Tuesday, February 21, 2012


It was kind of like jumping into the cold water dip after languishing in a hot tub for an hour. A shock to the system, but ultimately good for you, or so they say.

Last month I spent 3 weeks in Mexico, reflecting and renewing and learning to appreciate the value of quiet, of taking whatever time a design or creation needs to be fully realized. Last Thursday I threw myself into The Opposite of That, when I attended the annual San Francisco Cut & Paste design tournament.

My friend Flo, an art director at a Silicon Valley ad agency, mentioned it to me. I was reassured by her declaration that she had no intention of participating, only spectating. Plus, there was beer.

It was held at the Mezzanine night club, on Jessie Street which is essentially an alleyway between 6th Street and Mint Plaza. (Incidentally, you’ll want to take the Mint Plaza approach over the 6th Street approach; trust me on this one). I arrived at 8:15, which was supposedly 15 minutes late, but nothing had really gotten started yet (these kids nowadays).

The guy at the door asked for my I.D., and (it’s always so cute when they do this) charitably waited several beats while I dug through my wallet before he offered the more sensible “Don’t worry about it” and waved me through.

Inside the high-ceiling converted-warehouse club, music was already pounding and a good-sized crowd had gathered. Up on one wall, about 8 feet above the crowd, was a row of four enormous flat panel monitors – these would display the contestants’ work as they competed. I realized I hadn’t had dinner and asked the Coat Check girl what kind of food I could buy. She held up my options: a bag of Ranch Doritos or a bag of Fritos.

The Cut & Paste tournament gives 4 contestants around 15 minutes to produce their entry, based on a central theme. It’s like Iron Chef if Iron Chef had club music instead of Alton Brown’s babbling, and if the cooks didn’t have to allow for cooking times for proteins.

At the far end of the club was a stage full of tables and computer equipment, and a very energetic emcee who kept the caffeinated energy going. The four contestants for each category (There was a 3D round, two 2D rounds, and a motion graphics round) took their places at their respective computers and when the emcee shouted “Time starts now!” they frantically began designing, while the club music pounded and the semi-inebriated crowd looked on.

Flo and her friends and I watched eagerly, I think we all wanted each contestant to succeed because it seemed like such a crazy thing to do: Put yourself and your work up on the screen and guarantee failure by only having 15 minutes to make a thing.
We watched as what seemed like random hopeless scatters of bits of things suddenly came together into a realized design as the crowd shouted “5! – 4! – 3! – 2! 1!!!!”.

Ultimately the entries were of inconsistent quality (it’s only 15 minutes for pete’s sake). Which made you like the people up on the stage even more. But what a blast – and it made me realize that there’s a time for “slow and careful” but it’s also a good idea to occasionally see what you’re capable of if you have to go as fast as you can.

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