Portland Creatives Find New Ways to Work Together

Posted by Alissa Walker

Portland, Oregon-the misty evergreen Shangri-La for the young, the creative, and the progressive-has an interesting problem. Its miles of bike lanes, its rock-bottom rents, its deep vats of craft brews are all far too good. Yes, Portland has actually made itself too attractive. According to one study that compared May of 2009 with May of 2008, Oregon's unemployment has grown faster than any other state in the country, 3 percent. For large metropolitan areas in the country, Portland has one of the highest unemployment rates, which topped out at about 11.8 percent-even higher than Detroit. To blame, some economists believe, are the large numbers of designers and artists who have been moving there without jobs, dubbed the dubious "young creatives."Last week, as I visited the dozen or so of my friends who have recently relocated there (some without jobs themselves), I did not, as you may think, have to step over piles of out-of-work hipsters. Portland is an outpost of high-tech entrepreneurship nestled firmly in the Silicon Forest, and these highly-educated people are already finding innovative ways to make money. But like other "youth magnet" cities (Austin, Charlotte, Seattle), they're less likely to go to work at an office. As I strolled the city from meeting to meeting, I realized that out of necessity, Portland is quickly finding the answers to a much greater issue that's going to affect an increasingly freelance workforce across the country: Where are all these people going to work?Ziba Design is a design firm headquartered in Portland that stands to benefit from the influx of talent. "We always have a [lot] of interest from around the world, but over the last few years we have begun to see more local talent interested in working at Ziba," says executive creative director Steve McCallion. "The quality of this talent seems to have increased." McCallion attributes the pilgrimage to Portland's personality. "Portland's DNA is based on collaboration, creativity, and independence. This has manifested itself into a thriving DIY creative culture making everything from craft beers, to micro-roasters, to handmade bikes." Being a good corporate citizen is also important to the city's residents. "The young creative class is interested in working for companies that have strong values and are rooted in doing good for the community." So when the 25-year-old company recently built a new headquarters in the Pearl District, a quickly-gentrifying part of downtown known for housing many of the city's creative firms, they made several decisions that go against the sealed-bunker mentality of design firms often working under strict NDAs: They opened the building up to the local community.Ground floor retail rings the building and a "pocket gallery" create cultural opportunities for the neighborhood. A huge 200-seat auditorium will host public programming and be available for nonprofits to use free of charge. Ziba is even renting office space within the building and allowing their tenants to share their amenities-again, radical for a company that practically requires a retinal scan to enter. Besides the fact that supplemental rent helps keep their own business afloat, the reasons for all these things were clear to Ziba:  The more they can have those serendipitous interactions with people outside the firm, the stronger it will be. "The emerging practice of open source design means that creative firms must get better at co-creation and collaboration," says McCallion. "The creative class is looking for diversity not just in their city, but in the workplace as well. Opening up to the community increases diversity."Co-working, an option that's growing in popularity across the country, is obviously big in Portland. Much has been made about the closing of CubeSpace, a popular co-working spot that closed in June. Other co-working spaces like Souk or an innovative live/work space Leftbank Project provide good options, but a far more interesting model is one pioneered by ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, whose office is a few blocks from Ziba's in the Pearl. When a retail tenant on the ground floor of their headquarters (a former cold storage warehouse) moved out, W+K turned over the stripped, industrial space to a group of designers, developers, and tech entrepreneurs as the Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE). The group uses the space for free (W+K tossed in furniture from elsewhere in the building) in return for serving as ambassadors to the local tech community, which helps W+K-a traditional ad agency-make inroads to that industry. Those chosen for PIE include creators of the popular site Bac'n and the makers of Unthirsty-providing online happy hour listings worldwide. When I was there, I met Rick Turoczy, author of the blog Silicon Florist, and Darin Richardson, a web designer and developer. The group plans to hold tech events, and they're already enjoying weekly Thursday suppers family-style (and one time they did, indeed, have pie)."There are a lot of spaces in Portland, but it's hard to get cool office space," says Richardson, "And cool costs more money." And not even cool guarantees that creatives will be looking over the shoulders of their peers working on like-minded projects, or sometimes, pitching in to help, as has happened at PIE. Richardson described how several members tag-teamed the development and design of Urban Airship, a new mobile app spearheaded another PIE member. He was amazed at how fast ideas disseminated, and how quickly they got the project finished. "If I was in my office or a co-working space, that wouldn't have happened." W+K is hoping some of those ideas float all the way into the agency: Someone from W+K could walk downstairs and tap PIE to help with a project they're working on; conversely, a piece of PIE could present a good idea for a product or service to a W+K team member for one of their clients. Wandering the Pearl afterward, I noticed how many retail spaces were vacant in an area. Creatives often can operate in a bare-bones environment-"we walked in with our computers," says Richardson. Why not let creatives set up shop until a new tenant moves in? Who knows, the cushion might give them enough of a springboard to start renting the space themselves.Over the Willamette River, in the Hollywood District, I saw an even more innovative solution for those who need affordable space and a sense of community, but might need just a smidge of privacy. 3800 Business Center is a converted motel (complete with appropriately Googie signage) that now houses everything from creative firms and production companies to lawyers and chiropractors. The developers played upon the parts of the motel's functionality that now work perfectly as an office park (private entrances to each room, and plenty of parking), stripped the rooms to the bones (sorry, no beds for naps), and added bright landscaping and solar panels to the roof. Insert your "renting by the hour" jokes now, but that's not a bad idea, either.A converted motel room runs pretty cheap (less than $500 per month) and is perfectly sized for one to two people. Tommy Spann, who works remotely for Convio, a software company for nonprofits, looked at several spaces before deciding on this one. Although it was a bit more basic, it was affordable and in a bustling area-and it allowed him to have a real office. "I'm not a hermit, but I like the work privacy," says Spann. "I'm on the phone a lot and pace when I talk. I like having my own place." Also a plus: Having your own bathroom (although the showers are plugged for the time being).In my neighborhood in Los Angeles, which is filled with creatives who crowd the coffee shops by day, there are also at least a dozen crumbling motels. Artists and creatives generally move to areas like this that are at the leading edge of gentrification, meaning hotel rooms once hosting illicit activities are now hosting generally less illicit activities; but it's not quite time for a W Hotel to take over. Creatives occupying a seedy motel would transform a blight into a cultural hub for the neighborhood, while giving important members of the community the space to expand and focus their work. Of course, the real benefit down here is that your office would come with the use of a sparkling blue pool.Ziba photos by Stephen A. Miller; 3800 photos by Tommy Spann.