Shiro Nakamura and the Pursuit of Charm

Nowadays, beautiful automotive design is not enough. Shiro Nakamura thinks that character is a key differentiator. And charm.

When you see a picture of Shiro Nakamura, senior vice president and chief creative officer, Design and Brand Management, Nissan Motor Company, Ltd.—such as the photo that accompanies this piece—it seems as though this is a man who is preeminently serious. Which is certainly understandable, given that Nakamura is responsible for overseeing the designs, design strategies, and long-term approach to design for Nissan and Infiniti products. Since joining the company in 1999 from Isuzu (he holds degrees from both the Musashino Art University in Tokyo and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena), the vehicles from both Nissan (who would have thought back then that Nissan would be fielding a full-size pickup truck?) and Infiniti (which was just 10 years old in 1999) have proliferated to an astonishing extent.
Sure, serious. But look closer. You’ll see there is a bit of a grin.
Because while Nakamura is serious about car design, this is not manifest in some sort of solemnity. He says one of his goals is to animate vehicles through their design, to design them so that they have personality, but not in a mechanical way: “I don’t think that a car is really a machine. I want people to feel it is part of the family.” And just as family members have different personalities, so, too, do the two brands that he is working with: “In Nissan’s case, I want the car to be very charming rather than just nice looking. Amicable.” Infiniti? “Classic beauty—with warmth.”
One of the cars that he is most pleased with, a vehicle that he thinks is highly reflective of the sort of personality that he wants to imbue in products, is the Nissan Juke, which went on the market in 2011, having started out as the Qazana concept at the 2009 Geneva Motor Show. Nakamura recalls that when the production Juke was introduced, “At first some people thought it was too unique or extreme.” But Nissan found that although there was some polarization, there were people who loved it, but no one hated it. There was, he says, something of a sense of humor about the car, which contributed to its acceptance. It isn’t a “machine” per se. It has personality.
What’s more, he says, “It is not necessarily a beautiful car, but it has strong, charming appeal. Character. A very nice character.” And while he admits that it may be a bit extreme, he acknowledges that an analogy to what he and his teams of designers are getting at in some instances—like the Juke, and even the Nissan LEAF (“In some way, there is a sense of humor to it. It is not too serious. Some people might not think it is nice looking, but to me what is more important is appeal.”)—are the consumer products that come from the Italian firm Alessi. Functional but engaging, and even whimsical.
Still, he admits, “We cannot produce every car like the Juke. It is a unique product. The rest are more serious, more mainstream. But we would like to have some unique product every couple of years.” And in the case of those mainstream cars, he wants them to have something about them that makes them intrinsically appealing.
“Everyone likes to make a good-looking car,” he says. That is not a differentiator.” And differentiation is becoming all the more demanding, he says, because of the level of competition in the industry. It once was, he explains, that say, U.S. design was strong, but then that was eclipsed by the Europeans or the Japanese, and that would then change, with one replacing the other. Now, not only are there strong Korean competitors, but Nakamura says that there is strength right across the board. “Every time I go to any motor show—“ and he lets out a gasp of amazement.
A consequence of this across-the-board strength in automotive design has led, Nakamura believes, to this being an era that is not unlike the design heydays of the 1930s and the 1960s.
The physical landscape is changed, as well.
“It used to be for me that ‘the market’ meant Japan, the U.S., and Europe. Now it includes China, India, Brazil, and Russia. Those countries are really ambitious, and there are strong aspirations to own cars,” he says. “For them, it is a big event to buy a car.” Just as it once was in the aforementioned markets. Consequently, “Our role as designers and engineers is to understand what the people in these emerging markets are looking for.” Their influence is growing by leaps and bounds.
But this is not to say that the three major markets aren’t important, because they continue to be. And one of them that is proving to be particularly challenging is Japan, which he describes as “Maybe the first market where young people have lost interest in cars.” Nakamura says that there are always people in countries who love cars, Japan included, but in Japan, an increasing number of young people “want to spend more money for their phone and no money for a car.” So Nakamura and his colleagues are looking for the ways and means to generate interest, excitement, and a sense of specialness in the cars and other vehicles they design. Nakamura thinks that given a growing interest in (1) the environment and (2) electronics and the network, electric vehicles (EV) may appeal to the otherwise disinterested youth.
“I think the car is becoming more and more a part of life and not just transportation. For me, an electric car, an electric vehicle, can be that.” Especially when that car has a bit of engaging panache and is not “a car with cold beauty.” Perhaps it is an exaggeration, but soul in design matters.