Art of Drive: Automotive Designer James Nissen

Words Craig Metros Photography Luke Ray.

Our Art of Drive series interviews artists, designers and photographers to find out what inspires them.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” How many times are we asked this during our wonder years? When James Nissen was growing up in Melbourne, his consistent and quick response was "Car Designer".  However, Nissen had two passions; cars and jet aircraft. His two dream careers were sketching future automotive concepts and piloting state-of-the-art military aircraft. Two very solid careers, both requiring serious commitment and focus. After high school, Nissen went on to pursue both dreams.

In primary school, the young Nissen started drawing cartoons that eventually led to drawing planes. In high school, planes gave way to sketching cars. "At the time, I found the Ford vs. Holden car culture in Australia very intriguing," recalls Nissen. "Planes are much more engineering driven and I thought designing cars would be so much more interesting."

Another creative discovery during high school was graffiti. "Along with cars, I also started sketching graffiti. I really enjoyed translating those smaller sketches to a much larger scale," Nissen recalls. "Graffiti really helped my sketching and designing process. It was a great medium to push and evolve shapes and line even though it was two dimensional." High school wasn't just about spray painting blank walls and sketching cars. Nissen excelled in chemistry, mathematics, physics, and visual communications, he graduated from high school in 2003 and started Monash University in 2004. Monash is a local university that offers a world class Industrial and Automotive Design program.  His focus was car design and his short-term goal was to land an internship with Ford or Holden. That happened in 2007 when the Ford Motor Company offered him a year-long internship at their Research and Design Centre in Campbellfield, North of Melbourne. Nissen returned to Monash in 2008 to finish his final year. After graduation, the humble, highly-motivated, and extremely talented Nissen started working as a designer for Ford.


With the Monash years behind him and his new career just beginning, Nissen still had jets on his mind. In 2009, Nissen went to the Avalon Air Show. "That show really rekindled my passion to fly jets," remembers Nissen. His curiosity for what it would take to pursue his second dream was growing. By mid 2009, programs coming into the Ford Research and Design Centre were slowing down.

Nissen took advantage of the down time and contacted the College of Aeronautical Science at the University of Queensland. This is where he needed to complete an aeronautical mathematics and physics course before being eligible to apply for a job as a pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force. After weeks of contemplation, Nissen decided he wanted no regrets in his life. He signed up to begin pilot aptitude testing with the Australian Defence Force. At the end of 2009, Nissen resigned from Ford.

"I started my studies almost immediately. It was going very well and I was passing all my initial tests, " a very keen Nissen recalls. He passed the first and second stage of pilot aptitude testing with ease. "I was passing everything and that was making my experience even more enjoyable," explains Nissen. The last stage of training before being qualified to enlist with the Royal Australian Air Force was Nissen's flight screening. This was a two week flying course in Tamworth, New South Wales.        

In May of 2010, Nissen was notified that he passed the flight course and was offered a position in the Royal Australian Army as a Helicopter pilot. Nissen really wanted to pilot jet aircraft. After making a very difficult decision, Nissen returned to Ford as a car designer.

"I'm very content now knowing I pursued both dreams since I was a kid."

Nissen, who will be moving to Cologne, Germany to work in the Ford Merkenich design studio this August, seems to be very happy and comfortable with designing cars again. "The amount of study leading up to all the testing I had to go through, has helped me to stay even more focused and work harder these days as a designer," according to Nissen. He is currently working on advanced programs and is really enjoying it. Nissen is known for coming in the studio on weekends to brainstorm and sketch advance automotive interiors.  

Nissen still thinks about aircraft in general. "When designing vehicles, whether it's interior or exterior design, aircraft is my greatest source of inspiration," Nissen points out. He still thinks about flying for recreation. As soon as Nissen can afford it, his plan is to start flying lessons to obtain his private pilot's licence.

This article first appeared in Fuel Magazine issue 14.