Improv doodling as a sport

College of Design professor hosts a “Whose Line” for sketching to illustrate its significance in design ideation.

by Thom Q. Johnson

“Sketch off!” is like the “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” for pen and paper.

The improvisational concept battle, organized by Barry Kudrowitz, assistant professor in the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, pits teams of artists against each other in a series of speed-drawing product development challenges. Just like “Whose Line,” all the products being doodled are made up and the points don’t matter.

“I feel like people are more creative if it’s for fun and not for winning so I made it without a winner,” Kudrowitz said. “It’s a fake competition.”

Now in its second year, “Sketch off!” began as an experiment to get an audience excited about drawing and to cap off Kudrowitz’s “Concept Sketching and Rendering” course.

“Sketch off!” works by projecting the real-time scribblings of three teams of students, alumni and industry pros onto a screen as they respond to wacky prompts from the audience.

Kudrowitz moderates those prompts and organizes them into a series of games, such as “Bing,” in which teams swap drawings every thirty seconds, or a Halloween-themed race to take a common product, like a refrigerator, and tweak the drawing so that it’s wearing a spooky costume.

“For all of my classes, I like to have a big participatory finale at the end to get people excited,” Kudrowitz said. “For the rest of the class, my students are drawing concepts for toasters and speakers, so this show is … a break from the serious.”

While the prompts for “Sketch off!” may be pretty silly stuff, the program is designed to demonstrate the power of the pen in an industry that’s overrun with Adobe products.

“Drawing is very powerful for pretty much anyone in a creative industry,” Kudrowitz said. “What I argue is that you don’t want to start on a computer when you have an idea. It’s much easier to develop the idea on paper at first.”

Conner Cowling, computer science senior with a product design minor and a previous “Sketch off!” participant, agreed about the importance of having good doodlin’ skills.

“Sketching is more like having a conversation with someone,” he said. “It’s quick and easy to change, and everyone can understand an idea right away on a visual level.”

Even the silly stuff is not that far-fetched when you consider the world of toy-making where Kudrowitz, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made a name for himself. Among his inventions are the Atom Blaster Nerf gun and toys like the “Catsup Crapper,” a remote control car that takes a dump of ketchup on a plate while flailing its arms.

The goal, Kudrowitz said, is to challenge the designers in a way they aren’t anticipating and watch what happens. It’s practice for the real world, and it makes for good entertainment.

As for preparation this year, Cowling isn’t stressing.

“I’m consciously not preparing myself at all,” he said. “I enjoyed not having any expectations last year.”


What: Sketch off!: An improv concept sketching battle

When: 7 p.m., Thursday

Where: Rapson Hall courtyard, 89 S.E. Church St., Minneapolis

Cost: Free