Adventures in Type Saturday, June 9th, 2018

Engaging Undergraduate Visual Communication Design Students in Faculty-led Research: A Case Study of the Reno Type Archive

Katherine Hepworth, Assistant Professor, University of Nevada, Reno
Amber Walsh, Lecturer, University of Nevada, Reno

The Reno Type Archive engages students in the act of making as a vehicle for understanding, updating the traditional undergraduate design course experience.

Involving undergraduate students in faculty-led, academic research projects is rare in visual communication design. However, it is a common practice in many fields because of its multiple benefits: undergraduate research disperses a research-oriented culture within a department, provides students with invaluable critical perspectives on their undergraduate coursework, and increases student familiarity and confidence with research methods generally (Russell, Hancock & McCullough, 2007). As the field of visual communication design becomes more research-oriented, and faculty come under increasing pressure to be research active, providing undergraduate research experiences in classes can benefit the field in multiple ways. Engaging undergraduate visual communication design students in faculty-led research provides an additional opportunity for students to use the act of making as a vehicle for understanding the bridge between physical and digital domains in a research context.

This presentation outlines the planning, process, and results of engaging freshman design students in a large-scale digital humanities research project at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR). The Reno Type Archive project celebrates Reno’s rich typographic history, with particular emphasis on the significance of the iconic neon signs from Reno’s heyday, 1931 to 1960. Neon signs reflect local cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic variations in their construction, use of symbolism, and typography. Reno’s early twentieth century neon signs demonstrate significant typographic innovation, artistry, and craftsmanship, and have important differences with other regional neon traditions, reflecting the city’s dual identity as both frontier outpost and a thriving center for liberal entertainment. When completed, the project will include digital preservation of existing in situ neon signs, recreations of previously standing neon signs, extensive records of the history of each sign, a map-based web interface for exploring the Archive’s data, and social histories of the significance of Reno’s typographic tradition. Participation in this research project constituted an innovative learning space for undergraduate design students that allowed them to physically and digitally explore culturally rich local typographic forms, improving both their understanding of typography and research. This puts the student-designer at the intersection of addressing communication and cultural connections.

Planning this project required the research team to work closely with Reno’s foremost neon sign expert and UNR Digital Initiatives staff. In terms of process, undergraduate students participated in this project, through assignments in a freshman visual communication design course. Students were given assignments to create multiple digital artifacts documenting 25 of Reno’s most iconic, in situ signs. For each sign, students took photographs, created digital illustrations, and assembled short animations of the complete cycle of neon stages. Student work was then edited for consistency, geotagged, and formed the main content of a geolocated, online digital archive, ready to be included in the next stage of the Reno Type Archive project. As well as outlining the project’s planning, process, and results, the presenters argue for the act of making as a vehicle for understanding physical and digital spaces in a research context, increasing student exposure to faculty-led research, and fostering a research-oriented culture.