Storyboard: Chris Hacker

Design Across Generations

It took me a long time to realize that it was my destiny to become a teacher.

As an adult designer, I realized one day there had been some basic things missing in my own education. I felt compelled to go back to the drawing board and help others learn the basics.

I was a creative kid, the son — and grandson — of graphic designers. My father had a drawing table in the house and spent much of his time doing freelance work and, in his spare time, painting. I believe that all those hours spent in his company, I was subconsciously absorbing this process, and that I still practice a variation of it to this day.

My grandfather, meanwhile, was the creative director for a company that printed metal labels for things like cosmetics and perfumes. By observing his process, I saw how creativity could be manifested in ways that were radically different from what my father was doing.

They say you are what your environment makes of you. As a young man, my environment was fertile, creative, and ripe with possibility. When I was in high school, my parents took me to Montreal to visit EXPO ‘67. The experience was more than formative: it shaped me.

There was an exhibit at the fair that explained the basic ins and outs of industrial design. In Montreal, I saw the magic of design in a place that was filled with design with a capital “D”: Buckminster Fuller’s Dome for the US Pavilion, Habitat 67 by architect Moshe Safdie, and many other wildly interesting exhibits. This was an utterly modern approach to design that I had never seen before. This led to me applying to the University of Cincinnati School of Design Architecture and Art (now known as DAAP) for a spot in the Industrial Design program. After I was accepted, I never looked back.

At the time, my desire for design was blossoming and growing. In the 1970’s, my focus veered toward sustainable design. I sought out Victor Papanek’s incredible book, “Design for the Real World,” and devoured its contents.

The book talks about how the ideal triumvirate of design involves a union of community, environment and sustainability. Wherever my career has taken me, I have prioritized sustainability as one of the hallmarks of my work. I believe that designers have the power to make a difference in how companies conduct business. It’s up to us to propose the right materials, to devise the right way of thinking about things, to ensure that companies are held accountable for what they and we, as their employees, create.

The last twenty years of my career has been spent managing design organizations. It’s a skill that many designers don’t possess: learning how to manage people and build a team. My first effort at doing this was a failure. I had no idea what I was doing. The things that had worked for me as a designer did not work for me as a manager of designers. It triggered a search for me: “how can I help this team do this, how do we do it well, and how can I master the techniques of managing design from?”

My own creative search is an ongoing one. Asking the right questions is important. So is being open to what the universe throws at you. In some ways, I’ve come farther than my father and grandfather ever did. In other ways — and I have to remind myself of this — I wouldn’t be a creative leader without their patience, love and guidance.

It’s important to remember to change ourselves — as designers and as people — as we respond to the changing world. Yet, I have to admit, through it all, I’m still that awestruck little kid who used to sit in front of his dad’s drawing table, watching and learning as he goes. Perhaps that’s why I love being a teacher: you get to keep the cycle of creativity going, bestowing responsibility to a whole new generation of creatives. Is there a greater gift than that?

Chris Hacker
Chair, Product Design
Chief Design Officer for Hacker Design Group

My own creative search is an ongoing one. Asking the right questions is important. So is being open to what the universe throws at you.

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