Engineering Area
Analysis & problem definition, Ideation & Conceptual design
Group or Individual
Amount of People
Up to 15, 15-25, 25+
Type of Class
Duration of Activity
Half an hour or less
Type of Activity
Self-work by students


What is this technique about?

The catchword method is used to start the creative process by developing random terms. This is done by enabling new and free associations to a random term or a picture through making the participants flow-write spontaneously and under time pressure. 

Where does it come from?

The concept of flow was described first time in the 1970s by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi where he examined artists, writers, athletes, surgeons etc. who were involved in activities that they preferred. During their intense activities, Csikszentmihalyi found that their attention was fully absorbed and called this period flow or state of mind (Biasutti, 2011). 

Flow writing also applies to this state of mind concept. Grace M. Jolliffe, the author of “Practical Creative Writing Exercises” gives her aspect of how flow writing is achieved. Some of the most essential advice she mentions are: Write regularly, concentration, kill distractions, say no and forget about goals (G. Jolliffe, 2019). 

For which purposes it is used (why in your engineering teaching)

The catchword method can be used in the beginning of creative processes in the first two steps of the engineering design process, i.e., for the initial problem analysis and ideation, hence it is an ideal way to gather ideas and new associations from the participants. Additionally, it can be used always when the participants get to reflect and there is a need to activate the creative thinking. By starting with writing associated terms down, the problem to be solved might end up with a different solution than anticipated because of the free associations.  

How to use it

To use the catchword method is quite simple. As the facilitator, one should choose 2-3 terms that relate to the decided topic or problem. Furthermore, a timer, an online or offline notebook to write down the words and associations are needed as well. Before the execution, the facilitator should explain the focus on quantity of the words instead of the quality. It is also important to note that the terms that will be given as starting terms should be easy to associate from, hence the facilitator should find easy catchwords. During the session, name the catchword one at the time, let participants associate other terms, and stop the timer after 30 seconds. This procedure is repeated based on how many catchwords there are, but it is not recommended to do it more often than 3 times. When the session is done, let the one with most associated words share them with the rest of the participants.

How to implement this technique online

Preparation, what do before the session

    1. Prepare a time schedule and clarify for yourself the purpose of using the method. You will then be better able to explain the activity to the students.
    2. Prepare a PowerPoint for the session. Then make 2-3 slides each containing a different catchword in big font size (40+) and in bold. 
    3. Prepare the shared document for the session. It should have as many slides/columns/pages as catchwords. Add text fields that the participants can write in (it would be ideal if you could assign each participant with one text field to by putting in a name).
    4. Upload the shared document to the preferred online platform where the session will be hosted but do NOT upload the PowerPoint in advance.
    5. Inform the participants that they need to
      • access the document on the day (if they have never used the platform before, ask them to test whether they can access it.) 
      • have sheet of paper and a pen ready at home. 
    6. Alternative to 5: You can ask the participants to write down their words in the shared document. This is however making it more difficult for the participants to get into flow writing (they will not benefit from the brain-hand-connection in longhand writing) and slow them down, so that you will get less terms.

During application, i.e., while giving the session

    1. On the day, introduce the session by giving the participants basic information about the flow exercise (e.g., duration, guidelines, free associations). It is important that you stress that:
      • Participants should start to associate from the catchword, but thereafter associate further in relation to the next word they wrote down. Give an example: If the first catchword was “green”, somebody might write as first association “jungle”, and to jungle s/he might then associate “monkey” and to monkey finally “banana”.  She/He should not always go back to “green”.
      • Put time pressure on the participants. Tell them that you expect them to write down at least 50 words if you give them 1 minute, or 25 words if you give them 30 seconds respectively (a trained person can write about 35 terms in 1 minute, and people who do it for the first time might end up with 7-10 In the first round, but do not tell them that).
    2. Start the session by sharing the first PowerPoint slide which shall be empty first. Ask participants whether they are ready, and then uncover the first catchword and tell them that their time starts now. 
    3. Take time (e.g., 1 minute), and then ask participants to stop writing.
    4. Praise success: After each round, ask who wrote down more words than the round before and tell that this was very well done. Further, find out who wrote down the most words and ask this person to read them out. 
    5. Start the next round: Go to the next slide and repeat the exercise. Repeat as many times as you have catchwords (three rounds are ideal).
    6. Invite the participants to access the common document and to write in their text field the 4th word they wrote down during the first round, the 7th from the 2nd round, and the 11th from the third round (you can also chose other numbers, but it is recommendable to start low and not go to high because you do not want to embarrass people who did not manage to write down many words). Like this, you create a world cloud that you can then use further.

Follow-up, about what to do after the session

    1. Use the session results (word cloud etc.) further to develop scenarios or problem solving by adding another creative method afterwards. This could be the 6(x)-3-5 method or the morphological box.

Examples and/or testimonials

Below is an example of how the method was prepared and facilitated in February 2021 by a student group during the course “Megatrends and Technological Innovation” held at the University of Southern Denmark by Prof. Dr. Patricia Wolf. 

Facilitators instruction guide 

“Catchwords” + Photo Story – 8:45-9:00 / (Until 9 AM max)

    • Ask them to open the doc “Photographic Catchwords” in their own folder. Open it yourself. Wait until everyone has done this.
    • Give a maximum of 1 minute introduction to this exercise where you explain that this exercise is to make them inspired, so they will have to write down words under huge time pressure
    • This exercise has three rounds. Each round takes 2 minutes. Be prepared to keep track of time (e.g., with the alarm on your phone – this is the role of the time manager)
    • Explain that:
      • Each slide contains an overall theme and 5 pictures that is somehow related to that theme (without explicitly stating how)
      • Each slide also contains a table with 25 empty slots
      • Within the two minutes the participants must aim to fill out all the slots with single words relating to the overall theme and pictures
      • All of them can write but they can also assign a writer to the task
      • They can write whatever word that pops into their mind – they are not restricted with the word having to start with a specific letter or something like that
    • Ask them whether they are ready
    • Start the first round by moving to the first slide with the word “Workplace” and the five pictures which contains: An office, a rocket, a bed, woods, sky
    • Stop the first round after 2 minutes (no matter if they have filled out all 25 slots or not)
    • Start the second round by moving to the second slide with the word “Actors” and the five pictures which contains: An employee in a suit, a computer, Alexa/robot, a dog, laws
    • Stop the second round after 2 minutes (no matter if they have filled out all 25 slots or not)
    • Start the last round by moving to the second slide with the word “Regenerative” and the five pictures of: The earth, farmers in developing countries, technology, conversation bubbles, production facilities
    • Stop the last round after 2 minutes (no matter if they have filled out all 25 slots or not)

Testimonial of a catchword method sheet in Word

Name Silver society: Elders New ecology: Work environment Connectivity: Welfare technology
Alina Grandparents, grandfather, sweets, my parents, home, protection, my boyfriend, cute, cats, apartment Office, boring, computers, old Help, nurses, doctors, hospital, old, scary, survive
Vasileios Grandparents, old age, health issues, wisdom, family Stressful, teammates, working with others, socially interacting, drinking Technology, computers, calculating, monitoring
Annika Grandparents, family, parents, brother, fun, missing, my boyfriend Collaborations, colleagues, team, teamwork, fun, drinks Assisting, sensors, vital, signs, healthy
Orhun Old technology nokia, Finland, sauna, ikea, furniture, desk work, labour wages, money Stress, relief, fun, activities Assistance, robot AI, IoT, network, monitoring, camera, data security
Miriam Old, grandparents, visits, Strasbourg, France, Paris, baguette, food Office, intern, work, marketing, SDU, Odense, Denmark Technology, improvement, assistance, help, love
Magnus % % Helping, technology, robots, sustainable
Till Old, vulnerable, grandparents, sickness, hospital, bad, place Office, space, home, couch, comfortable, sleep Ventilators robots, cyber security, data ethics, legal
Sara Grandparents, old, young, children, parents, responsibilities, stress Desk office, stress, responsibilities, money, status Helpful, technology, robots, sustainable


Tools needed

You will need a platform to share screens and communicate with the participants, such as: MS Teams, Zoom or similar. Furthermore, you need access to a shared document. 

    • 1 sheet of paper and 1 pen at the desk of each participant
    • Miro
    • Mural
    • Concept board
    • Evernote
    • MindMeister
    • Padlet
    • Mindmup



Method description on

Video about the creative writing flow on









Spencer, J. (2017, December 4). What is Flow Theory? What does this mean for our students? [Video]. YouTube.


Howard, T., Culley, S., & Dekoninck, E. (2007). CREATIVITY IN THE ENGINEERING DESIGN PROCESS. Innovative Manufacturing Research Centre (IMRC), University of Bath.


Jolliffe, G., & GoOnWrite, J. (2019). Practical Creative Writing Exercises: How To Write and Be Creative. Independently published.

Runco, M. A., & Pritzker, S. R. (2011). Encyclopedia of Creativity (2nd ed.). Academic Press.