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what is a think tank

Stock Image Sites Don’t Know What a Think Tank Is

And they're not alone...

Words: Katy Murray
Pictures: Erwan Hesry

The world of stock images is a curious place.

And famously so. One of the biggest memes of the past few years, ‘distracted boyfriend’, plays on the running joke of bad stock images.

No shade to stock photographers or providers. People buy these photos. Images are adopted as visual shortcuts and for that reason they frequently deal in stereotypes.

Stock images often represent our society’s crudest understanding (or lack thereof) of the world around us.

So, what does the stock image world think about think tanks?

I did a quick search of the main sites, and what I got was…

…a great big visual shrug.

man shrugging shoulders

There were some results though. These can be broadly categorized as follows.


“We know the words ‘think’ and ‘tank’ go together, but have no idea why. Someone, somewhere knows though. So, give the people what they want: a picture of these words.”

what is a think tank

When you have no hope in hell in representing something visually, put it on a sign.


These images get a little closer. Think tanks are about thinking. And we all know thinking always involves some form of mind map.

what is a think tank

A perfect visual representation of a think tank.


They’re talking, it’s serious, it’s important. But what’s it about? And what do they do with those clever, clever thoughts?

what is a think tank

Stock image sites aren’t alone. These search results mirror the mental image many people have of think tanks.

Take some of the people we spoke to in Pittsburgh as part of some recent research.

When asked: When I say ‘think tank’ what’s the first thing you think of?

Replies included:

‘Hmm. I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for that. Nothing.’


‘I don’t know. People thinking.’


‘Kind of like ideas in your head and you can pull them out like a fish tank kind of.’

what is a think tank

Think tank… fish tank… Look it was worth a shot.

Of those we polled who said they do know what a think tank is (though couldn’t name one), 34% said think tanks are ‘manipulative’ and 28% said they do backroom deals. The answers from the UK were pretty similar too. This should be as concerning to think tanks as obscurity and irrelevance.

I think I’d kind of miss all of those bad stock images if they went. But when it comes the disconnect between think tanks and the public, this is a problem that needs solving.

Katy Murray works at We are Flint, a communications consultancy that works with think tanks, policy experts and campaign brands to more successfully connect them to the general public. Their latest research Democracy 2.0 explores a new role for policy experts. Find Katy on twitter @ktrmurray and We are Flint at @FlintWrites

Katy Murray

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