To visit Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori's office, you only have to pass through one security checkpoint. To get into Nissan's design center in Atsugi, among the foothills an hour's train ride south of Tokyo, there are three: two to check IDs of visitors arriving in cars and one to let you inside the design team's ferroconcrete building. "No pictures," visitors are warned. A joke about a Volvo spied parked among the fleet of Nissans is met with a glare. Maybe security is tighter for Nissan's brain trust than it is for Japan's, um, brain trust, because if Nissan's engineers and designers were to be kidnapped, the company would be crippled, perhaps fatally. Without the design team, none of the 22 planned new modelsfrom the post-modern SUVs to the space-age road rocketswould have the panache to relaunch the stodgy carmaker. On the other hand, if Prime Minister Mori were kidnapped, would anyone in Japan notice? Despite the bunker-like security, the mood inside Nissan's design HQ is surprisingly relaxed. In a brightly lit open loft-space, a dozen or so designers work among car models and action figures. Walls have come down. There is an art gallery of products with avant-garde designseverything from teapots to MD players to soft-drink bottles. Linoleum was ripped up and replaced with carpeting. This work-is-play decor may by now be commonplace in new media companies and design studios, but it is decidedly revolutionary in buttoned-down Nissan. It's all part of chief designer Shiro Nakamura's plan to induce the straight-laced car companyor at least the prized design teamsto become a little looser and more creative.
Power. Relaxation. Fun. Nakamura and four of his designers are throwing around words to describe the design concept of a truck in development. Its metallic panels owe a stylistic nod to Sony's Aibo robotic dog; the vehicle looks like something that might be found zooming across a Martian landscape. "If you compare it to an animal, it would be like a rhinoceros," says Nakamura. The discussion turns to headlights, and a problem equipping the truck with the kind of lamps the team envisions. "We can't get the fit right," says one designer. Nakamura cuts the debate short. "Wouldn't it be better to let the manufacturers figure this out?" he asks. "They can do a better job, so why don't we involve them?" The designers' eyes widen. "We can do that?" asks one.
Delegating assignments. Focusing on the customer. Mapping out a design theme and sticking to it. These ideas, simple concepts really, have been at the center of Nissan's revival. Nakamura has hired new designers, but he has also innervated the Nissan veterans. "It was made clear Nissan would focus on the designing side," says Koji Nagano, 43, who has been at Nissan for more than 20 years and is currently working on the Primera car. "Now everybody at the company understands how important it is."
In the design bunker, one question lingers: If it is up to Nakamura and his crewalmost as much as it is boss Carlos Ghosnto figure out how to save Nissan, how come they haven't already done so? After all, these guys have been around for a few years. "Le Cost Killer" can slash away at expense accounts and subcontractors all he wants, but if he doesn't have hot new cars to sell, then the only Zs in his future will those made by drowsy car shoppers taking a look at Nissan's new models.