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Three Things I Learnt From Abstract: Art of Design – Episode 5

The fifth episode of Netflix’s Abstract Art of Design is about Ralph Gilles, the Head of global design at Chrysler. Originally from Canada, Ralph joined Chrysler in 1992 and was the lead designer behind the iconic Chrysler 300.

Here are three things that I learned from this episode.

Follow your dream

Son of Haitian immigrants, Ralph started sketching car designs at a young age. in 1987, at age of 17, he sent his designs to the legendary Lee Iacocca at Chrysler. He even got a response back – not from Lee Iacocca but from Neil Walling who was one of the designers at Chrysler who recommended few good colleges for him to pursue his passion.

Fast forward and Ralph found himself studying engineering at the college instead. He lasted about 6 weeks in the engineering college before dropping out and joining a design college. Because of the earlier letter, his loyalty remained with Chrysler and sure enough, after graduating he ended up working with the same man who sent him the letter 5 years earlier.

Ralph’s story is now well documented and the perseverance that he showed in his earlier years saw him stick through the 2009 bailout of Chrysler by the US government which saw Chrysler lose about 30% of its work force. Ralph endured that uncertainty and came across on the other side of that period.

Have a vision

I think this can be said for all the artists featured in this series so far. They all seem t have a vision of who the end product is for and what they want to say with it. In this episode, we follow the production of the Chrysler SM-1 concept car – a futuristic minivan. Ralph knows that this car is being designed for a younger population. They know that they want the car to be an expansion of everyone’s homes.

The Chrysler SM-1

The Chrysler SM-1

This is highlighted best in a particular scene when Ralph and his team are looking at a 1:1 model of the car and together they decide to move the wheelbase by mere 4 inches because that is how they envisioned it. It’s almost as if they pre-visualised how the car should look in their minds and then went on to make sure it looked exactly like that.

Embracing uncertainty

Towards the end of the episode, Ralph and his team have to present the model for approval to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Sergio Marchionne and you can sense the nervousness in them about the upcoming presentation.

I think uncertainty is common in all creative endeavors. Creativity means coming up with a photograph, a painting, a novel – anything – and presenting it to the world. Of course, there’s a big risk that it will get rejected but that’s something we have to embrace and accept anyway. That is what Ralph and his team faced when presenting the SM-1 concept car to Sergio.

In our photography, I think we could do well to acknowledge the uncertainty that comes with presenting our work to the world. More personal, honest and authentic the work is, more uncertainty we face. But if we don’t acknowledge this uncertainty, we may find ourselves finding ways to avoid it all together – and that typically happens by either not doing our work or doing it in a way that’s not so personal and honest.


This post is part of a series. You can read about the other episodes by clicking the links below.

Abstract: Art of Design – Episode 6: Paula Scher

Abstract: Art of Design – Episode 4: Bjarke Ingels

Abstract: Art of Design – Episode 3: Es Devlin

Abstract: Art of Design – Episode 2: Tinker Hatfield

Abstract: Art of Design – Episode 1: Christoph Niemann

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