We talk about Infiniti's design direction, his influences, and what it means to have good design
We recently sat down with Shiro Nakamura, who oversees the design departments of Infiniti, Nissan, and Datsun as creative director of Nissan Motor Corp. Much of Nakamura’s recent efforts have been refining and redefining Infiniti’s direction as it rolled out the Q50 sedan worldwide and prepared to unveil the compact Q30 at the Frankfurt Motor Show, setting the pace for even more aggressive statements in the luxury space.
Because Nakamura’s career spans more than four decades at companies including Isuzu and General Motors, we wanted to ask him about what is influencing the Infiniti brand, some of his favorite cars, and what it’s like the be considered an inspiration for future generations of designers.
MT: What influences your design work?
SN: I think design expression is not that simple. I think accumulation of your own interests for beautiful things or whatever. It’s not simply that you can take expression from here to design with. People want to make that kind of story. But to me, it’s not that simple. You have to absorb a lot of things in your heart. At the same time time, I should say that Infiniti is in some ways a premium, authentic beauty of a car. To me it’s having the look of the classic cars. It’s not taking one car design to transfer into an Infiniti design — looking at classic cars is very important to me to understand proportions and quality of the lines. I think old cars give you a lot to learn.
I’m really encouraging our designers to see — not copy it — to see it, to feel it, the proportions, presence, and the quality. I think that’s very important to me — you just feel it — not just copy the lines.
MT: I’ve always taken you as a kind of modern designer. I’ve never really noticed a whole lot of retro in to your work.
SN: No, no, I don’t like retro. I never do retro, but what we can learn from classic cars is not doing retro to me. It’s taking one design and then making some translations to the car. I want to be a creator and forward-looking. But it does not mean you should not learn from classic cars. If you do not learn from their authentic beauty, I don’t think it’s appropriate, particularly for the premium category.
Premium luxury is rooted very, very deep, so you have to start at what kind of presence you can provide, so I think it’s really encouraging for a young designer to see classic, nice cars.
MT: What do you like? What is a car that you think just has a really great design?
SN: To me, prewar Italian cars are particularly nice. I was looking at the 1930 Touring body Alfa Romeo. I think it’s still particularly appealing to modern people because of the proportions, the quality of the lines, the details, the materials — not decorative. The presence, the balance…it’s very, very impressive.
How they could make it remains a mystery to me. It was 70 or 80 years ago. It feels very natural, the proportions. Cars are almost like a human body. You can tell the nice proportions of a human body. You can tell that some nice proportions just exist. There must be some goal with proportioning.
You see many good designs you can accumulate in your heart, or brain, or whatever.
MT: Once you have a design language, like what Infiniti has had since the Essence, how do you translate that from everything from a small car like the Q30 to possibly a larger car like what may be the Q80, Q90 and on to SUVs? How do you keep that language consistent while being able to grow it and shrink it to different applications?
SN: The Essence is very clearly showing the design vocabulary for the brand. Essence and Q30 are not the same design. It’s quite different with the character lines, but I think you feel the same feeling. This is what we want to do. We don’t want to create an Essence design to make it an SUV.
SN: That, we are not doing. We want to have Infiniti make a consistent design expression, but that’s not just making the same design longer, higher, or wider. That’s just a Russian doll. We don’t want to do that. I know some companies do it, but to me, it’s not right. A small car must have its own unique proportions. A large car must have its own proportion.
The size of the car makes a huge difference. A small car must have its own character lines. For example, as cars get bigger, if you do the same thing on a small car, it’s too much because size is a big deal. If you take a big car and make it smaller, it’s not expressive enough. Design has to be different from a large car to a small car. That is our team’s idea.
Q30 is maybe our smallest Infiniti and QX70 — that’s the next FX coming — that’s maybe a good contrast from small to big.
MT: Some people say that Nissans are looking more elegant. The new Altima, for instance. How do you separate Infiniti and keep its premium status?
SN: I think it’s more challenging because we have front-wheel-drive packaging at Infiniti. It used to be that we’d have Nissan as front-wheel drive and Infiniti rear-wheel drive. The proportions made the two brands more clearly defined. Now we have Infiniti stepping into front-wheel drive, so now proportion-wise they’re getting closer. But that does not mean we cannot separate the two. I think of Infiniti in some ways as modern yet classic. Does that mean old? No. Classic is not retro. Classic is authentic beauty, timeless, that is globally appealing. And it must mean that the proportions are perfect. The surfacing, the line quality. Everything must be much more perfect. That, to me, is the premium part. I’m not saying that Nissan isn’t timeless. It’s a more modern interpretation. It might be timeless, but it’s not authentic timeless.
We want every car to be timeless.
MT: You have a history of making cars that make you think. They’re different, like the Juke, like the Isuzu Vehicross, and so many other vehicles that are “in your face.” How do you differentiate doing something like that versus doing something more “modern classic”?
SN: Those cars are almost like category-busting. It’s not beyond design; it’s never existed. It’s the packaging, the size, or the being a crossover. It never existed. Therefore, you have nothing to follow. You can do anything clearly different.
Something like the Q50 or Q60, it’s a coupe and a sedan. It’s an existing category. But how can you make an existing category nice, beautiful, and attractive? I’m not sure Infiniti is always in a new product category. The Nissan side has a lot more freedom; you can do whatever you want.
MT: Luxury is pretty well-defined. You have your sedans, crossovers, and coupes.
Editor’s note: Stephan Weinmann, Infiniti Global Communications director, then asked: Then, you look at the Q30 concept car that is.
SN: Yeah, that is the one I want to look at.
MT: We’ve not gotten to look at it yet. Is it a sedan, hatchback, or coupe?
SN: That is our intangible. You cannot categorize anything. It can be a hatchback. It can be a coupe. But still, it’s authentic beauty. New segment. New idea. But still, I want to keep the classic beauty.
You think on the Nissan side, like a Juke, it’s not possible. It’s avant-garde, a push farther, beyond the limit.
MT: Do you see Infiniti pushing forward? We now know the Infiniti design language. Is it going to keep on pushing forward?
SN: Yeah, the Q30 is much more than this, a much stronger statement than the Q50. It’s perhaps our most prophetic design. Of course, prophetic, but beautiful.
MT: What are some designs recently that you’ve really enjoyed working on?
SN: Emerg-E and Q30 are very much connected. Emerg-E and Q30 have a very similar form language. Essence is already three years old; it’s still a nice car. Emerg-E is just one year. From Emerg-E to Essence, there’s an evolution you can see. Q30 is the continuation of the evolution. They keep going. We never stop it. We never slow down. We push forward.
Me: What about cars that have already hit the market that you really like?
SN: The FX is our icon because FX created the category. Before FX, that sort of crossover, sporty, luxury SUV did not exist. We have created its category. And still, it has its own unique presence in the market. We see some other brands following it. It’s good.
MT: Do you have any preferences in cars?
SN: I like everything. One thing I like at (Mazda Raceway) Laguna Seca is the musclecar race — all the Camaros and Mustangs. [Makes engine-revving sound.] Huge diversity in the enjoyment here, some that could only come from America. Brutal machines. But of course I like Japanese cars, too, like small Japanese Datsuns. I think it’s an amazing diversity of cars.
MT: Do you take a little bit of influence from everything?
SN: Yes. I really like American 1960s and Italian 1960s. I love it. I absorb everything. You digest it. It has to be in your brand.
MT: What has translated from all of that in making an Infiniti an Infiniti? Go over the lines of that Q50 over there. What defines an Infiniti?
SN: It’s not simply detailing. Look at the molding on the C-pillar. We call it crescent cut. It’s a three-dimensional sculpture. It looks hand-crafted, not just a simple stamping. That kind of small detail makes the car more premium. It’s nice and light and three-dimensional.
Other than that, it’s more proportional and stance with the car. Q50 has very nice stance. It’s one of the big improvements from the previous G to this one. It’s not a big difference; it’s less than one inch wider. Not many people notice this, but if you see the gap of the doors, the shut lines, it’s the smallest shut line ever. It’s just two or three millimeters, almost touching each other. It’s definitely above the industry standard.
If you compare it with even other premium brands, the shut line is very narrow now. It gives you much more consistency without a line breaking up the surface. I think our brand in Tochigi (Japan) did a great job. This is sort of my dream with a 5mm gap. We use a lot of complex surface changes, something a shut line makes very noisy. And now this is the first time we can achieve a very minimal opening.
MT: Shifting topics, you started your career at Isuzu and General Motors. What influences did you have at the time, especially when working with GM?
SN: This was sort of a joint project with GM. So I spent time at GM. I was there in the 1980s. I admire GM design because they have a lot of history like Harley Earl, Bill Mitchell, and Chuck Jordan. When I was there, Chuck was head of the design.
I learned a lot from GM, to be honest. I admire a lot of GM designers because at the time, they had the most beautiful, authentic designs. They had a very good feeling of what design should be. In the 1960s and ’70s design, it was the best time. I learned a lot, the beauty and elegance of a car.
MT: Now as Creative Director of Nissan Motors, are you proud that you’re inspiring a new generation of designers?
SN: I have been in the industry quite long. I am not designing anymore; I am directing the design. I never draw a sketch in the office or studio. I direct. Always, I push our young, great team to bring the new ideas, and I enjoy working with the designers very much. I get to coach technique and talk to each other. I think it’s the most enjoyable part of the work. I don’t want to work by myself. I need a team to work together. I have had very nice teams. I’m impressed with our teams.