Shutterstock’s Spectrum: The Future of Search is Visual

I love beautiful things. I mean all of them. I love anything visually striking. It can be a photo, a painting, a splash of color on a wall, or a bright red lip on a confident woman — I love visual moments that shake me at the core.

To me “visual moments” are at the center of everything really meaningful on the web. We could talk all day and share the hell out of the words — but nothing stretches as far as a photo…a visual moment we can all relate to on some primal level.

So the other day when I saw Shutterstock released Spectrum, its new Labs tool that allows you to search their photo archives by color, I all but jumped out of my chair. Well done Shutterstock, well done.

For years I’ve used Shutterstock to discover beautiful photos for presentations, backdrops, cover shots, and more. I have lost hours of my life to that site. They have done some good things over the years — improved their drop down suggestions, improved the customer feedback capabilities and allowed me to suggest alternatives. I’ve thought many times — “they are really nailing this photo search experience.”

Then they jumped on up there and introduced color based search. #yesssss

Why Is This Such a Big Deal?

I truly believe we’ve seen a shift over the past 18 months. Social platforms are investing more in the visual experience then ever before. From the expansion of our Twitter backgrounds, to the increasing of our Google + cover shots, to the rise of sites like Pinterest — the big players know that we want more room to visually represent ourselves.

I believe this shift in empowering us to better visualize who we are and what we love is leading to a fundamental shift in how we are looking for information on the web. It won’t be just a search or even a discovery – consumers and users are turning to the web to simply be inspired.

And time and time again we find that what inspires us not only comes in words but more often strikes us in the visual moments.

Let’s do a little experiment just to give some context. The past few weeks have been crazy for me. The words that come to mind are “bold, vibrant, raw.” The color that comes to mind would be red. Bright, fierce, red. I turn to Spectrum and I search red, only to get this…

search on spectrum by shutterstock for red

Okay that is some good stuff, but I could go for something more peaceful. I am craving some quiet moments these days. So I refine the search by putting in “ocean,” only to get this…

 search on spectrum for red and ocean by shutterstock

Then that woman jumping jumped out at me [pun intended]. I thought to myself — carefree, open, real. I then searched “jumping woman” to get these…

 search for jumping woman on spectrum


And in that moment I thought — happiness, light, carpe diem, and switched to blue. And got these gems…

searched spectrum for woman jumping in blue 

The one I highlighted struck me. There I was reflected back at myself. What started as a query for a bold, fiery color resulted in a moment where I was inspired by a happy, free spirited jump in the open air.

That is the power of visual search. You rarely begin it with as finite an expectation as you would a search query in an engine. Instead, you are hoping to be brought along a visual adventure that ends in something that stops you in your tracks.

Why Should Marketers Take Note?

I believe the future of search will be increasingly more visual. We’ve already seen this a variety of ways but I believe this shift is still in its infancy. As marketers we need to be asking ourselves — how can we present our companies, brands, and products in a more visually stunning way? How can we offer a more visual experience on site whether it be searching, navigating, informing, etc.

  • If you sell a software, it better present the data beautifully. They better be able to discover new insights through visual discovery.
  • If you sell a product, your site better be pushing the limits on product search — color, texture, style, vibe, etc.
  • If you sell a cause, you better be offering up the information in a visually astonishing way – let them explore your cause through images easily.

You get the point. The bar has been raised. If you still think “beautiful cover shots” above the fold are good enough…you are wrong my friend. It’s time to ask yourself — are you shaking the world with your visuals? Are you inspiring them to go deeper?

You should be. Welcome to the future. It’s beautiful, and shiver worthy. #orsowecanhope

1 Comment
  • Behzod Sirjani


    Great post and I definitely agree that this was a great move forward for Shutterstock. When you said “they introduced color based search” I wasn’t sure if you meant they were the first to deploy it on a website or they took the next step in delighting their customer.

    Designspiration ( has had color based search for over a year now, and what I find a bit more helpful about their iteration is that you can select multiple colors to hone in on a specific palette that you’re looking for.