Behind the scenes of the Middlecott Sketchbattle Experiment

With a strategy built on embracing the unexpected, Middlecott Design presents the Middlecott Sketchbattle Experiment as an innovative design resource connecting leaders, admirers and students of the automotive industry – and Detroit – with the rest of the design world. 

Every January, winter weary Detroiters warm up with the excitement and glamour of the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), long considered a premiere design shows. The unveiling of the future of automotive design is marked by a series of industry events as much as it is by the cars themselves. Soirées all around Detroit celebrate everything from the launch of a new Corvette to the Automotive Chambers of international trade groups from Germany to China.

We decided to take the underground route as we walked into St. Andrew’s Hall this past Tuesday, to experience the creative blowout event that is the Middlecott Sketchbattle Experiment – now in its fifth year.

Known as the ‘Fight Club of Design’, the Experiment is far from the usual black tie, champagne-quaffing affairs throughout the rest of Auto Show week. In the midst of thumping house music from local dj’s and plenty of drink, industry leaders from all over the world connect with top emerging automotive design talent through three rounds of ‘sketchbattles’ between young designers and students. Each round has a sponsor –  from Harman, sponsoring the first round challenge of creating sound systems, to the title sponsor BASF, who creates a distinct exterior paint color each year for the final challenge. This year the color is ‘Paranormal Red.’ Like that elusive red, the Experiment experience is like nothing else.

Contestants are called out to the long drafting table sort of like boxers being called out to the ring. As the sketching for each round begins, the crowd circles around the table and the witty commentary from the Master of Ceremonies punctuates the frenetic mood in the attempt to throw contestants off their game. The contestants sketch. The music goes on. Car modelers from Australia and interiors designers from Japan, mingle with directors of design from Harley Davidson and Dodge and deans from the College for Creative Studies. Experts of other design industries such as furniture, timepieces and software development come to attend. As the sketching goes on, everyone chooses their favorite to win and places their vote for each round until one winner is named and claims the $2,500 grand prize.

Not only does the Experiment share the exciting possibilities of Detroit’s innovation and creativity with an international audience, in the words of co-founder Brook Banham, “Bringing love to Detroit, as a Design center, is one of the top priorities.” Though founded in Detroit, the Experiment has expanded beyond, taking Detroit’s attitude towards design to sketchbattles in Los Angeles and Las Vegas with sites on Beijing and eventually Paris and Tokyo. And the winner in each city is flown in to Detroit every January to compete in what has become the “Grand Slam” edition.

Other than adding to the rebuilding of Detroit as a hub of international design, the Experiment is just that, an experiment – free to evolve with each new opportunity. “Middlecott Sketchbattle Experiment is an experiment, because we purposely don’t have a ‘business plan’. It’s an organic business that will take its own path. That is really exciting for us because we don’t know what to expect,” says Banham. New cities, new products – Banham is considering a Shoe Sketchbattle in Portland, OR and was even approached by the U.S. Marines to produce a military vehicle sketchbattle – but all leading back to Detroit and the infinite possibilities our particular brand of creativity and innovation presents for the automotive industry.

The Middlecott Sketchbattle Experiment was founded by Brook and Judith Banham of Middlecott Design and Frank Schwartz, principal at Advanced Automotive Consulting Services LLC.