John Fiorelli

January, 2011

Design Battle

If you’re a designer, you probably already know about Cut&Paste (full disclosure, Converse is the global sponsor of this years tour) and if you aren’t a designer, you should. Cut&Paste is probably the only worldwide design competition that stresses live performance. Yes, live performance. Basically, designers who are used to privacy get on stage and have to crank out an original piece in 15 minutes in front of an audience.

In five years, the event has grown from eight competitors in New York to a 10-city global competition that includes not just traditional 2D design but also 3D modeling and motion graphics (those competitors get a whopping 20 minutes). We tracked down the competition’s founder, John Fiorelli, who was in the middle of circumnavigating the globe on behalf of Cut&Paste, and asked him over the phone about going from a one-night party to a worldwide series of events, and how 3D designers are like carrier pigeons.

How’s the worldwide competition tour going so far?
It’s been going well, it’s been a lot of fun. We’re about halfway done now and I don’t think it’s a huge surprise that I’m kind of excited to finish. We just finished Mexico City last week and we’re off to Sao Paulo, Brazil this week.

So you personally travel with the competition to every city?
Yup.

Wow, so you’re on the road pretty much non-stop, I imagine.
Pretty much, yeah, it’s getting to be that way. I can’t complain. We have a very small team going from city to city, maybe two or three people total, and then we have local teams at every city. This year we’ve introduced a new franchise program, and I like being in all the cities because I like to train the local teams as well as our global team that’s working with them. So this year there’s a lot of travel, my hope is that next year there’ll be a lot less.

Did you envision this as a global competition from the very start?
No, to be honest I envisioned it as a Saturday night party. It wasn’t really intended as anything more than a fun way to celebrate design locally in New York, it wasn’t supposed to be anything more than showing a little bit of creative process and getting people excited—over good beer—and ideally coming up with a format that people would want to watch. I think when you first do something like this, and there are a lot of people who do really neat events out there, and they don’t necessarily have big grand designs at first, they just want to do something fun and have a nugget of experience. That was very much our way of thinking. After we did the first one, we did four of them around the country: New York, Chicago, LA, and San Francisco. At that point, it was clear to me that the way people in different cities and different walks of life were getting excited about it—people who were very expressive and people who weren’t very expressive. Designers who would never think to do it all of a sudden found themselves getting onstage and competing and creating work from scratch in front of a big audience. It’s a very unfamiliar thing to designers.

How did you have the idea to turn design into a spectator sport? Like you said, it’s a pretty strange thing for designers to do.
I’m not a designer, I’m a filmmaker, and storytelling is my passion. For me, Cut & Paste seemed like a fun idea for a party because—in New York we love creative competition. Whether it’s graffiti, DJing, MCing… Those are more performance-oriented, true, but you still get a taste of their process. With design, you have an artwork that is done behind closed doors. You don’t get to see anything from A to B, A being “I have an idea,” and B being “I have this finished work after blood, sweat and tears.” The idea was to show a portion of the process, to tell a little bit of the story instead of just giving you the finished work.

We did this 15-minute format because we knew our audience. I’m not saying people have short attention spans, but we really don’t have any patience for seeing anything longer than 15 minutes, really. I was even worried about the 3D format this year, which was 20 minutes. But we have to give them that time, or they won’t give us anything in terms of 3D modeling.

Did offering 3D and motion graphics events change things in a major way?
Definitely. Yes. From an audience perspective, 2D is very familiar. Everybody and their brother knows at least one graphic designer or an illustrator. 3D modelers are like the passenger pigeon—you’ve only heard of them, you know? Some people know an architect or an industrial designer but they’ve never seen him work, have no idea what they do. I think people think architects are still only doing drafting. In 2009, people were like “What are these people doing up there?” The reason I wanted to include 3D is I think it’s important for more people to understand what it is, what the tools are, and who these designers are behind the dark curtain.

Let’s talk a little about the process the contestants go through. They submit their portfolios like they would for a “normal” design contest first, right?
Yes, online.

Then they go through a “test round,” I heard. What is that like?
We invite a certain number to come in and meet with us at a select location on a weekend. We don’t give them a lot of notice, partly because we don’t want them thinking too hard about the theme, we just kind of want them to come and have fresh eyes. We also want to make sure they really want it. People who make an effort to come to test rounds really want it. As much as it is their talent and their skill and their portfolio, we really want to meet them, we want to see how they react to test rounds. Test rounds are nothing—we give them simple, universal themes. They come up, sit at a workstation, they do a 15-minute round, and we watch them.

Do you get a lot of people at these test rounds who you decide aren’t ready for the stage?
Yeah, we can tell a lot from the test rounds. We did test rounds from the very first show, because I felt it was an important part of having a good show. Those first eight, we were really particular about how we picked them. Attitude is really important. When you bring together 16 people, all it takes is one person to spoil the event. You have to be careful about the people you pick.

And to be honest with you? Test rounds are fun! That party we started the first year, it’s that kind of spirit we have at test rounds. We have people come in with their portfolios and their sketchbooks–it’s not that competitive. It’s not a cutthroat type of thing. It’s more like, “I’m here to showcase my work, I really want to meet some new people, wow I like the judges and I’ve always wanted to meet that person and my parents have no idea what I do for a living.”

Cut&Paste

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