Ken Lee, Nissan’s Senior Design Director for LCVs, has been fascinated with cars and car design since childhood. Ken took the helm of Nissan’s LCV design team in June 2019, but has been making innovative designs for Nissan for nearly 17 years, working on many key Nissan models.
Lee explains his journey with Nissan, his inspiration and how he and his team brings Nissan’s extensive range of frame-based vehicles and vans to life.
Q: Have you always been inclined to design, and designing cars in particular?
Coming from a very international background, I was born in the U.S, but spent most of my childhood in Singapore and Hong Kong. As a little kid, I was naturally attracted to cars, so I grew up drawing cars, building Lego cars, and dreamt of designing my own cars. Living in Asia, I had learned a lot about Nissan and Japanese cars.
At the age of nine, we moved to Los Angeles, and the different cities all had an influence over me in terms of car design. L.A. has a very strong car culture, and there was a whole new world of cars. The cars are different from those I saw in Hong Kong, with trucks and bigger cars, which ignited my passion even more.
But key in L.A. was that I lived near one of the well-known car design schools, the Art Center College of Design. My dad brought me there for a visit, and I discovered that car design is something you can do for a living. At 10 years old, I decided to pursue car design as my dream, and as fate would have it, enrolled at the Art Centre College
Q: How did you start your journey with Nissan? What does your current role entail?
After graduating from Art Center College, I wanted to work in a big headquarters environment, so I moved to Michigan and worked for Ford for three years before joining Nissan. I remember in 2003, the new Nissan Murano and new Infiniti FX were brought into the Ford Design Studio where I worked at that time. I knew about those cars, but seeing them in real life made me realize Nissan was an amazing, innovative company. At that moment I decided to apply to Nissan. A month later I was working at the Nissan Studio in Farmington Hills, Michigan, starting at Nissan almost 17 years ago.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of working at Nissan is the broad lineup, and as a designer you experience small cars, premium sedans, big SUVs, sports cars, and even the GT-R.
I am now in charge of vans, frame SUVs and pickups design, but I am also in charge of “kei” cars for the Japan market, and B segment products – together making a huge portfolio. I tell everyone that that my job is really about big vehicles and really small vehicles. It’s very diverse line-up and creates a lot of variety for our team – we jump from a bold, rugged SUV one day to a clever small car for a totally different market, and that keeps the designers’ minds fresh.
Describe your approach to designing LCVs.
Our LCV portfolio is very diverse, but there is a common approach we take in designing Nissan passenger vehicles and LCVs. We always keep in mind the spirit of the Nissan brand: to challenge and innovate. We honor our Nissan DNA, the heritage of our company, and that Nissan stands for Japan. So we also keep in mind Japanese DNA. To us, this means to be technologically advanced with careful attention to detail.
Last but not least, there’s our LCV DNA. Whether it’s a truck or SUV, it’s the ‘go anywhere’ and ‘unbreakable’ DNA that entails toughness and a robust feel. To design LCV products, we keep in mind these elements – Nissan, Japan, and LCV DNA, and mix them like ingredients in a dish, and ensure that the recipe honors the Nissan brand and heritage. We mix and match these ingredients to be appropriate for the brand segment for each vehicle in the LCV lineup.
In Hong Kong where I grew up, Japanese cars were the most popular, as they symbolized technology and being one step ahead, with a sense of quality and precision. That’s what Japanese cars should stand for, and LCVs are no different. They need a sense of quality, craftsmanship, precision and technology, and styling needs to reflect that with sharper lines, carefully considered details, and the latest technologies including lighting. These are items that convey a sense of Japanese heritage.
Q: What serves as a source of inspiration for the LCV design team?
Depending on the type of project, we find new inspiration from many sources. There is really no limit, depending on the designers’ imagination.
It’s very important to be in touch with our regions, and LCVs touch on very interesting markets. We are in constant communication with the product planning community, which has satellites in all key markets – and it is fun to take inspirational trips that touch the market and customers.
The LCV design team also deals with our Alliance van projects, which means a lot of collaboration with our Alliance partners. For designers it means toggling between our left and right brain – the creative part as well as the rational and logical part. For commercial vans, there’s definitively a lot more of the rational and logical problem-solving, and certain designers love this. The challenge is two-fold, as we have to create a product that is purely functional although aesthetics are important. These types are projects are always a fun challenge for us.
Q: Can you tell us a little more about your thoughts on the Nissan Patrol?
We are always striving to develop new and stand out products. When there’s a special model, we pour an extra bit of heart and soul into it. The Patrol has a loyal following and was an inspirational product that was loved by our customers. We have to honor our heritage, and are fortunate to have one.
Over the years I’ve discovered how strong the following is, and how loyal and passionate our customers are. Our research trips to the Middle East show us how high the customer’s perception is of Patrol - it may even be higher than how we at Nissan perceive it internally. That is very encouraging and motivating.
Q: What is your favourite part about working with Nissan?
I’ve been with this team for over six months now, so I’m still learning something new every day. Most inspiring from the team is the sense of passion and that team members are very proactive in searching for new designs and ways of designing. This includes the Realization Team, consisting of clay and digital modelers. We are now diving deeper into the world of virtual reality and using new technologies.
I’m very inspired by these team members because they constantly try to learn new skills and proactively use their own time to learn new programs, software and technologies, benefitting our design team. Among our digital modelers responsible for building models in data, one member is taking the initiative to learn animation in his own spare time and has created a short movie of a future truck blasting through the sand dunes. This really captures the spirit of fun and innovation, and we’ve decided to use the animation for our actual projects.
This is the kind of spirit I am very thankful for – to have a team with this mindset, to learn things, and do unique things, and to have fun. Every new project brings a new chapter and the inspiration is often different.
Q: What has been the most memorable project you’ve worked on at Nissan?
One of my most significant projects in Nissan was the third generation Murano in 2015. The original Murano had attracted me to Nissan, representing innovation and the whole spirit of Nissan. It was like a spaceship that landed from somewhere else, so for the third-generation Murano we used spacecraft and modern aviation as inspiration. This led to the discovery of new design elements like the floating roof and boomerang lamps, which eventually became a design signature for Nissan. It was essentially like designing a concept car.
Q: What are the elements essential to your design process, and your role at Nissan?
The most important aspect of my life is ‘Enjoy your work,’ because as a car designer it’s really not work, it’s a hobby. The more we can enjoy it, the more passionate we naturally become. If we enjoy our work, our brain becomes freer and we become more creative, so this is what I encourage the design team to do – to find your passion and enjoy every day. If it is not enjoyable, then we sit together and talk about why, and that we must be missing the mark or not heading in the right direction. When things come together organically and are heading down the right path, we have fun and create together as a team, and the output becomes very strong and good.
For global-oriented products, our global studios – in the U.S., Europe, China, Latin America, Thailand and Japan – often have friendly competitions. When we start a program for a new product, the studios will often compete for the winning design proposal. It’s not a hostile competition, it’s a friendly one, so the studios make unique proposals. The regional studios still talk to each other, and we exchange information and try to find the balance for what all the customers are looking for and satisfy them in a holistic package. Ultimately, it’s down to predicting our customers’ future expectations.
As Senior Design Director my role is to inspire the team, and as the title says to set direction. The most important part is finding the right direction for design, especially in the very beginning, so that the product finishes well. I would compare the process to an airliner taking off and landing, where takeoff and landing are extremely important, but the middle part is when the team is expected to work quite autonomously to find the design. For my own job, it’s a matter of understanding global markets, design trends, customer expectations, and just simply the sense of aesthetics, and bring everything together to guide the project in the right direction.