is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
Truth be told, I was pretty nervous before facing off against Nicholas Felton in our Layer Tennis exhibition match last Friday afternoon. I’d never played the game before, and its structure, in which two visual artists volley a collage-like series of images back and forth under the scrutiny of a stopwatch, seemed very high pressure. Plus, my opponent was none other than Feltron himself (as Nicholas is sometimes better known), a designer famous for autobiographical annual reports in which he creates gorgeous visual narratives from nothing more than the statistical mundanity of everyday life.
All that trepidation wasn’t without good reason, as it turned out. You could hardly count layer tennis as physically demanding, but its breakneck speed and creative intensity do require dexterity and stamina — the fifteen minutes allotted to each volley is surprisingly intensive and vanishingly brief. Still, what I didn’t expect was how much fun the live atmosphere of layer tennis was. In the past, I’d always come to layer tennis matches after they were over and done with, perusing each match’s archive of volleys after the fact. Layer tennis in real time, though, is where the fun is.
For those who missed the match, or who enjoyed it so much they’d like to relive the event, be sure to go back to the archive to see each volley, alongside truly terrific match commentary by the literarily skillful John Nack. John added such an enjoyable dimension to the whole affair — also under the pressure of that fifteen minute timer — that his narration shouldn’t be missed.
And if you really can’t get enough, I’m offering here a blow-by-blow account of all ten volleys. I’ve written up the thoughts that went through my head as I put together each salvo, and also included some of the source imagery I drew upon. As an added bonus, Nicholas himself was nice enough to send over his thoughts on his own volleys. So enjoy the replay, and be sure to tune in for the next layer tennis match .
Every match starts with a coin toss, and Nicholas won this one, meaning it was up to him to kick things off, which he did with this introductory slide.
For the opening volley, I wanted to create something that defined both the physical and virtual boundaries of the playing field. Using my desk and the photoshop canvas to set the stage, I provided Khoi with a few elements and directions to explore.
I bet if you ask most layer tennis contestants, they’ll agree that their first volley is quite harrowing, and so it was for me; I was pretty paralyzed with indecision for several minutes.
One of the things that I knew I wanted to do was maintain as much of a visual link from volley to volley as I could. I’ve always thought those sorts of exchanges make for the best layer tennis matches. So what I did here was, quite literally, shove Nicholas’ layout to the left a bit to make room for some additions of my own: a picture of my girlfriend Laura and our baby, Thuy, overlaid with a photo from Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous interior for The Guggenheim Museum of Art.
I did my best to integrate them right into what was left of Nicholas’ work, almost as if working on an exquisite corpse; at the time, I sort of imagined that when we finished all of our volleys we’d have one long, horizontally contiguous string of imagery. It’s not an idea that lasted very long.
Khoi’s return threw me momentarily… I wasn’t expecting to have to respond textually as well as visually. I snatched the first idea that came to mind and ran with it, grabbing Khoi’s child, photographing the coffee cup on my desk and merging the two.
Like Nicholas, I hadn’t really expected to be volleying as much in the narrative text as in the visual imagery. But this is where one of layer tennis’s weaknesses really bore itself out for me: without a pre-established theme, a conceptual constraint that both opponents could adhere to, it becomes quite a difficult challenge to come up with ideas for what each volley is really about.
Absent that, I pushed the momentum towards the vague idea of ‘mastering layer tennis’ almost like a form of martial arts, with each volley encapsulating some tongue-in-cheek platitude about the mystery and beauty of the sport. Admittedly, constructing a meta-narrative was not the most original response I could’ve come up with, but it seemed the most direct — particularly given the impatient tick of that fifteen-minute stopwatch.
For those who have asked what is that mysterious black object I used here in this composition — it is in fact the USB Wi-Fi adapter that shipped with the Samsung Blu-Ray player I got for the holidays. I remember finding it so strikingly nonspecific a shape when I unpacked it that I snapped a photograph, not really sure what I’d ever do with it. For this volley, I very quickly and roughly cloned out the manufacturer’s logo. The images of people are from a group critique session during a summer design course I took last year.
For this round I was better prepared, I wanted to return a little to the tools at hand in our virtual arena. Fortunately, I happened to have a Dremel and soldering iron under my desk. I pulled them out, snapped them against a white image on my monitor so that I could magic wand them up quickly… and in the process decided that whatever Khoi sent would be buffed and distressed by these new tools.
If I was stumped by any of Nicholas’s earlier returns, his volley number five really left me at a loss. Remember when I said, above, how I wanted to maintain as much visual consistency as I could from volley to volley? Well that sort of went by the wayside here, obviously, as I got a little desperate. Not knowing what to do, I scrambled for something big and bold — a dawn photograph taken at Ft. Greene Park in Brooklyn — and nominally tried to carry over some elements from Nicholas’s previous design: the soldering iron and, less obviously, half of the diagonal stripes that he used to overlay the elements from my volley number four.
I wouldn’t argue that it’s particularly evident or convincing that I carried the thread forward here. But I did learn something when reading the mostly positive reaction to this particular volley afterwards: as important as maintaining consistency was to me, it’s not nearly as important to the match’s spectators, who frankly want to see big, splashy and well-designed compositions.
With hindsight that logic seems self-evident, and comparing this to my first two volleys, this composition feels much stronger. For me, this lesson just emphasizes again how tricky layer tennis can be; volleys should be as consistent as possible, but no more consistent than necessary, you might say. I’d add again here that having a theme would help; a simple creative brief announced at the start of the match would provide an enormously helpful bit of direction to the contestants, while still allowing them to exercise maximum visual latitude — so long as their volleys maintained a link to that theme.
I scampered for an approach to this volley, it’s density and drama proved hard to overcome… but I did have one idea for discussing the physical format of the competition. Reaching to the mouse-tracking application I was running, I blurred and masked Khoi’s composition with my mouse paths and found a way to integrate it’s complexity while adding another storyline.
Nicholas’ mouse paths struck me as visually fascinating and right away I had an idea to use them to suggest light rather than density as he’d done. Scrolling through my iPhoto library, I came across these pictures of Laura opening some gifts that had been beautifully wrapped by a friend of hers. I cut up a few different views of those pictures, trying for a staccato sort of effect that hopefully suggested multiple views on a single action.
Then I overlaid the mouse paths several times, over and over, so that they created an explosive effect — and wrote a caption to match. Of all of my volleys, this might be my favorite because it achieves a big impact while being fairly unique — all the while making heavy use of the elements handed to me in Nicholas’ previous volley.
For the final volley, I took the colors and textures I loved in Khoi’s composition and decided to break ranks a bit. Our gentlemanly match deserved an exciting end, and I assumed that a bit of light gauntlet-throwing before Khoi’s last pass would give the crowd a great finale and a provide strong closure to our performance.
The drawback to losing the coin toss is that your opponent goes first, but the upside is not insignificant: you get to finish off the match with the last word. So I knew I had an opportunity to land a real whopper if I could just figure out what to do; Nicholas’ previous volley was kind of a closing argument in itself, and it didn’t offer any obvious paths.
However, I luckily came across this photo as I was browsing my iPhoto library and it seemed like it would make for a suitably effective final play. It’s hard to argue with skulls, I think, especially when they’re piled high as they were in the famous Catacombes de Paris, where I took this shot on a visit last year. Using such strident death imagery on the final frame is perhaps not the subtlest move I could have made — it’s as histrionic as I can remember doing in my design work — but hey when you’re trying to come up with a big visual wallop in under fifteen minutes, the obvious tools tend to get the job done.
A couple of additional production notes: the typefaces we used were Hoefler & Frere-Jones’ Gotham and Silas Dilworth’s Heroic Condensed, both selected by Nicholas. He and I had talked beforehand about what typefaces we would each likely be using and, as I mentioned above, the importance of visual consistency. After he sent over his first volley, I just decided that I’d use his type selections rather than introducing my own.
Secondly, I just want to say that all of my images were selected on the fly from my iPhoto library, and that none of them had been pre-selected. As soon as a new composition would come through from Nicholas, I’d start browsing through all of my old photos to see if any images sparked ideas. After selecting one, I’d work a composition around it — all in real time.
As I said, I hadn’t anticipated how much fun layer tennis would be. After finishing the match, I had a bit of an competition high, I have to confess, and easily would have accepted another match from anyone who might’ve challenged me just then. Considering how complex, procedural and deliberate my day job can be sometimes, it was tremendously engaging to be able to play around freely for a change. My thanks to the whole Coudal Partners crew for giving me the opportunity.+