Car design is an incredibly competitive field. The jobs are hard to get, the work is intense, and it takes years before that first idea actually becomes part of something real, something drivable. On top of all that, the work is pretty anonymous for most, and it’s hard to get any sort of direct feedback from people who appreciate the work. These are all part of why something like SketchBattle exists: it’s a way to turn auto design into a real-time competition, an underground battle, and, yep, a party. It’s amazing.

We were invited to attend the SketchBattle—officially, it’s the Middlecott Sketchbattle Experiment—that took place in Detroit during the Auto Show last week.

They even let me participate in one of the rounds, even though all these designers do this every day, for a living, and I’m just some dipshit who occasionally doodles bad car ideas and sticks them online.

But, by participating, I was able to get a bit of a sense of what it’s actually like to be in one of these competitions, and, as is probably shocking to nobody, it’s very intense.

This Sketchbattle took place at the Garden Theater in Detroit, and hardly seemed like the sort of place where anybody would be doing any drawing of anything. There was loud music, some great cars parked inside, and a strange clown-like guy in white makeup and a white suit who was acting like the MC. If he showed up in my house at night I’d probably shit my pants.

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Here’s the official description:

As the official Fight Club of Design, the Sketchbattle blowout is the sweetest underground party during the Detroit Auto Show. The event followed the EyesOn Design awards ceremony on the 10th of January at the new venue, the Garden Theater, on Woodward. Featuring a live automotive sketching deathmatch with $2500 grand prize, mad mad tunes, cars and entertainment.

So, yeah, an auto design deathmatch, with real designers who have created the cars you can buy right now. Other design folks who came to hang out included Fiat Chrysler’s Ralph Gilles and Ford GT designer Camilo Pardo. Underground as it is, it attracts some big names, and everyone who comes has a blast–even if they’re technically competitors.

We were told about the event by a few folks who came to our karting event including the wonderful Darby Barber (that name is really fun to say aloud; give it a try).

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Darby was also nice enough to loan me auto-designer-grade paper and drawing tools, because she’s a professional who works in the industry and I’m, as you’ll recall, a random internet dipshit.

The way the SketchBattle works is pretty simple: there’s multiple rounds, and each round has a theme of some kind. The theme is announced, and then everyone has 20 minutes to produce a drawing based on the theme.

The first round was an interior design concept, so everyone had to think of a novel idea for their design then render that design the best they could in 20 minutes. This is not easy, especially when you realize the insanely high standard of work each of these designers is capable of producing.

The round I participated in has a theme of “design an autonomous convertible vehicle.” This is a great concept, because you almost never see open autonomous cars; advanced autonomous ideas tend to favor enclosed pods, shielding the riders from the world, instead of inviting them to experience it.

So, this required quick thinking about what to draw, before we even get to the actual act of drawing it. People came up with some really fantastic design ideas: massively over-scaled trucks, sleek, open-topped highway cruisers with novel seating arrangements, novel uses of form and shape.

For my entry, I thought about what sort of open vehicles people were used to being on and not driving, which made me think of boats. So, I went for a very nautical-inspired design. You know, it has decks to lounge on!

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The organizers were nice enough to hang it with the actual competitor’s work, and I’m pretty sure I only heard a few people loudly wonder “what the hell is that doing there?”

There’s a very specific style that automotive designers learn: very large, exaggerated wheels, a certain confident line quality, an emphasis on wide, low proportions, but even so you can see dramatic differences and individual styles in every drawing.

I spoke with lighting designer Clay Davis, who has participated in SketchBattles before, but was just observing this time. I asked him about the appeal of the event, and he had some interesting insights.

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“It’s fun, but it’s still a competition,” he said. Designers are competitive people. This gives us a chance to test our mettle against people we don’t actually work alongside.”

He added: “It’s sort of like going back to school – no regulations, no rules. When I’m doing this, I sort of regret not trying crazier things when I was in school. This is a chance to go crazy again.”

There’s a lot of truth there. Auto design is a field that’s absolutely crammed with restrictions—cost, safety, regulations, physics, marketing—so a chance for designers to cut loose and just go wild, design-wise, must be very appealing.

This competition eventually was weeded down to four finalists: our pal Darby; John Frye from Honda, a winner from 2016; Ian Bass, a student and the only non-professional at the event, and Casey Swasenger, who works for a major automaker we all know and eventually won the SketchBattle with an especially nice color study in the last round.

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While all this was going on, there was also a lovely white Porsche 912 there that people were drawing on with Sharpies for charity. The event raised over $6,000 for Project Beautiful, a homeless outreach charity run by Doris Gilles, wife of FCA’s design head Ralph Gilles.

Even more importantly, there were five design VPs from major automakers there, scouting out new talent. Crucibles like the Sketchbattle are a great way to find up-and-coming designers.

The SketchBattle was a blast. If you’re anywhere near one happening, I absolutely suggest you attend. And, if you do, I suggest, even unofficially, giving the challenges a try, just to get a sense of how difficult this business really is.

Turning design into a spectator sport is a pretty remarkable achievement, and I’m certain you won’t be disappointed. Also, it’s a great way to steal design ideas for that fiberglass body you’re building in your garage to bolt onto that old MR2 chassis you found in that lake!

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If you want to see a recorded livestream of the event, here you go!

(photos by Ingo Rautenberg Fotographie and Jon Adams Design)