Nissan Ups Its Design Capability

Although frugality certainly plays a large role in Nissan's comeback from the brink of oblivion during the past few years, one thing that is sometimes considered to be the antithesis of prudence has played an equally important part: Design.

Although frugality certainly plays a large role in Nissan's comeback from the brink of oblivion during the past few years, one thing that is sometimes considered to be the antithesis of prudence has played an equally important part: Design. Like them or hate them, the designs that have been coming out of Nissan's global design studios have driven a stake in the ground that's unambiguously bold. Carlos Ghosn, the man who transformed Nissan, and who will take over Renault this month (May '05), writes in his memoir Shift: Inside Nissan's Historic Revival (Currency/Doubleday; $25.95): "We realized from the moment we arrived that our design department needed some new blood. Nissan had two problems in this area. First of all, design was subordinated to the director of engineering. This was an absurd situation, an umbilical cord that needed to be cut. . . . Second, we had to find a design head who could symbolize Nissan's revival, someone who had worked outside the company, someone with sufficient self-confidence and an international vision."
So they cut the cord. And Shiro Nakamura was hired away from Isuzu.

Underlining Nissan's commitment to design is the $14-million investment in a new design studio at the company's Farmington Hills, Michigan, tech center. At its public opening, Nakamura stated, "Design is a critical element in our global growth," and he went on to note that during the last five years, while the company was reviving itself, the designers in the various Nissan studios created 20 concept cars and 27 production cars—certainly an amazing number in the context of the condition of the company, and impressive under any standards.

Bruce R. Campbell, vice president, Design, Nissan Design America (NDA), actually grew up in Dearborn, Michigan, but headed off to San Diego, where NDA is headquartered, some 30 years ago. He is responsible for leading development projects assigned to NDA both in San Diego and Farmington Hills. Speaking of the expanded studio in Farmington Hills, Campbell commented, "It makes sense to be here," pointing out that this puts the 30 designers (a number that could grow to 45, but Campbell says that they're in no hurry to add them—and that they're particularly picky when it comes to selecting designers) in close proximity to the engineers in the attached tech center, the supplier companies that populate the Detroit metro area, and closer to the Nissan plants in Tennessee and Mississippi. He went on to say that the new studio now has the wherewithal to completely handle development projects.

The new studio's exterior was designed by Albert Kahn Associates (Detroit), a legendary firm that played a role in many of the important buildings that were created for the auto industry. The interior was created by Luce et Studio (San Diego), which created an open-space format to facilitate communications and interaction among the designers. The interior design melds the warmth of wood (bleached oak and redwood panels, tributes, said Amy Larimer of Luce et Studio, who worked on the interior, to Michigan and California, respectively), the pragmatic seriousness of concrete, and the industrial aspects of aluminum (some of which was recycled from car bodies) and rubber (ditto tires).

One of the most impressive aspects of the 50,912-ft2 studio is actually outside of it: a 15,000-ft2 courtyard designated "The Egg" because of the ovoid perforated stainless steel wall that surrounds it (there are two layers of stainless so that while light is transmitted through it, curious onlookers cannot see through it). This, too, was designed by Luce et Studio. It in and of itself resembles sculpture, which undoubtedly will make the designers step up their game.

Campbell said that he and his colleagues are in Detroit and San Diego to "feel the pulse of the American market." Will there be distinctive Motor City and SoCal designs coming out of the respective studios? Campbell says that wouldn't be acceptable. "My job is to ensure that the Nissan process and philosophy are shared by both locations." One way he's making that happen is by rotating designers through each of the studios.

He also added that they won't be "creating clones like other manufacturers."—GSV