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Although you probably don’t know Jerry Hirshberg, you’ve undoubtedly seen him. On TV. In Nissan commercials. He’s the guy who punctuates the clips of cars screaming along dusty surfaces (“Closed Course. Professional Driver”). The cars create plumes. And Hirshberg defines the essence of the cars. Knowingly defines it. Because Hirshberg was the founding Director of Design of Nissan Design International (NDI), which was established in La Jolla, California in 1979. He joined in 1980, following a stint at GM Design.
Hirshberg retired from NDI in the summer of 2001. By then he was president. He’s still affiliated with Nissan, serving as the “global strategic advisor” for corporate chief Carlos Ghosn. And you’ll see him in commercials this year, for the return of the Z-car. As Hirshberg explains, that’s because the vehicle was conceived while he was at NDI. So like the other vehicles he’s appeared with, they’re one’s he’s directly associated with. He makes it clear that he’s not just shilling cars.
Since retiring, Hirshberg has been traveling around the world, making speeches about design. He’s known probably better than other automotive designers because of a book that he’s written, The Creative Priority: Driving Innovative Business in the Real World. As that book is about corporate creativity in general with autos being used as examples (as opposed to being a book about automotive design that touches on creativity)—although there are examples of other NDI projects, which range from kids’ furniture to a multi-million-dollar yacht—it is not surprising, perhaps, that he’s spoken at events sponsored by Nike and The Gap. He says that he is “getting back to some passions” in his life, which includes playing the clarinet (he was once seriously considering becoming a classical musician) and painting. He says he’s “enjoying the hell out of life,” that unlike some design chiefs of yore, he’s retired while still has energy to do some things of a creative nature. And it is evident that he is still thinking—a lot—about car design.
Yet while he is associated with the Pathfinder SUV, the Xterra, Altima, Maxima, Pulsar NX, Quest, and Infiniti J30, he admits that he is not a “car guy”—“not in the classic design sense.” He was trained as an industrial designer; he didn’t focus on transportation. (Hirshberg describes “industrial design” as “the last Renaissance profession—you can be ignorant in a lot of ways.”) He recalls that when he was in Chuck Jordan’s GM design studio, he was something of an outsider, as his perspective included things that weren’t cars. While all of the designers traipsed down to the Detroit auto show each year, Hirshberg was arguing that they also ought to be going to the big furniture show in Milan. There is more than cars. Yet, he acknowledges, “Through design I am very much in touch with the soul of automobiles, and I love to design them. But I am not in tune with Detroit designers who look down their noses at toasters.” It’s not that he puts minor household appliances above autos. Far from it. He says that if he was limited to just being able to design one product, it would be an automobile. What’s more, he even rhapsodizes about the car in contemporary American culture: “We are still passionate about the automobile. When the world sees a vehicle that has some spirit, wit and passion, we flock to it. It becomes an event that goes way beyond just being a mode of transportation. It becomes part of our landscape. It’s rare for a toaster to do that.”
Enough about toasters. What was the favorite program he worked on? “I know that this sounds glib, but I don’t have a favorite product,” he answers, and adds (returning, in part, to the kitchen), “It is the design process. I don’t care if it is a spoon or a harp or a boat—I throw myself into these things, grovel around and try to find the soul.” He acknowledges that talking about things like “soul” may disturb some people in business, but he believes that companies have to learn to step “into a zone that hasn’t been proven yet.” It is gut feel more than calculated bottom line.
Which brings us to the 2003 Z. Recalling its genesis—or the rebirth of a legendary model—Hirshberg says that they were conducting a meeting at NDI when Nissan was tens of billions of dollars in debt. The topic at the meeting was what each of the people there would do if he or she was running the company. When it was his turn, he blurted out “Z.” He told the assembled that the 240 and 300 models were, so far as he’s concerned, “Who we are and why we got into the business.” He told the group that although Honda and Toyota make solid cars, “they would die for the Z.” He said that as Nissan was looking for a way to refurbish a brand that was suffering from financial woes, the company “didn’t have to look anywhere but our own garage.” It has the heritage. Reputation. Excitement. And will undoubtedly create one hell of a plume in the commercials.
Yet for all that, he admits, “We couldn’t clearly justify it with the bottom line.”
Although Carlos Ghosn has a reputation for the amount of corporate cutting that he’s done while bringing Nissan back to profitability, Hirshberg says that when Ghosn came to the company, he gave the Z a green light. Hirshberg didn’t come up with the design for the new Z. A designer named Ajay Panchal did. Yet it was while Hirshberg was promoting the Z at NDI. Which is why we’ll be seeing him soon in Z ads.
Hirshberg makes an important point about the auto industry that isn’t stated often—if ever: “This is a non-rational business. It’s not irrational. But it’s not necessary for anyone to get a new car—almost ever.” So he thinks that by providing great design and solid products, consumers are willing to make the purchase, which is where the return on investment can occur. Or not. He is somewhat concerned that some auto companies are becoming “more weary of its products than the public.” And no one wants to buy tired cars. That would, indeed, be irrational.
The effect of technology on design is, in his estimation, well, dubious. He acknowledges, “For me, the computer is a wonderful tool that’s good at giving you 75 ways of doing what you’ve already thought of and for going from a 2D to a 3D idea fast.” But he thinks that there is still the issue of coming up with the good idea. He says that with all of the embracing of the computer by auto companies “It’s like we all became salespeople for Silicon Valley.” He recalls a recent visit to a school in Eindhoven, Holland. “I walked into one area and thought we were in the engineering department.” The workspace was “an immaculately clean grid.” There were tables. Nothing on top but computers. Nothing on the walls. Behind the tables were “just guys slouched in front of the computers, looking bored as hell, manipulating images on the screens.” He wasn’t in engineering. It was design. He was asked by his hosts what he thought. “I was at a loss for words. I told them that this”—this carefully laid out grid, this place that was rigorously antiseptic, this environment that was seemingly more charged with ennui than energy—“wasn’t what I was educated to do.”
“There are no answers in that little box,” Hirshberg says. “I am not someone who is elitist about the design process or about design. We are all born creative. We reach our peak at age five. Then education and the workplace get a hold of us. And the people there inadvertently kill it—and do so while talking about how important creativity is.”
Some people, however, keep it alive. Hirshberg is one of them.