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InsightJan 24, 2024

City Design Tour: Portland

Written by Caitlin Wharton RGD
Caitlin Wharton RGD with her 2 dogs in front of a colourful mural in Portland

Caitlin Wharton RGD, Founder & Creative Director at Studio Millie, shares the design experience of her city, Portland, Oregon.

What makes your city’s design scene special/unique? 

There's a grit and independence to the city that I think fosters an anything-goes mentality here. Designers, illustrators and artists flocked to the city ages ago when prices were cheap to create art for art's sake with limited care about public perception of if it's cool or not. From large scale city-funded street art to strange little free libraries toting painted stones or poetry, the creative scene in Portland feels uninhibited and a little unhinged. Pair that with historic architecture, little print shops, indie record stores, endless thrift shops, the spectacular wilds of Pacific Northwest forests and a world-class food scene—it can feel like a never-ending creative's playground.

Image of a building with a large 'Portland Oregon Old Town' sign on top

Is there a place/landmark in your city that helps inspire you as a designer?

I am, and will always be, obsessed with Powell's City of Books (the largest independent bookshop in the world!) Even though it's a tourist hot spot, I can't think of a single creative challenge that can't be solved by whittling away hours exploring nearly 70,000 square feet of books on every subject you can imagine.

Photo of the Powell's City of Books' isle with art books

Is there a design project that stands out for you as emblematic of the local design scene?

It would be impossible to pick just one, but as a brand fanatic, the coffee shop branding scene takes the cake. Some of the larger coffee chains like Stumptown has a rotating array of immaculate artwork on their hot cups and merch, while smaller hubs (and my fave!) like Never Coffee have flawless brand moments. There always seem to be surprise and delight moments across the exploding food & beverage scene with every turn of the head.

Photo of Stumptown cups in 3 sizes ( small, medium and large)
Photo of the entrance to the Stumptown Coffee Shop

What do you wish your city had that designers would really love/benefit from?

Portland is home to some of the world's top graphic designers and illustrators because of its quirky vibe, independent creative scene, world's best design firms and some of the biggest corporate HQs. Selfishly, I would love more meet-ups and opportunities for creative co-mingling. DesignThinkers Portland 2024 anyone?!


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