Tireside Chat: Talking Design With Nissan

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey
tireside chat talking design with nissan

Designing cars is a mix of art and science – and it’s about more than just looks.

Especially when the brand you work for has a lot on its plate. In the past year, Nissan has launched all-new models that represent a departure from the past (Kicks), updated others significantly (Altima) and not so significantly (Maxima and Murano), and has a few older models in the lineup that are getting very long in the tooth (Z, Frontier).

Nissan used the 2019 New York Auto Show to show off a special-edition 370Z as well as a special GT-R, both marking 50th anniversaries. I sat down with Taro Ueda, Vice President, Nissan Design America, at the Los Angeles Auto Show last fall to talk about Nissan’s design direction over the next few years – and given the news from New York, now’s as good a time as any to bring you that conversation. Ueda’s responses have been lightly edited for clarity (Ueda’s English is heavily accented and background noise from the auto-show floor rendered a few responses unintelligible).

Ueda has since been given a new role (General Manager of ZXE (UX/UI design) with Nissan’s NML-Design unit.

On the topic of Nissan’s near-future technology, Ueda spoke of how modern technology, especially connectivity, puts pressure on designers. That pressure only adds to the typical pressure for designers to come up with new and innovative design packages.

When pressed about the Z, Ueda said both the Z and GT-R are cars that inspire young designers to apply for jobs at Nissan.

“I think it’s very important that we have a Z and GT-R in our lineup, and the reason why many, many young designers are joining us is because of those. So designers who like to join us, sometimes the dream is making the new Z or GT-R by their hand. It’s kind of interesting because we should think about the company direction of both, but the … San Diego team is very strong, so we can make our own idea to present.”

When it comes to sports cars, Ueda says Nissan’s various design studios are ready to go. “Any opportunity we take and think about the future of our sports car lineup is … it’s each studio, including San Diego, London, and Beijing, and Shanghai … we are working on that right now.”

I’ve always wondered how much concepts of the recent past influence designers as they work on the product of the near future, so I asked Ueda about this.

“We should think about this: What’s our DNA? And then what’s our new technology that we can embed into our design? And there’s things for the future. It should be interesting [to see] the three different aspects into one design.”

“Try to find out what’s the core message for each category, and then finally we go into one design. It depends on the car. It depends on the category.”

I’ve chatted with more than a few designers over my decade-ish in this biz, and they love to talk about things that influence them. Things from outside the industry – trees, architecture, and so on. So I asked Ueda what non-automotive items influence him, as well as Nissan as a whole.

He mulled it over a bit, referencing Japanese and Italian influences, before asking rhetorically, “What’s our DNA? What’s a Japanese DNA?” One answer he came up with is “hospitality for the customers.” “Craftsmanship” is another word that came up. He also suggested that good design isn’t just about how good a car looks in the present, but how well it ages over time.

“We need to think about more than just appearance, but also the time that you spend with the car,” he said.

Historical influence does matter to current design. Ueda mentioned how older Nissan Skylines were very simple-looking, inside and out, but modern and nicely proportioned (in his opinion). The question designers ask themselves, he said, is how can they “have a very simple solution [that is] meaningful for the customer?”

“The future, it’s very tricky,” he answered himself with a laugh. Changes in the industry, such as new technology and increased competition, pose problems, Ueda said.

“So day by day, we need to explore something new,” he said. This led to an exchange between Ueda, a PR rep, and myself about the future of the Z – it was unclear if he was talking about the next Z or the current car. Given that the special edition showed off in NYC isn’t a redesigned Z, I think we have our answer. It seems Ueda may have confirmed the existence of a future Z, but the PR rep made a laughing comment about Ueda referring to the current Z. Like most automakers, Nissan is loathe to talk about future product, and given the language barrier, it’s unclear to me if Ueda inadvertently confirmed that a new Z is in the pipeline.

I pressed Ueda on one of my design pet peeves – infotainment screens that look like a tablet tacked to the dashboard. His reply? “We don’t like so much.” He went on to pan competitors for having too many screens.

Ueda counts packaging, especially for EVs and their batteries, as perhaps the biggest near-term challenge designers face.

I asked about the aging Frontier and 370Z, and while Ueda cannot comment directly on future product, he did say the designers are working on prototypes to pitch the bosses on. “Very important to do it [this way] … are we leading the conversation [within the company]?” Ueda reminded me that designers are sometimes in their own bubble, just like engineering, et cetera, and those other teams would have to get involved eventually, but his wording seemed to indicate that the designers in Nissan’s San Diego office are at least at the proverbial drawing board, coming up with styling exercises.

The crossover craze shows no signs of abating, and Ueda said that when it comes to crossovers and SUVs, “We like to try something special … it’s more unique shape of styling. To demonstrate this is maybe what customers are looking for.”

“We try to demonstrate how much we can change the feeling of the car,” he added.

Given the long lead times involved in product development, designers have to be forward-thinking when it comes to trends. I asked Ueda how he accomplishes that.

“Driving the car, day-by-day … you can feel the changes. That changes is already happening, as you say, more than three years ago … it’s not easy but we must change.”

We then moved on to talk about a very key Nissan – the Kicks. The subcompact crossover is aimed directly at budget buyers, but its styling represents a bit of a departure from other models in the brand’s portfolio.

I asked how the Kicks might preview a change in Nissan design we may see in the near future.

His response invoked the Kicks’ Latin American influence – the Kicks came to life in part as a showcase for the 2016 Summer Olympics, which Nissan sponsored – and touched on the uniqueness of the Kicks design, which involved a collaboration between Nissan’s San Diego studio, its Japanese studio, and a Brazilian studio operating in Rio de Janeiro at the time (that studio has since moved to Sao Paulo).

As the younger generations (Millennials, GenX) age, car design may change. I asked Ueda how.

“The name of Nissan still needs to be there. We should be very flexible to understand each differentiation [between generations].”

Finally, Ueda said the turmoil at the top of the Nissan food chain (read: the Carlos Ghosn saga) doesn’t really affect his work.

“Day by day, it doesn’t change anything,” he said. “We’re still more focused on the customer … we don’t need to change attitude.”

[Images © Matt Posky/TTAC]

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2 of 5 comments
  • ToolGuy ToolGuy on Apr 18, 2019

    "Ueda said both the Z and GT-R are cars that inspire young designers to apply for jobs at Nissan." After hiring... "Sorry, kid, not everyone gets to work on a high-performance sports coupe - we need you to work on this (sedan/crossover/truck)." Kid immediately tries to turn his sedan/crossover/truck into an overstyled coupe version of a sedan/crossover/truck. Sales plummet. (Not a problem unique to Nissan.)

  • Dilrod Dilrod on Apr 19, 2019

    About 1981 a boy named Taro Ueda stayed with our family for a summer as part of a 4-H exchange program. I wonder if it's him. Maybe not, because his favorite car back then was the Toyota Corolla.

  • Ollicat I have a Spyder. The belt will last for many years or 60,000-80,000 miles. Not really a worry.
  • Redapple2 Cadillac and racing. Boy those 2 go together dont they? What a joke. Up there with opening a coffee shop in NYC. EvilGM be clowning. Again.
  • Jbltg Rear bench seat does not match the front buckets. What's up?
  • Theflyersfan The two Louisville truck plants are still operating, but not sure for how much longer. I have a couple of friends who work at a manufacturing company in town that makes cooling systems for the trucks built here. And they are on pins and needles wondering if or when they get the call to not go back to work because there are no trucks being made. That's what drives me up the wall with these strikes. The auto workers still get a minimum amount of pay even while striking, but the massive support staff that builds components, staffs temp workers, runs the logistics, etc, ends up with nothing except the bare hope that the state's crippled unemployment system can help them keep afloat. In a city where shipping (UPS central hub and they almost went on strike on August 1) and heavy manufacturing (GE Appliance Park and the Ford plants) keeps tens of thousands of people employed, plus the support companies, any prolonged shutdown is a total disaster for the city as well. UAW members - you're not getting a 38% raise right away. That just doesn't happen. Start a little lower and end this. And then you can fight the good fight against the corner office staff who make millions for being in meetings all day.
  • Dusterdude The "fire them all" is looking a little less unreasonable the longer the union sticks to the totally ridiculous demands ( or maybe the members should fire theit leadership ! )