21 Writing Prompts for Design Students

Several design instructors have confessed to me, in casual conversation, their struggles to inspire students to write. Students complain about writing: always have, always will. Design students are no exception. Writing is boring. Writing is all about rules. Writing has nothing to do with me. Writing doesn't matter. But students don't find all writing boring or irrelevant or burdened by rules. They complain mainly about the nature of their school writing assignments. So how can design teachers make writing more interesting for their students?

It's a great problem. I came up with 21 prompts that are dramatic, provocative, fun, urgent and personal.

Assignments that require research tempt students to copy entries from Wikipedia or other online sources. Designed to defeat that urge, these prompts depend on personal information or perspective. Some involve parodies, which promote awareness of language by demanding that the student bring one kind of language into a new and jarring context (like, say, writing about a rifle through language typically used to advertise a new baby stroller). To combat charges of irrelevant subject matter, I geared many prompts to involve popular culture, technology, and current trends and debates, but most importantly they demand the student to write persuasively—that is, engage in argument in order to persuade a specific person of some specific thing.

My intent is to get writers thinking about the uses of language, about audience and authorial intention, about jargon and slang and context and how language works or doesn't work in different ways on different people at different times.

  • Repurpose existing writing

Writing prompts 1-2 illustration by David Barringer.

Students already write on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and email. Most email services, such as Gmail, save all emails. This material may be selectively gathered and repurposed in a variety of ways, such as for collages, found poetry or dramatized conversations.

  1. Write a found interview. Make a list of 10 questions lifted from real magazine interviews. Imagine these questions are asked of you. Answer them using only writing you have already written, such as in emails, on blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Twitter or other online places. Edit for punctuation and grammar to fit in with the style and format of the magazine interview, but keep your answers conversational and as unaltered in substance as possible (that is, you must rely on what you have already written, and include citations to where you originally wrote your text, e.g., “email to C.B., 12/4/2007”.).
  2. Explain a conversation. Find a long back-and-forth email, instant-message, or text-message conversation between you and someone else. Try to find a conversation on a single topic, if possible, such as deciding where to eat dinner, what to do over the weekend or where to go for vacation. If you can't find one, then you may use any long conversation or series of emails or instant messages. Select only your own messages. Do not include the messages of anyone else. Copy and paste them into a new document. After each message you previously sent, write a note that explains what you meant. Define any jargon, slang or personal jokes so that a general reader may understand your meaning. Explain your intention in writing a certain message (to amuse, to persuade, to distract, to annoy, to criticize, to forgive, to clarify, etc.). And report on whether or not your writing successfully conveyed your intent and had its intended effect on the other person.
    • Repurpose existing forms

      Writing prompts 3-10 illustration by David Barringer.

      Starting with existing forms is a great way to ease students into writing. Students can download real forms online, such as tax forms, police forms, accident reports, résumé templates, query letters, immigration forms, consumer-complaint forms, opt-out forms and more. Instructors can also create their own forms in order to allow greater space for certain entries. And forms as a category does not necessarily have to limit you to actual forms or templates—blogs, product reviews, holiday cards, opinion columns and letters of resignation, for example, also follow conventions. The dramatic twist, however, is for students to fill out the forms unconventionally. Students should be encouraged to write outside the lines, literally and figuratively.

  3. Fill out an application for a home-equity line of credit, but as Winnie the Pooh, Dorothy, one of the three little pigs or Darth Vader.
  4. Apply for life insurance, but as an immortal teen vampire.
  5. File a complaint as a witness to a crime, but a crime committed by a video-game character.
  6. Register a consumer-complaint form, but as a plugged-in resident of the Matrix, the owner of a misbehaving Transformer robot or a child who mistakenly believes he can return his parents and order new ones.
  7. Fill out a customer-feedback form for an online dating service, but as a character from a fairy tale, such as Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Frog Princess, Beauty and the Beast, etc.
  8. Rewrite a food or restaurant review from a local newspaper as if it pertained to a year in your own life—as if what was being reviewed was not the restaurant but this year you lived through. Replace language referring to the restaurant and the food with descriptions of your own life during that year, but keep some of the descriptive language concerning décor, flavors, dining experience, etc., so that this sensory and critical language now applies to your life or episodes during this year.
  9. Write a simple log of your day—where you go, who you meet—but as if you were under surveillance. You should refer to yourself as “the suspect,” to your friends as “contacts,” to authorities as “agents,” etc.
  10. Write a short blog entry for five days in a row in which you know the real world is a reality TV show; everyone around you mistakenly believes this is real life and not a show; and you are a critic charged with reviewing each day's episode for a distant audience who wants to know which parts of the day to watch and which to skip, using their TiVos and satellite TVs.
    • Repurpose existing media

    Writing prompts 11-15 illustration by David Barringer.
  11. Create a product label. Choose a product: your backpack, a coat pocket, dorm room, car interior, desktop, desk drawer, box of stuff, a closet or even your own head. Name this product. Brand it. Give it a slogan. Then provide a kind of extended label in which you list ingredients, product claims, product comparisons, consumer-test results, warnings, side effects and customer endorsements. Follow-up assignment: Write a celebratory review of this product to persuade the company not to discontinue it.
  12. Catalog your beliefs. Write down five of your personal beliefs. These beliefs have to relate to you personally. Express them in a single, simple sentence, such as “I believe I was born in Chicago,” “I believe I am taller than both my parents” or “I believe no one ever found out I stole a candy bar.” Next, select a mail-order catalog, such as for clothes, toys, books or computers. Imagine your beliefs as products to be sold in this mail-order catalog. Rewrite the catalog copy to apply to your beliefs as if they were products in this particular catalog. Name your beliefs. Indicate colors, sizes, a product description, instructions for use, warranties, and return and exchange policies.
  13. Write an early memoir. Imagine writing your memoir at age 3 (at the end of your terrible twos) or at age 6 (after your first year of kindergarten). Find an existing, melodramatic memoir. Match the tone and mood of the existing memoir, but write the title, subtitle, blurbs, back-cover summary, author biography, dedication, author's note, foreword (written by someone else) and acknowledgements for your memoir at age 3 or 6.
  14. Remake a magazine. Identify your mania. Find one thing you obsess over, such as a type of music, a band, a designer, an art form, a product, a style, a brand, a city, a type of food, a hobby, a craft, a movie, a book or a celebrity. Then choose a real magazine that has nothing to do with your obsession. If your obsession is a rock band, then choose Field & Stream magazine. If your obsession is chocolate, then choose a political magazine like The Nation. If your obsession is chess, then choose a teen magazine like Tiger Beat. The assignment is to write about your obsession in the style of that real magazine. Write all the cover text, the table of contents, the editor's letter, and three short reader letters in the mood and style of the existing magazine, but all content should relate to your obsession.
  15. Draft your own “About” copy. (a) Select a career-placement or staffing company. Visit its website, and copy the description on the “About Us,” “Services” and/or “What We Do” pages of its website, which describe what kind of company it is and the work it does. Rewrite the text into a love letter in which you are describing your virtues to a person you wish to date. Keep as much of the jargon in your letter as possible. (b) Select a zoo. Visit its website, and copy the description on the “About Us,” “Animal Care” and/or “Educational Programs” pages of its website. Rewrite the text into a response to your previous love letter. Either reject or accept the relationship, retaining as much jargon as possible in your response.
    • Make a case using hot topics for persuasive writing

      Writing prompts 16-21 illustration by David Barringer.

      A useful structure for persuasive writing is the Argument/Objection/Reply form. The writer begins by informally listing all conceivable arguments for and against a proposition. Choosing a side in the first paragraph of the essay proper, the writer begins with the strongest argument. In the second paragraph, the writer envisions an opponent's strongest objection to that particular argument. In the third paragraph, the writer replies to that objection. The fourth paragraph begins a new, second-best argument in support of the writer's position, and the cycle repeats. A standard essay of this form sets out the three strongest arguments in support of the writer's position.

  16. To reduce credit-card theft, a new credit card scans the thumbprint of the card owner before each transaction. Do you agree that this will reduce credit-card theft? Argue for or against this new scanning technology as a deterrent, including objections to your argument and replies to these objections.
  17. Write down what a single judge says about a single contestant during one episode of a reality-TV show, such as American Idol, Project Runway or Top Chef. Disagree with the judge's conclusions. Make your own critique of the contestant's performance, and explain in detail why you are right and the judge is wrong.
  18. A new technology allows drivers to display messages to other drivers. Using a projected light display, like a hologram of sorts that hovers above the roof of the vehicle, a driver may post a text message visible to other drivers. Argue for or against the use of this new technology. If you are for this new technology, address any restrictions you would want imposed. If you are against this new technology, address any exemptions or exceptions you can envision.
  19. A new mini-projector comes standard with cellphones. Users can project text messages at great distances. They can project words that run across billboards as easily as they can project words on the clothing of passersby. Argue for or against the use of this new personal technology. If you defend this new technology, address any restrictions you would want imposed. If you oppose this new technology, address any exemptions or exceptions you can envision.
  20. A new classroom rule prohibits the use of any and all personal portable electronic devices. Argue that your laptop computer should not count as a “personal portable electronic device,” and then argue that, even if it does count as that, there should be an exception for computers. Explain why.
  21. Currently companies can monitor your movements online (what you click on, how you shop, what you read, what forms you fill out, what words you use in your emails), but they are now pushing for a new law that would extend this power to the real world. Should companies be able to use any and all available technology (like cellphones, GPS chips, wireless connectivity, and surveillance cameras) to monitor your movements anywhere? Argue for or against this proposition. Address whether or not you think an opt-out power would be a good defense for individuals who want to protect their privacy. Also address whether or not you would allow your parents the same, greater or less power to monitor your movements.