Background Electric Electric driving

Designing electric cars a party? ‘Much more freedom’

October 27, 2022

Will the cars of all brands soon be interchangeable? With the advent of electric driving, are we only going to have uniformity sausages? Not if it is up to Ralph Gilles, who as “Chief Design Officer” directs all of Stellantis’ design departments. He argues that designing electric cars is anything but boring. “We are going to see very exciting designs and can do interesting things because the engine is not in the way,” he said. Gilles also wants to make the very point that each brand retains the freedom to make something beautiful out of it. “We want to leave things that are unique to each brand with that brand,” said the lead designer.

Furthermore, in this exclusive interview with Gilles, we talk about the global differences within Stellantis, his role within the organization, the rise of the Chinese market and recruiting a new breed of designers.

Brand identity

How do you ensure that each brand retains its identity?

“Number one is that we that we have a brand chef for every brand. So each brand has its own designer who works for me. With that, we keep the brands pure. We regularly check each brand’s manifestos and they do the same themselves to make sure they stay pure. At the same time, we share information between the brands to make sure they don’t compete with each other and that the things that are unique to each brand stay with that brand. We also work on big projects to find unique details, solutions and themes for each brand, but behind the scenes we try our best to be as efficient a company as possible. That way we are more competitive and can offer more to our customers.”

Designing electric cars

Currently, the new STLA platforms are under development. Do these give you more latitude as a designer?

“Yes, because we spend less on platform development. You see, those platforms are very modular and many different body shapes fit on them, so we can save quite a bit on that. Some of that money we put back into the designs.”

Do you think that will actually make electric car designs more exciting?

“Yes, without a doubt. Designing electric cars brings different solutions and different packaging. We’re going to see very exciting designs. When we talk about cars outside your market, like the Charger, we can do interesting things with the shape because the motor is not in the way.”

Jeep Avenger

If we take a brand like Jeep for a moment. The models marketed in America are in some ways quite different from the Jeeps for the European market. How do you deal with that as a designer?

“We have a very effective studio in Turin that has been there for a long time. An Italian, Daniele Calonaci, is the head of the studio. It made sense to give him the assignment for the Jeep Avenger. He spent time in America to understand the Jeep brand, but ultimately the Avenger is the first Jeep designed in Europe and built for Europeans.”

Do you think the Jeep Avenger increases the brand’s chances in Europe?

“Yes indeed, it is so important because in the past we have adapted products like the Compass and the Renegade for the European market. But this one at 4.08 meters, the Avenger is the most compact Jeep. I wish it came to America, but it’s a little too small for that. I think it’s perfect for the European market and I can’t wait to see the sales results.”

Role of Chief Designer

You said before that there are many designers under you in the concern. So what is your role in that?

“Chief motivator,” Gilles says with a laugh. “Motivation, team building, taking care of the financial and technical challenges. That’s the usual, but the main thing is team building and making sure the different teams get along. We share technical solutions among ourselves, for example designing with VR glasses. That’s very cool. Every way we can share between countries and different studios in South Africa, Germany, France and Italy, among others. So we’re well spread around the world to quickly learn what’s going on everywhere.”

Can these teams get along a little bit?

“Not only do they get along well, but now that covid is over they can share more with each other, travel more and spend more time with each other in each other’s countries. For example, the infotainment team is a virtual group divided into three different studios, a large group with leaders in different countries and people in every market. The pandemic actually helped us make the organization smaller. The virtual meetings made the distances between teams a lot smaller. Now we are partly going back to physical meetings, but we will mix both styles. I myself am in America, but I travel to Europe at least 12 times a year.”

Which brand are you most excited about as a lead designer?

“Oh, wow, Jeep is still growing very fast, almost tripling in the last decade. That story is still running at the moment. But also Lancia, I don’t know a designer in the world who doesn’t love Lancia. The team there is doing a good job at the moment, but unfortunately I can’t talk about it.”


We have talked about America and Europe, but there is another big market: China. How will Stellantis position itself in that market?

“Work in progress. It is certainly a difficult challenge, everyone admits. It also changes every day because it is a very dynamic market. Taking it to Jeep for a moment: they love our brand. They have Jeep clubs and the Chinese are exploring their country more off-road. The Jeep Wrangler plug-in hybrid is very popular there. They understand that it is a unique brand of which there is only one.”

Speaking of designs for the Chinese market, does Stellantis use a local team there as well?

“We have a small think tank there for about ten years now. We use that to generate ideas. The Chinese market is unique and adapts quickly. Cloud-based infotainment is very interesting for us there, for example. Furthermore, we set up a Jeep experiment with the Shanghai Design Academy where we asked them to think about Jeep in 2040. The results were fantastic. The students immediately understood that Jeep is about off-roading and can be quickly adapted to the future. By the way, we also do these projects in the rest of the world, for us it’s also a great way to recruit staff.”


What kind of designers is Stellantis mainly looking for now?

“The types of designers we try to recruit are quite different. We open ourselves up to product designers, the infotainment, as well as gamers. Now a lot of game designers and programmers work for me. It’s now an interesting mix between styling and software because the car almost becomes a computer on wheels. With the user interface, there will be a base that is the same for all brands, but the part you see will be completely tailored to each brand.”

Source photo: Instagram account Ralph Gilles