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Congratulations, Professor Baer

2014 August 15
by Matt

Interesting bit of news, at least to me, in the latest update from the College of Design at dear auld ISU. Professor Roger Baer is 1) beginning the last year of “a phased retirement,” and 2) to receive the 2014 Christian Petersen Design Award.

I had not heard of this award, frankly, but as a former student I would say Roger meets the criteria “alumni, staff and friends of the university [recognized] for distinguished work that advances the design and art professions.” Indeed, more than anything else, the fact that Prof. Baer has been at the College of Design for all but two years of my entire life and is only now receiving this award persuades me that it must be a very selective honor; if he had to wait 30+ years the other recipients must be an impressive bunch.

Because Roger was, and I’m sure still is, one of the good ones.

My graphic design teachers were a mixed bag of many good, a few great, and, well, others who make for interesting stories at least. I still believe that I could walk into a classroom tomorrow and match the average efficacy of the instruction I received, but, 1) I must recognize that this is partly a product of my own high opinion of myself and 2) that is, again, measured against the average.

A few design faculty were distinctly better than average, and Roger Baer was one of these. In fact there was a bit of a joke, probably not entirely without truth, among students that Roger and Ed Lehner were  held back for the final semester’s core studio classes so that each year’s soon-to-be-alumni were sent off with positive last experiences. (As opposed to those of earlier years and the occasional representative of the “interesting” teacher category.)

To whatever extent this might have been intentional, it was an entirely sound idea. Ed Lehner, retired some years now, was my adviser and support in a little independent study project. I drew Roger for my last graphic design professor, and would probably rate him as highly as any art or design teacher in all four years.

Some of this is, probably, just owing to personality and style, but I honestly think these are not completely invalid criteria in context. By my senior year, I didn’t necessarily need a lot of hand-holding (at least as a design student; as a professional I had much to learn but the classroom was only ever going to provide limited help there, I think). Which was just as well because ISU’s graphic design program never really provided a lot in the way of hand-holding, at any point, anyway. As I’ve discussed here and with other designers over the years, in some ways my graphic design instruction seems shockingly minimalist. The great majority of our studios consisted of assigning students a project, discussing in-progress work with us, then leading a critique and handing out grades. It was basically learn—or don’t—by doing, and I can’t help imagining that there might be a better way, but on balance I suppose it did work well enough for me.

Meanwhile, in this context, it strikes me that Roger’s simultaneously wise and laid-back aura was not only pleasant but very well-adapted for purpose. As the class came down mostly to having a voice of experience available to provide guidance, but otherwise just getting on with it, Roger Baer was the man. No theatrics, no awkwardness, no hobby-horses (like those which I’m sure I would be riding, e.g.). Just this professional, but entirely approachable, dignified gentleman sharing calm, reason and confidence with us every day. This photo really captures Roger exactly as I remember him (indeed, he doesn’t seem to have aged a day in 14 years anyway).

Timeless Roger addressing typical millennial children

Photo by Special Collections Department/Iowa State University Library

Always well-dressed without seeming like this distanced him from us. You could talk to this guy, and trust him. His opinions wouldn’t be universally shared… it’s graphic design, not math, and in the end much of “good” vs “bad” is subjective… but if you went out into the world and some art director crapped on your portfolio, you could still shrug and carry on because, hey, if it is a subjective profession and you can’t please everyone, Roger’s judgment still felt like it was at least as valid as the prig who interviewed you at that ad agency.

Roger is probably one of the best models of quiet dignity I have ever met, as one of my favorite memories from his class demonstrates. For one or another project, one of my classmates prepared a kind of boy wizard kit (I think the Harry Potter books were just getting big around then…?) including a delightfully whimsical cone-shaped wizard’s hat. It was probably inevitable that someone then suggested Roger try it on. He did, and damned if the result was not simultaneously fun and cool, and one very dignified and credible-looking wise wizard!

I think spending some time around a professor who can, and will, pull that off is worth something just by itself. There is, after all, a lot more to learn in training to be a designer (or anything) than just theory and technique.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that all of this is just comment on the classroom side of Roger’s career. According to the press release, behind the scenes as an administrator he largely built the graphic design program as I knew it, including most of those components which helped round out the minimalist studio experience into a practical prologue to real, professional design work. Wider-ranging elective courses, the required internship, the professional practices class… it’s safe to say that without Roger Baer’s influence on graphic design at Iowa State, I would be even more laughably lost than I am, if I somehow even had a graphic design career at all. It’s probably very appropriate that as I sit here in the usual physical center of the career I do have, surrounded by the life which it has made possible, every time I look up I see on the opposite wall the College of Design graduation poster from 2000… designed by one Roger Baer.

So: congratulations, professor, and thanks. I wish I could be there next Monday for the award ceremony. It would be awfully tempting to present you a wizard’s hat… but, really, you’ve never needed the hat for people to see a wizard, anyway.

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