How Archives Can Teach Design Students to Effectively Communicate Ideas
How Archives Can Teach Design Students to Effectively Communicate Ideas

Design students learn very quickly how to make things look good. It is much harder to learn to create a photograph, an advertisement, a website, or a corporate logo that communicates nuanced ideas and feelings to a specific audience.

Designers must have a good understanding of the content that is behind their design if they are to produce more than “eye candy” or stereotypes. Designers work with a wide range of topics outside of their frame of reference.

Thus design students need to learn to do research – not the deep research of scholars, but they need to be able to quickly familiarize themselves with new topics and to synthesize disparate information.

As a professor of photography in a communication design program, I teach students to manipulate photographic style to convey information, emotion, and point of view to a particular audience. While the digital tools that designers use will change many times during the careers of our current students, the ability to familiarize themselves with new topics and convey information will remain essential.

Archival materials offer students an engaging way to read, summarize, and synthesize content. Because the documents are unique, and not pre-digested, they require close observation and evaluation in a way that secondary sources do not.

Over the past several semesters, my introductory course Digital Photography has visited the archives to examine early photography formats, including daguerreotypes and tintypes. This initial exercise helps students develop their powers of observation. They note physical characteristics, compare objects, and ask questions about technical processes and social and economic context.

I learned that historical and technical background knowledge helps students process what could be an overwhelming research experience. I show Early Photography: Making Daguerreotypes, a short video made by the Getty Museum, in class before visiting the archives.

This contextualization improves the experience for design student who have spent very little time studying the history of photography. Overall, this visit allows my students to consider historical change in relationship to photography, a medium that they will work with over the course of their careers.

In a subsequent visit, the students examine archival materials about Green-Wood Cemetery in advance of a field trip and photo shoot there. Among these materials is a viewbook of Green-Wood Cemetery which includes promotional photos of the site. Students realize that the document is similar to a present-day tourist brochure because it was printed to attract visitors to Green-Wood for leisure.

This challenges most students’ assumptions about cemeteries and pushes them to see (and later photograph) the space as a multipurpose site that is variously a public park, a memorial, and a site of commerce. Archival documents made many functions of Green-Wood clear in a way that a lecture or reading could not. Because they closely read and analyzed archival documents, students were ready to observe and chronicle Green-Wood.

Of course, it is essential to teach design students to cultivate a photographic style through formal properties such as lighting direction, depth of field, and angle of view. But by focusing exclusively on style, students can produce images that look good but that don’t mean anything.

By cultivating skills of observation, analysis, and synthesis, an encounter with archival materials in a beginning photography course enables students to make important connections between style and content.

To cite this page:
Robin Michals, “How Archives Can Teach Design Students to Effectively Communicate Ideas,”, accessed [insert date here],