The strange parallel world of stock images

This article was originally featured in ‘Your Daughters Will Be Next Blog”.

Designers searching for convincing images of women in the workplace may find themselves sifting through an onslaught of contrived, hilarious and downright weird photos of air brushed models pretending to concentrate.

Whilst creating a campaign to inspire savvy graduates, we decided to analyse results of searches for women in a range of contexts. These included women in the advice, IT and architecture sectors, as well as broader contexts such as natural women, normal women and feminists. So how useful are image libraries in terms of their relevance to search keywords and how easy it is to find images which real people can relate to?

Known for being the fairer sex, we expected our search for ‘female advisers’ to lead to a reasonable range of convincing images.

Our search resulted in the following.

What kind of female adviser is this? Are those vitamin pills or valium tablets? Would you eat them with that large spoon? More questions are raised than answered here.


This female adviser could be saying anything about oranges. Would you trust her professionalism or impartiality though?


Perplexed by the lack of natural, makeup-less people in libraries, some designers may search for phrases such as ‘natural looking people’. They’ll find this gleaming smug person sitting on water.


Or an array of people who’ve just woken up:


Bizarrely searches for ‘normal women’ lead to portraits of makeup-less Caucasian women staring earnestly into the camera. In the world of stock images, normality can clearly only be an earnest portrait.

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We tested this theory in a search for ‘normal dogs’, which presented what can only be described as low profile keeping canines. Our stock image normality theory, tested on dogs, resulted in this coldly labelled ‘Standard poodle’ photo.


Incidentally, this loaded image of feet on scales also popped up under ‘normal women’. Surely the normality of the model’s weight would be decided by her height.


A search for ‘Natural women’ evoked hundreds of nightmarish shampoo adverts. These mainly featured conventionally pretty women of course.

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Keen to demonstrate thoughtfulness and inclusivity in our creative brief we then decided to search for images of women in industries where they’re under-represented, such as science, technology and IT. Despite the fact that women use computers for an array of tasks in almost every field, image libraries suggest that we’re perplexed, horrified and traumatised by them.

Results for ‘women on computers’ led to an array of air brushed models laughing or crying in front of their screens. After 10 minutes of searching we finally found this image of a lady who seems to be getting on with some work.


Less useful images included a kind man showing a woman how to use a computer:


A woman on the edge of a keyboard


A lady made delirious by numb shoulders.


Search results for female architects were varied. At least 3 on the first page of could have passed for real life practitioners!



It’s refreshing to see mature women in industry represented.

It’s refreshing to see mature women in industry represented.

We were less impressed and more confused by the over-styled results on Shutterstock. Would anyone take our brands seriously again if we used these?

Heels or blueprints?

Heels or blueprints?

Manicures or bathroom designs?

Manicures or bathroom designs?

As feminism enters the mainstream, designers seeking to engage young people may also search stock image libraries for images of feminists. I’ve listed keywords that may have been more appropriate to the images below





Crash test dummies?

Crash test dummies?

Is there a secret place in our hearts for ridiculously contrived stock images? Our brains may be slightly addicted this eye junk.

On the other hand, do the people who source images for libraries need to take a walk around the streets below them? Are they responding to demand or is there a gap in the market for reportage style images for designers? Perhaps we need to speak out against the barrage of air brushed images that claim to represent us in the first place.

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