Interview with Shiro Nakamura

This month we feature Shiro Nakamura, Senior Vice President and Chief Creative Officer of Design and Brand Management of Nissan and Infiniti.  A veteran of the automotive industry he has spent the last 12 years at Nissan shaping and reshaping icons such as the Infiniti FX45, Nissan 350Z, Infiniti Coupe Concept, Nissan Murano, and GT-R.  Unexpectedly it was by breaking his own rules about what makes a car quintessentially beautiful in the development of the Cube that he found the freedom to be provocative and daring hence pushing Nissan to the forefront of design. 

Nakamura is a reference point for any person aspiring to become a car designer as he understands and embodies what that undertaking means having caught the car bug at age 9!  He can visualise a future of wearable transportation suits that take people of all ages from A to B and yet still appreciates the emotional value of driving a good old Corvette Sting Ray!  Whilst he appeals to the unconventional clients who buy Nissans his heart stays true to the icons that inspired him and it is his personal ambition to bring those values to life through Infiniti; ETHEREA is the product of that ambition and vision that has become ever more clear.  We could correct his Japanese-English but that would take away from his natural eloquence that moves from hand gestures, words, thoughts, and energy that simply say “I was born to be a car designer!”.



GCD : What is your earliest memory of cars? When did you decide you wanted to design them? 

Nakamura : I was one of those kids who like transportation, particularly I liked cars very much; I draw a small sketch in a classroom and I buy a magazine, not many at that time, just one with all the cars.  Once a year they had the Cars of the World, from US to Europe, they had every car in a photograph.  That is to me the most valuable information and I would look at them and copy the photographs by sketching…I think that was the start of my enthusiasm for cars.

GCD : How old were you?

Nakamura : How old? I think (unnnn…), like ten, nine or ten.  And then gradually, maybe at age of 12 or 13, it became more real, my dream.  Particularly looking at Italian Carrozzeria and some custom built car you know that there are people who design the car right? So I decided I wanted to be designing cars when I grow.

GCD : It probably wasn’t very common, did you tell your parents?

Nakamura : Un, yeah, when I decided to go to college I decided to take that Industrial Design major, I was not interested in industrial design at all, I just simply interested in car design.  That's it! I spent four years but it was not very exciting because they don’t teach any car design in the school.  In Japan we don’t have any school or major specifically in transportation design, even today it doesn’t exist.  Its very strange, we have no RCA so I worked in a company (Isuzu) and then went to Art Center.  But I think actually I really made what I think come true…actually I am writing a book now, that's very similar, ‘when I was a kid I want to be a car designer’ and eventually I became a designer, I did more than a hundred cars I designed, it was almost unpredictable when I was a kid.

GCD : Do you still have that same feeling every time you design a car?

Nakamura : Un, I think its not exactly the same as I had of course but it is not very different.  Every time we have a new project I still want to make it very nice looking and a strong car.  Basically it's the same but more business now, much more complex, not as simple but in a deep (hand on heart), emotionally, is almost the same.  I don’t think I will ever lose the emotion that I had 50 years ago, it's the same emotion but more responsibility to the business and the environment.  But if we do not create an emotional appealing car it does matter does it?

GCD : I think you are one of the few design chiefs who says that designers have to think about the people using design, essentially more universal, is this true?

Nakamura : Yeah, yeah sure (very positive).  Even when I was a young designer I never thought about people who were going to use the car, I was designing by myself, just I was designing ‘ok, this looks good’.  The only judgement was my preference, right? Very simple but its too narrow. Sometimes its ok, for example like a GT-R or like the Z, if I think its right then its right, no problem, I mean this is what I like so it should be understood by those people like me.  Because its my sense of value is the same as the value of the person who wants to buy a Z.  I think a lot of cars were design for the man, like the British 1960’-70’s, all cars were designed for satisfying the men.  Never been females considered.  Maybe this works ok in Europe because the car culture is long and established its not necessary to open too much, but in contrast in Japan is no car culture at all right?  The young ladies want their own style, they don’t care what a Jaguar looks like or don’t know the Rolls Royce, they don't care.  It just a product, same as telephone, and maybe China is another totally different culture.  The US is more practical, I think Europe is the only area that has an established car beauty. 

GCD : How has your understanding of design changed over the years?  What have been your milestones?

Nakamura : I think it was the Cube, it is a quite different car that I ever designed.  It is a completely different approach for car design.  Because I am educated by traditional 1960’s Italian, British, Jaguar, Ferrari, Aston Martin, that is my favourite.  Everything what I want to do is that, it is still my roots, but as I said it doesn’t work for everybody, only a very narrow target.  And the Cube is designed for young male in Japan, its completely against, sort of traditional car design beauty right?  Its completely ignoring existing dynamism or three dimensional appeal.  This is very different, but while I was in the development of the CUBE I learned a lot, ok, this is something that is appealing, a new way to appeal to the customer. 

And then I started to think more about people who really are driving cars than yourself only.  Designers are not designing for yourself, so that kind of mindset was found during the Cube development.  Particularly because it was very successful, because if it failed maybe I would not say the same things…it was so successful I realised ah like this it works!  Like the Juke, people said it is risky and dangerous to choose such an iconic design, but I don’t think that at all.  This is what people will really appreciate because its so different, the small crossover doesn’t exist in the industry, so the people who buy this its for the uniqueness, and the strong character.  If you make design more understandable but not provocative it doesn’t make sense…I intentionally make it more provocative and its successful.  Journalists were more worried than anybody about creating a love and hate with Juke, but I do not hear hate.  Age or gender doesn’t matter, everyone likes.  I should say that this (Juke) is not exactly my taste, Cube is not exactly my taste, but if you design by only your taste, the design you do becomes more narrow.  For example Essence is more to my taste, like a long and fluid, like an Italian Ferrari, this I my personal.

GCD : So Infiniti is more about you?

Nakamura : Its more traditional, 1950’s to 70’s, Italian and GM, you know a lot of GM concept car at that time, you know Larry Shinoda? From Corvettte, it's the Sting-Ray designer, his design is always (gestures long flowing curves), that’s when I was 10 years old.  And Ferrari, like a Pininfarina Ferrari.  Infiniti is more authentic, because the luxury segment cannot be too crazy or too provocative, it has to be more understood by older or more traditional mindset, if you go too much then its not accepted.  

GCD : Do you have a vision of the future of mobility?

Nakamura : The future of mobility has much more diversified from just one person transportation, its more like wearing a suit and move by yourself and protect by the outside from the wind or rain or whatever; as small as possible then you go there (pointing to an invisible station point A) and you put all together like a train.  Driving a car, if you like to drive then you do but if you don’t like its not necessary to drive, mobility is more like personal public transportation; for example you can read a book and electric can control and follow the lines and take you there (point B).  In the factory they have a line and the robot is going like this (putting the suit in line), you put the destination, it goes automatically and you combine several small things together.  I think that would be as pure pure transportation, not for enjoyment.  Currently the car is becoming one side is very enjoyable the other side is very frustrating, I think it’s frustrating side cannot be solved by today’s system.  We need a new system to take the frustration out, but always car is for enjoy.  Like a yacht, you have no objective to get to A to B, same for the car, it should be enjoyed, so cars will stay for the enjoyment.  But the other side, transportation, is very wide range, it can be automatic.  It is still important to have your own space, (“like Sony Walkman” I suggest…) you need your personal space, you don’t need to worry about anything else, it keeps the temperature nice and everything nice but is small like this (indicates his own personal space).

GCD : How far do you think that is?

Nakamura : About 50 years…then next 20 years it will be very difficult I think.  But it depends on the location, if you want to do this you have to do it from the beginning, London is too established, Tokyo is too established.  If you create a new town a new city, you can create a new system.  If you create a new town you need to start by transportation.  Another thing is that when you get old you cannot drive by yourself right?  Because your eyesight is getting lower, your muscles weaker, for me transportation is a human’s right.  Even if you get 90 years old you don’t want to keep your area small right?   You want to go out, be free!

GCD : What do you think will happen to the combustion engine?

Nakamura : I don’t think every car will become electric because combustion engine can also be environmentally friendly because technology is developing.  And it also has some appeal, because its more mechanical.  I have always said its like a watch, mechanical watch, people like them because people feel more connected.  I think EV will become the majority but still I think internal combustion engine is for your fun.  If transportation is just for real transportation, if you go to your hobby you want to keep the BRUM BRUM (childish smile) vibrations, this is nicer.  Therefore its diversity.

GCD : How do you think music has influenced your design process?

Nakamura : I think music is not directly connected to car design, but it has many things you can learn from the music, I don’t think its an inspiration for design but more how you construct the design and how people think how do you receive music, more logically.  Design process and delivering music is very similar.

GCD : What advice would you have for young designers?

Nakamura : Ah young designers! To be, I think its curiosity, I think its curiosity, you must have curiosity for people, for anything, for society, or culture.  For the designer curiosity makes you more alive, right?