Sometime around the end of the '90s, their presence became hard to ignore. They were multiplying like flies, filling seats at bars, shows, and dinner parties all over Portland. They all seemed to have irregular schedules, permanently casual wardrobes, and the vaguest job descriptions in the world—they were graphic designers, and they just keep coming.

Nearly a decade into the 21st century, Portland has gained a reputation as a "design town," a mecca for young people looking for jobs in advertising, media, technical and web design—to name just a few of the fields in which graphic design is an integral component. Competition is fierce for dream jobs at locally based major firms like Nike, Adidas, and Wieden+Kennedy, not to mention the innumerable lower-profile gigs and startups, and young hopefuls continue to flock here. Plus, graphic design is a major aspect of the DIY and zine movement that is one of the anchors of Portland's cultural identity, visible in everything from the way we dress to the way we eat.

Despite their prevalence, the methods and tools of the graphic designer remain more or less alien to those of us who don't really understand why font jokes are funny, even though we use and enjoy the results all day, every day—from packaging on products to editorial layout to film credits to the instructions on an airplane barf bag.

The Cut&Paste digital design tournament, taking place in Portland this week, aims to correct that ignorance, and throw back the curtain to expose the creative process at its most entertaining.

Born in November of 2005, Cut&Paste is the Iron Chef of graphic design, with competitors creating timed pieces based on certain themes, and within certain constraints. "Oxymoron" and "George W. Bush" are examples of past design themes, and the contestants may be required to do something like include a photo of an audience member or a surfboard in their design, bringing it all together in under 15 minutes. With the frantic competitors' works-in-progress projected on live monitors, music pumping, and booze flowing, the event is meant to have a party atmosphere and be an interactive way to witness the designers' technical prowess and aesthetic wit on the move. Expressly reaching out to an audience outside the design crowd, the events have gained popularity in much the same way that breakdancing and beat battles have become popular outside of their immediate scenes. (Although make no mistake that the opportunities for networking and exposure to industry types are a bonus for young designers participating and attending.)

"I've been into hiphop for years," says Kris Kanaly, one of the contest finalists. "Battling always played an important role, so I was geeked to hear about a 'design battle.'"

In keeping with the spirit of being descended from the Pillars of Hiphop, the event is hosted by Ohmega Watts and soundtracked by Rev. Shines of the Lifesavas, as well as DJ Kez. Video footage of past events shows a performative spirit among the designers, a high-tech joie de vivre, and a rapt audience of hipsters.

In addition to the sort of creative professional tourism that such an event offers for the design curious, laymen are encouraged to try their own hand at designing, with workstations equipped with design software set up in the venue, and a low-pressure amateur contest that anyone can sign up for. (Not that anyone will be looking, but at least a rudimentary knowledge of how to use some of these programs is advised.)

Nerdy in that hipster way, Cut&Paste has rapidly grown from a one-off into an international event, and this year Portland is one of 11 cities in which it is taking place. Aside from its native New York, the competition has previously been held in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. This year sees a dramatic expansion with Portland among other first-time cities Boston, London, Berlin, Sydney, Hong Kong, and Tokyo.

To get Portland involved, Melissa Delzio, a full-time designer at Creative Center Advertising in Wilsonville, put together a proposal using fun facts about designer-saturated Portland ("Ranks fourth in nation for metro areas with largest increase of college-educated 25-34-year-olds"; "34% never married"), although Cut&Paste Executive Director John Fiorelli needed little persuasion, having visited and become familiar with PDX's design scene.

Delzio set about recruiting contestants through local schools with design programs and design or art-related websites, then held an audition to whittle them down to the final eight who will compete before a live, paying audience this Friday, September 21. They'll be judged by the likes of Plazm founder Joshua Berger; Jose Cabaco, Wieden+Kennedy's creative director; Jason Bacon of "urban vinyl toy company" UNKL and Big-Giant design firm; Eric Lawrence of Ziba Design. Inc.; and the visual art program director of PICA, Kristan Kennedy. For the finalists, Cut&Paste is an opportunity to launch themselves into the consciousness of potential employers, helping them build a reputation. Not to mention the respect and admiration of their peers and other designers.

"The judges are some major players in the industry," says Kanaly. "There's not a single one who I wouldn't feel privileged to meet and/or be judged by. Hopefully no stones will be flying my way, though."

In the meantime, the rest of us can have a drink and relax in the soft beams of the 21st century's projected computer light, watching the latest incarnation of competitive entertainment—a tradition vital to the culture of every civilization, from the gladiators of the Roman Empire, to medieval jousting, to Sunday morning football. That, and we can get a better idea of just what exactly it is that these people do.

(Cut&Paste takes place Friday, September 21 at the Wonder Ballroom, 128 NE Russell, 7 pm, $10 in advance at, $15 at the door, 18+; Afterparty at Plan B, 1305 SE 8th, 11 pm, 21+)