Doug Wilson (TRAN, ’69)
“Transportation design is such a great profession; it’s more of a labor of love than a job.”
In the 1970s, Doug Wilson was part of the team that designed the first Chrysler minivan. Now assistant director of design at Nissan Design America, where he has spent the past 27 years, Wilson served as chief designer for the Infiniti J30. His list of design credits includes the first-generation Nissan Xterra, the exterior of the second generation Nissan Altima, the Pathfinder, Pulsar NX and 2000 Maxima.
What led you to a career in transportation design?
As a child I was fascinated by cars, trucks and aircraft. Most of my childhood books were about these subjects, and any blank spaces on the pages were covered with my own drawings. When I began my college education, I felt that the road to an automobile design career would run through a university engineering department. Fortunately for my career, my second term classes included an art elective. One day the professor noticed a small sketchbook that I kept and asked me if he could look through it. Seeing it was full of hot rod and sports car sketches, he asked me about my post-graduate plans, and I told him that I wanted to be an engineer and design automobile bodies. He asked me if I had ever heard of Art Center, and the rest is history.
What do you see as your most exciting career achievement?
In the 1970s I was part of the original design team that developed the first Chrysler minivan. A fiberglass prototype was completed and shown to Lee Iacocca. I remember him saying that this new product “would be his Mustang at Chrysler.” This new vehicle class would be largely responsible for Chrysler’s revival in the early 1980s. Coming into my Nissan years, I have been fortunate enough to compete on products as varied as hardbody trucks, Z’s, Maximas, and Infinitis. I also contributed a model for the GTR, part of which was used for the rear of the final design.
But the project that was most significant for me was the first Xterra, a project that came along at a time when Niissan was in serious financial trouble. As the project manager, I had a tight budget, a tremendously creative team and extremely tight timing. This would also be the first project that would use the research from our new design context lab. The X-Games crowd would be our target customers, so our research team and design staff went to mountain bike trails and snow boarding runs. We took photos and interviewed anyone who would talk to us. We observed how these individuals modified their vehicles to carry their equipment. When we got back in the studio, our research team hung two 4x8 panels with creatively montaged photos on both sides from the ceiling. Every day when we came to work, these photos reminded us of the customers we were designing for. Consequently, two of the Xterra’s signature design features, the anodized tubular roof rack and rear hatch first aid kit pocket, came directly from this research. Fortunately for us, the Xterra entered the marketplace and became an instant hit, giving Nissan enough economic breathing room to allow the alliance with Renault to become a reality. It was definitely a last-minute end zone pass.
What do you think has been the most significant development in the Transportation Design Field in recent years?
There have been tremendous developments in construction, obviously, but the microchip is probably the most significant breakthrough. The computer has transformed everything in the industry. Think of some of the ways we use computers in cars—for example, in the fuel delivery system, computers transformed the engine from this dirty thing to an engine emitting barely anything at all. The students coming out of Art Center today are so proficient in the computer stuff. It’s fun for me, the old guy with markers and pens, to watch and learn. At first I felt like I was cheating using a computer to sketch, but really it’s just a different set of tools.
Where do you see transportation design going in the future?
The industry is going through huge changes today. Environmental pressures and economic issues are combining to give product planners headaches. In the near future we can expect more experimentation with different kinds of hybrid power systems, and you will also see the introduction of a few all-electric vehicles. Long term, we will probably see more electric vehicles as new ways of efficiently storing energy become viable. For instance, research on ultracapacitors is beginning to show some promise. Ultracapacitors have several advantages over regular rechargeable batteries: they are lighter in weight, can be configured in site specific shapes, can be recharged within moments and could conceivably last the life of the car. Obviously this kind of technology could make the electric motor a viable alternative to the internal combustion engine.
What kind of car do you drive?
I currently have two company cars: a 2008 Nissan Quest minivan and a 2008 Nissan Altima hybrid. My personal vehicle is a 1960 XK150 Jaguar.