Taro Ueda and Designing for Today

When he was growing up, the car was a “dream product.” But today Taro Ueda and his team at Nissan Design America are facing people who are not as interested in sheet metal as they are in what’s on the screens of their smartphones. Ueda understands that. And he’s working to make sure Nissan design stays relevant.

In 1984, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, the first handheld cellphone, was launched. That was the same year that the Apple Macintosh appeared on the market with its then-revolutionary graphical user interface.

In 1984, Taro Ueda received his bachelor’s degree in Industrial and Product Design from Chiba University, which he describes as a national university that offers a variety of tracks, including product design, graphic design, architectural design and more. He decided that he would pursue car design, something that few in his class—less than 10 percent he recalls—decided to do. Upon their graduation, they went to companies like Sony, Toshiba and Panasonic, companies that at that time were involved in what was perceived to be the leading edge of consumer electronics technology. Sure, we look back at that first cell phone and realize that it is about the size of a loaf of bread and see the screen of that first Macintosh and wonder how it could be perceived as something that would cause the status quo even the slightest indigestion. But then, that was where it was at. Still, Ueda decided to go with cars. He recalls that so far as he was concerned, the car was an exceedingly important product because of both its functionality—as a transportation device—and because of its identity-providing nature—its reflection of one’s fashion sense.

“And it was something that was outside, not just in a pocket,” Ueda says, as he pulls his iPhone out of his pocket.

“My first company was not Nissan,” he says, though he became vice president of Nissan Design America (NDA) in 2012, succeeding Alfonso Albaisa. Albaisa was promoted to design director of Nissan Motors in Japan, reporting to Shiro Nakamura, senior vice president of Design, the man that Albaisa succeeded in April 2017. Yes, San Diego, where Nissan Design America is based, is some 5,600 miles away from Yokohama, where Nissan Motor Co. is headquartered, but it is still an important place vis-à-vis Nissan design.

Ueda went to Honda after Chiba University, where he worked at the Saitama design studio.

But after about four years, he quit. He wanted to get some international design experience. He went to work at frog design, a company that was founded by Hartmut Esslinger in 1969, a design consultancy that had worked with Sony (the first Walkman design came from frog) and which developed what is known as the “Snow White design language,” which was used from 1984 to 1990 . . . by Apple.

Ueda says that while at frog he worked on “a lot of chairs and binoculars. But I wanted to go back to cars.”

So in 1989 he “knocked on the door of Nissan.”

He had the opportunity to work on a number of vehicles, including the Murano, Cube, Micra and March. 

As time went on he was appointed design director of Exploratory & HMI (Human-Machine Interface), as well as president of Creative Box Inc. (CBI), a satellite design studio focusing on concept cars that is located in Tokyo’s fashionable Harajuku district.

Ueda says that during that period—from 2010 to 2012—he had the opportunity to “learn a lot” about information technology and communications as he and his team were involved in designing everything from navigation screens to switches. He emphasizes that it wasn’t just doing the designs for physical objects, but of graphical user interfaces, as well. And, no doubt, the experience at CBI went back to his initial sense of cars as being fashion statements as well as mechanisms for getting from A to B.

Then he had his “second career outside Japan,” this one at NDA. 

It seems as though there is a huge coming together of the various elements of both his background and his interests at NDA, and all of that is coincident with many of the changes that are affecting the auto industry.

Historically, if you think “car design,” chances are you’re thinking about the exterior sheet metal. While Ueda certainly believes that there is tremendous importance in that, it is not necessarily sufficient for many others who may not be as interested in car ownership as previous generations—people who may be more interested in their Apple or Android devices, the things that they now carry around in their pockets.

Speaking of exterior vehicle design, Ueda says, “I don’t think it is less important, but we need more than that. We need a new value for the vehicle.”

And to that end, he and his colleagues are looking at designing the vehicle—which he describes as a “third space,” with one’s home and workplace as being two others—as more of an experiential device. You touch the door handle, open the door, get in the vehicle, close the door, touch the steering wheel, start the vehicle. “There is a physical and digital interaction that occurs during the sequence of simply getting into the vehicle. Perhaps we can design the entire experience so that it is a little bit better.”

While he says that the screens are important, they are only one part of the experience. There are other considerations—even sounds and smells—that need to be taken into consideration beyond the visual and tactile experiences that are part of automobility, whether it is a vehicle that is being driven or a vehicle that is driving itself. The software drives the hardware and vice versa. Designers are facing a new challenge that goes beyond the sheet metal.

Yet . . . 

Ueda emphasizes the importance of brand identity, something that he thinks is important to retain as companies like Apple and Google work to become more associated with and integrated into cars. He talks about how they need to design vehicles—the exteriors, the interiors, the software and the experience—so that the result is “uniquely Nissan.” There is, he maintains, value in that for the customer, even the customer who may be somewhat disinterested in cars.

“Design is still very important to showing your personality,” Ueda says, adding, “It is more important today.”