Nissan's Senior VP of Design, Alfonso Albaisa, on His Design Process, Working in Japan & Advice for Young Designers

Image via Group 1 Nissan

Nissan’s Senior VP of Global Design, Alfonso Albaisa, started his transportation design journey at a very young age, crafting mini paper replicas of yachts driving by his childhood home in Miami. With the support of creative family members—both his father and uncle were respected Cuban architects prior to the 60s revolution—Albasia decided to take his passion and turn it into a career path. Through a few unexpected twists and turns, he is now the VP of design at one of the most well-known transportation companies in the world.

During his 30 years at Nissan, Albasia has designed both yachts and cars, including concepts like the IMx and Xmotion, as well as more bread and butter vehicles in their lineup, such as the 2019 Altima. What sets Albasia apart from many transportation designers is his fine art background—a background that ended up launching him into the industry at an unexpected speed. Albasia is also Nissan’s first non-Japanese principal designer, which has lead to a memorable series of learning lessons for the designer, in both work environment and daily life. Because of his unique, well-rounded background, Albasia’s work skillfully marries the best of Eastern and Western influences, and his design involvement scales all creative industries. I sat down with Albaisa in a park one sunny afternoon during the New York Auto Show to pick his brain on making it as a transportation designer, the car design process and working with traditional Japanese craftsman:

Can you start by giving a general overview of the car design process?

Well, everything starts with an idea, and then somehow you have to take that delicate flower of an idea and bombard it technical restraint. It’s frustrating but also happy. I don’t know what heroin’s like, but I imagine it’s a similar rush. You have an idea and you want to keep certain elements of your original design, but you also have to change some to bring it to market. 

2019 Nissan Altima (photo via Nissan)

People always ask me how I can manage this process for 35 programs plus the business of the whole operation. Well, we’re 800 people, which helps, but you also just keep getting better at everything. Eventually, your drawings start to become more efficient, and then you work on two programs together. Once you survive that, you move onto working on three programs at once. Then you begin managing young designers in a group—helping them grow and teaching them how to get an idea. And then eventually you wake up, and you’re head of the whole thing.

Do you still love your job after 30 years?

I love designing. I just love it. I’m always worried and happy at the same time—there’s nothing like it. When your ideas become full-sized to scale as clay models, it’s still impressive. I still love sitting there and watching when they add color to the models because that’s when you begin to see the vehicle’s character.

Clay modeling process (photo via Nissan)

This is the part that’s challenging for my partners and me because the model becomes a shiny object that reacts to the sun. The brown clay looks heavy, but sometimes adding clay will make the part look lighter because it will make the reflections move in different way, which is difficult to imagine.

Clay modeling process (photo via Nissan)

You have to learn all of these things through trial and error because there’s no rule book. It’s an artistic endeavor, and you want to make something unique, so by definition that means something that wasn’t done before. It’s hard to make a car that doesn’t look like another car, but when they’re in their early days, when we’re doing little scale models without all the criteria, they are unique. The thing that makes cars more similar to one another is when you start putting people in the vehicles. Humans create an envelope that brings familiarity to each design.

Is learning about lighting and how light affects the shape of the car also something you’ve mastered overtime?

You learn that while working on the actual shiny object—at least I did because I studied a bit of fine art. Figure drawing was actually my main passion in school, at Pratt. So I was familiar with light on form, but most forms aren’t shiny. When you make a form reflective like with a car, it’s another challenge.

Clay modeling process (photo via Nissan)

It’s interesting that you have a fine art background…

It’s because I was going to fail out of engineering school. At first I went into aerospace engineering because I thought I should know aerodynamics. I was wrong. I can read, but I can’t retain the information. I’ll finish a whole 20 pages and then realize I wasn’t paying attention. If you expand that a few hundred times, that’s an engineering curriculum. I didn’t know what was going on and failed almost every test. Then my mother told me, “I don’t want you to fail out of school, so can you move into a fine art department until your grades come back?” because she thought an engineering degree was how I could become a car designer.

So you always knew you wanted to be a car designer, you just had to figure out how to get to that point?

Yeah, but when I found art, I didn’t want to be a car designer anymore. I loved it.

What brought you back?

It was a complete accident. Pratt was a sponsor of an East Meets West award, and Nissan received the award. They came to the school, and I explained the curriculum of the school to them because I was an assistant to a professor there. I loved the school, so I spoke passionately about it. I used to do figure drawings, but then I would also make industrial designs where I would apply art forms using the same techniques. Nissan found this curious, so they invited me to go to California. 

Nissan Research Center Silicon Valley (photo via Nissan)

I didn’t want to go, so I said, “Thank you, but I want to stay here.” And they said “No, come. It’s no big deal. It’s just a free trip.” So I did, and I was shocked. I had no idea [their headquarters] was going to be more like an incubator. It’s so top secret that you go in and everything closes around you, but it’s a beautiful building with modern architecture and crass concrete. Then I started working for them. The first yacht I did was at Nissan when I was 23 years old—it was for a private client who called us. I just found it to be like I was in a different world where I was not not human in a sense. I was just making things. I learned a lot, although I was always in trouble. I remember one day the president brought me into the office because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut during meetings.

Nissan HQ in Yokohama, Japan (photo via Nissan)

[Laughs] I think that’s a trait of many successful designers. Now you’re working in Japan. Can you talk a little bit about the differences between working in California vs. Japan? 

To work for a Japanese company is really unique because Japan is completely different than any other part of Asia. For example, the pigeons we’re looking at now in this park are cute pigeons, but they’re filthy. In Japan the pigeons look like they got blow dried.

Nissan HQ in Yokohama, Japan (photo via Nissan)

Everything in Japan is extreme, and my work is like that—extreme. [Their mentality] drives me nuts sometimes because I’m impulsive—I want crazy things to happen fast. But instead of getting straight to it, they’ll have seven meetings to understand what I’ve asked for, to see if it’s possible, to see if it’s likely, to see how we can do it, and all these things. But I’ve become addicted to this way of doing things. I have learned that in the Japanese culture, their sense of preparation and understanding of the impact of your actions actually allows them to make things very quickly because once they make something, there are no unknowns. Wherein in my process, or maybe the Western process, you start the design process, and along the way you have discoveries and make changes. But in Japan, all that stuff is done way before the design process even starts. I love that.

How can you know for sure that something you design will still be relevant once it’s finished, especially with the amount of preparation your team puts into an idea before executing?

You don’t know for sure, so you’re always trying to push your ideas a little bit beyond the comfort curve. It’s very tough because you can easily go too far. You want to make something that defines or shakes up a segment, but the definition of that is risk. You must always ask, “Are we pushing enough?”

So in that case, does designing concept cars keep you on your toes?

Yeah. Concept is the first time we can start a conversation with people and really learn what they are thinking about our new ideas.

Nissan IMx concept (photo via Nissan)

I saw your IMx at the Tokyo Motor Show last year, and it blew me away—especially the interior design. Can you speak on how auto interior design is shifting?

We did a little study of the anatomy of the interior around 10 years ago. Probably 80% of the effort that we did at the time was shape and 20% was technology, but now that is not the balance. Now, technology dominates. But you still need that 80% focus on shape design, so now it’s like 116% focus in total. With the IMx, I love how we captured our Japanese DNA especially through digital art and new technology.

Nissan IMx concept interior (photo via Nissan)

So then what about the design process of Nissan’s more everyday cars?

Bread and butter cars are the things that we need, and we see them in a positive way. I personally love bread and would prefer to eat bread than the courses that follow it. Right now, the challenge is that sedans are actually losing popularity and SUVs are becoming more popular. It’s given us an opportunity to bring a little bit more life into our SUV category because there are no longer some of the constraints of practicality that it used to have. Now, they can be a little more special.

2019 Nissan Altima (photo via Nissan)

And then we’re working on 12 electric vehicles, while many companies, which I still applaud, are only working on one or two. I’m not only proud of what we’re doing, but they’re a lot of fun to design. It’s like how when you change your drawing tool, the result is different. The shapes that you make for electric cars are different because the way you’re drawing them is simply different. There’s a lot more room to play with shapes and space without needing to make room for an engine. People also have great hopes for the technology, so you’re playing with a different emotional response of humans, which you need to respect and amplify. And at the same time I need to keep my head around how they are going to really live in the real world. It’s great fun.

Nissan Xmotion Concept (photo via Nissan)

The recent Xmotion concept vehicle was done in collaboration with traditional Kyoto-based collective, GO ON, and you continue to work with them on other projects. Why does this particular collective stand out to you?

GO ON consists of six Japanese artisans in their 30’s, but each one of them is the son of and now head of a multi-generational company. For example the guy who does ceramics is 16th generation. Imagine that—it’s not even a concept you can wrap your head around. He told me his family had been doing this for over 400 years. In his little studio, he had clay that is 100 years old. I thought, “Is it still good? I don’t want to smell that,” but he had it wrapped perfectly and told me it was only for very special occasions. 

I am still fascinated by this collective because the artisans are young, so they have this instinct to leap forward and do something with the modern world, but they also have a hundred years or more of family history. Their family history isn’t necessarily holding them back, but somehow it has a gravity that the rest of us don’t have. So I do a lot of work with them. Sometimes I just ask them to come in and talk, or sometimes they work with us on materials. 

GO ON Collective (photo via Nissan)

Do you have any advice for young designers looking to get into transportation design?

The reality is, you’re not alone trying to get into the transportation design industry. When I started out, I was not deeply aware of how the other kids were drawing. I naturally had a figure drawing technique that I would apply with charcoal usually on newsprint. My portfolio was made up of huge works—it was like carrying a billboard around. Nissan later told me that this surprised them, and that it was memorable for them. Against all of the portfolios that consisted of conventional drawings, I had a style that was different, and my shapes were different because of my technique.

“If you can draw or express yourself, that means you are of huge value to companies because you can make their dreams happen—and that gives us a huge advantage.”

GO ON Collective (photo via Nissan)

So advice number one: avoid falling into the trap of loving a drawings that are common. Now with the internet you can see everyone’s portfolio, and you become so influenced by the techniques of designers better than you that you allow your individuality to go away. I sit down once a month and look through 35 portfolios, and they all look the same to me, so when I see something unique, I gravitate towards it. I already have 800 people who work for me, and I have no urgent need for more. So when I hire I want them to be unique and different somehow. Make sure you find who you are and find techniques that look like you.

Then once you’re in the industry, take care. You want to win, so it’s easy to take shortcuts. You just need to take your time learning because it’s tough, and you need the practice. Don’t think about success. Forget about every cool, successful project you do right away because they won’t help you. The projects that didn’t work will help you because they make you mad, they make you hungry, and they make you turn inward and find out why your message wasn’t heard. Those lessons are much deeper than the lessons of success. What I’ve noticed over these 30 years is you need the people that stay hungry all the time on your team because they learn every day. Their hunger is not about money, and it’s not about a claim. It’s a hunger inside that makes them want to discover something.

Along those same lines, you’ve started a program where you visit schools around the world and teach them about design as a career. What inspired this program?

I’m very lucky because my dad was an architect, so he noticed early on that my quietness and introverted nature was probably because I was a designer from infancy. I was lucky that he supported that, and that when I told him I wanted to be a designer he didn’t say no. I feel that it’s better now than it used to be, but still in many parts of the world, people don’t feel that a life in the creative arts is sustainable.

Nissan Xmotion Concept interior (photo via Nissan)

So now when I go on a business trip, we try to find a high school wherever I am in the world and spend half a day with the kids. I show drawings from all kinds of disciplines, including fashion, furniture and architecture, and I talk to them about the real potential of all of these careers. If you can draw or express yourself, that means you are of huge value to companies because you can make their dreams happen—and that gives us a huge advantage. 


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Source: core77

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