Storyboard: Shiro Nakamura

Note Perfect: The Harmony of Car Design

Though many know me as a man who designs cars, it is also true that I possess a deep and lifelong love for music.

Music and design are more similar than many people may realize. The improvisational creation of jazz is akin to the early stages of the design process. You’re trying things out, playing different notes, seeing how it all fits together.

Actually making good on your ideas – the part of the design process I compare to classical music – is tougher in a different way. You are adhering to a blueprint, with only the smallest possible margin for exploration. One tiny flourish – one small, seemingly improvised touch – could change everything.

I call it the harmony of spontaneity versus the constant striving for perfection.

I grew up in Osaka in the 1950s. Unlike Tokyo, Osaka had no car culture. Most adults I know didn’t drive cars. In fact, my father only drove the company car when he absolutely had to.

The one exception to this cultural norm was my uncle. He was the first person who ever put me behind the wheel of a car when I was ten years old. It was a small, two-door Mazda coupe – elegant in its structure and note-perfect in its design.

Cars were the chief force that captured my imagination as a young person – in particular, the exotic design of foreign cars. The only direct inspiration that I could feed my brain came from the images I saw in books. I was particularly fascinated with Italian cars in the 60s – how futuristic they looked, and how sophisticated their design was. Though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, something in my young mind computed that creating this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

As a car-obsessed high school senior, all I knew how to do was draw. All the time, I was playing jazz (up-right bass, to be exact) and contemplating what my next move would be.

After high school, I ended up studying industrial design at art college in Tokyo, then working for Isuzu Motors. I was drawn there by the company’s high presence of GM-affiliated designers – in my mind, putting me one step closer to a company whose automobiles had captured my imagination so many years ago. My time at Isuzu would point me toward a place that I had been longing to attend for years – ArtCenter College of Design.

Now is probably a good time to mention that I technically only spent a year at ArtCenter. And we all know that a lot can happen in a year at that place.

ArtCenter didn’t necessarily teach me technique. By the time I arrived there, I had four-plus years of design experience under my belt. What ArtCenter taught me was that if you wanted to be the best in your field, you had to be willing to push yourself beyond your accepted limits. You have to be ready to show up earlier than everyone else and be ready to be the last one to leave. ArtCenter takes you outside of yourself – it separates students from the unhealthy parts of their ego so that they are able to create something that transcends categorization.

Had it not been for my time at ArtCenter, I would not be the man that I am today. ArtCenter allowed me to broaden my horizons and strengthen my network, while instilling in me a set of values as to what constitutes a leader. I realized that no matter how much creativity I might possess as an individual, I could never truly be a leader until I found a way to foster creativity in my team.

In Japan, designers used to work from the bottom up. In America, they work from the top down. Somehow, I found a way to exist and flourish in the middle ground that separates those two philosophies.

Though I stepped down, I have not been able to retire my designer’s brain. It is a part of me, and it always will be. When I think of design today, I often can’t help but think of its musical associations. To those who have come before me – and those who will follow in my footsteps – it’s all about finding your own harmony.

Shiro Nakamura
Senior Vice President and Chief Creative Officer, Nissan Motor Corporation (Retired)
1981 Transportation Design
ArtCenter Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award Winner, 2014

ArtCenter takes you outside of yourself, separating students from the unhealthy parts of their ego so they may create something that transcends categorization.

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