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Introducing Ken Lee: design driven by passion

Ken Lee

Ken Lee, Nissan’s senior design director for light commercial vehicles (LCVs), has been fascinated with cars and car design since childhood. Ken took the helm of Nissan’s LCV design team six months ago, but has been making innovative designs for Nissan for nearly 17 years, working on many key models. This is his story.

From kei-cars to Patrol

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 dreamed of designing my own cars. Living in Asia, I had learned a lot about Nissan and Japanese cars.

When I was 9, we moved to Los Angeles. 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 – 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.

I worked hard and continued to draw cars and learn, and eventually entered the Art Center College. After graduation, 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 the 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. So I started at Nissan almost 17 years ago.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of working at Nissan is the broad lineup. As a designer you experience small cars, premium sedans, big SUVs, sports cars and even the GT-R.

I am now in charge of design for LCVs, focusing on frame SUVs and pickups. But I’m also in charge of kei cars for the Japan market, as well as for B-segment products. Our portfolio range is huge, and variety is big. I tell everyone that that my job is about really big vehicles and really small vehicles. It’s a very diverse lineup 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 the next, and that keeps the designers’ minds fresh.

Three DNAs in LCV design

Our LCV portfolio is also very diverse, but there is a common approach we take in Nissan design between 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 the 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. The recipe has to honor 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.

For Nissan LCVs we have a very rich history, although when most people think of Nissan they may not immediately think of LCVs. If you look in the past, the Patrol has a loyal following and was an inspirational product that was loved by our customers. Definitely, we have to honor our heritage, and we’re fortunate to have one. It’s been interesting learning in depth about the Nissan LCV world.

I’ve discovered how strong the following is, how loyal and passionate our customers are. If we take the Patrol, our research trips to the Middle East show us how high the customer’s perception is – it may even be higher than how we at Nissan perceive it internally. That is very encouraging and motivating.

We are always striving to develop new standout products. When there’s a special model, we pour an extra bit of heart and soul into it. We’ve developed a new look and feel for one of the most capable PRO-4X grades for the Nissan Titan, sold in North America.

We know PRO-4X customers demand something extra – an extra bit of function and off-road capability. They also want us to communicate it in an interesting way, so we have to find the right balance between the functional aspects and the stylish aspects.

Thus, we have developed a new look for the Nissan Titan PRO-4X grade. The orange-red accents, the lettering, the tow hooks and every detail is consistent, and we consider this carefully with the body color. It really pops and sends a message that it’s robust and capable, and yet there’s a twist to it, a spark of style so that you can sense the excitement of that lineup.

We want to bring a renewed sense of consistency to our range, and it’s more about having the right sense of intuition and gut feeling. So we look at where the market is heading, and what our customers are looking for, to come up with the direction.

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 definitely a lot more of the rational and logical problem-solving, and certain designers love this. The challenge is twofold, as we have to create a product that is purely functional. Aesthetics are important, but the No. 1 priority in a product like this is function. These types of projects are always a fun challenge for us.

I mentioned Japanese DNA. In Hong Kong, where I grew up, Japanese cars were the most popular. 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. The 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.

Passion and inspiration

I’ve been with this team for 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, benefiting 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’m 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.

One of my most significant projects at 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.

Depending on the type of project, we find new inspiration from many sources. There is really no limit, depending on the designers' imagination.

Designing cars is not work – it's a hobby

Our global design team is not big, as we’re a highly efficient group, but the way we work is through strong global collaboration. With a product like the Titan, it’s predominantly handled by the design studio responsible for the Nissan North America region, in that case San Diego.

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 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.

It’s very important to be in touch with our regions, and LCVs touch on very interesting markets. Coming from the passenger car world to LCVs, there are markets I’m familiar with and also new ones. Our design team is already quite in tune with the markets, because we visit and have satellite studios. We’re in deep communication with the product planning community, which also has satellites in all key markets. That’s the fun, when we get to take inspirational trips that touch the market and customers.

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’s 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 naturally and are heading down the right path, we naturally have fun and create together as a team, and the output naturally becomes very strong and good.     

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, and that the product finishes well. I would compare the process to an airliner taking off and landing. 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.

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