Local Graphic Design Research


example collaborative timeline

field trip image

Level: ,
Duration: 5 weeks
Filed Under: , , , , , , ,
Bookmark Project

Project Brief

Students are asked to find 3 graphic design artifacts from the Charlotte area to research, write about, contribute to the People's Graphic Design Archive (PGDA), and create a collective timeline visualization with their classmates, which all are complied into a class book (see link in Project Deliverables for an example). 

The project calendar, which lasts 5 weeks, starts with an introduction to parts of Charlotte's past, such as the civil rights movement and how neighborhoods have changed over time to help inform them on some history as they find artifacts and begin to form a narrative around those objects.

After that introduction, students have a Miro space where they make a list of possible research interests. I then hand that off to our university's special collections librarian prior to our class field trip to the archives on campus. The special collections librarian provides further context and history for Charlotte, as well as informs students how bias is part of the archiving process anywhere they look (in short, someone decided to keep what has been preserved and not keep what hasn't been). The librarian also shows students how to physically handle documents with care. Quite a few students find artifacts from that field trip, but it is not a requirement. Around the same time as the field trip, I show them how to access online archives of newspapers and journals that are local to Charlotte that we have access to through our university databases. I also share tools like the WaybackMachine to view past interactive media, and other online North Carolina archives, such as DigitalNC.org.

The main parameters are that the artifacts be graphic design and at least 10 years old to comply with PGDA submission guidelines. I do not approve or deny student contributions. In fact, I have been surprised at times by the artifacts they have decided are considered graphic design. One example being a minimalist carved wooden owl. The piece looked like Hello Kitty and its few pieces could be disassembled as if it were a package design. The owl was the previous mascot of UNC Charlotte, and the student found it in a box in the special collections. After the student's explanation, I not only agree that the piece is graphic design, but that it has historical significance and that student deemed that it should have a place in the PGDA's archive. That is an overarching goal of the archive, after all, to democratize graphic design history and allow people to contribute such artifacts. 

Students write short essays about each artifact, and a separate in-class peer review writing session for points occurs near the end of the project so students review each others' writing. Their submissions are the reviews they gave and edits they made on their group members' PDF files. After that session, I review their writing more closely and encourage them with their research questions if needed. 

To let students focus on their research and writing, I created a very basic template with styles in place in InDesign for students to each use to populate with their writings and images of their findings, as well as sources and links to their contributions to the PGDA. I hand off the template to the students, they fill in their content, and then they hand the files back to me to create the final class book, which includes the collaborative timeline of their contributions from Miro, as well as an Appendix of images from previous semesters.

The final "critique" is a presentation of their findings, not a reading of their writings. Students prepare a separate narrative to share not only their findings, but also their explorations such as where they looked, who they spoke to, etc. as it pertains to their research process. 

The most recent version of this project (see deliverables) includes students' analysis of artifacts added to the PGDA from other cities, as well as local research. 

(For context, this project takes place in a senior-level design research course at UNC Charlotte with studio contact hours.)

Learning Objectives

Students learn how to ask questions to learn things about objects. One of the exercises we do right before we start this project is a suggested exercise I found on the PGDA Resources page under "Assignments & Prompts" where students practice interrogating objects (I have them use objects not from Charlotte that they find in the PGDA). The original exercise prompt was contributed by Brockett Horne and Matthew Bird here. The exercise helps students learn to ask questions that they can then try to seek answers for with their research. In preparation for the project, students also do a semiotics exercise in class to further encourage them to explore meaning and context in imagery they find.

Another objective beyond research and writing is studying previous class books. At this point we have 6 volumes of the book (Fall 2021, Spring 2022, Fall 2022, Spring 2023, Fall 2023, and Spring 2024), which students have PDF copies of in Canvas. They have to study previous volumes by their predecessors so they don't repeat research for artifacts previously contributed. 


Within the book (one example of 6 current volumes) linked below, you can find examples of student research and writing, a collaborative timeline with the link to their Miro board, as well as an Appendix section to see artifacts that had previously been contributed by students at that time. 

Most recent book (Volume 6)

Book example (volume 3 of 6) on the PGDA




View my lightning round talk about this project on Design Incubation's website

View data visualization in Miro that I created to analyze and track 6 semesters of student research choices. 

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