3 Meanings Behind SUBARU Designs | Mr. Mamoru Ishii, Design Director of SUBARU | Car Design Academy | Online car design school

3 Meanings Behind SUBARU Designs | Mr. Mamoru Ishii, Design Director of SUBARU

mr.mamoru ishi_photo

Mamoru Ishii– Born in 1962. After graduating from Chiba University with a degree in industrial design, Mr. Ishii joined Fuji Heavy Industries (Subaru) in 1986. Some of the works Mr. Ishii worked on during his time at Subaru are: the exterior Sambar, color design for the SVX, exterior for the 3rd generation Legacy and was the Chief Designer for the 2nd generation Impreza. Worked in the Los Angeles design office from 91 to 94. After working on advanced-developments and the overall exteriors, Mr. Ishii was promoted to deputy general manager in 2009 and to general manager of the exterior division in 2011. From April 2013, Mr. Ishii is acting as the general manager for both the design division and product development division at Subaru.

The original of this article was published in Japanese, 2015 on Car Design Academy’s Japanese website. We translated it into English, and the positions of the people introduced in this article are as of the date this interview was made.

Life Experiences of Mr. Ishii

Ever since kindergarten, I was a boy that made everything by hand. I made Godzilla and Ultraman figures with clay. If I wanted something that was shown on TV, I just made it. Since I was pretty good with my hands, I was able to build anything, and it was fun! As my school was located far away, I would come home early, get in the kotatsu, and build things with clay. I also loved insects. I would catch some insects, view them from every angle and build a replica with clay. I feel like this is when I was able to pick up my basic skills (hand-eye coordination) as a designer.

I started liking cars during my bus commute to elementary school. I was always looking down at the cars from the bus window. I even knew the names of all the car models too. During middle school, I was really into the manga “The Wolf of the Circuit,” which made the supercars very popular in Japan. As I loved both cars and manga, it was a perfect match. I also had a passion to become a manga writer too.


The VIXIV2 that debuted in the 2014 Geneva Show. Awarded the Golden Marker Award for the Concept Car Division of the Japan Car Design Awards sponsored by the Car Styling Magazine. The “Dynamic & Solid” concept of Subaru was well expressed on the car.

Education and My First Encounter with Subaru

During this time, I use to attend motor shows, built model kits and thought about cars all day. I really wanted to work with something related to car design, but during the time, I didn’t know if there was such a job title. I thought that if I study fluid dynamics, I could land a design related job. First, I applied for the engineering department for a certain university, but soon realized that I cannot study design, so I reapplied for the industrial design department for Chiba University. I didn’t have any knowledge on how to become a car designer at the time. I didn’t even think of attending art school too.

The first time I started having feelings for Subaru was during my part time job during college. I was loading Hondas and Subarus onto ships. It required me to park each car precisely next to each other to avoid any unnecessary space. The job was quite difficult as a few centimeters made a huge difference, the worksite was dark and each car was different. This is when I realized that Subaru cars were much different from other cars; the functions were more complex than a Honda and design stuck out like no other car company.

Subaru has a history of airplane engineers building cars. As airplane engineers built the cars, functionality and rationality were prioritized over design. As a result, Subaru cars had an original mechanism compared to the other cars, but the “design” of the car was last thing on the do list of car production. I was attracted to the straightforward engineering philosophy of Subaru although it did lack some elements in the field of design.

During my junior year at college, I participated in a internship for Honda and Kanto Motors during Spring and Fuji Heavy Industries (Subaru) during the summer. At the time, there were only interviews and no skill test. You just take your work to the general manager for them to look at. During the interview, the general manager asked me if “I had any car sketches.” I was panicked with his question, but was able to land the job. The industrial design department of my school did not have car design course during the time so I had to learn everything on my own. As Japan was going through a bubbling economy at the time, Subaru hired 5 designers and 2 modelers so I had a lot of new colleagues to work with.

The「SUBARU VIZIV GT Vision Gran Turismo」that was introduced along with the update of Gran Turismo 6. The story of how the car came into existence was expressed with a semi-documentary touch in the movie and you can feel the passion of the Subaru Development Team.

Just Create! If Your Heart Moves, You Know You Have Succeeded!

For the first few months, I had to attend training at the factory. Soon after, I was in charge of the exterior for a kei car called Rex for about 2 months, then was assigned to the interior team for the Sports Model of the Rex that carried a supercharger. This is where I was in charge of the steering wheel, but I had to do everything from creating the blue print to the actual sketches. Do you know what a spoke is? It is the elements within the circle shape of the steering wheel that stretches out radially from the center. As there was a budget, we had to keep the same steering wheel for both models; however, I wanted to make a steering wheel with 3 spokes.

I also wanted to include folds and dimples. As the budget was already decided, it was normal for additional costs to be added for the project. However, my boss at the time gave me the permission to go forward with my idea, so I made a steering wheel with 3 spokes and wrapped it with real leather. I was confident with my design and I showed it to the director of the Rex project. He was really happy with it and appointed my design. This was 6months after I joined the company. This is when I realized that if I design something well and the created product is good, I can move people’s hearts. “Create something superior and propose it.” I always tell my fellow subordinates and colleagues that this is the “power” of design. If you move people’s hearts, you know you’ve succeeded.


Sambar: A Project, Just with My Boss

I was appointed to work on the exterior of the Sambar for my next project. But, my only teammate for the project was my boss. I was really worried during the start of the project, and then something really bad happened. My boss got hospitalized. I was in charge of this large project all by myself and was only in my first year. I carried the documents to the hospital to have meetings. The senior modelers helped me. I did a lot of research by myself. It was a rough patch, but I did learn a lot. Soon after, I was in charge of the color design of the SVX and the interior of the Legacy.

By the way, we were the first to implement ecsain for cars when we worked on the SVX. Ecsain is artificial leather that is similar to suede. SVX is a model that Giugiaro designed, but the designs brought over by Ital Design used buckskin. As buckskin wears down after about a year so, we wanted to use something very similar to buckskin and focused on using ecsain, but found that it changes color after a period of time too. We tested colors that will not affect the looks too much even if the color fades and eventually applied it to the in panel, door trim, and seats. As I was also in charge of the color of the exterior, I build about 15 1/5 sized models, and even held a clinic in the US. As the design of the car was very “particular” and niche, it did not sell well lol.

Giugiaro- An Italian industrial designer and the founder of Ital Design. He has worked on countless design project and was awarded the Car Designer of the Century Award in 1999 and was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan, USA in 2002.

Buckskin- Originally, it was a word used for buckskin refined with sand paper. These days, it is a word used for goatskin and sheepskin and other leathers that are refined. It has a good texture and is very durable.

Clinic- A word used in the car industry for a impression review session for works that are in development or before a major presentation.

My Oversea Experiences and What I Learned

From 91 to 94, I spent time at Subaru Research and Design in the US. I was not good at English, but studied English so I can at least go shopping. During the time I was in the US, there was already a group of Japanese people that gathered together that were from many various companies. There were no barriers within the community despite what occupational background you came from. As I was in Gunma Prefecture just focused on design up to when I moved to the US, I didn’t have any contacts with designers outside of Subaru. I felt and realized that Subaru was very old fashioned when I couldn’t understand what the Toyota designer was talking about. The Toyota designer asked me what kind of design software I was using. We also held design critiques based on a certain theme such as “What kind of design will the Panhard be if it were brought back in this era?” We will each draw out the sketches, bring it to the critique session and have fun with the designs. I am still connected to the friends I’ve met in the US and had so much fun with them while living there.

Panhard- A French Military Vehicle Manufacturer. It is known to be one of the first car companies that was established in the last 19th century. After WWII, Panhard put their focus on luxury vehicles aside and focused on building modern small cars. As the designs of the Panhards were very particular, and the market was small, it merged with Citroen in 1955 and was completely bought out in 1965. The Panhard brand stopped the production of cars in 1967.

The US has some very big roads. Freeways have about 4 to 5 lanes each side. Compared to Japan, you can recognize the whole silhouette of the cars while driving on US freeways. Japan, on the contrast, has many narrow roads, therefore the front and rear of the car catches all the attention. I believe this is why Japanese cars focus more on the small details of the cars compared to the silhouette of the car. Living in the US made me become more conscious about the background of the design and what the meaning behind design is.

Who Decides the Design in Subaru?

As I was designing the 3rd generation Legacy in the US, I came back to Japan and became in-charge of the mass production. During the time, sedans were not popular. The annual sales were below 1000 cars a month. Under these circumstances, my general manager at the time told me to “do what you want to do.” That’s when the first B4 was born. As this was right when Toyota introduced the Altezza, all the car magazines featured a column, which compared the Altezza with the Legacy B4 Turbo. This resulted in a big sales increase, from 1000 to 2000 cars per month.

―It is surprising that your general manager made you responsible for such a project, but it’s even more surprising that you succeeded on the big opportunity. Can I ask how you treat your subordinates?

I did not know who designed and decided Subaru designs until just recently. Responsibility wise, the general manager in the design team decides the design, however, the I think designs that are valued by people that can view the design from different viewpoints are the good works. However, when Mr. Ikuo Mori was appointed to President (Current Senior Advisor), Subaru as a company focused more on creating products from the customer’s viewpoint. Until then, Subaru did not create products that were built from the view of the customer. This is when Mr. Mori announced that Subaru would be providing the customers with quality and not only hard products.

This has become a base for Subaru designs now. We want the customers to have fun while being safe in the Subaru cars. Therefore, the customers are our judges. When this is the base of how we design our cars, we have to acknowledge what kind of people are our future customers are and what their lifestyles are like. I believe that there is no hierarchy in the world of designers so I try to keep my stance on creating cars that best fits the customer’s need together as a team.

Also, it is important to remember that many people are involved when creating a car and every single person involved has a lot of knowledge. There are modelers. There are engineers. For example, in Subaru, the role of the design team is to reflect Subaru’s design identity and requirements by also having a deep understanding of each department and their roles as well. I feel that it is important to blend the customer’s needs and the philosophy of Subaru and create something that the customers will love and find useful. Of course, there is still a room for a lot of improvement and I think it is our mission to continue creating new designs that fill all the needs for both the customers and Subaru.



3 Meanings Behind Subaru Designs

This relates to not only designers, but to modelers, and the data team members as well. Our identity at Subaru is to express “the meaning of each function,” “the meaning of the shape,” and “keep a Subaru-ness” in each design. Historically, Subaru was a company that built airplanes. Airplanes cannot fly, if the balance breaks. We have done a lot of detailed research and studied a lot of data to prove rationality in our work. Our customers, for example, are attracted to the unique characteristics of Subaru cars such as the AWD and the horizontally opposed engine. Our goal is to reflect the identity of the car on the design and create designs that only Subaru can create.

subaru brand

1.Standing Out in 2020: Refining the Subaru Brand, 2.Our approaches to refine the Subaru brand, 3.The new design concept: DYNAMIC and SOLID – committing this concept, we will create design which people can recognize that it’s Subaru at first sight. ,4.enjoyment and peace of mind,& Revealing a New Uniqueness of Subaru, 5.Sporty & Advanced, 6.Achieving sharpness in design, 7.The beauty to be further refined, 8.Driving pleasure, 9.The form relied upon functions, 10.The beauty which comes up with eliminating the excess in design, 11.Expressing Subaru’s innovative technologies

For Students Aiming to Become Car Designers…

Cars are the biggest products close to humans. During college, I remember people telling me that the shapes for products that are close to humans do not change much. For example the shapes of chopsticks, rice bowls, teacups, cups all did not really change at all. I think cars are similar, however, cars can still become modified. Cars change shape accordingly with the advances in technology. Hybrid cars and EVs carry the heaviest elements of the car in totally different position compared to previous cars. Thus, the design changes. It is difficult, but very fun.

Being a car designer is hard as we need to fill all the needs, but I really enjoy it because our works affect a wide range of people. I would like for more young people to go for this beautiful challenge.