Hirohisa Ono has been the director of Infiniti Design at the Nissan Design America studio in San Diego, California for a little over a year. Part of the team that helped bring the R35 Nissan GT-R to life, Ono-san was the driving force behind the exterior design of the Infiniti QX30, the luxury brand’s newest compact crossover and one of our Four Seasons vehicles. We had the chance to sit down with Ono last week at the 2017 New York auto show, where we asked him 10 questions about how he approaches the design process, his inspirations, and his fascination with tires.
Automobile Magazine: When you’re designing a sports car like the GT-R, is your approach different than when you’re designing something more utilitarian like the compact QX30?
Hirohisa Ono: Oh, yeah, good question. So, I first sketched the GT-R in 2003. Personally I love the GT-R. The GT-R is so Japan. Like the [Ferrari] GTO in Italy, everybody in Japan now knows the GT-R. I really did have to think about it: ‘What is the GT-R?’ So, I thought, Japan is so associated with the Samurai. The stature of the Samurai is very specific, very historical. I did a lot of research about the attitude of the Samurai. I tried to be very true to that in the lines and shapes of the GT-R. I also love the Samurai sword. The GT-R mirrors that with a very nice long, crisp bodyline [Ono-san sweeps his hand elegantly through the air as though recreating the lines of his original sketches]. I tried to always consider that Samurai way, especially on the top of the sports car. So when I did my sketches and my clay work, I always thought about these components.
For the QX30, now this was in 2010 for Nissan Design America, the approach was different. I did research on Infiniti’s historical design. I felt Infiniti design required a more emotional execution. This was about luxury. It wasn’t about just straight lines on a compact car. So I tried to make it elegant and emotional and also muscular, because it’s still a utility vehicle.
AM: Do you have a personal design signature, something that you try to incorporate in every one of the cars you design?
HO: Firstly, one has to understand both the Infiniti and Nissan design direction. That’s the most important part. Of course I bring myself into the equation by using my heart to design, but the first priority is to understand the company’s goal. Of course, somehow my small personal indicators make their way into the final design, but there is not one specific thing, no.
AM: How much are you influenced by design outside of the automotive world, for example architecture, art, dance, etc.?
HO: I love movies. Also, I like furniture. Interiors have many textures, so fashion is a big influence. I’m from Japan, but I love going to other countries to study their culture. I love China. The people I meet inspire me. As a designer it’s very important to understand what people are looking for, what the customer desires, what the customer needs. Every finished product is very inspired from other places.
AM: How do you know when a vehicle is finished?
HO: Well, with the QX30, I knew it was done, done, done! I started with drawing on paper, sketching the original shapes. Then we moved to a scale model and got into deep discussions with the engineer. We moved to a full-size clay model. At every step of the way we communicate in detail with the entire team, so we know what we need to make. It’s not just the beautiful shape, but it needs the nice touches with excellent technology. The two work so closely together. It’s everything.
AM: Speaking of, how closely do you work with the engineers? How much do mechanical specifications dictate your design?
HO: It’s so connected. We use clay of course, but we also use 3D-modeling. 3D is beautiful! By using the 3D data, we can communicate more effectively with the engineers. They check the clay size of each section — from the entire package to the headlamps. Also, we have to accommodate for each individual supplier. We’re trying to get the most innovating technology into the final package, so everything has to be exact, perfect. This is a very collaborative process.
AM: How do you feel about aftermarket products, especially on something like the GT-R? There are a lot of people out there modifying your car. Is that flattering? Or do you think they’re messing with perfection?
HO: As a designer, for me, I try to perfect the vehicle for the customer. At the same time, I’m also a car guy. I love the “Fast and Furious” movies! I know every driver is unique. Some want more horsepower, bigger horsepower, bigger spoilers. That’s great. But, I have to admit, I feel like the original is much better.
AM: We tend to agree with you! [Much laughter]
AM: A lot of what went into the original QX30 concept vehicle first shown at the 2015 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance made it into the final production version of the car. How much of your original design concepts do you try and keep, and what are your constraints?
HO: That is also a great question. And I appreciate your comment about the QX30. With concept to production, we try to stay as honest as we’re able. We want that consistency. For me, it’s almost like the same execution. Again, engineering and design speak honestly with each other. We have a very deep, common interest. The concept of the car is already there, so we have to find a way to get it into production. Also, the communications and marketing team become a factor. They are very helpful for us when it comes to getting a car out to the public.
AM: How do you see autonomous driving impacting your approach to design in the future?
HO: Another great question [we really like this guy]. That’s going to be an important thing to think about with the next phase of design philosophy and communication. We have things we’re doing now, but I cannot say too much.
AM: No, of course not. Top secret!
HO: I think every car will have more of an interactive design. That’s how the next generation is. It’s what they’re interested in. Safety will be important, too.
AM: If you didn’t design cars what else would you be doing?
HO: I have no idea! When I was a kid, I had cars in my room. I don’t know anything else!
AM: Would you want to be a race car driver? A fireman?
HO: [Laughing] No, no, no. That’s a great one, though. I don’t know. I’m happy doing what I do!
AM: So you wouldn’t want to be a pop star?
HO: [More laughing] No! But I love tires!
AM: You love tires?
HO: I love tires. I have no idea why!
AM: Okay, so maybe a tire salesman! That’s awesome.
HO: Also, I like movies, too.
AM: Oh, so the next action hero!
HO: [Laughing] NO!
AM: Okay, you’re very content doing what you do. We actually love that answer. So, final question, what’s your daily driver?
HO: Oh, I drive the Q60 coupe. I love to drive. I love that car. It’s a good car. White leather interior, I so enjoy it.
AM: Wonderful! Thank you Ono-san, we look forward to seeing what’s next from Infiniti and your team at Nissan Design America.