What Inspires a Car Designer – Interview with Infiniti Design Boss Alfonso Albasia
Alfonso Albaisa is currently executive design director at Infiniti, and also a corporate vice president. A graduate of the Pratt Institute — a top American university in the areas of industrial design and architecture based in the New York City area — Albaisa has spent his entire car design career with Nissan and Infiniti. Here, Albasia reveals what inspires him personally, what it’s like working as part of a global design team, and more.
Living together design and engineering
Albasia: “As a child, back in Miami, my friends and I were imagining drawing and building the cars of our dreams from our own home factory (which was actually made of the deep shag carpet of my family’s living room). I joined the company 28 years ago at what was then a small studio in California, but in which I quickly saw the great potential of our global company. Twenty-eight years later, there is nothing I like more than seeing my team and their engineering colleagues break down together the thousands of issues in front of them until the last bus signals the end of our day. ‘O-tsukaresama,’ as my friends say, in a shared sense and appreciation that we ‘gave it all.’ We are Japanese; we are French; we are British, European and Americans from the East, the South and from many, many other places. Our strength, or better yet, our advantage, is harnessing all that is great in us to bring to market pure excellence.
“I am now corporate vice president of our global design function. I’m still heavily involved with the creative side, but I am also managing our global resources. As my teams and I map out the next midterm plan, we wonder how, through management of teams, facilities and resources, we can ensure and commit that our culture will continue to be a creative community efficiently executing world-class designs. We are asking contributions from our teams in Atsugi, Harajuku, Beijing, London, Rio, Bangkok and San Diego, to consider how we work today and how we can continue improving even beyond the pace of a hyper competitive global marketplace.
“To make these exciting new designs come to life, we are deepening our search for new synergies with our alliance partners with joint design activities, better understanding of common/uncommon design processes, down to how we make our models while concurrently protecting each Alliance brand’s iconic identity.
“Personally, I like the challenge. The relationship between design/planning and engineering is central because it leverages both sides of our brain – the creative as well as the logical. Down the hall from the design wing are 10,000 engineers. Bringing the best of their ideas over to the design side is a very big part of my job. Each department thinks about the same thing in a slightly different way but when we are able to find coherence within these ideas, we can create something beautiful.”
Taking Risks: Growing together as a team
“Infiniti is an ideal place to work for a designer, as the whole culture of the company supports – better yet, requires – the process of allowing someone to come up with an idea that is fundamentally unique. Big or small, these innovative ideas are for me a form of artistry, and Infiniti is the ultimate manifestation of automotive art. Michelangelo celebrated physical beauty, and Da Vinci celebrated the beauty of ingenuity. If we could capture the hearts and minds of these two gentlemen, everyone would fall in love with our automobiles. With Infiniti, the attitude of the car and the artistry of the body and how it melds seamlessly with our advanced engineering make us unique in the automotive marketplace.
“To work for any brand under Nissan Corporation, you have to have a hunger for challenge, and you must learn quickly from the challenges that confront you in order to grow. The important thing is that, as you grow, you must make sure that the team members around you learn and grow with you.”
My Favorite Car: The Infiniti FX – Inspiration at first sight
“In 1999 or 2000, working at Nissan Design America, I saw some photographs from Japan of three models of a project that I really did not know much about, a completely new category of vehicle. At first glance, it was a ‘wow’ moment. At second glance: ‘WOW.’ They were part SUV, part sports coupe. But you have to realize that 16 years ago, crossovers did not exist. This combination of aspects was so fresh and unseen. I just stared at the images: ‘What are these cars?’ One of the vehicles was what would become the first Infiniti FX. It was amazing to me that something so visually powerful could possess such simplicity in its design.
“What made it visually powerful was its silhouette, its gesture! It was like an egg that had bitten into an aircraft carrier. The hood was so long and horizontal, yet the cabin so tight and arced. It had so much attitude. I remember when I saw the first one on the road three years later, I simply smiled, knowing how back in Japan, they had really pulled it off, making such an effortlessly iconic vehicle and keeping true to the original vision.
“It is vehicles like the FX and Murano, Z and G coupe, Qashqai and JUKE, that have left such a powerful impression on customers around the globe – setting our Nissan and Infiniti brands apart as innovators. I do feel that when we are at our best, we can create cars that make the public react at first glance to say ‘wow, this is fresh’ and ‘this is right for me.’ As we embark on evolutions of these icons and the creation of completely new ones, let’s make sure we continue to deliver this surprise that feels so right.”
A Passion for Design and Sailing: Harmony in nature
“Away from work, my other passion is sailing. I am a single-handed sailor, meaning I like to sail alone and over long distances, my favorite distance being about 36 hours. Physically, you get tired, so you must consider your endurance. Especially at night, you see less but feel and hear more: the influence of the wind and waves on the boat, the sounds and vibration of the rigging. When sailing at speed and at night, you sense when boat and sails are optimised. It is not quiet, but there is a silence or harmony, because both boat and sails are in the right place. This is like nothing I ever experienced before – how the simple elements of nature can propel such a heavy object effortlessly. It is humbling.
“Sailing at night in the open ocean can bring a surprise every minute, and considering every risk while staying positive and keeping a challenger spirit opens doors you did not expect. And for me, the design process is very much like this. You want to create something different, something new; its success is not guaranteed, but you’re still hungry for that, so you are chasing the idea that is pushing yourself all the time. But a design without planning and harmony regardless of newness cannot survive.
“What you find is that, as you grow as a designer, you are able to manage all of the inputs from management, all the criteria from engineering, and all the feedback from the markets to find a solution which is harmonic, clear and beautiful.”