Sunday, February 28, 2010

Anyone for Typograminton?

Imagine settling into your seat at a world-class tennis match. The players come on to polite applause, go through their warm-up rituals, and prepare to begin the game. But today, before the ball is served, the first player dashes off a quick watercolour landscape on an easel by the side of the court. Their opponent keeps one eye on the incoming ball as it crosses the net, while quickly sketching some extra features onto the canvas with a stick of charcoal. Moments later, the spectator beside you expresses his mild disappointment that the quality of the return lob is only fair to middling, and you stare at him in open-jawed amazement. Can he really be so ignorant that he doesn't comprehend what is happening here??

So proceeded yesterday's pre-season Layer Tennis exhibition match. Not the first experiment in mixing up the usual format, this match featured two top-notch typographers facing off for ten exchanges, bringing their very specific specialist skills to the arena that usually features expert proponents in the general field of graphic design.

Peter Bruhn from Sweden faced the USA's Mark Simonson, in a match where each volley contributed to the real-time evolution of a brand-new typeface. New glyphs added at every turn, subtle variations in weight and form, furious tussles over serif style: this match had it all for the type aficionado. Stems were clipped, then notched, and bowls cut violently open. And despite keeping remarkably well to the challenging 15-minute-per-exchange timeframe, these masters of their craft still managed to frame their work in a wider graphic context, spicing their creations before each return with a smattering of photoshop artistry.

Ah, but there's the rub: inevitably, not only are these gentleman artists of a slightly different stripe to those typically featured here, but their meticulous labours on the type itself would have left precious little time at each exchange for the final graphic seasoning (a contractual requirement, perhaps, in order to make use of at least one of the series sponsor's products?) Obviously, it would be unreasonable to expect the graphic component of this match to approach that of some of the classic matches of yesteryear.

So while devotees of the fine art of typography expressed their awe in the backchannel commentary, some also seemed to take a little offence at the occasional "meh" from others who—arguably—didn't show due respect to the achievement that was playing out before their ignorant eyeballs.

Typography is, in fact, almost always a prominent feature of the best Layer Tennis matches. The use of type allows the inclusion of crowd-pleasing trash talk, as well as contributing the same vital elements of style and visual interest that it does in most graphic work in the wider world. And whilst the players that usually duke it out in this amphitheatre may not have the typo-genius skills of Bruhn and Simonson, neither are graphic specialists always the typo-ignoramuses that the occasional over-sensitive fontography fanboy might like to think.

The third human element in Layer Tennis is, of course, the running commentary, arguably as much of a challenge for the person in that hot seat as the one faced by the players themselves. Yesterday's match featured a prime example by their fellow man-about-type Grant Hutchinson, squeaking in an expert and apposite commentary on each volley—often just before the reply—and apparently collapsing in a sweaty heap at the conclusion of the match.

So what did we learn from this bold experiment? Could this be the chess boxing of the graphic arts world? Or something a little more high brow? Personally, I would class this as a qualified success, a potential specialised spin-off of Layer Tennis with a slightly narrower but no less enthusiastic audience. I think keeping the graphic aspect would be a wise move, but the volley time should be increased to at least 20, and probably 30 minutes. The world needs its typographers, and we don't want the top players dropping dead from mental exhaustion!