When employees of Nissan Design America's headquarters in La Jolla, Calif., use the fitness center or spike the ball at the company's volleyball court, they have no one to thank but themselves.
That's because the funds that pay for such perks come from nonautomotive design projects the studio occasionally takes on. Nissan's designers can work on outside projects that entice them.
"When an interesting outside project comes in and there's some extra time, you'll see people here working till midnight," says Diane Allen, design manager for the studio.
The projects have included designing the Bubble Burner golf club for TaylorMade; a personal computer case for RDI Corp.; children's furniture for the Angeles Group; a 150-foot yacht; and most recently, the Airstream BaseCamp trailer, which was introduced in July.
The small lightweight BaseCamp presented a design challenge. Airstream Inc. wanted the trailer to maintain the company's trademark "torpedo" look but still look like a new product.
"This was a great match for us," says Bob Wheeler, vice president of product development and engineering at Airstream Inc. "The creativity of the staff at NDA has given us a new classic."
Says Allen: "We had fun with it and created a design that met their specifications and still looked very cool."
The trailer project and outside jobs aren't actively solicited by Nissan.
"One of our executives might be on a plane sitting next to an executive with another company," Allen says. "They start talking about product design and by the time they land we've got a proposal to build something new and interesting."
Designers interested in projects use Nissan's equipment to work on it before and after hours. The money earned goes into an employee fund to improve the workplace in La Jolla. The practice is expected to continue at Nissan's Farmington Hills, Mich., studio, which opened in March.
Designers at Designworks/USA, BMW's Newbury Park, Calif., studio, also work on nonautomotive projects. About 50 percent of the studio's business is spent working on projects ranging from a John Deere tractor to cataract surgery equipment for Allergan Inc.
"If you look at our history, we had been an independent design studio until 1995 when we were bought by BMW," says Neil Brooker, vice president of Designworks/USA. "We're just continuing that practice. Our work for BMW takes precedence, but we also actively pursue jobs outside of the automotive industry."
Working outside of areas of expertise can pay off in other ways, too.
"Getting designers to think beyond their scope of work is essential to the field," says Tom Matano, director of industrial design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and the former top designer at Mazda North American Operations.
"When you go to the big Milan furniture show or the New York fashion shows, you see automotive designers there as well. It's always good to have some other exercise to make your brain work."
Working with different materials and processes helps refocus a designer, says Matano.
"It gives you the opportunity to step back outside the way you normally do things and when you come back, you've got a fresher perspective on your next automotive project," he says.
At Designworks/USA, this happened after a team of vehicle designers worked on a cell phone design project.
"When you're working on a phone keypad at that level of detail," says Booker, "you can't help but bring what you learn about how a person pushes buttons and uses the phone to the design of buttons and conveniences in an automobile."
At Nissan Design America, the late-night work on golf clubs helped generate innovations on Nissan's Z sports car. "The clubs were a very vibrant shade of copper, and we thought, 'What would that look like on a car?' And it worked," Allen says. "The grips on a golf club are carefully engineered to create a sure feel, and we used a similar texture for the Z gear shift and steering wheel."
Engineering ideas also have crossed over during the Nissan projects. When designing children's furniture, the staff was taken with the thin, strong, lightweight structures used to separate shelves. They adapted the design for cargo shelves in vehicles.
"That's the real advantage - to see how people are solving problems in other industries," Allen says.
And car designers can take what they know to other industries.
"For the golf club, we brought what we knew about automotive form, reflection and a material to the project," says Allen. "That isn't what someone who works exclusively with clubs is going to do. When you've got someone who designed the body of a Z, they're going to approach a golf club in a different way."
The Bubble Burner, which was manufactured from 2000 to 2004, was one of the most popular clubs in the TaylorMade driver line, according to the Carlsbad, Calif., sports equipment company.
In 2004, a Nissan Design America team exhibited its work at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. The auto stylists created a series of modern furniture, including an 8 cubic-foot lounge area with music and projection screen, an integrated chess board and a tea bag-shaped light made of silicone.
The Nissan Design America staff is busy with automotive projects, but Allen says she is thinking ahead.
"You just can't keep some of these young talented designers on one project," she says. "These outside jobs are fun for them. and I'm sure we'll soon be up late working on another."