Reflections on Layer Tennis

Last Friday I played in Coudal Partner’s Layer Tennis in a east coast vs west coast brawl with Derek Powazek, a friend and one of my favorite web designers. I thought it might be fun to give some background on the match.

The view from my desk during the match.

The view from my desk during the match.

For those uninitiated with Layer Tennis, the premise is simple: two players trade a Photoshop document back and forth, each player has 15 minutes to iterate on the previous “volley” however they see fit. The matches are played live on Friday afternoons, and people follow along and comment via Twitter. It really isn’t about winning or losing, which is determined by voting on Twitter, it’s more of a exercise in visual literacy and design constraints. Also, it’s just a game and a fun distraction on a Friday afternoon.

I’ve played once before (a Halloween-themed match with Brian Taylor), but damn if I still wasn’t a mass of nerves. Derek is very talented, and playing the game itself is like having 10 separate clients looking over your shoulder while you work on each of their projects simultaneously.

The thing about Layer Tennis is there are no guarantees. You can have two brilliant designers face off and end up with a really dull match. Sometimes the ideas just don’t come. Sometimes you can’t find that right image. Sometimes, most times, you just don’t have enough time. But that’s the fun part, you don’t have much time to think, you just have to go with your gut and act. 15 minutes is barely enough time to create something coherent, you’re extra lucky if you manage to make something interesting too. My favorite matches are ones where there is some meaty collaboration going on and the end result yields some sort of flow or narrative.

Strategies for Layer Tennis: A Cheat Sheet

Both times I’ve played I kept a little strategy cheat sheet to fall back on when I’m completely stuck or to shake up any mental blocks. Obviously, these aren’t the only options, this list is just a few things that work for the way I think. Combining a couple can prove extra effective:

  1. Next/Prev panel: If the last volley were a panel in comic book, show what would be the next or previous panel.
  2. Zoom In/Out: Zoom in or out of the last volley to reveal more of the story.
  3. Embellish/Exaggerate: Take the last volley one step further, make it bigger or smaller, make it ridiculous or somber.
  4. Disarm: If your opponent returns a particularly scathing attack, make fun of it find a way strip it of its power.
  5. Deconstruct: Take apart the last volley, break it up into pieces, write the story of it, or show what’s inside.
  6. Re-contextualize: Bring your opponent’s last volley into a new setting.

Back and Forth

Derek and I decided to do something a little different this time by playing the old bar game “three truths and a lie”, essentially playing a game within a game. Layer Tennis is already crazy stressful, and this turned up the volume by making us not only need to create visuals that carried a thread, but stories too.

Jim Coudal did the play-by-play and also decided to shake things up by doing audio (instead of the typically written) commentary for the match, and was later joined via phone by seasoned-commentator John Gruber. All of the experimentation turned out to be fun at times and severe monkey wrench at others. Have a look at each volley below, and be sure to click through to the commentary.

Volley 1

Volley 1 by Derek

Derek sets the rules of the match: We’ll both tell four stories, three will be true, and one will be a lie. Because we gave ourselves this new constraint, we agreed beforehand that the first and last volleys were reserved for setup and reveal, respectively. (spoilers follow)

Volley 2

Volley 2 by Jason

I dig out an old illustration of my hands I did eight years ago for a project that never happened, toss in a stock fish and scribble out some type very quickly. This really set the pace for everyone watching to start speculating on truth or lie. In no time at all, Andrew Glaser tracked down a photo of me on Flickr that revealed the truth.

Volley 3

Volley 3 by Derek

Derek fires back with a story about how he appears nude on a mural in Santa Cruz. He craftily ties it back to my previous volley by referencing The University of California publication Fish Rap Live, where he was an editor.

Volley 4

Volley 4 by Jason

Derek’s big image gave me just enough of a hook to carry into my next volley to reveal a seedy story from my school days: I nearly failed photography class, but barely managed to pass with some help from a friend. Before anyone calls my college, I should say it wasn’t cheating in the truest sense, I just had a lot of help. I picked up on Derek’s use of Univers Condensed to tell the tale, and emulated the view through a Polaroid viewfinder, a subtle self-jab to reference how awful I was in the darkroom with developing real film. I dropped in the film reel at the last moment to help people figure out where to start reading.

Volley 5

Volley 5 by Derek

The volley comes back with a story and photo of Derek’s (awesome) squid tattoo and implies he has another tattoo, potentially somewhere naughty. I wasn’t sure how this one played off of my last volley, possibly he was picking up on the idea of hiding something from those around you.

Volley 6

Volley 6 by Jason

Derek went minimal on volley 5, leaving me with little to work with. Cunning bastard! So I picked up on the visual of the squid to spin what turned out to be my lie. I did always wander off from my parents when I was little, but it never earned me a nickname. Regardless, this was a good excuse to use a squid on a map, which there are far too few opportunities to do. Derek left the door open for me to take a pretty heavy tonal shift, so I jumped on it, swash italics and all.

Volley 7

Volley 7 by Derek

Derek grabbed my image of the explorer, dropped a torch in his hand, put it on top of a photo of a bonfire, and holy crap Derek carried an Olympic torch! This was my favorite of Derek’s volleys, both for the story and use of the previous volley’s artwork.

Volley 8

Volley 8 by Jason

I’ll be honest here, I backed myself into a corner because I already told my lie. I had to tell a truth this time and I spent 8 of my 15 minutes working on one that didn’t pan out. I quickly had to put together something else and the tie to the last volley wasn’t as strong. It’s a good story though, and I managed to bring in the Gotham Bold Italic and steer it back to the idea of fire. I quickly scanned in some scribbles and tossed it on top of the photo (note: it’s not a photo of me or my date) to hide my weepy face.

Volley 9

Volley 9 by Derek

Derek grabbed the paper texture and scribbles from my last volley and picked up on the theme of fire. This is my favorite story of the match. His mom didn’t care that he nearly burned down their house. And someone let this guy carry the Olympic torch!

Volley 10

Volley 10 by Jason

Just as the first layer was the setup for the game within a game, layer 10 was reserved for the reveal. Because of this, I didn’t feel the need to heavily reference previous volleys, but I brought back the ref from the coin toss and volley 1 to serve as our (conveniently enough after the squids) eight-armed teller of truth. It looks like a simple enough presentation, but it was a pain clipping him out quickly, dropping in chunks of replacement background, and getting that shadow to work with all of his new appendages. I had this idea early in the match and it felt like the most natural way to end the game.

Post-Game Wrap-up

As was mentioned a few times in the commentary on the matches, there are many ways to carry over ideas from volley to volley, one is visually another is conceptually. Because of the added constraint of the “three truths and a lie” for this match, some of the volleys are more subtle in the ways they carry the narrative thread, which was an experiment with the nature of the game itself.

This match was a blast, and I’m honored to have gotten to play with a designers I’ve looked up to since I first got on the web. Thanks to Derek, Jim, John, the Ref, and all the great people at Coudal Partners!


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