One of my favorite projects is one I've been using since teaching at UCBerkeley. It's a simple formal exercise with an underlying verve of historical relevance. In it, students take classic modernist posters designed by Josef Muller-Brockmann, Jan Tschichold and Herbert Bayer and create a series of new compositions — in gray-scale and color, and working with scale and placement of the original elements.
When we first tackled it — almost 15 years ago — the students moved the elements physically (cut paper), but it soon transitioned to a digital exercise. One of the surprising revelations is that they were far more "free" when using cut paper.
Over the years, the project evolved. A part-two later found the students using the same "content and intention" and designing in the style of another designer — this found them doing research (and designing a one-sheet biography page) and emulating another designer's style and technique (but using the content from the original poster). Even more recently, we've begun examining the intention a lot more closely and it has revealed that the original posters — although beautiful — don't really do what they're meant to do (announce the time, date and location of a concert, for instance) and the students are challenged to improve the hierarchy based on the objectives. Yep, improve on Josef Muller-Brockmann at week-16 of art school.
In the end, it always yields some fun compositions (and many better than the originals)... take a look.