Photo Story

Engineering Area
Analysis & problem definition, Ideation & Conceptual design
Group or Individual
Group, Individual
Amount of People
Up to 15
Type of Class
Duration of Activity
Half an hour or less
Type of Activity
Collaborative team setting, On-line Classroom activity


What is this technique about

The photo story method facilitates creating free associations related to a picture series under time pressure. It can be used as an opening session in a creative activity or a workshop. As with the catchword method, the photo story method’s purpose is to stimulate the participants’ mental attention but also activate the creative process. Furthermore, it can promote emotions and feelings because of the visual aspect of the technique. During the session, students collect words that they associate with the photos and that can be used further to develop a future scenario or use case based on these associations.

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, concentrate, kill distractions, say no and forget about goals (G. Jolliffe, 2019). Like terms, pictures can stimulate flow writing.

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

The photo story is an ideal technique for the teacher if he/she wants the students to come up with associated words to a picture series. Different from the catch word technique, the teacher wants to use photos instead of words, because it can have a different outcome due to the visual characteristic of the medium. Students’ associations based on photos will have an emotional aspect, which can lead to other words being created in flow writing than with the catchword method.

How to use it

Select 3 picture series that are related to a topic. The pictures should depict the topic in different ways to broaden the perspective and associations of the students. Going through the photos, each slide is displayed approx. 1 minute or less. Students will flow-write terms down that they associate to each photo. As the last part of the session, the students will choose three terms, one per topic, to create a word cloud.

How to implement this techniques 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: Make 3-5 slides each containing a different picture – find pictures on the internet, take pictures with a phone etc. If you want, add a headline to each slide with the respective topic they belong to.
  3. Prepare the shared document for the session. It should have as many slides/columns/pages as pictures. 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.

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 picture, but thereafter associate further in relation to the next word they wrote down. Give an example: If the first picture shows a “palm tree”, somebody might write as first association “jungle”, and to jungle s/he might then associate “monkey” and to monkey finally “banana”.  S/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 picture 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 them 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 pictures (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 words from the word cloud further to develop a solution or a scenario related to the topic.

Examples and/or testimonials

The 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. 

Facilitator’s 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
    • 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 third 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)
    • Make a 1-minute introduction to the second part of this exercise
    • Explain that:
      • All participants must use a pen and paper for this exercise
      • Based on all the words written in each of the three slides, the participants must now
        create sentences which contain a word from each slide
      • I.e., they must create a sentence which contains one word from the slide
        ‘Workplace” plus a word from the slide “Actors” plus a word from the slide
      • They are given 7 minutes for this exercise
      • Each participant will have to come up with at least three sentences that can be used
        for the next exercise
      • They are allowed to come up with more than three sentences if they can before the
        time runs out
      • Ask them whether they are ready
      • Start the exercise and make sure to set a timer for 7 minutes (e.g., via the alarm on the
        phone — this is the task of the time manager)
      • Tell the participants to stop writing once the 7 minutes have passed
      • Tell the participants to keep the piece of paper with their sentences nearby for the next
      • Give the participants a 15-minute break

Tools needed

You will need a platform to share screens and communicate with the participants, such as: MS Teams, Zoom or similar. As well as access to a shared document (e.g. Google doc, Word)

    • Miro
    • Mural
    • Concept board
    • Padlet
    • Evernote
    • Stopwatch/Timer (on computer or personal phone)



Method description on







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


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.