briefs historical

Design a record cover

A historical design assignment by Tomás Maldonado, at the Ulm School of Design, presented in 1963 in the magazine Ulm 8/9.

In the second quarter of the academic year 1962/63, Tomás Maldonado set the following exercise to the first year students of the Visual Communication Department: to design a case for a 33 1/3 r.p.m. gramophone record. The students could choose from records by
Mauricio Kagel (Transicion I, Transicion II, Antithese), by Karlheinz Stockhausen (Zyklus) and by Franco Evangelisti. If prefered, however, they could design a case for a record of their own selection. The cases
could be designed either in colour or in black and white – as also the circular labels in the centres of the records.

Some of the resulting works by students:

briefs historical

Ulm Exercises

Some historical design briefs from the legendary Ulm School of Design (1953-1968) were presented during a study project at the Cologne International School of Design in 2002/03, supervised by Gui Bonsiepe (who was editor of the Ulm magazine).

A website was put online in 2002/03. It is still available via the Wayback Machine. Some briefs:

Otl Aicher : Schematische Darstellung komplexer Sachverhalte

Gui Bonsiepe : Einführung in die visuelle Semantik

Tomás Maldonado : hüllen für schallplatten (ulm 8/9)

In this exercise (1962/63), students have to create an album cover for an LP. The works assigned are by composers Mauricio Kagel (Transicion I, Transicion II, Antithese), Karlheinz Stockhausen (Zyklus), and Franco Evangelisti.

Josef Müller-Brockmann : Firmentypografie (ulm 8/9)

Gui Bonsiepe : Perforationen, Topologische Übungen (ulm 17/18)

briefs historical

write a radio-play

This assignment was reverse-engineered from a project description in issue #2 of “Ulm” (1958), the magazine of the Ulm School of Design. The short article describes a team-writing experiment, that was broadcast as a radio-play.

  • Make comprehensive preparatory studies in order to shape exactly the characters of the play.
  • Compose detailed biographies, diaries, letters, dreams, and scenes of everyday life of the characters.
  • Plan the scenes.
  • Compose the material into a satiric crime story.

Bring an object

Jarret Fuller, designer and teacher, writes on his blog:

I was inspired by my conversation with Sam Jacob and adapted a framework he’s used in the writing classes he’s taught. For the first half of the class, the students had to bring in a single object, that cost no more than $30, to write about. Each week, they wrote about their object through a different lens: aesthetic/formal qualities, historical and contextual, and finally ideological. We weren’t too interested in voice yet, just how to talk about these objects and what they can tell us about design, culture, economics, etc. In the second half of the class, we used what we learned and added a variety of writing tricks to them: thinking about voice and tone, how can we play with structure, tell a new story. Throughout the semester, I was continually impressed with what the students brought — they took these objects they didn’t think they could write about and suddenly we were talking about immigration, class, identity, race, sustainability… It was so fun.

briefs historical

Recreate a label from scratch

An assignment by Inge Druckrey, described in the movie “Teaching to See” (minutes 7:04 to 8:30):

I had collected over time some beautiful old labels. So I distributed them among the students, and asked them to create a new edition. They had to:

  • recreate the letters on the label.
  • draw any image that appeared on the label.
  • prepare color-separation to have hot metal plates done.
  • mix the ink.
  • print the labels in proper registration on a small letter press.

So they learned about designing letters, they matched the letters on the original label, they designed the marks from scratch, carefully matching the same quality. They learned about color separation, how to get the individual colors on separate hot metal plates, about ink mixing, and the printing itself.

And the students loved the project, because it had a clear goal.

Note: the assignment was done before computers became available.


Create a BookTok video

Students get assigned a literary work, and have to create a short promotional video. The aim is to get viral and improve book sales.

Note: BookTok is a subcommunity on the app TikTok that focuses on books and literature.


explore a WordPress pattern in seven ways

This assignments is based on a blog post by WordPress theme designer Rich Tabor: Exploring WordPress as a design tool (December 2022). Rich writes:

Last week I challenged myself to take one pattern, from one theme, and morph it multiple times — only using the design controls block editor. It’s kind of like CSS Zen Garden, but without CSS — just out-of-the-box WordPress block design tooling. 

One theme. One pattern. Seven ways. No additional blocks, nor custom CSS between scenes — just designing in the good ol’ WordPress block editor.

Every font family/size, color, border, radius, image, video, and spacing value were are all added in-editor.


Assignment : Wait

An assignment by David Reinfurt, in his 2022 course in the Visual Arts Program at Princeton University, “Gestalt“:

Design an animated graphic that means “Wait.”

The result is an animation designed for an electronic screen. Read more detail on the dedicated website. This assignment is also featured in Reinfurt’s 2019 book “A New Program for Graphic Design” (p. 133).


Assignment : Stop

An assignment by David Reinfurt, in his 2022 course in the Visual Arts Program at Princeton University, “Gestalt“:

Design an autonomous graphic form that means “Stop.”

More information at the dedicated website.

In Reinfurt’s 2019 book “A New Program for Graphic Design”, the “Stop” assignment is broadened by including also a “Go” sign.

As with the Stop sign, the Go sign must not rely on symbolic, graphic, or literal conventions. The Go sign will be directly related to, and dependent on, the form of the Stop sign.



The Noun Project – a crowdsourced library of icons available for free on the website – has partnered in 2011 with Code for America to offer “Iconathons” and “Icon Camps”. “Traveling through six U.S. cities, Noun Project founder Edward Boatman conducted daylong workshops bringing together designers, civic leaders, and city staffers to design new urban symbols”.

In a 2012 interview, Boatman explains:

Our Iconathons are a series of design workshops, and their goal is essentially to create civic-minded symbols for the public domain. What we do is run a group design workshop, where we invite designers, subject matter experts, and citizens who really care about their environment and their community. So we invite citizens into this process who have no design experience.

What’s great is that non-designers can really add value to this process. We keep the execution level just to pencil and paper. Keeping it to a pen and paper, it’s all about ideas. We design these symbols in a group, and we talk about which symbols best communicate certain concepts. Then after the event, I work with a series of graphic designers to take those sketches and turn them into vectors. With this process we’ve produced about 55 symbols to date. 

Last year we held them Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Boston, and each Iconathon had a different theme. The Los Angeles one was food policy. The L.A. county food policy heads came to the Iconathon, and they really helped inform the process by telling us: This how the symbols could be used. This is why they’re powerful tools. This is how they help solve problems. They really helped inform the process.

Iconathon participants brainstorming

Read a report by Kat Lau, intern at the San Francisco Office of Civic Innovation in 2012.

Also featured in Ellen Lupton’s “Type on Screen”:

In Baltimore a team of designers from MICA paired up with city leaders to create icons focusing on food, health and community.