Sketching, Creativity, and Modern-Day da Vincis: Q&A with Barry Kudrowitz

A new exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art gives museum-goers a glimpse into Leonardo da Vinci’s creative process through one of his notebooks – the Codex Leicester. Designer, engineer, professor, and avid sketcher Barry Kudrowitz (Product Design) guest-curated a room showing how modern-day da Vincis document their ideas.

We sat down with him to hear his thoughts on sketching, creativity, and what da Vinci would do if he were alive today.

What was your role in putting together the Codex Leicester and the Creative Mind?

9209805753_218f86c4c8_zI helped in the collection of drawings and prototypes from Scott Olson, the founder of Rollerblade, Rowbike, and Skyride. It was challenging to collect the materials. Some people don’t sketch by hand, or if they do they don’t keep old sketches.

Sketches don’t seem as valuable as rendered drawings or prototypes. But there are advantages to unfinished doodles. They allow you to share your ideas without implying that you’ve found the solution or design. Sketching is like talking to yourself, your pen markings can inspire you to think of different things.

Unfortunately, the quality of a sketch is important for pitching an idea. My research has shown that creative ideas sketched poorly, are perceived to be less creative. And the reverse is also true: if you have a relatively unoriginal idea, you can still sell it with strong visual and oral communication.

What would da Vinci’s job be if he were alive today?

da Vinci was clearly talented in the arts, math, and sciences. He was a poly-math. Given today’s educational routes, he would probably be choosing between industrial design, architecture, or mechanical engineering or double majoring in some combination of those. There aren’t very many programs today that truly combine art, science, humanities and design to support and train polymaths; which is why the College of Design is creating a “da Vinci degree”.

In the Renaissance, the great engineers were also artists, businesspeople, and humanitarians. To construct a building, the engineer required a wide variety of skills including strong visualization skills. In today’s society, higher education has separated out the roles of the engineer from the roles of the artist, designer or businessperson. The architect is separate from the civil engineer. The graphic designer is separate from the computer programmer. The industrial designer is separate from the mechanical engineer.

The engineers of today are trained in mainly “left brain” skills related to physical sciences and math whereas the “right brain” skills related to the arts and humanities are less emphasized in most engineering education. Students who could be great polymath innovators (like da Vinci, James Dyson, and Elon Musk) are forced to choose an educational path of science and engineering or art and design. Very few programs in the world build both skills simultaneously.  1395990_10151939963471113_1434433676_n

Engineering and science programs are strong at producing invention and discovery, but if we want innovation that will require something more. Innovation is about applying new ideas to add value to the world. To innovate, one needs to understand science and technology, but also people, the market, and design

My objective is to develop a new type of degree program here at the University of Minnesota that trains and nurtures polymaths to become successful innovators. This program, tentatively a B.S. in Product Design, would be a creative, interdisciplinary major that blends elements of engineering, industrial design, business, and humanities. Underclassmen in this program would take classes with both engineers (physics, calculus, programming, engineering fundamentals etc.) and designers (“design thinking,” sketching, form giving, user experience, etc.).

This program would provide methods and tools for inventing our future in the form of innovative objects, systems and services. Combining these disciplines would allow students to design desirable products and services that are also functional, marketable, and human-centered.

Do you think there’s still a place for sketching in an increasingly digital world?

There’s something powerful about taking an idea from your head and using your hand as a tool to create it. New technology is bringing us closer to doing it digitally, but a computer puts an extra step between your idea and reality.

Notebooks are so important because they give you a chance to have that inner dialogue and keep all your ideas all in one place. I think that might be why designers have a reputation for being creative: they sketch out ideas regularly, and that simple act of sketching is a creative thinking process. They are constantly talking to themselves about ideas and iterating on thoughts to themselves.


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