Past IDer: Wally Hanna

by New Idiom


Wally Hanna came to ID+IIT as an undergrad in the fall of 1963 from a Pennsylvania village of 500 to a sprawling metropolis of 4 + million. His design career has taken him to all major US cities and some of Europe. After calling New York and Chicago home several times, he now resides in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

His daughter was born while at ID, and his son 4 years later in Chicago. He is happily married for the third and last time to the Manager of New Product Development Marketing for the Consumer Experience Lab of Kohler Company.

In which ways and dimensions do you think ID changed your career?

ID created my career. I was a C- prep school student, admitted to IIT on academic probation. I had a good but under-developed sense of form and aesthetics, an ability to visualize and translate ideas to paper, a strong head for natural mechanics and how things worked, but was weak in math beyond algebra. A career in the physical sciences was out of the question. I had a short attention span. Once I learned how to do something, I lost interest in doing it over and over again. Hanging drywall was not a career option.

I spent the summer of my junior prep school year visiting design schools across the country. All but ID were still teaching intuitive creativity and how to make the outcomes just look pretty. Architecture intrigued me during my tour of ID and Crown Hall, but watching students draw acres of perfect bricks with a ruling pen bored me to tears. One ink glitch and you’re out, no whiteout allowed. I quickly saw that Product Design as espoused by the ID was the only path that could blend my talents into a useful avocation, if not career.

What are the skills learned at ID that you use the most in your current practice?

I learned new ways of thinking, methods, tools, and how to define a “problem” in ways that clearly led to its solution. Jay Doblin had recently been appointed Director and was expanding ID’s educational philosophy and curriculum with a new foundation underlying the Bauhaus intuitive, crafts-based approach by teaching “and here’s why” methods demanded by the business world. Jay brought Charles Owen and others on board to teach and develop processes that supported that vision. My class was the first to graduate with the benefit of this program under our belts and in our minds.

My ID education has given me the freedom to re-invent myself multiple times.

  • I joined a full service design consultancy from school, then joined a commercial interior architecture firm and did facility needs requirements programming and space planning.
  • As an independent consultant, I designed a modular system of school furniture manufactured for 30 new Chicago Public Schools.
  • I became a specialist in the design of trading floors and technical support facilities for stock, options and commodity exchanges, and for securities trading firms and banks. I founded an architecture firm to do this work.
  • Recognizing a need for built facilities management and maintenance services, I directed the process re-engineering and software systems design and installation for multiple City of Chicago, such as O’Hare and Midway airports, the CTA, the CHA, Chicago Public Schools.
  • I co-managed the consultant services relationship responsible for construction documents preparation for rehab and improvements to 300+ school buildings for the Chicago Public Schools.
  • I was business development director for Illinois’ largest African-American construction and consulting services firm.
  • I am VP of Client Services for a start-up financial transaction processing company. Our self-service kiosks allow anyone to pay utility bills, transfer money, purchase gift cards, make municipal infraction payments, and do ATM banking transactions.
  • I am independently developing several consumer products and their production, sales and delivery channels. I also consult to the personal property insurance industry, and provide architectural consulting for multiple clients.

You’ve obviously had a very rich background and seen changes in our industry over the past 40 years. Based on that, what kinds of shifts do you see now and into the future?

People blog, build animations and design their homes on the internet. Green design is now expected as part of everything. Every bit of information you want to know is available at an internet button click.

The works of design, like technology, is a window moving through time. The left side sees established process where the late adopters are comfortable using design to produce evolutionary product. The right side sees the risk takers who depend on aggressive design innovation to achieve cutting edge market penetration, if not early dominance.

Companies that have espoused design to maintain their edge are coming to recognize that innovation management is a discipline of its own. Companies are open-sourcing ideation and are partnering to share creative resources. Witness the revolution at Big Pharma.

What hard times did you have at ID while a student, and what got you through them?

Adapting to being transplanted overnight from bucolic mountainous south-central Pennsylvania by AMTRAK to Chicago and IIT was challenging. My insertion into, at that time, a very cold campus of concrete, mini-trees, harsh yellow brick buildings, an expressway and EL, and the surrounding Chicago desolation, I was numbed for my first ½ year. Depression was not yet an accepted medical condition.

Getting mugged and hospitalized, and discovering a body on the 31st St. beach rocks did nothing to improve my outlook those first months. Nothing in common and my inability to communicate or share anything with my South Korean Chemistry Major dorm roommate was further isolating. While learning to silver solder in Ray Pearson’s shop studio, the news that JFK had been assassinated was painful.

The required calculus course taught by a grad thesis student overwhelmed me. After failing it twice I negotiated a D grade by swearing to hire a consultant if I ever faced a calculus problem in my career.

This space is for anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself.

After ID I have lived in several lofts in Chicago’s Printer’s Row neighborhood for over 25 years. When I first moved to the neighborhood, every building was either abandoned or a storage warehouse. Dearborn, Federal and Plymouth Streets were still brick with trolley tracks. I parked my motorcycle in my loft using the freight elevator. Living there then was cheap. Lofts there now considerably exceed the housing price range of anyone I know.

I now live in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, on Lake Michigan. This community of 55,000 provides me with every cultural, services and retail convenience I need. Milwaukee is 45 minutes south, Chicago is 2 hrs south. Many major industries are here and all support the City’s culture. I work from home electronically and am as productive as I wish to be. I wish this for you as well.

I am proud that my daughter is a farrier and breeds horses on 250 acres in Pennsylvania, and that my son is a professional fly fishing guide in Montana.

We all live in a world of immense opportunity. Design your future and your career choices accordingly.