Move Over Gamers: Graphic Designers Duke It Out in Boston at the 2009 Cut&Paste Tournament

by Tara Sullivan

Just about everything can be a competitive sport if you try hard enough. From throwing tree trunks and pumpkins to gamer tournaments, if you’ve got two people willing to compete for prizes doing the same thing, baby, you’ve got a competition. Why should design and motion animation be an exception? The answer is: it isn’t.  Plus, with over 120 colleges in the Boston area alone, up-and-coming young hipster graduates of the many design schools that populate the city have became a common sight, like pigeons on statues. But despite their ubiquity, the tools and techniques of the common graphic designer (i.e., designatus simulacrum) remain more or less unknown to people who don’t get why font jokes are funny. Even though the results of their work are everywhere—from packaging and advertising to the instructions on an airplane seat emergency card, many people have absolutely no idea how designers do what they do.

So began Cut&Paste 2009, a digital design tournament that began in 2005 as MI-5, focusing on 2-D design held in New York City. It instantly became a sleeper hit, and in 2006 the tournament organizers decided to expand to Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco. The competition got so fierce that Cut&Paste now encompasses 11 cities internationally, including Tokyo, Sydney, Berlin, Portland, Hong Kong and Portland, Oregon.  Cut&Paste is what happens when graphic design meets iron chef: Competitors face off in a timed matchup and create a piece based on a given theme and within certain specifications, using only the materials and images available at the time under the glow of their computer screens. With the thump of bass blasting from the DJ’s giant speakers, each contender is required to create the best piece they possibly can based on themes such as “Stimulus” and “St. Patrick’s Day (without green)”. No previously created images can be brought in, and the contestants have no idea what they’ll be doing before they’re told at the time of the competition. They can take photographs of audience members using anything they brought with them, but they have to do it in 15 minutes. It’s really something to see the frenetic progress of their work projected onto giant LCD screens, and especially when you’ve got a stiff drink in your hand it gets more and more fascinating to watch. Open only to 21 and over, the event is meant to have a party atmosphere and be a real-time way to see the designers’ technical mastery and inventiveness under pressure, and under the watchful eyes of the design judges who are chosen from the local media elite. The judges are some major players in the industry, including Sven Fahlgren of Modernista! and Ryan Lesser, Art Director for Harmonix (creator of Guitar Hero).  Even some of the competitors are heavyweights; this years’ Motion Design winner was Stu Chudy, founder of OpticSugar and animation professor for RISD. Going to this event is like rubbing shoulders with the superstars of art and motion design.

If you’re not a professional designer (or even if you are), audience members are encouraged to try their own hand at designing. Workstations equipped with design software were set up in the venue by Autodesk and Adobe, and included an easy-going amateur contest. This year Autodesk debuted its 2009 Mudbox 3-D Digital Sculpting software, and attendees were welcome to sit and play with it using the fabulous Wacom Cintiq 12WX.  It was the ultimate Geek-chic, and Cut&Paste has quickly developed into an international phenomenon. The Global Championships will be in New York City on June 20, when competitors from Barcelona to Tokyo will all converge to compete. In the meantime, the rest of us can sit back with a drink and relax in the soft glow of the 21st century’s projected computer light, watching the latest incarnation of the gladiator—and get a better idea of just what exactly it is these people do.

Tara Sullivan is an interactive graphic designer and new media zealot based in Portsmouth, NH.