by David Zatz
The launch of the Laramie Limited and Ram Rebel brought the opportunity to speak with Ram’s head of interior design, Ryan Nagode — within a Ram Rebel, whose sound insulation did a fine job of blocking out a nearby Honda presentation.
Which cars and trucks have you been responsible for?
I started 12 years ago on June 30. I started in the exterior studio downstairs, so basically Avenger and Journey exteriors were my first three years of Chrysler. At that point in time, DaimlerChrysler. Then switched over midway through. I was working on the Journey. Went into our truck studio, our Jeep truck studio, and really started work back in 2006 on the new generation of our pickup trucks.
My first interior was the Ram, the 2009 Ram truck. And then while that was finishing up, I started work on the 2011 mid-cycle Wrangler, interior.
Then after that I moved into working on the Dart interior. Midway through that, I became chief for the studio. So I had responsibility for Viper as well as the new ’13 Ram trucks, finishing up Dart, and then basically everything under the Challenger/Charger. The last 2015 versions of those were under my wing. Then everything since then in terms of anything Ram, anything SRT-badged, and Fiat North American product.
What did you do with Fiat?
Any product actions that we bring over. Most of the design work for Fiat stuff is done over in Europe, but there are uniquenesses that we do for the US market, especially center consoles and that type of stuff, the cup holders and safety-related stuff, we take on. It’s a whirlwind. Been around the block.
It’s cool. I'm fascinated by the details and that type of stuff. I feel more at home. I think in the end, I get a better feeling about what I do once I start doing the interior stuff.
So when I look at the climate controls of one of these new Fiats, is that your work or is that their work?
That is mostly in Fiat’s camp, but since the merger of Fiat and Chrysler we’re starting to be more global, so as we start releasing new products, you'll start to see more similarities between what we’re doing. We’re trying to be conscious about the extra work, making sure that we spend the time in doing the main surfaces and all that type of stuff. I think that’s something we’ve learned internally is to create some of these — like the door/window switches, the climate control — to do it well one time, and don’t mess with it. You can restyle it, retheme it, but don’t fix it if it ain’t broken.
So are you responsible for everything I see here? [in the interior of the Ram 1500 Rebel]
Everything in terms of what you step into in terms of the overall interior experience is part of my watch. At the end of the day, we have responsibility also for the electronics, the theming. The overall experience is basically what as a chief for the interiors is our responsibility — to kind of group it all together. Obviously we have a big team. It’s all about funneling it all together into one cohesive statement.
I had to buy a pair of eyeglasses so I could read the electronic display on some of the newer cars while I drive. These displays are very customizable. Is there anything in the works for large print editions?
It’s something – it’s an interesting point. And like you mentioned, it is customizable, and I think the electronics are becoming something that is much more stable, like a phone can do. It’s hard to, I think, explain to the average customer the difference between electronics in your phone – handheld – and what electronics in a car have to do, right?
Last 20 years without crashing.
Yes. It’s weather, extreme conditions. It takes time to develop stuff that’s right and appropriate. But that’s a good point. . . and actually Ralph Gilles and I just did a presentation for an Ignite Automotive event in Detroit. One of his topics was designing cars for the aging generations and how that’s a focus. It’s something we should be thinking about. It was interesting to talk about that. I think it’ll definitely play into how we think about things in the future for sure.
In theory it’s easy, right? It should be easy. It’s just there is a lot packed into it. There’s a lot of information that could be up. You don’t want it to be too distracting at the same time, too. That’s a good point.
It’s much, much worse in [consumer] stereo equipment, but, here, looking for the tow/haul mode, I can read it but it is very tiny.
We have a set of standards that we try to abide by. That’s actually part of our HMI group, our human/machine interface team. That was established a few years back.
It’s really about distances from our occupant, how the size of the text should be, how tall it should be. That’s some of the battles we end up having in discussions is obviously design and engineering and packaging sometimes can clash and we have to remember that there’s some of these things that we’ve got to hold to. And one of them is font size. You should see us being pretty good in terms of how the further something is away from the occupant, usually we increase the font size pretty well. That’s something we do think about for sure.
I've noticed there’s been a lot of easter eggs recently. You were talking about detail. Is that part of it? Are you sneaking those in?
No, it starts off with my boss, Klaus, he’s definitely a believer in that. It’s something we’ve slowly done. We started it, you know, a lot with the Jeeps. The 2011 Wrangler, we started doing some cool things. And that one, really the Wrangler started to be the first one that we did it on. We did a little . . . some little stuff in the frit with the little Willys going up the side of the frit and little things were the Jeep grills and the head lamps and stuff.
And certain products I think are easier to do. Jeep is one of them. We do a lot with the trails and that type of – you know, coordinates. We were doing that with some of our lifestyle products. We were putting kind of coordinates for the center of the Arctic Circle and some things that maybe gets people interested and it’s not so blatant. I mean it’s something someone has to go back and type those coordinates and see where it’s at.
So that’s something the electronics have actually afforded us the possibilities of doing some of that too. Cherokee has the Willys, the 1941 Willys, in there as the parallel parking vehicle within the display. So I think you'll see more.
We don’t want to do it too much, but I know people are looking for it which is kind of cool. It’s something that people ask about, and they want to know when we come out with a new vehicle, “Hey, where are some Easter eggs?” We tell a lot of them, but there’s some we also leave up to the customer and kind of have them find out.
There are varying ranges. Some of it is just nice design elements, grouping some of the things.
One of the cool things is all the backgrounds with our UConnect system start to link up to what we have, like the tire tread pattern that we have in the seats as well as in the background. Some of those are just subtle Easter eggs.
But we’re looking at how we can innovate and keep innovating with some of that stuff. Because I think it’s a thing that brings personality to the interior and to the car in general. There’s a little bit of a connection. I think that’s something that we really like doing for sure, given the vehicles we design have some personality.
“The Knob.” I like it. It is controversial, and I've heard both sides.
Yes, you look at it and you might think of maybe a stereotype type of application, that you've got to have a shifter. And for sure, we saw that in the development of it. We made sure we did some research with it. We got out there to the customers and gave them a lot of options. We went through a lot of different scenarios. And this was the best of everything we tested, and it really afforded what’s nicer.
One of the cool things we did for the new truck was a place to put your phone which really opens up the usage for this are. That’s the benefits of having the knob, and some of our other vehicles have taken advantage of it too.
A truck has a ton of space, so you’re gaining some more, but in a passenger car, [the knob shifter is] huge too. The 200 has a rotary shifter and you have a whole sliding console system in there which you wouldn’t have been able to do. You can literally put a full-sized purse in that console, which is pretty amazing. I think the naysayers have for the most part gone away. I think everyone really values it.
We’ve upped it too with making sure that it’s got a great feel. The metal knob is awesome, and the click-in of the gears I think is something too that we’ve been working on to make sure that . . . it’s electronically now, but how mechanical can we make it feel? I think it’s something that the customer wants to feel.
There really is no need for mechanical connection between the driver and the transmission any more because everything is electronic. Everything is switched. Even if you see gear shifters, a lot of times all they’re doing is making switch connections. There’s no cable.
It’s efficiencies too. It’s packaging space. There’s more and more electrical things put in there, modules, module locations. So anything you can do. Cable routing is a lot of space once you really get down to it. It’s cool, it’s nice that we’ve been able to move to something like that. [Nick Cappa, Ram Communications, noted that when transmissions were cable-operated, there was a good deal of work involved in making shifters convenient and comfortable, including using exact cable lengths for proper leverage; and we noted that the cables tended to stretch over time.]
Is weight reduction an issue when you’re designing the interior?
Yes, it’s a whole system of things. Seats are heavy. Seats are one of the biggest things with an interior, that we try to look at optimizing. The key is that every little ounce adds up in the end. One thing by itself might not mean a lot, but we try to do the best we can, especially in our tracked vehicles where we are shooting for the EPA labels. We’re being very sensitive about that.
Yes, we want to weigh it out. Is the cost of making something light worth the pounds that you’re saving, and is there other areas that you could spend the money more wisely in terms of making it lighter? We have a bunch of guys, that that’s all they’re looking for. They’re looking for ways to reduce weight. Sometimes we do things just because we’ve always done them, and okay, ask a little bit of questions and change it up. It’s something we’re definitely conscious of, for sure.
Q. How have things changed for you over the years? you've worked for DaimlerChrysler, Cerberus, and Fiat Chrysler.
It’s been nice. you'll really appreciate the decision-making process and the power behind what’s decided; and there’s a follow through with FCA and Sergio coming in. It’s nice.
It’s hard to acknowledge that, when you’re in those other companies that have led us. But once you see a company like when Fiat came in and they were very open to the design offices talking with each other, they were very open for the technology and engineering, before we were even one company it was amazing. We felt like we were one even before officially being one.
So it’s nice. It’s been nice that we’ve been able to work together so well, trade technologies, trade design stuff. It’s good. It’s a nice company to work for for sure.
You said that you’re starting to get more involved in the global design process. How involved would you have been with the 500X?
The 500X for the most part was designed in Turin, it’s produced over there, and [we mainly] developed a color and trim palette for the US. We worked with the Turin studios. So a lot of that was more on the color and trim team. But again, even though the color and trim is there, it’s still under the wing of the studio to say “Hey, this is making sense.”
The 500X was a lot less involvement than, say, the 500. When we first brought the 500 over, we had to do a lot of stuff to make it US-compliant. So we redid the door panels and redid the center console for that version.
It’s give-and-take. Some products from the Fiat portion, we take ownership of. One of the things that we’ve made sure of from the start is we will share design, cool things we’ve done along the way, to maybe help the process go, but they are two separate design offices. We act like that because the brands are sacred.
The brands, I think, we don’t want to disturb sort of the history we have with each brand. They know their Fiat products. They know the history that they’ve had. Same on our side, like Ram or Dodge or Jeep, etc. So I think there’s still a boundary and it’s more of a design boundary. But we share knowledge back-and-forth all the time.
I can’t help but notice that black is an overriding theme and Laramie Limited, in fact, it has been the only interior color. Is this based on customer choice? And if it’s based on customer choice, is it based on total orders or customer special orders?
Before we redid the truck in ’09, we had a lot of medium greys and medium beiges. There’s just something about certain tones when you’re using plastic and some of the vinyls and that type of stuff, it doesn’t feel high-quality. And there’s just something about wearing a black suit, just a nice black suit, that your details pop.
I think that’s the thing that we’ve learned over the years, that it’s okay to have a very calming black, very consistent, and then accent it with colors. That’s what we’ve chosen for like you mentioned the Limited; we’ve chosen it for the Rebel that we’re sitting in. It’s appropriate.
It’s also I look at it too from a truck standpoint. It’s great for it’s going to get dirty. You know, trucks are bound to get dirty. One of the cool things with us bringing in the headliner with dark, which we brought in for Rebel, is fingerprints and all the stuff that if someone gets going to Lowes or Home Depot, that type of stuff, that maybe is more prevalent on a truck than a passenger car. That’s one of the other cool things about choosing black, is it hides a lot of that stuff. It’s easier to clean up.
I think that’s some of the stuff that we’ve learned just along the way, that blacks are cool. And if you gave customers a choice on a dealership lot, they’re probably going to choose a black interior. If they’re in warmer climates, that’s when they’ll start to choose some other colors. But their safe choice is usually black.
So is there any plan to open up the spectrum at any point in the future? I mean it used to be you could order a car in beige, blue, red, white, pretty much anything.
Certain products like Challenger and Charger for ’15. Viper’s huge, yes. Certain products make sense. If you look at the full lineup of the Ram truck, our heart of the market, our SLT, our Laramies, we offer many colors. Even Longhorn comes in two different flavors, the all-black interior with the brown seats and then it comes in a lighter tone, a frost color with Canyon, like a warmer brown.
It’s just sometimes the extremes, we tend to kind of limit the choices. Like our Express and Tradesman really only comes in a black environment. And again, that’s perfect for someone that’s going to get it dirty. And then like I mentioned, the Limited.
At the core of our market, we tend to offer more colors, more variations. That’s what we do on Charger and Challenger too. As Nick mentioned, Viper, Viper’s got a plethora of colors. Now with the whole custom color program for Viper, it gives the customer like a full option to pick any trim, any color that is in the lineup. They can have anything.
So is that partly a cost thing and partly a testing thing?
No. There’s a certain point that you don’t want to have so many options that the dealers . . . the dealers end up ordering a lot of our cars, right? At the end of the day, that tends to be normally what happens. And if there’s so much options, I think it starts to maybe look confusing. So we try to help that process.
We also try to limit to a certain amount of interior colors that go with exterior colors so that we’re kind of helping along the way the look of the truck, the look the interior goes, that you’re not putting this red interior with a green exterior. Right? But I think it’s more just down to what makes sense. Cost doesn’t rule that much into it.
Do you ever go back to the vintage cars for inspiration? I recall one of the 2015 cars has Plymouth Barracuda influenced gauge clusters.
Certain vehicles, it makes sense, even just generations of vehicle. Challenger is ideal. You know, we went back and looked at the ’71 Challenger, both interior and exterior, and made sure. We love that both exterior and interior-wise. It was perfect. So from the interior of the Challenger we have the trapezoidal center console which is reminiscent of those era of vehicles. This cockpit type of feel that we have in the car.
Ram is a unique point because of the decision to separate from Dodge Ram, and remove that out of the bill. I think we go back to some historic elements when it makes sense. Power Wagon’s one of them. There’s a name recognition that goes back. But I think that’s one of the cool things about the truck too is it kind of has a good aesthetic. It’s got a little bit of history with the whole semi cab type of styling, the drop fender type of look. So it’s not as overtly historical, but it’s kind of a nice future type of look to it.
But a Challenger is natural. That’s “go retro” but just do a little bit of flare and uniqueness to it. That’s cool. So it works for certain vehicles, but I don’t think it’s a mandate across the board.
But retro’s in right now. It seems to be a lot of people love history. They love advertisements and that type of stuff that relate back to historical elements and stuff. Can’t go wrong with it. You just can’t overdo it, I think, is part of it too.
When the Dart came out, the center display was extremely customizable. It seems to me each time you come out with a new vehicle, they get a little less and less customizable. Is that a matter of customers not using the option?
No. I think the Dart and the Ram actually share a pretty good amount of information, the amount of crossbreeding. I think some of the stuff we’ve been working on is also making it not seem like there’s a lot of information if you don’t want it. You know, to try to allow the customer to sort of simplify what’s up on the screen.
A lot of it is once you get into the system you can see that all that stuff is there. It’s just how we’re learning to display it. Challenger, Charger, Cherokee, and our Chrysler 200, those are the newest of our display lineup. I think we do a good job of getting information in and out. And you know, the truck is good. The extra gauges come in. But then in the state that it’s in right now the extra gauges are gone. It’s a little bit more simplifieid.
From a standpoint of design we’ve kept all the information there. It’s just a matter of how much actually is set up to be displayed.
A long time ago I was told that amber backlighting was ideal for keeping your night vision. For a few years old vehicles were amber. Now it seems like nothing is amber. Chrysler is blue. Ram is white.
We started to switch over. Most of our vehicles are switching over to white. It’s a nice, clean white. Dart has some of the extra ambient lighting that we've done. And we’ve found that in order to do some of that stuff successfully we have to have more of a consistent light.
So the truck right now actually is all sapphire blue, but all of our, as we are launching new products, we’re starting to come out with more in the cool white realm. And the 200 has cool white. The Cherokee has cool white, the Renegade. So we’re starting to do that.
In years past, we never got into amber too much. We were always a blue-green in terms of most of our switch colors. But it’s something that we felt the cool white does the job. It’s pretty good. I think sometimes too much of the color, yeah, it’s hard on your eyes depending on the light and that type of stuff.
So everyone’s tried different things, and for us I think we’re finding that the white, the cool white, is pretty successful. The sapphire blue that’s in here and then has been in most of the Chrysler products too has got a nice look as well. But I think from our standpoint, just a visual standpoint, we’d like to go to cool white if we can.
There’s a lot of mechanical gauges on this truck. I love mechanical gauges. But do you see in the future switching to all digital – like in the 200C concept came out a few years back.
Yes. The whole digital. Again, certain vehicles make sense. Ram trucks, my initiative has been to leave it analog. We also have the center stack redundancy. There’s just something I think a truck guy or truck girl, there’s just the physicality, it needs to be there. So in terms of direction-type stuff, I'm pushing still analog with a good mix of digital. Mix it in. But other products, I think the possibilities are there to go more digital.
The Viper has some analog, but it’s actually meant to look like it’s more of a digital screen going across with the smoked lenses and that type of stuff. But I like seeing dimension. I think it’s appropriate for the truck lineup. So I think it’s a mix. It’s a good mix of some digital and some analog.
Do you ever see a full digital display that’s emulating an analog display coming? Or is that . . .
I think that’s a possibility for sure. I think when you do that you also have to be able to switch to a more digital display too, which we do in most of our products. Let’s see, the Dart has where we emulate an analog type of look within that center area and then you can switch it out and have it just be numbers. That’s nice. So yes, we do it. We work on it.
you've got to make sure that the electronics are able to keep up with it, because you don’t want the jittering of the needles and that type of thing. you've got to make sure that the electronics support it.
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