The sun sets over the Hollywood Walk of Fame as the design geeks begin lining up outside the Music Box theater in LA for the Cut&Paste Digital Design Tournament, and their own small but intoxicating taste of stardom.
Inspired by break dancing and DJ face-offs, and taking advantage of advanced workstation and projection technologies, the worldwide competition turns the normally invisible process of digital design into performance art and a spectator sport. At the same time, it gives designers and design junkies an excuse to escape their studios and do a little schmoozing, socializing and, simply put, partying.
The tournament hits Berlin Saturday night, after a stop in London and last month's events in New York, San Francisco and LA, and then moves on to Latin America and Asia. The grand finale happens in New York in February, as the local winners worldwide come together for the ultimate smackdown. (The tournament can also be viewed online.)
Inside Manhattan's Webster Hall, the crowd nurses cocktails while four workstations, just visible among several large screens, await the computer jockeys who will ride them to victory--or defeat.
Each of the outer screens is connected to one of the workstations, and each displays, preshow, its respective workstation's Cut&Paste-branded desktop. The large central screen will feature glimpses of the participants as they whip up their designs.
Webster Hall's ornate balconies serve as a dramatic (and beautifully designed) frame for the goings-on, as well as providing more space for the audience. In addition to healthy-size crowds, this year's tournament has seen a record number of entrants, according to founder John Fiorelli.
Back in LA, the desktops, with their folders and shortcuts, are more apparent as the emcee fires up the crowd and explains the rules.
The competition takes place in three separate categories--2D, 3D and motion design--and produces local champs in each, who will head to Manhattan early next year for the global showdown.
About a week prior to the competition, all the contestants are given the design briefs, or themes, that they'll be required to communicate visually on the night of the event. They can use that week to develop their concepts and practice crafting their designs, but they can't use any premade elements during the competition itself (with the exception of the motion participants, who are given some leeway).
Once the starting gun sounds at the event, the 2D designers have a mere 15 minutes to flex their Photoshop muscles and bust a move with the Adobe Creative Suite (or their software of choice) to re-create their designs (or, if they haven't prepared, pull them out of thin air). The 3D and motion designers have a bit more time: 20 minutes. The 2D winner is chosen after two rounds. The 3D and motion competitions are one round each.
In New York again, we switch perspectives as the designers prepare to jump in and dirty their desktops. The audience's anticipation grows.
And they're off! 2D designer Allison Revilla is all focus as she works the Wacom tablet in LA. Meanwhile, just inches away, Enrique Martin dashes back to his workstation, digicam in hand, after photographing some elements for his design.
Though prohibited from using premade elements, the designers are welcome to photograph elements onstage during their round and download them to their computers. And many do.
An LA 2D round in full swing. At left, you can see a videographer shooting the image of the emcee that appears on the central large screen, and to the right of the emcee is the phalanx of judges looking over the designers' shoulders.
Says yellow-hatted judge Eric Nakamura, noted talent spotter and editor of Giant Robot magazine, "Seeing something go from a blank screen to having a completed idea and concept, and therefore a graphic--it's fun to watch the process ... You're basically just watching people work on a computer, but Cut&Paste manages to make it exciting."
Designer Rich Arnold drags and drops during a 2D round in New York. On stage, the images on the large screens are visible in reverse, and behind Arnold, we can see Ana Benaroya working away at her own take on the round's brief: create a restaurant menu with the theme of "dreamy."
A striking thing about Cut&Paste is how it shows the diversity that exists among designers--in terms of their background; the ideas they generate; the techniques they use; and the styles, forms, and formats with which they're most comfortable. In broad terms, for example, the event attracts both illustrators and designers, and though there's certainly overlap, the two groups may well have a different focus and may well play to their respective strengths.
This year's LA 2D champ, Dave Stolte, a 30-year design vet who's worked in many areas of design and now focuses on illustration, differentiates the disciplines like so: "Illustration is primarily just a single image that is meant to bring out the meaning of an idea. And design is an integration of all types of things, like type, photography, illustration, color, layout to communicate an idea clearly." Though he won LA on the strength of a good, crowd-pleasing idea and a charming illustration, he says he'll need to bring in other elements if he hopes to compete well against the heavy hitters in the global finals.
Technology itself can influence aesthetics and approaches as well. LA judge Eric Nakamura says he can tell the specific field designers work in based solely on the images they produce.
"At Cut&Paste," Nakamura says, "some are print designers and some are Web designers, and you can kind of tell which are which. I mean, some guys have to do both, but you can tell which ones like print; you can tell that their design is inspired by things they see in print ... There was one guy who had a real collage-y look, and he looked to me more like a Web designer ... Maybe things would be clickable here and there, you know? ... It's like if you click on different parts of his screen, it would make sense ... You can just tell certain ones are inspired by different things."
At San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the 2D designers find themselves hemmed in--audience in front, judges in back. There's no escape, except for the brief: create a postcard with the theme of vacation.
Molina's work in progress is the bucktoothed fellow in overalls--who turned out to be holding a fishing pole and a big fish--and it illustrates (pun intended) one of the performative aspects of Cut&Paste: Many of the contestants practice putting together their designs in a way that will hold the audience's attention--they'll introduce and build up their elements mysteriously, and then quickly bring everything together near the end of the round, creating a punch line effect, an "aha" moment.
Indeed, that's part of why they're among the handful of designers who actually made it into the tournament. It's a show after all. During the screening process, the powers that be at C&P take a look at the entrants' online portfolios and invite a chosen few of the designers to sit for a 15-minute test round.
"We want to understand how they think, how they communicate," says Cut&Paste founder John Fiorelli. "We want to understand what their techniques are [and] we want to see if they'd be interesting to watch onscreen. We want to see their pace. Are they able to keep us interested while we're watching? So it's not the finished product; it's actually seeing them do it."
Still, during the competition itself that may not be the case.
"Having a showmanship thing is cool for people to see," says judge Eric Nakamura. "But as far as a final design, which I judge them on, that doesn't really go into a final score for me. But I do like it. I do respect the fact that some people are playing to the crowd and ... hoping to get a popular vote out of them and stuff ... That's definitely extra."
Here we see Fabian Molina's macabrely funny design in its final form, bloody fish and all. The text in the upper left reads, "Welcome to my childhood." Despite Molina's obvious skill and humor, he didn't advance to the next round. But he got some exposure and may even have had some fun.
"One of the things that we tell the designers," says founder John Fiorelli, "is, 'Look, the official objective is to, you know, put together a great design that will please the judges, you win, and yay you go to local champs. The unofficial objective is to reach out to your community and communicate with them, let them know who you are as people, as designers, because there are people in this audience who might want to hire you or who might want to collaborate with you, or might just think you're really cool and wanna get to know you, and you might wanna get to know them, and so the opportunity is not to win a competition; the opportunity is to, you know, make some friends and to have fun with it.'"
The social aspect carries over to the audience as well, many of whom lead their own solitary existence as illustrators or similar monitor-bound artistes. Eric Nakamura:
"I like the fact that it brings out ... I would say a 'cool' crowd. And it gets that cool crowd outside, off of their computers, and into another environment like a club or ... a hall or something like that, and basically you're cheering on someone in your own field. You know ... I like that ... I enjoy the fact that it does kind of create a setting for the true design geek [laughs]. Maybe there's some people that don't go out that much, but they will go out to this, because it's kind of in their world."
Here's the cool crowd in New York's beautiful Webster Hall.
Adding to the party vibe and the clublike atmosphere, a DJ spins (and keystrokes) at all the events. Here we see the decks being worked in San Francisco, with the contestants and judges in the background. There's also an open bar.
In LA, designer Enrique Martin photographs some elements that he'll download and drop in to Photoshop (the hot pink background can be easily selected and cut out, leaving only the silhouetted objects). The only real constraint the designers have is that the construction of their designs has to be done during the actual competition. They can't use premade elements (with some exceptions for the motion category).
"For the most part, the designers can do whatever they want," says founder John Fiorelli. "Our briefs ... are very open; they're primarily thematic, with very little in the way of additional constraint other than just stay in the concept. And if you're able to communicate the concept, then great, you've done your job as a designer. We try to keep it really, really open."
And though it's a digital competition, there's more to life than vector drawings. Devin Croda, the 2D winner in San Francisco, speaks for many designers when he says, "I always feel like there's a bigger payoff to a work that uses some sort of actual physical element. I feel like it always comes through much stronger."
In New York, the 3D contestants get their backs up. (From left to right: architect and designer Carlomaria Ciampoli, industrial designers Loren Kulesus and Kevin O'Leary, and industrial designer and mechanical engineer Evin Gamal Prather.)
And in LA, judge Eric Nakamura gets to sum up:
"I thought the event was just incredible," he says. "Like, what a great idea, you know? ... Of course, you're not gonna see the greatest design happen in front of your face in a 15-minute time limit. But I just think design as a spectator sport is ... a totally interesting and exciting concept. 'Cause that's something that hasn't been really, really touched. There are contests and competitions for everything, including stuff like foosball or paper, scissors, rock--you know all these different things. But I think design is a much better platform to stand on. It's not like a joke sport; it's something you run into every day ... I think when you think of it that way, you think, 'Wow, design is so broad and such a huge important thing in our society.' ... From almost the beginning of recorded time design has been part of our lives--so having it as a spectator sport just makes sense."