Nissan Design searches for a Nissan DNA

LA JOLLA, Calif. — Nissan’s U.S. design chief, Tom Semple, doesn’t have time to reflect about working in the shadow of his former boss, Jerry Hirshberg.

The charismatic Hirshberg founded Nissan Design International, the automaker’s first U.S. design studio. He hired Semple 21 years ago and designed some of the company’s most distinctive vehicles, such as the Pathfinder, Xterra and Infiniti J30.

CEO Carlos Ghosn offered Hirshberg the job of Nissan’s global design chief, but he turned it down.

Since Hirshberg retired and the 56-year-old Semple became president of the renamed Nissan Design America a year ago, he has had little time to think about anything except how to turn the center on its head.

In the past two years, the center’s role has changed from a satellite that sent its designs to the parent in Japan for approval to becoming the most prominent hub of a global Nissan design effort.

“There was no central organizing principal around the designs of Nissan before,” Semple said.

“Now, globally, by joining forces at the top levels of design, we meet often, and we strategize about where we want to go in the design group. Working as part of a bigger group makes us stronger and gives us more influence than we had before.”

Each Nissan vehicle used to be designed with disregard for the rest of the line, resulting in a jarring lack of theme.

The Maxima, for example, has been a solid seller with a loyal customer base — but its styling doesn’t tie it to other Nissan products.

“A lot of people like the Maxima,” Semple said. “But they don’t care that it’s a Nissan.”

Studio collaboration

Ghosn’s appointment of Shiro Nakamura as Nissan senior vice president of design last year meant Nissan’s studios worldwide would begin collaborating to develop common elements of design that would run through each of the company’s products — a corporate DNA, as it were.

But Semple admits that Nissan has not identified those elements.

“This is something we’re searching for right now,” he said. “We’re doing things with grille shapes and lamps, so they will have continuity with each other.”

Identifying elements to define Nissan has been a trial-and-error proposition, he said.

“It’s a natural evolution,” Semple said. “If we find something that really works on one car, and it seems that it might work on another one and help bolster our identity, we will use that. These things are purposefully and exactingly looked at all the time, whereas before they weren’t looked at so much.”

The emphasis on finding a global Nissan theme means collaboration at earlier stages with the Nissan Technical Center in Japan and Nissan Design Europe in Munich, Germany.

“There will still be some competition, especially at the early stages — but it’s becoming less so,” Semple said.

He said the studios now work together on preproduction and preparatory stages, which has never happened before.

The change started with the Nissan revival plan crafted by Ghosn in 1999 and the product blitz that will launch seven new vehicles into the U.S. market in the next four years — four of them into new segments.

Before the plan, Nissan studios in Europe, Japan and the United States competed for designs, and each was an island. And each operated under the often-clumsy hand of Nissan headquarters in Japan. For example, the second-generation Infiniti Q45 penned by U.S. designers was scrapped in favor of a clone of the Japan-market Cima so that it could sit on a less expensive platform.

The result: a ho-hum model with a smaller engine that American buyers shunned.

Branching out

The emphasis on global collaboration represents an about-face for the California center. When Hirshberg started Nissan Design International in 1979, and for more than a decade thereafter, the aim had been to operate in seclusion.

To foster creativity at the hillside retreat, Hirshberg threw organizational orthodoxy out the window. Nissan’s U.S. design arm became known as the “vacation studio,” famed for its noontime sand volleyball games and movie breaks for brain-locked creators.

“The idea 20 years ago was to be completely away from any kind of information,” recalled Semple, a former GM designer who began working for Hirshberg in 1980.

“We were told to stay away. It was rampant foolishness. Designers need information. We need to know what the market is all about.”

The studio gradually opened up to collaborative efforts in the 1990s. Nissan Design America now has its own satellites in Farmington Hills, Mich., and San Francisco. It also is forging partnerships with model makers, such as Metalcrafters Inc. in Fountain Valley, Calif., and with design colleges, such as Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.

The U.S. design arm also is expanding, Semple said. It employs 72 U.S. designers, up from 65 last year. And next year it will have 82.

“We’re hungry for talent,” he said. “We’re looking for (designers) right now. We’ve got a lot of new people. And we’d like to bring in more experienced people, as well, to help the younger people.”

At retirement, Hirshberg said he was leaving during a golden era for design. Semple thinks Nissan’s niche in the new era will be defined not by shapes or textures, but by architecture.

“It has to do with the architecture of the car, more than the shape of the fender or how the styling is done,” he said. “The wheelbase versus the mats and the stance — people will be playing with that more. Cars will be deriving more power from smaller engines. The market is going to be really opening up with more kinds of vehicles.”

Semple said that as practicality and usability become more important to the consumer, designers must take more heed to why consumers need the vehicle.

“The big challenge for design is to make sense of the package,” he said. “You have to know what the package is for, and to pinpoint your audience very closely.”

A legend still looms

But as Semple works on the creative problem of defining Nissan’s DNA, he also will be challenged to wring some old-fashioned, production-line efficiency out of his troops.

Although he insists his designers will enjoy as much freedom as they did under Hirshberg, he points out that the seven new vehicles destined for the U.S. market pose a production challenge that the studio has never had to deal with.

Said Semple: “We’ve got to find ways to get our jobs done. But we have to do it in a very creative way that doesn’t beat people across the back.”

Staff Reporter Mark Rechtin

contributed to this report

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