The Car Design Review Interviews: Alfonso Albaisa, Nissan

19 April 2018 | by Maxine Morland

Do you find that sometimes you get consumed by something, and you don’t know why? This happened to me in the last year or so, when I started studying Nissan’s history and the history of Japan. The Prototype 9 was one of the things that came out of that process.

There is a connection between all these things. But if you were to simply ask me ‘why are you doing this?’ it would be hard for me to answer, because I don’t know. Maybe it’s because as we are about to jump forward with new technologies, EVs and the wider family of AVs; I have a desire to understand where it all came from.

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1969 Nissan Skyline 2000 GT-R

Where we are going connects to where we have been. There are a lot of anniversaries in our company that are coming up. It will be 50 years of GT-R in a couple of years, followed by 50 years of Patrol – these cars were segment creators. To understand where we have been and where technology is going to take us, let’s first take a step back, and try to understand who we are.

This is happening across all the brands, including Infiniti with Karim [Habib], and it comes at a perfect time. Purity, harmony – these are universal design ideals but we will execute them in our own way because we are Japanese. We will not be like anyone else; that would be a waste of the resource that we have built for 100 years at Nissan. It is exciting.

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This year we began reorganising the design organisation – we have fundamentally changed the way we work. It might be a reflection of me, or the way I like to work – I don’t like a hierarchical structure with one leader. You know how when geese migrate, there is a clear leader and then the birds are in a ‘V’? The reality of that is they actually take turns leading, but it looks very hierarchical.

Possibly because I am American, I prefer to be like the wild horses of the open plains, where you have 100 horses galloping, and not one trips over another. They are going in an intended path, and they have beauty and power. They somehow find harmony with all that energy.

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So we broke up our company a bit, especially in Japan where we used to be very cross-functional. We had a head of modelling, head of this, that, and all the functions reported to a general manager – which was fine, but I didn’t think it gave us autonomy. So we divided it into three ‘bubbles’, which have all the functions inside. They are like little communities all by themselves. They have modelling, colour, clay, designers... they are self-contained and they do what they want.

My role is to inspire them, to influence and guide them. But I want a community where people decide their future based on a curiosity about the company, a knowledge of the company and a desire to bring new things to every segment.

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Albaisa, posing in front of a yacht he designed himself

At one of the best times in my career I had a boss, Tom Semple, who when he became head of design for the California studio, came in and said, ‘Alfonso, I am going to tell you how things are going to go from now on’. I expected him to tell me a very clear strategy, but instead he said: ‘OK, when I come into your studio, if I don’t say anything, it means it is fine. If I say something, don’t change what you are doing, just understand I am sharing a feeling.

‘You have time to understand what you want to do. On my second visit if you have changed nothing, it means you are lacking – because that means you are not curious about the outside, and that also reflects the customer, not just my opinions. If on the third visit you don’t do something then there will be punitive action; you will have lost control of the project’.

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It was very clear, and I loved that. I felt so free and responsible. No one was going to bail me out, and creatively I grew a lot during this era. So these things I got from Tom Semple, I want to try them on a much bigger scale.

Everyone in Nissan Design knows I am very curious about Japanese DNA and I have a personal drive to learn more. 800 designers in my team are reacting and it is coming through in show cars. We also have other stuff happening that is not automotive – the Tokyo Motor Show booth was a product of this.

Suddenly we are having rich discussions about the meaning of Japan, because it is a country that at various times completely opened itself up to the world, and then it morphed and made international influences its own. I think the company needs to be that way – open to global inspiration, then we take that and we make it uniquely ‘us’.

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Young designers starting out need to use the internet and understand what the state-of-the-art of their peers is. That is the beauty of the internet, journalism and Car Design News for example. Look at portfolios and never be less than what’s in there. But, in contradiction, I get bored looking at portfolios that look like other portfolios. They don’t even register any more in my mind.

What excites me, and what I encourage young designers to do, is to reach a level based on understanding what is happening, but then find your own style, because that is what is going to make you stand out – you have the technical competence, but then use that as a springboard for your character, which is probably the hardest part.

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I would also encourage them to not just design cars; do as many different things as possible. Shake up the brain, and then don’t give up, because right now we are hiring so many different disciplines – art directors, people who make films – because the amount of digital visual material that we are harnessing in our cars is unprecedented. You need people who can storyboard and stitch together different things into one graphically similar narrative.

It is not an easy task for someone trained in a traditional way. We have designers now from our China and London studios doing such interesting film work. It is back to the narration, the storytelling – this in one of my inspirations right now.

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I think car makers face a continuing struggle to create things which look unique. You know the biggest criticism we all get as designers is ‘why does everything look the same?’

This isn’t correct, but in the future, when platforms will become more similar because of the location of the batteries, etc, we need to consider how we embrace universal truths and maintain creative freedom, especially on the products that are intended to kind of check all the boxes. We have that struggle already with sedans where the packaging of humans and the trunk limits you. I think really that is the biggest challenge, because everything else is becoming easier.

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We are collaborating much more now. When I started, no engineer would think to ask what diameter of tyre works. We have that now. We do a lot of proportion work with engineering, which is one of my favourite phases, where the sense of relationship now on the next platforms between engineering and design is so close – and in our company, this relationship is so fruitful now.

Design is more respected than ever, I feel.

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This interview is from our Car Design Review 5, a beautifully-produced 200-page book published this Spring and containing the past year’s finest concept and production cars, plus trend reports, an in-depth feature on our lifetime achievement award winner, industry legend Wayne Cherry, and interviews with many of the world’s foremost designers.
If you’d like more details or the chance to purchase your own copy, go here.