Improving design in Portland

Government financed buildings, parks, bridges, streets, bus stops, even retaining walls. They’re woven through our city, and they set a tone. These projects are important to our City’s livability, how we and others perceive our hometown, and they can act as catalysts for better private development. Unfortunately, we consistently miss good opportunities. Portland’s designer selection process is even alienating many of the people we want to engage to help grow our economy – Portland’s Creative Class. Even though we’re trying to convince people we’re a design capital, we are sliding gradually towards more of an ‘engineered city’, like Los Angeles. It's not about the money, good design need not cost significantly more, it's about the process that we use to select design firms.


This is one problem that is easy to solve. New York, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s leadership, just reworked the City’s process for hiring design firms and positive results are already starting to show. Two things need to happen: completely rewrite Requests for Proposals (RFP’s) that solicit design firms for government projects, and redesign the Selection Committees that choose designers. Our RFP’s currently favor quantity over quality. If one applicant has designed 10 mediocre projects and one applicant has designed 1 or 2 beautiful projects, the first applicant wins. Our RFP’s also discourage our best creative problem solvers and design talents from even submitting. Designers should help write RFP’s. Selection Committees rarely select the best designer. Our committees are mostly made up of management and technically focused individuals. ‘On time on budget’ and ‘experience over aptitude’ dominate. People who are knowledgeable about design excellence and how good design can be achieved, even on a challenging budget, are rarely on our design juries.


To achieve design levels that Portland deserves, design focused individuals should comprise a majority on selection committees. Bringing a higher level of design to government projects is good for the design of our City, it is good for civic pride, and it's good for our economy as we support, in a tangible way, our local, underutilized design talents.





by Stuart Emmons

The Oregonian Blog, March 21, 2008