The DNA of NDA: Nissan Design America

The DNA of NDA: Nissan Design America image

Text: Brent Co / Photos: Brent Co | posted November 18, 2014 01:08

A visit to Nissan's North American design hub

Design is a key facet of automobile development. We can talk about how each curve, every character line, the color palettes and or even how light and shadows plays an important role in how we perceive how a vehicle would be, but that would be missing the point. The simple fact is that a car's styling comprises how well or how poorly it makes a first impression on a buyer, and has a huge impact on whether a model becomes a commercial success or a costly flop.

During our recent trip to the US, we paid a visit to Nissan Design America in San Diego, California to see how they conceive cars for Nissan and how cars progress from a mere sketched concept to showroom reality.

Nissan Design America

Nissan Design America: the DNA of NDA

The design center is the company’s first overseas design base established in 1979 in the affluent community of La Jolla as Nissan Design International. Initially established as a satellite studio with less than a dozen members, its purpose was to introduce American concepts and styling to their vehicles. It moved to its current location in Campus Point Drive in 1983 where it also designed and introduced the NX21 Concept for Nissan’s 75th Anniversary.

It was not until 1986 when one of its concepts, the Hardbody, finally made it to production. The Hardbody evolved to become the D21 Nissan Power Eagle pickup.

As part of the company’s reorganization efforts headed by Carlos Ghosn, it was renamed as Nissan Design America in 2000. It worked on the upstream process together with engineers at a technical and design center based in Farmington Hill, Michigan to develop cars specifically for the North American market.

In 2005, its role was expanded to a full-scale design center following a major renovation and expansion. Later in 2009 design functions from Michigan were also moved to NDA as the center started to work on concept cars a well. Being a full-spectrum design center, NDA has also worked on projects that has nothing to do with cars. Think things like light aircraft, 30-meter yachts and even furniture for pre-schoolers.

Nissan Resonance concept with Taro Ueda, Ken Lee

Upon arrival at NDA in San Diego, was welcomed by the Bladeglider and Resonance concept vehicles at the lobby. After a brief tour, we were then joined by by Mr. Taro Ueda himself, NDA's vice-president for Design, as well as Ken Lee, senior creative manager. The Bladeglider was penned by Filipino Senior Designer Randy Rodriguez while the Resonance, which has resulted in the new Murano was penned by the Hong Kong-born Lee.

We sat down with both Taro Ueda and Ken Lee to find out more about Nissan Design America.

- What role does Nissan Design America play in Nissan?

Taro Ueda: Our operation covers that of a fully operational design studio. We do exterior, interior; from sketching to clay. And of course our designers still sketch in pen and paper, even in a meeting; always sketching non-stop. But when we recreate the posters they are also given a criteria to work with. Digital modeling became our ideal tool for design process, including clay modeling. It's important in a design perspective. At the end of the day, we have a lot of high-tech tools, computer and digital sketching but designers still enjoy the basic type of work like sketching by pencil on paper because it's a hobby. We just don't come from 9-5 and make a sketch. Sometimes when an idea comes, we scribble. Most of the designs come from a napkin and rough sketches. In clay and digital, digital is great to create; very nice beautiful surface but initially, we still explore in clay because what you see is what you get. In some projects like the Murano for example, we tried a different process where each designer gets a little small-scale model at the desk and they can sculpt it themselves and come up with innovative shapes and then we scan it, load it up and make it nicer. We find the 3D sculpting very fun to do. We still do a lot of clay modeling before we go to full-size. The clay designers' area is located right to the digital designers' area. The designers can watch their own clay model be developed. It's more integrated.

One of the beauties of San Diego is that the weather is so nice outside so we just open the door and push the car outside, letting the natural sunlight hit the car and sometimes we can work outside, take photos and others; a very seamless process. Other operations include coloring and trim design, material,design strategy and research.

We have a diverse workforce but all of us now are mostly Asians, but with the variety of the workforce, there are at least 10 different languages present. We all try to speak English.

Taro Ueda

AI: Do you see NDA as the most innovative and most influential design studio outside of Atsugi, Japan?

Taro Ueda: To the point, we are very influential, but China's design studio is also very strong because of the vast younger generation designers joining. But each studio has a unique character and uniqueness. Maybe it depends on the car that we need to design. Maybe sporty cars are designed here. Sedan design is strong in China so it's not easy to categorize each studio but its uniqueness is great for us.

Our role is to develop as part of the global collaboration. In many vehicles that we design and develop is done in global competition depending on where the car is going. It may be 2, 3 or all hand competition. Like the Z, it's an all-hands design competition as well as the GT-R. Our design studios overseas are assigned a project per phase up to sketch selections or it could be quarter scale productions and even all the way up to final design. So many projects we do, we develop sketches and we also go to product-scale development. It also depends on the project because sometimes the headquarters or another design studio will take over the project. We have to measure “upstream” and “downstream”. Upstream we deal with competition, each regional studio will base their creation on a criteria but will do different executions. Some studios have more American designing while others may be done for European tastes. Still, some inject the Japanese look.

As we go along, we combine different styles. In development, Japan is the best place to work as it has a large facility and is close to the design and development planning. But sometimes we work for uniquely American products, it depends on the assignment. It may be a truck, a SUV. Within the US, we cooperate as much as we can and then make it towards downstream here. In NDA, it's like a full function studio, previously it's more upstream, American oriented but right now it's more global competition.

AI: Very safe answer. This is for Ken, how does the design process actually work?

Ken Lee: To take a typical project, the Murano for example is a competition project where NDA is one of the participating design studios.

In the beginning, the project is of course given to Japan headquarters, then to NDA and then at the time was NDE (Nissan Design Europe). The three studios will start with research and at NDA we took some time to work with our researchers. We actually talked to Murano customers. We also work in conjunction with product-planning so we find inspiration from current Murano customers. We would ask them of what they liked about the vehicle. Usually we come a bit off more inspired, we tried to choose the customers that love their vehicles and then we found out what's good about it. We then have our internal brainstorming in how to improve upon it. That's the very beginning.

When we have time and we're lucky, we can get the opportunity to do some inspirational outings. In that case, we took out a couple of current Muranos and we brought a competitor vehicle like the Lexus RX. We took a roadtrip and I remember one of our customer's hobbies were wine-tasting. Well, that's a fun activity so we took those vehicles and we drove up to Temecula, which is about an hour's drive from here. We tried to have a bit of fun but also tried to stay on the inspirational side of the vehicles in order to understand them better and get in the shoes of the owners. Basically, it's not a very technical study, it's more to immerse ourselves in the feeling and the flavor.

So once we absorb everything in the Murano world, we come back and start sketching. It's a very fun part for every designer including myself. We joined this because we wanted to design a car and have it come out. The competition is actually very intense. Its like the TV show American Idol, you go thru 1st round and each person may do a hundred sketches. Out of 100 sketches, 90 may be thrown away and then a select few will be submitted to the studio. Within NDA, we tried to narrow down it with the the V.P. and design director. We try to pick the best work within NDA. That body of work goes globally to compete with Japan and other overseas studios.

Finally, Shiro Nakamura [Nissan's head of design] usually picks 6 ideas. Those selected sketches will go on to the scale model phase; quarter-scale to be exact. Within each studio who maybe have 2 models, we still have internal competition but more importantly it's competing globally to try and win the finals. So one of the reasons to have a couple of models per studio is if you only do one model, designers are very complacent. This one is getting better while the other one is also getting better, you compete with each other. It becomes very competitive and you get very good outputs.

Hopefully those 2 models are very strong and we send it to Japan. The other studios also send their models. We don't share too much with each studio so they will all remain very different. In model selection phase, it gets a little bit broader with Head of Design and Head of Product-planning and other regional voices come vote for the models. From 6 models, we narrow it down to 3.

There is one more round where things get really serious. We blow up the models to full-size and then we work on it here. This is where it gets challenging because the engineering team depends on where it is. Sometimes in Japan, in the US, even elsewhere. The Murano is a collaboration with Japanese engineering so they will evaluate our model and we send the data over and we have feedback meetings every week because of time difference. We usually meet over nighttime and we go over every detail, criteria by criteria. It includes bumper beam, pedestrian safety, crash safety, stamping, costs so by the time we finish the full-size clay model for the final selection, it's usually 90% feasible ready. While we're doing it, Japan's doing it along with other studios.

The 3 models will finally arrive in Japan in order to select the final design. So when we make the full-size models, they almost look like the real cars. They're clay models with body color paint, realistic lamps and wheels. We have the CEO and head of each region come again and vote. Then they select the final one so whoever was selected, the designers responsible are really really happy. It's a dream come true and the car's coming out. Randy has a few actually. Some of us have only 1 or 2 vehicles but that's what we all strive for; win the competition and get the car on production. When you see it driving around, it's very exciting. First time you see it roll off as a prototype is also very exciting.

Ken Lee

AI: Ken, how long have you've been with the NDA?

Ken Lee: I've been with NDA since 2003, so 11 years. I spent 2 years working in Japan, 2 years in Europe, the rest in the Michigan studio and then here so 4 different studios. That's one of the beauties of Nissan because of global studios.

AI: Ken, which is your favorite studio?

Ken Lee: I can't say, each one is so unique. I learn something from each one because of the environment and the people. For example, London is very different from San Diego so when I go there, what surprised me was none of the designers have cars because they live in the city and don't need a car. Cars are very expensive there, so are parking rates. So designers there actually don't drive. But when you're in Central London, you see exotic cars everywhere. Ferraris and Bugattis are just normal there. So your sense of high-end vehicles are suddenly heightened. You see premium, luxury as well as the atmosphere of things so it's a very different feeling.

I think the designers get inspired in many different ways; premium products with a finer eye. Here in California, it's a great place for car lovers. Most car designers own some sort of classic car and we enjoy driving everywhere so it's kind of a “petrolhead” culture. The things we come up with are very different from European studios. I find something likable in each place. Of course Japan has its own culture and it's the headquarters so it's a great place for designers; you can see every project, there's a big team and you meet lots of people. Basically, the beauty of it is the ability to go to each continent though I haven't been to China yet so I cannot comment on that one.

AI: Nice of you to mention that designers in London don't have cars and that they don't drive. It's just weird that you're designing cars and you don't drive right?

Ken Lee: Yeah but they still come up with strong ideas and creations. Maybe they are more hungry right? Right now, if we bring a GT-R test vehicle here, then everybody here would be like “Wow, great, everyone on the freeway”. In London, they have it too but you can't go anywhere. Its like a big parking lot. They do have a hunger for cars, they look at America with some type of envy like “Wow you guys can buy all these cars cheap” but they still see lots of different things.

AI: So Ken, what is the most beautiful Nissan for you?

Ken Lee: My favorite is the 2003 Murano. That's what brought me to Nissan. I was working with another company and they brought in at the time was the new Murano. Back then, there was no sleek crossover, it's either a boxy look or the Lexus RX that became the closest thing but still very tall. So when they brought that to the studio I was like “Wow this is like a spaceship, it must be a concept car.” So immediately I called my friend at Nissan and said, “Hey I heard you guys were hiring” and within two weeks I found myself working here. I was so impacted by it and at the same time there was the Infiniti FX.

Nissan Resonance Concept

AI: That's interesting because you came to work at NDA because of the Murano, and the new generation was based on your design.

Ken Lee: Well it was a competition design, I was particularly enthusiastic. This is one of my favorites so it's a chance to do the next one. Of course I gotta put my best effort into it.

AI: All time, what is your favorite car Ken?

Ken Lee: There are too many, but I do own a Citroen DS which came out in the mid 1950s and I think it embodies some of the things that we're doing now in the modern Nissan which is being innovative and in that thinking it was also “Wow, spaceship”. That's what people thought at the time so I wanted to relive that type of feeling that's why I drive one. I don't have it here today though but you know the car, it has air suspension.

AI: How about you Taro-san?

Taro Ueda: I am crazy about supercars. The first time I got to see Lamborghinis, Ferraris and Porsches in Japan was during the 1970s. It's really like a boom for the younger boys; there was a big trend for the supercars. One of my favorites is the Lamborghini Miura. There are other famous Ferraris and Maseratis but the Miura is the really one I like. At the front, the headlamps look like eyes and I see the name of Bertone Design at the back. I didn't realized it was the name of the designer. It's called the Miura but what did Bertone mean? Then I found out it was the name of the designer. I wanted to be a designer at that moment. The delicate design of it made it a great car.

For Nissan, it's the 240Z; it's really a great looking car, very sleek, nice proportions, has a good stance and nice size. That was striking to me but actually my first company was Honda. Because in the 1980s, Honda had the CR-X, Civic and NSX but that was a little bit later. There are so many great designs coming from Honda. The Prelude is one of the great cars that made me join Honda before Nissan.

AI: How do you see Nissan's design language as compared to your competitors?

Taro Ueda: Maybe we're a more designed oriented company that is looking for something new, emotional and something dynamic from our point-of-vew. Taking the time and discussion of the designers takes longer than the other companies so today we're looking more for structure for the vehicles. Dynamism is really one of the keys of our design. It's not only just for the SUV, coupe or sports car but the sedan also receives emotional aspect for the customers. Sometimes we think that the functional orientation is really important but we put some design element into that area. We are always looking for some taste to communicate the substance we want.

AI: What are the typical restrictions or challenges that designers encounter from conceptualization to production?

Taro Ueda: It's anywhere. There are so many stuff that can affect it. Even within design, which is emotional stuff, everybody loves it but it's really difficult. Sometimes really strong designs can make for someone who really likes it or really hates it. Consistency is really difficult so within the design team there's a bit of polarization but that is a strong sign for us. Being uniquely Nissan is always the key. But when we design that car for customers, engineering and manufacturing and also the budget and time is always challenging. No one project is easy; even for a small sedan, we always challenge ourselves and see how we can push.

AI: How long does it take between designing a car on paper on a computer screen to the actual production?

Taro Ueda: It's actually getting shorter; under 4 years to be exact. But it depends too because if the platform is existing already, it's faster.

AI: So basically after rolling out the production model of the previous generation, you're about to start the next generation already.

Taro Ueda: Yes.

AI: How does NDA determine what kind of design direction to go for?

Taro Ueda: It's more like a proposal. In understanding today's design, we're moving forward to have a nice and understanding for today and for tomorrow. We're pushing the boundary to be more new and impressive for the people so we have to propose to headquarters.

AI: So it's more of a progressive-design?

Taro Ueda: Because of the really strong competition as Ken mentioned, the cars are very much entrenched for the lifestyle of people. We cannot be standing still.

AI: What's your favorite project among all the NDA has produced? (Taro-san)

Taro Ueda: Depends on the project but my experience with NDA has been quite crazy. I assigned you people and then they suddenly become a part of the competition. Some projects are really 'high temperature', that is really exciting for me. What are these guys thinking about this week?

AI: While we understand much of your work here is top secret, can you share with us what kind of models you're working with currently?

Taro Ueda: Today? That's a tough question... it'll get us fired. But at the next Detroit Auto Show, there will be a new one. We can't communicate any other projects that we're working on.

AI: Here's a question for for both of you. If Carlos Ghosn walked in here now and said that you had a free hand in executing your own vision, free of any filtering or changes that usually happen between concept and production stage, what model will it be and what will it look like?

Taro Ueda: Maybe new super-categorized vehicles. Five years ago, I would have answered an EV. It's new technology and a chance to change the automotive lifestyle. Maybe a cross between an airplane and a car or something that can go to the sea. At Nissan, we always want vehicles that provide excitement for people and not only as a mode of transportation.

AI: How about a car in particular?

Taro Ueda: I like to design a more personal car like a 1-seater. A small car yet really exciting to drive. More close to the motorcycle/bicycle but more oneness between the driver and the machine. I haven't imagined before so I cannot say in detail about that.

AI: How about you Ken?

Ken Lee: We have a broad range of products already, so many different kinds. That's the interesting thing about Nissan; Nissan always comes up with a new category. We're still busy working on each one because we have so many. It's nice to stop and think about making a new one. So I actually never thought that way before.

As for designing anything I want, we've always talked that if there were no design constraints whatsoever to a model it is going to be actually the hardest. It's more intuitive to come up with a solution because of the constraints. If you can make whatever you want, it is kind of tricky because “What is it am I trying to solve?”

It's gonna take some time if you're asking a specific car it's hard to answer for me but if you're asking about the process. We would like to take a time-off and simply explore and try again. Compared to 10 years ago, we have a lot more new technology and even electric cars. Cars are getting bigger to accommodate bigger people, they're getting taller. I would like to see cars to become low again; low and sleek like the 1960s. Back then in 1950s-60s cars were big, low and sleek. The Lamborghini Espada was a grand touring 2+2 version; it's very low yet the people are stretched out. But I would to explore this new kind of category that would provide very exciting driving feeling like you're low to the ground, feels fast, uses new tech, new packaging and hopefully something inspiring; no specific name. A low grand-tourer that is sleek with new technology.

Taro Ueda: We still remember the 1st time we drive the car, it was real excitement. It's not a camera, not a PC, not a TV, the car itself is moving by itself with your input. It's really different for them. New category for me maybe is a new experience in driving.

AI: So generally you want to try and work with a solution for a problem right?

Ken Lee: Most projects have a problem that designers work on. “We need this size so we need you to skim it.”

AI: So it’s the other way around if you were given a chance to let your imaginations run wild?

Taro Ueda: It depends, if it's a concept car from the beginning, freehand, we do a bit of dreaming. We start from the people even though it's a concept car. We don't start from styling. Who is driving? What is the dream? How we can provide the dream come true? Otherwise there is no basis.

Sometimes I really think that we may be close to what a chef does for a customer. You know: looking for a meal, a dish, a restaurant. Good or bad, people are just looking for a nice car. We spend a long time working for that. During unveiling it's also emotional.

AI: How does it feel like when you unveil the car that you designed?

Ken Lee: Because we see it everyday, we get so used to it. When you actually see the car, for me I just expect to see it but it feels very different (Nissan Murano NY). Last time I saw was as a clay model so when I saw it unveiled I was like “Wow!” It feels rewarding for the hard work. When we see it moving it's also very pleasing.

AI: How do you choose the color of the concept and the production car?

Taro Ueda: The design director chooses it but the 1st purpose is how we show the car with a strong impact. So the car also tells an emotional story. We mainly use silver since its the most accurate color in judging the styling of the car. Then we start add more color flavors onto the car like red or something like that for sportiness and for technological cars, we can use the color blue; it all depends on how we see the car. Colors are getting more important for us.


Being the second Nissan design center we visited, Nissan Design America gave us a clear reason why manufacturers establish such facilities in different parts of the world. It makes the designs relevant to the markets as the designers themselves get immersed with the culture and vibe of the localities they're in, therefore influencing the vehicles they develop.

Nissan Bladeglider Concept

Before leaving we took a while to appreciate the Bladeglider Concept and imagined what it would be like to see a vehicle like actually run on the street. Personally, I think it would be really cool to drive that car on a Sunday cruise, maybe even to the office.