brilliant design? And that goes for eeeeeevvvvveeerrryyything else down to the corner cafe that wants it’s business cards designed for $10 an hour.

  3. Eric, thanks for your followup to my comment. I think it’s great that the local design community is challenging the city and working to hopefully smooth relations for the future. My point was that the city shouldn’t have to create a “bill of rights” in order to get along with small businesses. That said, if the city is so clueless as to need a “bill of rights” to figure it out, that agreement shouldn’t be specific to design or creative businesses… it should be across the board for the city’s relations with *all* industries.

  4. Follow-up post…

    I just don’t want folks to run out of gas on this discussion when there seems to be a much larger discussion that still needs to take place, one that establishes an arrangement between PDX designers and the city that will help prevent portlandonline-esque situations in the future.

    In some designers’ eyes (mine included), this seems like something that should be cut and dry: spec work is wrong, we’re #2 in unemployment, the city is asking for a freebie while paying others for “shovel ready work,” etc. Of course, very little seems to be cut and dry. I accept that.

    The next discussion on September 8th will be an important one for sure.

  5. I wonder if an executive summary of some kind would be helpful. That’s a massive collection of text. All good stuff for sure, but a lot to read.

  6. Hi Aaron,

    Your post caught me eye. Can you elaborate on what you mean by your comment? To which industry are you referring? And what do you mean by “because this one industry should be treated differently than all the others”? I’m not challenging you. I’m just interested. You likely bring up a point of legitimate concern. Will you join in on the open conversation on the 8th? Your voice should be heard.


  7. Aaron B. Hockley September 2, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    Yes, there should definitely be a bill of rights, because this one industry should be treated differently than all others.

    Wait, maybe that’s not the best plan…

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