Shiro Nakamura startled many in the Japanese auto industry in October when he jumped ship from his post as head of design at Isuzu Motors Ltd. to the top design slot at Nissan Motor Co. Nakamura, whose recent designs at Isuzu included the Kai and ZXS show vehicles, felt he had an opportunity at Nissan and grabbed it.
In his new job, he must overcome decades of top-down, bureaucratic culture at Nissan, where the engineers who ran product development often suppressed creative design thought.
But with Nissan COO Carlos Ghosn and product czar Patrick Pelata backing him and promising free rein with Nissan design, Nakamura can let loose his eager charges. At the same time, though, he knows he must be wary of the dangers of flamboyancy.
In his first interview since taking the new job, Nakamura took time out from the auto show in Detroit to talk to Automotive News Staff Reporter Mark Rechtin. Edited excerpts follow:
So, why Nissan?
I was approached by a headhunter. I was confused at first, because in Japan this never happens. But I talked with Mr. Ghosn and Mr. Pelata and understood what they wanted. Nissan is struggling to produce good products and needs to attract more customers. They must improve their design. I saw this as a good opportunity for me, because they told me design would be a very high priority in the company. That is rare, because most Japanese companies are engineering-driven.
What do you think Nissan saw in you?
My experience in the United States and Europe. In the U.S., I was both a designer and a product planner. And they definitely wanted an outsider's perspective. I can see more objectively what is going on.
What have you been doing since you were hired?
I really just started this month; the last two months were just learning. I won't be involved in design activity physically because Nissan is such a big company. Plus, it's my responsibility to keep the organization active. I need to give design direction but not be involved in the actual design. I will select the best idea from our three studios, but doing lines and detail will be impossible.
What does Nissan lack?
In the Japanese market, they lack consistency and continuity of direction. We have had good designs in the past, but they have not continued into the present. In the U.S. market, we have had better direction but have lacked character - the engineering passion of the company has not been translated into form. The parts of the car won't express emotion by themselves. It has to be visualized. Nissan needs to avoid having different models display different character; otherwise, people will be confused about what Nissan stands for.
And what does Nissan represent? What emotion should a person feel when looking at a Nissan?
Our passion, power and energy. Also, coming from a Japanese company, our cars should give people a feeling of the Japanese attitude of sincerity.
Auto shows used to be about wild futuristic concepts but now seem to be about showing near-production vehicles with a little extra cladding to disguise them. What will Nissan's approach be?
We need to have a clear direction, but sometimes it needs to be exaggerated and less realistic. But I would rather have things that realistically can reach production. But we will start showing more concepts and having more variety.
What products does Nissan lack?
Nissan lacks a car-utility crossover vehicle. I'm not talking a hybrid vehicle that's in between the two, but something that floats around the area of car and sport-utility. The Xterra and Sport Utility Truck are good vehicles, but Xterra is not all that different. It's still an SUV, even if it does show a different direction.
How would you categorize your design philosophy?
I've recently starting thinking along the lines of 'form follows emotion.' Emotion used to mean no function. But you must be comfortable in what you look at. I don't just mean visual; I mean touch, feel, hear. And that includes function. Your senses have to be satisfied. Function to me sounds more like something you associate with an appliance. I also like Bauhaus design. It is very attractive. Actually, Bauhaus spirit is influenced by traditional Japanese architecture. As Japanese, we combine function and beauty with a simple expression, not a flamboyant one. That is our nature.
But do you want Nissan to be known for Japanese design? What does this mean for the American and European studios?
What I want is for Nissan design to be more global or international. I want to work more closely with the U.S. and Europe, and bring more international blood to Japan. I want to change the trend of having just local designers working in the studios. I want a more multicultural organization. That way we will find more clearly what is Nissan.
How does Renault fit into the equation?
They are going in a totally different design direction. We meet, but our activity and directions are totally separate. We have a mutual respect for each other's design direction. We will exchange people and mix cultures for the experience and stimulation. And we will keep Nissan's European studio.