Ralph Gilles is not a typical auto designer. He’s Black, for one. Two, he has an MBA—not exactly the earmarks of a car visionary. And yet he is highly honored in the industry and has been named Head of Design of the Fiat Chrysler Group.
“I do think that my background is a little different than most because I also have a business degree,” Gilles said to Black Enterprise. “As a designer, typically, the design language that we communicate with to others can be a barrier. So, by getting a business degree I’ve tried to help break down the communication barrier in terms of dealing with those in the industry who are not designers.”
Clearly, Gilles, 38, accomplished his mission, while also displaying creativity that has helped Chrysler produce cars that are modern and stylish.
He was the lead designer of the award-winning 2005 Chrysler 300C after starting his career as a designer with the company in 1992. He steadily ascended to oversee design for Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles. He was listed as one of America’s Top Black Designers by Black Enterprise in 2005. He also was Senior VP of Design for the Chrysler Group, CEO of Dodge and CEO of Chrysler’s Street and Racing Technology division.
So, Gilles has been around and been a prominent component to Chrysler’s ascent. In his new role, he told BE there is more to come.
“I’m lucky because I work on the future,” he said. “I’m at a minimum of two years ahead of what’s out on the market today. It’s kind of frustrating because there’s a lot of work we’ve been doing in the past three years that the media or consumers aren’t able to see just yet … We have to, unfortunately, ignore what’s in the media
right now. It’s all negative energy and we try not to get wrapped up in it. At Chrysler, there’s a huge family kind of atmosphere. We’re all in this together, and we’re like one big extended family. I think all of us imagine a time when we can actually look back on this and say, ‘Wow, we made it past this.’ In the 16 years I’ve been at Chrysler, I’ve never seen us do better work than what we’re doing right now.”
Gilles, who studied design at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and holds an MBA from Michigan State University, is responsible for the updated Dodge Ram pickup, the newest Chrysler and Dodge minivans and the Chrysler 200C battery electric concept vehicle recently unveiled at this year’s Detroit International Auto Show. Indeed, he is one of the hottest designers in the industry.
“It’s in my nature not to follow the trend,” he said about future designs. “The challenge for most car designers is not to seem like we’re following the trend but instead coming up with the not-so-obvious solution. We are always going to look for ways to not play follow the leader but instead we want to lead and design products that not only have a unique look but also facilitate life (like our stow ‘n go minivan seating) and setting trends.”