Interview: Takuya Asano, Director of Gran Turismo Explore Studio

Contributor / Design / Interview

“If you're fighting for authorship, you're not collaborating.”

As someone whose videogame competency ended with making a yellow semi-circle eat white dots, talking to the Director of Gran Turismo Explore Studio, was a bit daunting. However, the legacy of the racing simulation game is undisputed. They've made completely porous, the relationship between virtual 2D worlds of digital racing, and the very real, fuel-burning 3D world of rubber wheels on a track/road/expanse. In fact I am hard-pressed to think of any other interactive platform that has been able to directly feed designs for fully functional vehicles to as bureaucratic and slow-evolving an industry as Big Auto. I'm equally hard-pressed to think of any design group that has been able to wrestle such disparate groups of people to one room, hurdling licensing and design obstacles (how do you make a virtual Formula 1 car run with no rules?). It made sense then, that Takuya Asano would reveal himself to be as much an innovator as a carhead. We discuss among other things, the synergy of footwear and cars, and how collaboration works.

Can you tell me a bit about your job, and your background?

Takuya Asano: My job as the director of the Explore Studio is to explore new opportunities for Gran Turismo as a game and as a brand. [While I was at still at Nike] I met with Kazunori Yamauchi, the creator of Gran Turismo, and did a collaboration with them, making a Nike car in the game. It was a big deal for everyone, but a big deal for Nike in that we were making the first interactive product: a T-shirt with a reflective graphic that the PlayStation camera, picked up, and that made the Nike car available in the game. It was the first interactive apparel product Nike ever made. It was a real big story for us back then. Though for the general product, for fans, it was that Nike made a car for Gran Turismo 4 called Nike One.

Did it look like an Air Force One?

(Laughter) Yeah. So that was the only virtual car that existed in Gran Turismo 4.

Does Nike do automotive now, actually? I have no idea.

No, but back then, we created this story that by 2022, Nike would invent a technology to accumulate energy from the human body.

So the Nike campus has a nice gym, two gyms actually, and our thought was maybe in all those tread machines and stairmasters… maybe in the future there's a device that generates energy from that and stores it. Nike was looking to utilize that energy for transportation. We created a whole back story and car design and interactive apparel and limited edition shoes. That got me into gaming and Gran Turismo.

So is Explore sort of like R&D but more conceptual?

Nike Explore became part of Nike Innovation Kitchen. It's like longer-term R&D, because you know, as a designer at Nike, everything's about seasons; everything is short-term. At the Nike Innovation Kitchen, or Explore back then, there was no timeline. How I got involved  with Polyphony is actually a funny story. Gran Turismo creator Yamauchi heard that a lot of PlayStation execs were visiting Nike. Mostly the sports gaming guys, and he thought, “that sounds interesting… can I come?” That's why he came. At Nike, there were a lot of carheads, or car nuts, and I was one of them. The guy who started Nike Explore (Ray Riley), a former Apple guy, was a carhead too. He told me the Gran Turismo guy was coming and I told him I speak Japanese so maybe I could translate. And they said “why not.” That's how we met and then Kazunori and I became good friends. What's funny is, that's the only thing that resulted from that meeting. It was supposed to be for a sports game project. (laughter) We still laugh about what a coincidence it was for him to come along to the sports game meeting…

The only result then was that Sony poached you from Nike. (Laughter)

(Laughter) Maybe…

In the collaboration Gran Turismo did with Nike, or the work it does with such a huge variety of automotive brands, it sounds like a licensing nightmare…

It is. I'm not a licensing guy, but it is. It isn't easy.

So what's your day to day like with the Explore team? I understand that you have a design background and came from Nike, but I'm interested in if as “Explore” you work more heavily in the design department or with marketing…

I still believe my role at Polyphony is creative. What I find different is that as a designer at Nike, you come up with a new concept or new line or shape, you can visually recognize. At Explore Studio, I'd come up with new projects. That's what I do here at Gran Turismo, too. It's a very creative process to come up with new ideas or new collaborations or new projects. It's not from marketing or focus groups or anything.

That's the purest form of design, I suppose; not to be hindered by bottom lines or price points. The idea of collaboration is fascinating for me from the Paperhouses point of view because we're focused on collaborative design. This is a tough question because it's not directly related to shoes or game design but insofar as you work with designers and creatives, how much of that work do you think requires anonymity? In order to develop such a huge idea as a car or game for example, sharing can be contentious in terms of authorship…

I think if you're fighting for authorship in a collaboration, you aren't collaborating. At least for me. It's a collaboration. It's not “they designed” or “I designed” or “he designed” but all of us designed it. We all came up with the idea.

How do you think collaboration works best?

Well I was looking at ( and (Jeff Staple) said something really interesting: the best collaborations happen over dinner. Not in a meeting room. I mean take the Nike One collaboration we did, just as an example… Yes, Nike is the largest athletic company in the world, and yes, Sony is a consumer electronics giant. But it came down to a person-to-person relationship. It's true of any collaboration I know. A true collaboration. Not a marketing collaboration. It's having dinner. That's very important for me.

It’s great you've been able to marry so many passions. Do you feel that shoe design and car design have intellectual synergy?

Yeah definitely. I mean in general, I have friends in both automotive and footwear and fashion design and many of the car designers get their inspiration from footwear and fashion design. Footwear designers, especially, get a lot of influence from automotive design. I mean I'm a car guy but when you're a shoe guy it's not uncommon to have your favorite car design posted in your office. And automotive guys don't take inspiration from other cars. They have to get inspiration from non-auto products. They're influenced by sneakers because it's made of high-tech materials and engineering.

Do you have a favorite car or shoe? What's the apex of shoe or auto design?

Wow. That's a tough question… One of the more iconic shoes for me, and this might be a little left field, but to me one iconic shoe is the Airmax 95. Another is the Nike Presto. That was pretty good… Automotive… well over 10 years ago the first iteration of the Audi TT… People called it retro design but it wasn't really. It was sort of a revolution in automotive design, I think. Of course the real retro design is like… I don't know if you know the Nissan Be-1 or the Figaro… That Be-1 was the inspiration of the new Mini and Beetle. You'll see it's very similar to the new Mini, but the Be-1 came out more than 10 years before. That was a man named Sakai-san and he pretty much invented retro design.

I'm continually fascinated the more we talk about this, by the shoe and car relationship, as I'm neither sneakerhead nor car… head… but…

If you look at the car and shoe, especially a sneaker from the side, it's very similar. They both have a direction. And they're both modes of transportation, by the way. I mean it's true. It's a directional design. It's not a stationary object like a coffee cup. It moves in one direction.

 Are there examples of designers who've gone from footwear to auto or vice-versa?

I don't think there's one well-known designer, but there are many (unknown). There are a lot of car designers who get tired of big budget car companies. Like say at Nike you are responsible for one footwear. You can claim you designed the Airmax whatever, or Nike Presto etc. But in automotive design, it's rare that you can claim you designed… I dunno… the Toyota Corolla. It's such a big budget project, with many people involved. You design a door handle for a Civic. It doesn't matter. It's so hard to claim you designed the whole car. Usually in automotive design, someone higher up in management claims it's his design, whatever the new car is. It's never an individual designer who designed it and gets recognition. many auto designers get tired of it and come to a place like Nike where you can have whole responsibility for that specific product.

I've certainly heard of more shoe designers than car designers… but I guess that goes back to what I was saying before about authorship and collaboration. what would you like to design next? What's your dream job?

I think as far as jobs go, I have something close to what I'd call my dream job. I don't think I'd call myself a designer anymore, but what I found especially at Nike, is that I enjoyed coming up with new concepts rather than new looks or aesthetics. So yeah I enjoy myself. And you know, concepts usually end up in some visual form as well. You work, whether internally or externally, with a design team to show what you came up with.

How does the design process begin for you? Do you start with a team or do you start alone…

For me, I don't know if it's a design process but my projects sort of known as innovative thinking… it starts with meeting people. It inspires me to have new ideas. Having conversations… like this!

Can I add one thing? Vision Gran Turismo is a new project we came up with this year. You know Gran Turismo was the first video game to incorporate real-time cars, but this year it was our 15th year anniversary so we asked friends in the automotive industry to design their own Gran Turismo.




Auto companies gave us designs that don't exist in the real world. GT is going 2.0, pretty much.  You’ll see a lot of automotive logos in the video but you'll also see Nike and Air Jordan brand logos in there as well.  This whole concept started with Nike 1 in 2004. It was the first (racing simulation car) that didn't exist in the real world. Then in 2008, Citroen asked us to design a virtual car exclusively for Gran Turismo. Internally, the GT Citroen became so popular internally they made a full-scale concept car. The third one was a Gran Turismo X2010 we designed with a Formula One team, and you know F1 has so many regulations, which is why so many F1 cars look the same. So we wondered, “what if there were no regulations?” Now with Vision Gran Turismo is a whole new thing that started actually… with Nike One. Cars that exist only in the virtual world but in a very realistic way.

And that obviously engenders real car designs.

By including a company like Nike, it opens it up to the possibility of other brands' concept cars. Like a Coca-cola car, or maybe an Apple car. I dunno. That would be cool, no?

*In the interest of full disclosure, jeffstaple actually introduced us to Takuya (thanks, Jeff!). Find out more at Gran Turismo and tell us if you think Nike One looks like an Air Force One, at Twitter and Facebook!