Design Matters: Ralph Gilles Talks Design

Ralph Gilles not only heads the Chrysler
Design Office, but he’s also the president
and CEO of the SRT Brand and Motorsports.

Design done right is unmistakable.

The 2005 Chrysler
300: not the only
car Gilles worked on—
by far—but certainly
the one he’s most
identified with.

One thing that plenty of people probably don’t know about Ralph Gilles, the man who rocketed to automotive design stardom when the Chrysler 300 went on sale in early 2004, is that the graduate of the College for Creative Studies (BFA in industrial design, ’92), the man who has helped shape fast and fresh forms for Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and Ram for nearly 20 years, has an MBA, as well (Michigan State, ’02).

Arguably, that makes him a dual threat of sorts. And it also makes him capable of not only leading Chrysler Group’s Design Office, as senior vice president, but also as president and CEO of SRT Brand and Motorsports for Chrysler.
Gilles began his career at Chrysler in ’92, when he joined the Design Office as what pretty much every fresh design school graduate starts as: a designer. In the years since, he has worked on interiors and exteriors, on color and trim, on large cars and small, on trucks and accessories. On pretty much everything that Chrysler Group has put on the streets. And in 2009, the same year that he was named senior vp for Design, Gilles was appointed president and CEO of Dodge Brand, putting him in an unambiguous business role. (Not that running Design doesn’t have business metrics associated with it, but . . .) He achieved his latest business position in June, 2011, when management chairs were switched around in Auburn Hills.
So what is Gilles’s take, as a designer, on the current state of automotive design, both domestically and internationally? 
One of the things that strikes him about what’s occurring is that there is a reinvention and refocusing of the Detroit-based companies, and within them, brands or divisions “doing amazing things in terms of finding their own voice and aesthetic.” He cites—of course—Chrysler, but also gives props to Cadillac and Ford in this regard.
And as we pull back to a wider focus on the global industry, he first points out that one needs to take into account the fact that the U.S. market is huge, and consequently, “there’s everything from passionate buyers to commodity buyers. So within these companies there’s inevitably ‘safe’ design, things that have to ‘haul the mail,’ so to speak.” He explains that consequently, “There’s kind of a ‘public service’ side of design”—for the commodity buyers—“and then there’s the aspiration piece of it that I see making a big comeback, which is delightful to me.”
While he “absolutely” thinks there is such a thing as “American design”—“Our culture begets solutions that you wouldn’t see anywhere else”—and he believes that there is tremendous influence by U.S. auto designers on products from companies based in other parts of the world—“If you look at the Japanese and even the Koreans, which have studios in the U.S., either they’re hiring Americans or hiring people from around the world who have gone to U.S. schools”—he also thinks there is a “globalization of design.”
“The ‘One Ford’ thing can’t be ignored.”
Not only does he cite the Ford Focus and Fiesta making their ways from Europe to the U.S., but he points ou that the Dodge Journey is now being sold in Europe as the Freemont and the Fiat 500 is being sold in the U.S. as, well, the Fiat 500. 
While he acknowledges that “there is a lot of bland stuff” out there, he believes “the bland days are over.”
And he thinks that “design has become the battleground” in the market, and he credits companies like Kia for “stepping up” their designs, which makes it necessary for the other vehicle manufacturers to elevate their games, as well. 
Gilles provides an example of how design can make a difference, by citing a car from another company: “The Prius has been around for almost 12 years. The first Prius was hideous. Oddly proportioned. A strange-looking car. It really had a tiny, tiny audience. Designers put their hands on it and made it cool-looking and iconic. “People respond to design time and time again. Design can make brands, define brands. It can take a nerdy thing and make it cool. It can make a small car beautiful to behold.”
But he admits that in many ways, what design can do for a product is “intangible—it is hard to show up on the ledger.” If done right, however, it can make a significant difference: “At the end of the day, most things are emotional purchases. And that’s where design comes in.”
He ticks off things from the shape of the Coke bottle to the Nike swoosh as examples of design that make a difference in the fortunes of companies. And, yes, there is the nod to Apple, as well, for providing authentic designs that are expressions of the DNA of the company, something that Gilles says comes from designers having a thorough understanding of the culture that makes Apple Apple and not something else.
Gilles says that in the case of Chrysler, he reports directly to Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne. “At better companies,Design reports right to the top of the house. This makes sure it’s heard and taken seriously. 
“It’s not that Design is more important than any other group, it’s just that it has a seat at the table when it comes to making a decision.”
But Gilles maintains that it is up to designers to be more than people who don’t take into account the broad considerations and implications when developing a product, noting that they have to consider everything from the business case to the end customer, from manufacturability to the life cycle of a product. “It is a deep science, not just art,” he says, and explains that some designers, who focus on “satisfying one customer—the designer and not anyone else,” create products that will probably have nothing more than a short shelf life. At best.
While some people may be concerned about the effects of technology on vehicle designs, fearing that the designs will become too mechanical or sterile as a result of its use, Gilles embraces it. For example, he says that thanks to being able to do simulations such as fluid dynamics, designers are able to get aerodynamic information well before they have a scale- or full-size model of the vehicle. By getting the
aero information early on in the design process they can make modifications—sometimes wholesale changes—to the vehicle while it is still being developed rather than “putting on spoilers and things at the end of the process” to achieve the aero requirements.
“The car will become, I think, more beautiful, because if you look at nature and things that deal with fluid dynamics, such as birds or fish, you’ll get more beautiful solutions. When we’ve had to modify a car because of aero, it actually made the car more interesting looking, more deliberate in its design.”