In comparison to classical shallow representation learning techniques, deep neural networks have achieved superior performance in nearly every application benchmark. But despite their clear empirical advantages, it is still not well understood what makes them so effective. To approach this question, we introduce deep frame approximation, a unifying framework for representation learning with structured overcomplete frames. While exact inference requires iterative optimization, it may be approximated by the operations of a feed-forward deep neural network. We then indirectly analyze how model capacity relates to the frame structure induced by architectural hyperparameters such as depth, width, and skip connections. We quantify these structural differences with the deep frame potential, a data-independent measure of coherence linked to representation uniqueness and stability. As a criterion for model selection, we show correlation with generalization error on a variety of common deep network architectures such as ResNets and DenseNets. We also demonstrate how recurrent networks implementing iterative optimization algorithms achieve performance comparable to their feed-forward approximations. This connection to the established theory of overcomplete representations suggests promising new directions for principled deep network architecture design with less reliance on ad-hoc engineering.