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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

Feb. 15, 2008

Louden clear on technology

by Teddi Barron, News Service

Rob Louden

ISU Printing Services' Rob Louden and a few of his photographs. Photo by Bob Elbert.

Back in 1987, a couple of hotshot graphic designers housed in the old ERI Building that stood west of Marston Hall were hard at work, affixing a masking-tape footprint of a computer, keyboard and mouse to the top of a desk.

Rob Louden and Kurt Plagge hoped the visual aid would help convince Janet Rohler, their boss in the Office of Editorial Services (now Engineering Communications and Marketing), to approve their request for desktop publishing hardware and software. Louden and Plagge -- who created technical engineering illustrations and promotional newsletters and brochures -- accessed mainframe graphics applications through a cumbersome network of VAX mini-computer workstations. But they were itching for the newest technology -- computer desktop publishing.

"I had a PC computer and PageMaker software at home and I provided all the information I could to convince [Rohler] about all the things we could do with it," Louden said. "And finally we wore her down. She came up with the funds, and we got a Mac SE 30, a Zenith, PageMaker and a 300 dpi printer. We were maybe the first on campus to have desktop publishing."

Fast forward 20 years and you'll find Louden still persuading administrators to keep Iowa State at the forefront of graphics technology. As computer publishing specialist for ISU Printing and Copy Services for 18 years, he has helped steer the campus community through an ever-changing maze of graphics software and hardware.

Although that's not what Louden set out to do when he came to ISU in 1969, he'd be the first to tell you that his 39 years here have worked out pretty well.

Taking the lead

Like many of his generation who watched with awe as the first men landed on the moon in 1969, Louden wanted to be an astronaut. He enrolled in aerospace engineering at ISU, but after more than two years, he switched to architecture.

"I realized half my brain wasn't up to par," he laughed. "But mostly, I was sick of math."

With a proclivity for engineering and technology, considerable drafting skills and above-average creativity, Louden quickly was tabbed for a part-time job in ISU's Media Graphics office. By the time he graduated with a degree in architecture in 1974, the position became full time. Louden worked there for 12 years, designing everything from slides to displays. In 1986, he joined the Office of Editorial Services as a graphic designer. He and co-worker Plagge soon became the go-to guys for emerging desktop publishing operations on campus.

Eventually, Printing Services recognized the need for an electronic prepress office to assist the evolving needs of campus designers. They created a position and hired Louden in 1990.

Staying creative

As the photos around Louden's office indicate, he is a photographer ("I consider myself a high-end amateur, and once in a while I get lucky") and nature lover. He owns 36 acres of undeveloped land overlooking the Des Moines River in Boone County. Since he bought the land in 1991, he has been restoring prairie there. And each spring, he takes time off to hunt morel mushrooms.

Near a photo of his cat named Mouse and the baby birds in his backyard, there's an Elvis magnet. It hints at Louden's other passion -- music.

Most weekends, three long-time friends and seasoned musicians gather in Louden's living room to play music. He plays guitar and bass with the eclectic, four-piece acoustic band, El Rio Skunko Trio. Watching over them from a top shelf is a bust of Beethoven wearing a leopard skin fez. Everything in Louden's life, it seems, is seasoned with a sense of fun.

Just look at the names of the Ames bands he has played in over the years: Space Doubt, Past Due Rhythm Band, Jet Bunsen and The Burners, and Los Band Jose (The Banjos). His high school band was called Hyre Aftre ("Because you couldn't hear after we played").

Louden, who comes from Fairfield, is an ISU double legacy of sorts. Both his father and grandfather were members of the Board of Regents. His father, Thomas Andrew Louden, served from 1964 to 1971. His grandfather and namesake, Robert Roy Louden, served in the 1940s until his death in 1951. Louden House in Helser Hall is named for him.

Breaking it all down

Anyone who works with Louden knows that once he learns how something works, he explains it like nobody else. That's why he excels at assisting clients with prepress needs, said his boss, Gary Boyd, manager of Printing and Copy Services.

"He enjoys the challenge of assisting others in using and learning the technology. And he relates well to customers of all skill levels," Boyd said. "Some people attempt to impress others by explaining how complicated and difficult their work is. Rob's approach seems to be the opposite -- keep it simple and understandable."

Louden is constantly learning, keeping up with graphics software and hardware so he can help clients.

"If I figure something out, it usually sticks with me," Louden said. "I have a natural interest in how things work. A lot of the way I learn is directed to a specific task I have to accomplish. And I figure out how to figure it out -- I call someone or look at screens or a manual, whatever it takes."

As a result, he spends a fair share of his time on the phone with campus clients who need help with their digital printing files.

"People can't get their files to us, or don't know how to set up a document, or they've set it up but don't think it's right. They call me and ask me to look at it, troubleshoot it," Louden said.

The next solution

But lately, he's been heavily involved with maximizing the use of the university's 18-month-old hybrid digital press for variable data printing applications.

"Variable data printing is essentially like a glorified mail merge," Louden said. "For example, the software can match different photos, graphics and text to each prospective student's particular major interest. Each personalized postcard is different. Lists can also be presorted with our Mail Manager software in order to reduce postal costs."

Louden and Zach Covington, the department's systems support specialist, work closely with teams from admissions, athletics, alumni and several colleges to link data files to electronic publication designs for the variable printing projects.

Louden also is on the department's management and marketing teams. And he gets to use his photography skills from time to time on in-house promotional products like stationery boxes with photos of campus buildings or an oversized photo of the campanile used for a product show.

"It's a nice variety of work and it keeps me thinking and learning and moving around," he said. "I like working here and I don't mind coming to work on Mondays."


"A lot of the way I learn is directed to a specific task I have to accomplish. And I figure out how to figure it out."

Rob Louden