New IDer: Shin Sano

by New Idiom

If you’re sitting in class and suddenly you hear an extremely knowledgeable anecdote about the car industry, it’s probably from Shin Sano, this week’s featured new IDer. He’s a full-time MDM student from Tokyo, by way of New York City. I caught up with Shin in between laptop traumas and team meetings so he could tell me more about his time as a car designer and how he landed at ID.


Shin had just turned 39 the day before, and he mentioned a saying from his past. Unfortunately, there isn’t a clean translation from Japanese, but the essence of the proverb is this: once a man reaches the age of 40, he has “determined his way in the world.” When I asked him if he subscribed to it, he recalled former colleagues who worked really hard through their late 30’s, let the inertia take over upon turning 40, and then everything became easy. “But not if you’re changing careers,” said Shin, who started the program here after 15 years with Toyota.

Moving through the ranks

After graduating with a BFA from the Musashino Art University in Tokyo in 1992, he joined Toyota’s exterior styling group, where he worked on a second model of a Lexus sedan. Using excited hand gestures, he explained that great technical design skill is required for this, but there are inherent frustrations in working around the limitations of a common frame or platform. Even different manufacturers have the same exact dimensions for wheel base and they share similar exterior profiles within product classes, so true creativity is fairly constrained.

He eventually moved into Toyota’s Color and Trim design group, where he was responsible for the interior and exterior color and material palettes for various car lines. Working with external suppliers, he developed strategies to streamline directions for Toyota’s brands without sacrificing marketability.  While his colleagues were sent abroad to Art Center or CCS, Toyota sponsored Shin for a year at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City to get a different perspective and earn his associate’s degree in Textile Surface Design.

After returning to Japan and working for a few more years, Shin devised a plan to allow him to work for Calty, which is Toyota’s US design arm out in Newport Beach, CA. However, he longed to return to NYC, so he proposed to work out of a small shared area of Toyota North America’s Manhattan office that was usually used for contract trend researchers. In 2002, Shin moved back to New   York with his wife, (his son was later born in NYC) to head up Calty research projects, working with Smart Design to create Gen Y strategies for the Scion XB and share them with the California studio.

The ID experience

Shin learned about ID’s methods through collaborating with ID alum Melody Roberts while she was his client contact at Smart. He was exposed to her processes for analysis and synthesis, and he joined the program to further develop his skills in this area.

Upon arriving, he was surprised at the lack of infrastructure. Coming from an elaborate design studio, it’s quite a change to see the environment of a knowledge-based school. But once he took a closer look at all the whiteboards and the diagrams and the Post-its, he was sold. He knew this was where he needed to be.

When I asked him what he felt he could bring to the school, he mentioned the Toyota way of identifying and prioritizing problems and their approach to solving them in the Kaizen heritage. Toyota employees are all required to internalize this process (they even have to work on an assembly line for 2 months!)  He drew a fishbone diagram to demonstrate how this structured way of thinking works. Look for Shin’s future framework that adapts this to the design process!