Professor Gordon Salchow
University of Cincinnati

 

Thoughts on Rob Roy Kelly
Rob Roy Kelly is a scholar, a personality, and a player. Rob is one of those extremely rare birds whose inclusive knowledge, pure unselfishness, unwavering sense of ethics, and infectious zeal distinguishes him from most of us. I am one of thousands of people whose life and career was tremendously enhanced by his work and manner. I was a naive kid who entered the Minneapolis School of Art’s Graphic Design Department, as Rob was forming it in the late 1950s. I then followed his lead through Yale University’s graduate program, after which he invited me to teach with him at the Kansas City Art Institute. He had moved there to produce the second undergraduate Department of Graphic Design. I jumped at this opportunity because I knew that I could continue to learn from him. It was at his urging, after a few years, that I moved on to develop the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Graphic Design. I married another of his students and our first daughter is named Kelly, who is also a graphic designer.

I have spent forty years learning from, being prodded by, experiencing the influence of, debating with, and admiring Rob Roy Kelly. He is my friend and my guide but I have a lot of company. He has had an enormous effect on our peers and on the fields of higher education and graphic design. I’ll bet that he has counseled more young people toward graduate studies in graphic design than has any other single person.

Rob personified momentum from the time of his 1955 MFA from Yale. In 1957 he established the first undergraduate Department of Graphic Design at the Minneapolis School. Rob was omnipresent. He was an unbelievably energetic role-model who was designing, teaching, administering, planning, and initiating. He seemed to know the essence and the potential of each individual student.

He was a bold and incisive educator/critic but always constructive and encouraging. He favored one baggy kelly-green sweater, good-naturedly loved his work, and knew everyone. Everyone knows of him. His travel experiences were shared in ways that additionally seeded our minds. We heard, for the first times, about conferences, prominent designers,
related publications, airport architecture, and great seafood. He brought distinguished community and design figures into the classroom. He embraced a form-based foundation and birthed community/service oriented student projects. My 1962 classmates did senior projects with local organizations such as educational television, the Zoo, Public Health Service.

At the Kansas City Art Institute, beginning in 1964, Rob expanded the sophistication of undergraduate programming through his proactive recruitment for new faculty. This included a pioneering effort to bring talented young graduates of the School of Design in Basel, Switzerland. He assembled an eager faculty group, arranged for a shared office/studio that inspired interaction, created team teaching situations as a norm, and led the group to operate as a design alliance doing intriguing projects with noncommercial organizations. Often, students and faculty worked together on civic issues such as a new city seal/identity and a crime prevention program. It was fun and it seemed perfectly normal to be working together in this studio every evening and weekend.

Students had continuous access to us. This environment was a postgraduate education for the young faculty who, despite their growing value, Rob eventually nudged out for the sake of their own careers. Consequently, his influence reverberated in other places. Subsequent to Kansas City, Rob’s career carried him through Carnegie Mellon University and Arizona State University. Parallel to such full-time roles, however, he has energetically served on numerous review panels for a variety of schools, published continuously, and been a potent guest speaker.

Rob is consistently admired and appreciated by his peers, community leaders, and his students but controversy has often swirled around his dealings with administrators. My perception is that this is because he sees the roles of a department head or a senior faculty member as morally obligatory. Rob represents and promotes junior faculty and student interests, educational and ethical ideals, and program excellence. Deans sometimes feel that their agendas should be paramount. Rob operates on the principle that administration exists to carry out the needs of the curriculum rather than the reverse. Something that has always amazed me, and probably bugs those above him, is Rob’s uncanny ability to perceive and to comprehend situations and attitudes that surround him without seeming to be listening or asking many questions. He soaks up information while he is talking. He spots pretension and ineptness. He has strong opinions, no false modesty, and is not impressed with titles or wealth, so antagonists need to be
self-confident and knowledgeable. Rob’s impatience and authoritative passion have sometimes created problems for himself while opening doors for the rest of us.

I have witnessed a bunch of eager spurts by novice designers, educators, and schools. Occasionally they blossom but too often they fizzle after a few loud years. I hear about innovations concerning socially minded design initiatives, educational pedagogies, design history and criticism, team teaching, etc… Inevitably the roots can, whether the protagonist realizes it or not, be traced back to my pal.

Rob Roy Kelly has persevered as one of our few legitimate education gurus, with unflagging enthusiasm, into a sixth decade. He has done it all and was often the first to try it. Rob has spearheaded undergraduate graphic design education, been a consistent voice for educational standards, fathered community projects, fertilized with integration of Swiss educational approach, mentored many, and has dutifully documented and editorialized about it all.

Rob cannot help but immerse himself in any avocation (fly-fishing to wood-type to trivets to burls to gardening). Inevitably they gain gusto until he becomes the authority. We are fortunate that he zeroed in on design education. There is no doubt but that our discipline would be noticeably different and emptier were it not for RRK. He has been a wise spokesperson and a conscientious leader.