The premise of Design Battle is simple: Five graphic designers are challenged to take an ambiguous theme and create a graphic in under 20 minutes. When the time is up, they are judged by a panel and eliminated over several rounds. Similar contests have been hosted around the nation, particularly in Los Angeles, but this one is special. Not only is it George Mason University’s first, but designers and branding executives from around the Washington, D.C., area were in Fairfax’s Icons Grille to watch Mason’s best graphic artists at work.

The event is managed by Erik Hansen, an instructor in the School of Art who teaches corporate branding, and whose expertise helped bring Tomás, the founder of the reknowned corporate branding firm Ripe to the contest. Along with Hansen is Mason’s American Institute of Graphic Arts program, a professional design association assisted Hansen in organizing the event. The group’s leader, senior art and visual technology major Adey Chaplin, described the event as the perfect showcase of the amazing talent at Mason. She believes that Mason’s art and visual technology program can and will be elevated to Corcoran status, the group of city schools that specialize in design. Chaplin believes Mason has that kind of potential, and from the designs at the night’s battle — a word she insists is more befitting than “competition” — I can’t say I disagree.

The match starts quickly; the first theme is an acronym describing randomness and total confusion. The catch? They can only use images, no text. The five designers approach the task in different ways, from opening a computer program and working on color schemes to sketching ideas in a notebook. As they work, the rest of the designers and judges watch rapturously as the progress is displayed on television screens mounted on the walls of the crowded room. Senior Zania Barnum and junior Randall Parrish, graphic design majors, immediately discuss the candidates.

“I hope Joseph Le wins,” Parrish says of the designer closest to their end of the bar, presently at work on a curious wave of whites and orange that slowly begins taking shape as a rabbit. “I have five dollars that says he wins.”

Parrish discusses his prospects for the summer and his hopes for the program’s future; he’ll be shadowing a job at AARP, a job he hopes will steer him more toward graphic work and away from the smaller jobs he has landed in past summers. “Nothing like working a job you hate to make you realize what you want,” he says.

Barnum shares her enthusiasm, despite having been working since 4:30 a.m. to set the event up.

“We should bring this to Mason more often,” she says.

She points out each of the designers, commenting on which designs, now taking shape, she prefers. Meanwhile, Parrish says many students at Mason don’t really understand what art and visual technology really entails. For him, it’s access to art without having to master a particular skill. It’s about being a jack of all trades, an idea many other designers repeat throughout the night.

At the far end of the counter, Barnum points out one of the contestants dressed entirely in gold, who’d thrown golden confetti into the air as he walked in. It is, of course, the one and only Golden Ninja, a habitué on the Fairfax campus.

“Most of us aren’t cartoon characters, though,” Parrish says.

The first round passes, and two are eliminated. The competition heats up as graduating seniors Joseph Le, Angela Light, and Golden Ninja – aka Chris Mayernik – remain as the semi-finals. Meanwhile, Chaplin introduces me to Teodora Blindu, a recent Mason graduate and the previous president of the Mason AIGA chapter. The two discuss upcoming events and speculate excitedly about the annual October “Extreme Pumpkin Makeover.”

For the next theme, “TMI (Too Much Information),” the designers are restricted to using only text, rather than images. Each immediately sets to work with a better idea of how limiting 20 minutes is. Le starts with a black background and a simple confession in white print: “When no one’s looking, I use Comic Sans.”

Light, meanwhile, fills the screen with binary code. On the far end, Golden Ninja begins overlaying phrases in various languages into a black vortex. The images evolve drastically as the time begins to pass. Le’s simple message becomes a propaganda poster proudly declaring that he sometimes wets the bed – with tears from rejection – and that his past week consisted of Netflix viewing and irregular bowel movements. Light’s binary code image evolves into a steady stream of messages from Twitter about an embarrassing incident involving glue and a toilet. As Golden Ninja’s works throught his piece, there’s a moment of clarity when obsevers can finally understand what Golden Ninja is trying to create as the golden phrases began devouring the smaller ones in Japanese and other languages. it began to make sense.

In the back of the room, other artists flock to white paper and cover it in drawings. As the night continues, what emerges is a bizarre war between simple cartoon cowboys and ornately detailed demon sharks. Curiously enough, it all seems to make sense.

When Golden Ninja is eliminated, Light and Le become the finalists. Golden Ninja, an oil painting major keenly interested in Japanese and Asian aesthetics, bows out gracefully and immediately goes to the white wall in the back to keep working. He describes himself as the Lady Gaga of painting; he says that his hope is not only to make art but to inspire others to make their own rather than just succumb to a life of mediocrity.

“It’s easy to pick a job for money. It’s harder to find one for love,” Ninja says.

It’s an admirable goal. The final theme is “You Only Live Once,” and when it is all over, Le is the proverbial last man standing. Although he alone takes home the $250 prize as well as other spoils, everyone in attendance has benefitted from the opportunity to network with the judges and other potential employers.

“This is the most fun I’ve had this year,” comes a shout from across the room, a sentiment with which most in the crowd agree.





  1. Vinh Le says:

    Official Video of the event!

  2. Adey Chaplin says:

    Thanks for writing about our event, Vernon and Broadside! Here is my blogpost about Design Battle 2012 GMU: