Two ID alumni are shaping the future of autonomous driving at Waymo

YooJung Ahn and Ryan Powell are designing drivers, not cars

By Andrew Connor

“I never thought I would design cars for a living. But something I realized is that a car is not a car anymore,” says YooJung Ahn (MDes 2006), head of design at Waymo, a Google-owned company aiming to perfect autonomous driving technology.

Ryan Powell (MDes 2001), Waymo’s head of UX and research, adds: “As machine learning and AI begin to make their way into different products, designing the framework or the system for how something might operate is a new space for designers.”

Both Ahn and Powell share the company’s ultimate goal of creating effective autonomous driving technology that can relieve commuters and remove human error from the road. YooJung and Ryan share something else in common, too: master’s degrees from IIT Institute of Design.

Both were drawn to the design profession because they were interested in the creative process, and both came to ID because of the school’s emphasis on design as a way to solve problems. Before enrolling, YooJung was an industrial designer at LG. Powell came to ID with a background in product marketing and a desire to shift to product design.

As head of design, YooJung is responsible for vehicle design—including the friendly, koala-faced Firefly prototype Google unveiled in 2014.

“My team and I work all the way from concept to production,” says YooJung. “The edge gets pretty blurry and overlapping. I engage with other departments, and they have different ideas about what we can do, and we can propose designs based on that too. We can keep expanding the boundaries of influence.”

Ryan, meanwhile, leads his team of product designers and researchers in the creation of user-centered digital solutions for Waymo. In the new frontier of self-driving cars, Waymo isn’t just designing for riders—users also include pedestrians and other drivers.

Currently, Waymo operates a rideshare service in Phoenix called Waymo One. “There is a wide range of people in Phoenix—young working professionals, families with small children, retired couples—that use our service every day. It helps us learn more about people’s needs,” says Ryan.

As YooJung points out, the two aren’t so much tasked with designing a car, but rather a “robot driver.” This places them at the precipice of emerging technology and consumer products that integrate the latest in both physical hardware and digital software. And since the car must be able to safely see and interact with the outside world, they also must coordinate their work with both the public and other companies.

It’s complex and uncharted territory in design and technology, but it’s a place in which both designers thrive—a readiness they attribute to the design skills they’ve amassed over the years at ID and in their careers.

“As designers the value that we bring to the table is that we are good problem solvers. We also bring a human-centered lens to the problems we’re solving at Waymo,” says Ryan.

“At ID, I learned about how you find the answer for a good design for whatever purpose. ID teaches a lot about design planning, so you can learn the big picture—how to create this product from the beginning and make this system and process effective,” adds YooJung.