Easy to find: search strategies for image databases

Images have a big impact. They can underscore important messages and give them emotional weight – but they can also miss their intended purpose, e.g. because they are unsuitable or generic. Given the millions of pictures available today in online archives and company databases, it’s no simple matter finding the right one. We’ve come up with five tips for you:

1. Search the right way

Test different terms and combinations of terms in your search. Start with a general term, e.g. ‘ship’.  If that doesn’t give you what you’re looking for, search for synonyms such as ‘boat’. Sometimes it helps to be more specific, e.g. ‘sailing ship’ or ‘yacht’. This often gives you completely different pictures. Finally, try thinking laterally, with search terms such as ‘sailing’ or ‘cruise’.

2. Use other people’s ideas – Google and Bing

With abstract concepts such as ‘innovation’ and ‘teamwork’, it’s often difficult to come up with ideas for images.  Luckily, you’re not the first person to have this problem.  Benefit from the creativity of others by using the Google or Bing images search to see what other people have used to illustrate these terms.  If you do an image search for ‘innovation’ you not only find obvious pictures, such as a light bulb or a broad horizon, but also a picture of Otto Lilienthal, the aviation pioneer. In this way, you can obtain a broad idea of what you want and then continue with a more specific search, for example in an image database (where you are also on the safe side regarding copyright).

3. Filtering for better search results

If you know exactly what you are looking for, it’s a good idea to specifically narrow down your search using filter functions. Choose certain topics or limit the search to certain types of picture (photos, illustrations, pictograms, etc.). Many search functions also enable you to exclude particular terms.  For example, you can exclude the frequently used light bulb image when searching for ‘innovation’.

4. Try free association

Free association is a kind of brainstorming. Take a blank piece of paper and write down the term you’d like to illustrate, e.g. ‘presentation training’. Then spend 5 minutes writing down all the associated terms that occur to you. It’s important not to dismiss any term as being unsuitable – it may lead you to a further, more appropriate term. For example, ‘training’ makes you think of ‘sport’. ‘Sport’ leads you to ‘weight training’, which in turn gives you the idea of ‘dumb bells’.  Perhaps ‘dumb bells’ is exactly the image you’re looking for to support what you want to get across. Free association works even better in pairs or groups of three – you can take up each other’s ideas and develop them creatively.

free association

5. Get feedback

When you think you have found the perfect image, show it to at least three people for their feedback. Ask them what they associate with the picture, and what emotions it raises in them. If you get three completely different answers, you should rethink your choice of image and adjust your search accordingly. Sometimes specifically changing a particular aspect of the picture using image processing is enough to sharpen your message.


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