Can you begin by telling us a little about yourself?
I wanted to be a designer for as long as I could remember. I didn’t realise that there were any other fields until I was a little bit older, because my dad was an architect, and my uncles were architects, so I thought that was all there was. Then I started learning about lawyers, doctors, accountants and teachers. It was far too late though, design was already in my blood!
I have witnessed crucial changes in the design industry throughout my career. When I first started designing cars, we were making clay models by hand. Engineers would take measurements off the clay model and draw curves on a point paper following our moves. It was such a slow process; when I first joined the company we only used to work on two car exteriors and one interiors in a twelve-month period. By contrast, when I managed that same studio directly four years ago, we worked on 38 different designs over the course of a year, with the same number of people. Technology has facilitated an explosion of design productivity.
Can you mention a few models that you have worked on that you are really proud of?
Obviously, Nissan is not a tremendously expensive brand; we believe in democratisation of technology. So, when we made the original Nissan LEAF, we wanted to ensure it was not a $100,000 vehicle. The electric vehicle retailed for around $30,000 and anyone can afford it, or nearly anyone.
Therefore, when we made the latest version we kept that mindset. The new Nissan LEAF is even cheaper than the previous model. We just feel that if you really want to change the world, you make sure that you can bring new things in a trustworthy method to everyone. This hasn’t changed, historically we did that with automotive engineering, and with EVs we are accelerating this concept.
You are the Senior Vice President of Global design. Nissan is believed to be a very conservative brand when it comes to design. In what ways have you tried to change this image?
I would have to disagree with you on that point; when you are a company that is almost 100 years old, you have a lot of history behind you. Luckily for us, this history of Nissan has always been around innovation and how to bring new things to life every day.
If you join my studio for example, you can of course design a car, or you can also design graphic user interfaces, basically, all the screens and graphic design. We also have an architectural arm, so you can focus architecture, meaning literally the architecture of buildings. We work on boat designs – we can do just about anything, because we are big.
Not many companies have 800 members in their design studio, and that’s what gives you the freedom to do art, to design parks, to do almost anything because you can absorb it.
The entire automotive industry has undergone a sea change within a short period of time, from the advent of electric vehicles like the LEAF to the concept of shared mobility and automated drivers. What effect has this had on the design process? How do your designs stay relevant in this fast-moving age?
I think we are about see an explosion of electric cars; At the Tokyo Motor Show, a few months back, we revealed a new crossover EV. It demonstrates the next level of autonomous driving and ‘hands-off’ technology, and how the architecture of the car is going to change. But in my everyday job we’re designing all the ‘brothers and sisters’ of this car, so the real aim is the expansion of all the EVs, with an additional focus of working on autonomous taxis.
Now in a company like Nissan, we sell millions of cars, but EV cars are currently only a small percentage of that. We’re therefore redoing all the portfolios, so we’re quite busy!
In what way will the development of autonomous vehicles change the design of a vehicle?
I think the more interesting concept to consider is that changes to cars and other forms of mobility will also mean that cities will look very different in the coming years. Cities will become smarter and more connected.
We are investigating the concept of ‘the smart city’ with electric cars that can drive themselves and work together 24 hours a day. So, what will that mean? Among other things, it will create even more opportunities for designers like myself.
When it comes to the development of a model, what comes first, design or engineering? And why?
I think especially in today’s market, with the way in which all industries have evolved and deliver global excellence, we all know how to make a nearly perfect object. Now the differentiation has to be the idea itself, and the innovation, or the spin, or the uniqueness of each product.
Manufacturers have therefore turned towards designers, with many of them seeking our expertise and creativity, even in their brainstorming of ‘non-design’ topics, to make sure that they have thought about every possible solution to make their product stand out.
This is especially true within my company. I’m a board member because they know that the ideas that come from designers are different; they tend to be a little bit ‘off the wall’, a little bit non-linear, and this is something that is becoming much more of a resource that they tap into at all levels of the business.
Nissan has always been big on technological innovations. Can you tell us about the company’s latest technological innovations when it comes to design, any new technology or materials that you use?
Technology is fundamentally changing the world and our lives as designers. When I started, we were making mechanical objects for the most part, so I hired people who were three dimensional experts, mechanics and engineers for example. Now the focus is on the electronic world; on a car’s connectivity and its sensors, and all the aspects that allow cars to drive by themselves. There’s also a focus on the technology that enables a car to grab all the information from the cloud and make it logical and understandable. So, my hiring has changed accordingly.
I still hire industrial designers but now I’m also hiring art directors and people specialised in film; people who know how to take complicated information and make it beautiful and easy to understand. So, this explosion of technology has completely changed my studio and the type of people who work in it.
Technology has changed my life and my desk. For example, I have 3D goggles in my office that I use to call my director in California, and they show me the latest designs for the model we’re working on. It’s actually amazing; I can see the courtyard outside that they’ve three-dimensionally digitised and it makes me feel as though I’m in the studio in California!
What do you like best about working for Nissan?
I feel especially fortunate to work for a company like Nissan, a company that has a great history of ingenuity, but also a great passion for design. Today the automotive industry is experiencing rapid change, especially with autonomous drive, electrification, and connected car technologies. At Nissan, we have a vision to harness the potential of these technologies to move people to a better world. We call it Nissan Intelligent Mobility.
Our boss, Carlos Ghosn, is also encouraging us to take on some really interesting projects; we’re designing buildings and stadiums for the Olympics, stuff that sometimes starts you questioning why we’re doing this as part of a car company. Well, it’s because when we’re dreaming about the future of Nissan as a car, we’re also celebrating Nissan as part of the human experience. As creative human beings this is something we should be doing, and Mr Ghosn is very supportive about this.
Manju Mathew, an MBA in marketing, completed publisher training courses from the Oxford Brookes University and New York University. She started with marketing and PR roles before moving on to her current position as a full time writer. Currently living in Dubai, her life as an expat has sharpened her observation skills and flair for writing. She enjoys writing about luxury cars like Ferrari, Lamborghini, etc even if she can only dream of owning them.
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