It came down to two men. There was Mate—just one word like Madonna or Prince or Pelé—a German known for his technical precision. Dressed in a t-shirt and blazer, he appeared calm, collected, with a scraggly brown beard covering his long face. Facing off against him was Dosa Kim, who’d traveled all the way from Atlanta for the competition to emerge as the crowd favorite. He was more casual, his energy more dynamic, in loose-fitting black clothes and baseball cap, headphones around his neck, as if he might suddenly need to listen to a song while in the throes of competition. It was the final round of the New York Cut&Paste Digital Design Tournament at the Angel Orensanz Foundation, a 19th-century synagogue transformed into a Lower East Side arts space in the late 1980s. Mate and Dosa each sat in front of a computer. They were given a challenge: 15 minutes to create an original design around the theme “Guilty Pleasures” somehow involving a body part.
Above each man, a huge projection showcased what he was doing on his computer monitor—a bizarre sort of moving collage, a dynamic kaleidoscope across Adobe Photoshop windows. A DJ blasted a remix of the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” beneath the intricately-lit arches of the former house of worship that now felt more like a nightclub. The audience, a mix of hipsters and creative professionals dressed like hipsters, kept their eyes fixed on the projections, commenting to each other on the designs-in-progress over the blaring music. The competition, the third of its kind held in New York, filled the venue to capacity with nearly 1,000 spectators. They represent a growing number of people interested not only in the products of good design but also the creative and technical processes behind it.
As the seconds began ticking away, Dosa ran backstage to snap some pictures for his design, returning moments later with a camera around his neck and his shirt unbuttoned, revealing a young, bare chest. The audience, some close to the action on the ground floor, others up in the balcony, cheered wildly. Back at his monitor, he quickly created two tan circles. At first, they looked like breasts, then became part of a phallic shape. Rowdy on free beer and the prospect of indecency, the crowd cried out again. In the previous two rounds, Dosa’s designs had started out like this—incomprehensible shapes and strange colors, that in the final minutes came together to create a strikingly stylish image.
From the start, it was easy to see where Mate’s design was going. Drawing by hand directly onto the pressure-sensitive monitor, called a Cyntiq, he created an impressive tattoo of a heart with elegant, graffiti-like calligraphy that read “sugar” and “fat.” He then drew a ribbon that unfurled around the heart, reading “True Love Forever.”
“A few more minutes and we will crown a champion tonight,” the announcer barked. With his booming voice, dreadlocks, and shiny jacket, the emcee looked like he was pulled straight out of the hip hop battles the design competitions emulate. Around his neck, thick gold chains dangled a gold-spray-painted keyboard mouse.
On Dosa’s screen, it looked like his on-the-fly approach might fail him this time, as he tried to recover from a mid-round computer crash. He’d created a large, odd graphic monster out of geometric shapes, that he’d then pasted onto the photo of his chest, under the text “I,” a graphic of a little axe, and “NY.” He’d later explain to me that the axe was actually a tomahawk, meant to refer to his hometown baseball team, the Atlanta Braves.
Mate finished up his design with expected precision. He altered a digital picture of his own belly to look fatter and hairier, pasted the tattoo on it, and then skewed the design around the folds of his belly just so, his long fingers fluent in keyboard shortcuts. Almost instantly, the design appeared to actually be tattooed upon the skin.
The buzzer rang, the designers stopped working, and it was time to crown a champion. As the six judges—a mix of designers, art directors, and a graffiti artist—deliberated, little suspense hung in the air. Mate’s design was clear, well-executed, easily appropriating the theme. Dosa’s appeared unfinished, and it was hard to interpret just what he had meant with it.
With a purple velvet crown placed upon his head, Mate was declared the victor. He got to take home a Cyntiq monitor for his win. The crowd quickly filed out onto Norfolk Street. It all seemed a bit anticlimactic. The excitement of the competition hadn’t lay in crowing a final winner; it had been more captivating to watch the design process than to see the end result.
Cut&Paste’s Executive Director, John Fiorelli, was quick to distinguish the event from your standard poster design contest, calling it a “performative show,” and comparing it not just to MC battles, but also the tap-dancing battles of the early 1900s. The winner of last year’s New York tournament, Guillo Echevarria, recalled designing an ironic campaign poster for George W. Bush in front of a cheering audience, saying “I can’t sing, I can’t dance, it’s the best I can do to put on a show.”
Fiorelli was one of three New York filmmakers who started Cut&Paste in 2005, with the aim of promoting the creative process behind good design. The event has since expanded exponentially. This fall, 11 international cities, from Tokyo to Sydney, are holding Cut&Paste Digital Design Tournaments of their own.
For many designers who labor long hours in anonymity, often working at agencies on corporate accounts, the event offered both some audience attention and a chance to do some creative, experimental work. Jenn Tsang, a designer, and the producer of the New York tournament, said she became involved with Cut&Paste because “I’m a designer and I’m tired of being so anonymous.” While Mate, who works as a designer at PSYOP, a production company on the Lower East Side with clients like Target and Adidas, said that he always looks to supplement his professional work with projects that give him more freedom to try new approaches. Dosa had given up design a few years ago, after working for an ad agency in Atlanta and designing one too many ads for local strip clubs. “It really bummed me out about designing altogether,” he said. It was only after being one of the 8 contestants chosen for the New York competition, out of over 100 applicants, that he started to take up designing professionally again.
The meteoric rise of the design tournaments isn’t just the result of bored professionals, or even a downtown cool factor. Eric Zimmerman, a game designer and theorist who has taught at MIT and NYU says they’re evidence of a “ludological shift, a change in how we play.” This shift can be seen not only in events like Cut&Paste that feature digital design, but also in the vogue of reality television with talented professionals in other creative fields tackling challenges. “All those reality shows; what’s fascinating is the process. Project Runway is an amazing show because it’s really about their design processes,” says Zimmerman.
Design junkies have also recently been able to witness the process on the big screen. The documentary, Helvetica, a film festival favorite on the eponymous font, premiered at New York’s IFC Center in September. The film was originally scheduled to play for just two weeks at the IFC, but its run was extended to seven weeks due to popularity, making it the second-highest grossing documentary for the center ever.
John Vanco, Vice President and General Manager of the IFC Center, said the audience for the film started out as a mix of artist and designers, but it soon found a mainstream art house audience by word of mouth. For the film’s director, Gary Hustwit, the film’s success was “way, way beyond” his expectations for what began as a “geeky side project.” Yet, the more he talked about his film’s success, on the phone from San Francisco where he was attending a design conference, the more it seemed to make perfect sense. “Everybody now has some sort of expression of themselves online somewhere, whether it’s with a website or a MySpace page,” he said, “even my mom is an amateur graphic designer at this point.” As people become more aware of graphic design, and engage in it themselves, it’s only natural that they’d want to know more about it. Hustwit said he could easily imagine the designers and typographers featured in his film, like font designer Erik Spiekermann, gaining broad celebrity status, just like we’ve seen chefs, home designers, and hairstylists become household names in recent years.
Back in Atlanta, and back at work, Dosa Kim reflected on the Cut&Paste competition, saying he was “totally” surprised at the size of the crowd and the grandiosity of the event. Like Hustwit, he attributed the rising interest in the design process to the rise of the internet. “Because of the web, I think people are more interested in where the stuff comes from, who’s producing it, and who’s making it,” he said, “these artists and designers are now becoming the rock stars.”