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With nearly three decades of experience at Nissan, Alfonso Albaisa took over in 2017 as the company's new global design director. (Nissan)

New Nissan design chief: One foot in design, one foot in engineering

Earlier this year, Nissan surprised the industry by announcing that design director Shiro Nakamura was retiring after nearly two decades with the company, with Alfonso Albaisa, since 2014 the design chief at the brand’s Infiniti upscale division, to take his place.

Cuban-American Albaisa, 52, is Nissan’s first non-Japanese design director. He started his career with Nissan Design in 1988 and as head of Nissan’s global design will oversee a staff of approximately 700 responsible for the styling of the company’s full model range, including commercial vehicles.

Automotive Engineering editorial director Bill Visnic spoke with Albaisa at the 2017 New York auto show, not long after he assumed his new role.

We used to hear a lot about “design language.” Is it your intention to introduce a new design language at Nissan?

I think naturally, because of what’s going to happen, that we are starting, especially with issues of electrification. In Japan, we have something called ‘e-Power’ which are cars that have an engine, but they’re mostly to charge the battery – electric motors drive the car. All of these new platforms of electrification, including e-Power, are making new ‘language’ appropriate. Electrification and autonomous and intelligent mobility is going to bring a new aesthetic.

It is not required, of course. We can always put the icing over a different cake. As artists, though, we react. So when our engineers are coming with the next generation of EVs, you naturally are like, ‘Oh, well, that’s curious. It is different. It is different than an ICE (internal-combustion engine) car.

Does that mean that we might see the fundamental proportions that we understand now, is it possible you can work with that, then?

The spirit we have right now with engineering is quite close. Obviously, Shiro (Nakamura) was very close to them. But I have an opportunity a little bit different than him—because I kind of grew up with our engineers. Not because of my age, necessarily. When you’re not the big boss—in any organization, the big boss has to be somewhat distant from the ‘genba’ (Japanese for “working-level” employee). I’m a genba guy, so my relationship with platform engineers, drivetrain engineers, is that I love these guys. My sister’s an engineer and my father was an architect in Cuba. So I always gravitate to engineering. My work at Infiniti was bringing shape to the things engineering wanted to do. I really love it.

The same is happening as we move into electrification—to get in shoulder-to-shoulder with engineering and really find the potential of all of this.

Do you worry about losing that genba connection?

A little bit! I go from not having a private office to having one. So that’s a fundamental change right away. I don’t know how much I’ll use it, to be honest. Luckily, the heads of engineering are also my friends. I’m the luckiest man in the world not because of anything vital or a (particular) car I worked on, it’s just that I can walk freely in engineering as much as I can in design.

Do you think some car design lacks that intimacy with engineering? That’s there’s a distinct delineation between the design department and the engineering department?

I’ve heard. I mean, I’m a Nissan baby. I’ve been with the company 30 years, so I only know this company. I find that engineers are as eager as we are to make something special.

Do you find engineers now are more willing to work with design, that they understand they have to work with design? That engineers are more cross-functional in that way?

I have heard that even in other companies it’s changing. That engineering knows a beautiful skin only makes things better—and you get more budget for the next time and all this domino-effect, you know?

But in my company, I can use the example of the body stamping. We discussed (stamping) sharpness and depth, to make it our (Nissan’s) signature thing. So we worked very hard together. We got into this thing where with design and engineering—without a car yet—it became this collaboration between engineering and us. The Infiniti Q60 is the first model to pop out of that: together discovering what metal can do. Some of my favorite days on that project were when the engineers would come back and say, ‘Hey, Alfonso, I think we can go a little bit deeper.’ This kind of back-and-forth.

Engineering has a tough job. On one hand, they’re thinking like this. But then they’re responsible for money. The inherent beauty of metal is not their only concern. So I find that they are extremely generous, because they all ‘play’ with me and my team while knowing that they have this immense (fiscal) responsibility.

When you’re (proposing) a $5-per-car loss in (the design of) metal, it’s absurd to the company. There’s no ‘value’ in that. The Nissan alliance now makes 10 million cars. That’s $50 million dollars! For what?

Will there be a certain transition for you, from going from design director for Nissan’s luxury brand to being responsible for the entire line of Nissan mainstream products?

I’m a little bit lucky in that before I went to Infiniti, I was design director for half of the Nissan lineup. So I have some of that in my background. I’ve worked from B-segment all the way up to Titan (fulllsize pickup). But that doesn’t reduce the enormity of the task. Now I have to do them all—including Datsun, which I didn’t have before—so how do I grow up from genba Peter Pan to a guy who can’t really spend that lovely time with engineering, working things out, which I love?

Our building is about 300 meters long, all open, with about 35 clay models in a line and until ten o’clock at night, engineering is in there, going over everything. That spirit in Japan is remarkable. So obviously, I don’t know if I’ll have time for that (for every model in development). That’s my regret.

One thing that I’m always impressed by, that I try to cascade to all my team that is trying to push engineering beyond maybe what they’re maybe comfortable with is that at the end, the engineer ‘signs’ for the car! We don’t.

We’ve talked a lot about engineering—but not so much about design. I think that’s a telling thing, that you’re speaking more about the engineering aspects of making a vehicle than about design considerations. Should we expect, then, that your designs moving forward for Nissan might be more technical?

That’s a good question, because my reputation in the company is ‘pure artist,’ kind of Peter Pan in a sense. At the end of the day, I do think the car is a mirror of our society. This is not a technical thing, it’s an emotional thing. So there’s a contradiction in that. People buy objects because it connects to what they want from themselves—they can’t define it if you ask them, they say the need a car that’s reliable, something to get them from A to B.

But if that’s the case, cars would be toasters. But even toasters are not just toasters anymore. And I haven’t mentioned manufacturing, because I love manufacturing! When I was five, I used to make little cities in my bedroom. And I wanted to be a car designer. I though a car designer worked at the factory.

I’ll ask you again, though. You have immense respect for engineering. Will your coming designs reflect that by being more of a more “technical” nature—particularly as the industry progresses toward electrification and autonomy?

The best way to say it is that I feel humans make cars, not machines. The fingerprint of the artist and the innovator—which is engineering—I want that seen in the car. So a purely technical expression, I don’t feel is honest to those people I work with. When an engineer is busting his **beep** to make panels that are deep, that struggle is emotional. I believe there’s a humanity I want expressed.

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