Five fundamentals for a successful art search

Conducting an art search on stock-photography or illustration websites can be challenging. While no art search is the same—they can vary dramatically based on the client and subject matter—there are a few ways to ensure you find the most appropriate art and meet the customer need. Here are my top five fundamentals for a successful art search.

1. Know your client

Does your client have branding standards for art searches? Many do. These may include guidelines such as no photos at angles, no people looking directly at the camera, and no illustrations. Sometimes these directions are even more specific, such as only use photos that are an aerial or bird’s-eye view. Knowing these rules will help structure what you look for.

Does your client prefer literal images or are they open to abstract or more graphic visuals? Take an article on retirement savings. Some clients might want a middle-aged couple talking to an investment banker—very literal. But some clients are more open to an abstract visual, perhaps one of balls collecting in a bucket. Before beginning a search, I suggest asking the client for key words or if they have an idea of what they are envisioning. That way you’ll have a starting point and some insight into what they’d like.

Years ago, I was working on an art search for an article about change management. The client asked for a “school of fish, with the lead fish trying to steer the school of fish in a new direction.” That’s a very specific direction, so that’s what I searched for. When I presented the results to the client, their reply was, “I didn’t mean a literal school of fish.” This was a good lesson to sometimes present options beyond the client’s key words, or to provide a mix of literal and abstract options—especially because sometimes we don’t know what we want until we have some options in front of us.

2. Read the content for the art search

It’s best practice to read the entirety of the content—be it an article, report, or web page—you’re doing a search for. If you’re strapped for time, then at least read the title, subtitle, first few paragraphs, and the conclusion—and if you can, skim through the rest.

I usually keep the title and subtitle in front of me when I do an art search to see how photos and illustrations pair with it. You never know how a visual might connect instantly with the title—perhaps even when you aren’t expecting it. Reading the content also helps you connect the key words the client gave you with the content in a better way.

3. Research and brainstorm more key words

I sometimes use an online thesaurus, especially when doing a search for more abstract business concepts. For example, when you try to visualize “agility,” you might think of rubber bands or a gymnast. However, these kinds of images don’t always make for good visuals for B2B content. Alternative, related words can help pull out different options from the image bank. I also sometimes do a quick Google image search for more abstract content, just to see what’s out in the world.

4. Tailor your approach to the content

If you’re searching for something very specific, say “car manufacturers in India” or “solar power in Europe,” then look for that specifically. These more tangible subjects are easier to find good photos for.

However, if it’s a more conceptual or abstract idea, such as “organizational transformation,” well then, you’ve got your work cut out for you. In these cases, I start more general and then narrow my search down depending on what I find. For example, if I find a compelling image for the content, I might look at the title of that image and other key words that are listed under the image. Then I use those key words to find additional, related options. Or sometimes similar options will appear under images, so I look through those too.

If the client’s branding allows, I tend to look for illustrations for abstract concepts and photos for more concrete content.

5. Include adjectives such as, “blurry,” “dynamic,” “dramatic,” “abstracted,” or “conceptual”

Sometimes I add words to the key words that can increase the results for more visual or interesting imagery. If I am looking for a photo for a piece on middle-class consumers, I might type in “shopping mall blurry.” This search will probably turn up semiblurred photos of crowds of people shopping that would be more interesting visually than a generic couple looking through a store window with shopping bags in their hands. Also, adding the words “dramatic” and “dynamic” can sometimes bring up more striking imagery that otherwise would not have come up in your search.


I believe designers have a visual instinct instilled in them from school and their work experience. As I said above, sometimes I see an image and read the title of a report and it just clicks—even if it’s not what I thought I was looking for or even what the client originally asked for. I try to follow those instincts, as they often pan out. These instincts paired with the above fundamentals can help generate the best possible collection of art options.

Delilah Zak

The principal visualization artist at Leff, Delilah works collaboratively with the team to conceptualize and create all manner of graphic content, from public reports to management articles to standalone infographics and beyond.

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