Detroit 2018: Interview - Alfonso Albaisa, senior VP for global design, Nissan

17 January 2018 | by Farah Alkhalisi

“I think that to be successful in global markets you must be iconic, you must have a message, so the best way to have a message is to know who you are,” says Alfonso Albaisa, senior vice president for global design, Nissan, and the first Westerner to hold such a senior design role at a Japanese car company. Albaisa is overseeing the development of a new design language across both the Nissan and Infiniti brands: central to his approach is their national identity and heritage, traditional Japanese craftsmanship and skills, and how these merge and synchronise with the modern, globalised world to form a distinct aesthetic.

“I am wanting to bring the culture that I love, that I have been working in for 30 years, into this new generation design,” he says. “Most people I know love Japanese design, Japanese architecture, craft, so I believe that globally this will be very well-received. There are aspects of Japanese history that have to do with the engagement with the West, and how Japanese culture absorbed influences from the West; one slightly corny example of this is, when most people eat tempura, they think this is so Japanese, but that’s a Portuguese word! The Japanese adopted this word and made this dish based on it. And that’s what I love: Nissan is like this. Nissan is arguably the most international of all the Japanese [automotive] brands; that is my feeling.”

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“Infiniti takes a slightly different tonality,” he continues. “Nissan is a mass-market brand, so the Japanese DNA is going to be a little bit more edgy and a little bit more fresh, spontaneous – and it’s about today. Infiniti, because it’s a premium brand, it has a longer view, and we use some more [different] Japanese philosophical expressions, like ‘ma’, which literally means ‘the mastery of the empty space’. So if you can imagine a white room, white floor, white ceiling, with one small object just off-centre that is so powerful and strong that it makes the whole room complete...”

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In the Q Inspiration concept, this is expressed in its minimal simplicity – emphasised by the cool white pearlescent paintwork. “This body is so simple, it’s down to one element,” Albaisa says. “And the other thing about Japanese design is that, when they do something, everything has steps of preparation and consideration, so when we make the shapes, the sense of harmony, fluidity, is very Japanese.” He points also to the way the wood is used in the interior [above] and how it contrasts with the high-tech elements: “you get these surfaces that you engage [with], mixing the traditional craft of woodworking with technology. The wood in the Infiniti is probably a bit more long-view [a slower-growing hardwood], a bit more refined, a bit more elegant – in the Nissan [Xmotion, below] we intentionally used pine, a very accessible wood.”

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Yet while the Japanese identity is so strong, Albaisa explains that the design development process is an international collaboration – as well as the ‘home’ design centre in Atsugi, Japan and two smaller studios in Tokyo, Nissan has its important London and San Diego studios plus more of varying sizes in Silicon Valley, Chennai, Sao Paulo, Rio, Bangkok and Beijing. “Generally speaking, you want those studios to cover their region first, make sure they’re engaging with product planning in the region, and make sure that they represent the intention of the region back to headquarters, that’s very important.

“Apart from that, I also invite them for every project, like the [Infiniti Q Inspiration] show car, for instance, it started as a little coupe in London almost two years ago, the language was born there, and it kind of made its way around the studios. I showed [Hirohisa] Ono-san, the director in San Diego, and said ‘what do you think about this, it’s an interesting thing we’re going to work on’, and then he made a few concepts from that; I said, ‘that’s super-cool’, and I sent them back to [Infiniti EMEA design director] Matt Weaver in London, and then I showed Beijing... this is just one example of how I work. Everyone starts to create their version, and then I share everything with everyone, and some get inspired and I say ‘ah, that’s not what I expected [but] I can go with that!’ I like the creative play. And I believe the best creative environment is one that’s porous, I don’t believe in a central entity.”

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Against this backdrop are what Albaisa describes as “agitants and constant challenges”, a key factor being “the rapid hunger of customers for new technology! If customers expect automobiles to behave like consumer electronics, this will be tough, because of our [product] lifecycle. We feel this pressure, this is new; we’re working on the speed of things. And also the globalisation, like in China the use of technology is in a certain way; USA and Europe are a little different.” He says that upstream with a view further into the future, autonomy is of course under consideration, but “it’s not only the technologies - because all cars are getting so good, design is being asked to fulfil the character of the company more distinctively.

“One of the things that’s happening is the sense that all the new technologies that are going to come, very quickly, are going to change the proportion of the car. And we took advantage of this inflection point [with the Detroit show concepts], and both brands are making new language. The language is related to the technology.”

Albaisa concludes by explaining that the show cars play slightly different roles in expressing this for their respective brands, however: “They are templates for us, for the language signature, a little bit more [specifically] for Infiniti because the portfolio is so narrow. Some of the language you will see coming in later vehicles.” In the far broader Nissan portfolio, the Xmotion’s design language is more pertinent to crossovers - “not a specific one. [It’s] more a general feeling about specific things!”

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