Strong opinions, weakly held

A guide to judging a Layer Tennis match

I’ve surprised myself by becoming a huge fan of Layer Tennis. Every Friday, two graphic designers take turns creating images in a graphic design thrown down. The tool of choice is usually Photoshop, but this week’s battle is a Flash battle, and a couple of weeks ago there was an Illustrator battle.

There are 10 shots per match, and the competitors take turns. A coin toss determines which competitor gets the first shot and which gets to wind things up. The appeal is in seeing what someone can do in 15 minutes. Audiences have seen hand-drawn text, staged photographs with models, and some really amazing Photoshop work.

There are no real rules, or criteria for judging which player should win — some players take the idea of layering to heart and others throw out everything and start over when it’s their turn.

Good Layer Tennis is like jazz. A clever riff on the previous shot or a shot that ties together the ideas both players have used previously is always a winner for me.

Here’s a short list of things I look for:

  • Aesthetic appeal. Is the current shot beautiful? Is it clever? Do I like what I’m looking at?
  • Degree of difficulty. Was the shot hard to compose? Do I look at it and boggle at the idea that it was completed in 15 minutes?
  • Cohesion. Did the current shot use elements of the previous shot? Is there a larger point here? Many players wipe the slate clean and create an image that’s completely new, but I disfavor this approach. I like shots that are in the flow.
  • Spontaneity. To survive in Layer Tennis, I’d imagine that you must start the game with a plan and a trunk full of techniques and clip art that you’re ready to use. There isn’t enough time to wing it completely. However, I give the most credit to players who seem to be doing more work during the match. Applying art that you created previously is less challenging than designing and executing shots in the 15 minute window provided.

Although there’s no formal voting process, your opinion does count. The judges read the posts in the official match forum and take them into account when deciding the winner. So memorize these criteria and post your opinions.


  1. Today’s Flash match is hilarious. I haven’t checked the website in a few weeks. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. The Flash match today was utterly brilliant (and funny). I’d give both of them a 10 out of 10.

  3. That site is amazingly cool.

  4. HUGE second on your “Cohesion” point. Nothing works better for me than the matches that keep building and narrating a story with each volley. Even though I’m a Layer Peon(TM), my gut always thinks that the “blow it all away and start over” strategy is, to some degree, a cop-out. I’m not looking for every character and every element to make an appearance on volleys 1-10, but I would like some acknowledgment of the energy your opponent is giving you.

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