Search Patterns

Updated: Feb 7

Our daughter has lost her last pair of socks. They are somewhere on her bedroom floor. Can she see them? No. Barbie dolls, cuddly toys and Lego have turned her bedroom into a jungle. Has she been told to tidy it? Yes. Did she start? Yes. Did she finish? No, because she picked up the first Barbie and said to herself “How would that dress look on my other Barbie?” Now we have fifteen minutes to get out of the door and she still needs to find those socks.


If this situation sounds familiar, may we recommend QWERTY® for Observation, which looks at thinking how we can search for things efficiently. One of the things it recommends is to use search patterns, which are the subject of this blog.


Search patterns are designed to give us the best chance of finding something quickly when we have to find something relatively small in a larger area, such as a pair of socks on a bedroom floor. However, they are used in many other situations from the programming of your robotic lawnmower, up to the rather more serious situation of searching for survivors of a shipwreck on the ocean.


We use different search patterns depending on the type of area we want to search

Whether their use is mundane or life critical, their purpose is the same:

  • where possible, to give you the best chance to find the search target quickly

  • to cover the entire area to be searched, so that no part is missed

  • to allow you to tell someone else where you found what you were looking for, or what area you have searched without finding anything

Below we have gone into some detail about the six different search patterns we recommend, including where and how to use them. Reporting back on where you've found something is discussed in a separate blog: X Marks the Spot.


Back and Forth

You would use this search pattern when searching a large, roughly rectangular area, all of which you can see from your vantage point. Ideally, this area will have strong horizontal and vertical features such as the brickwork or lines of windows on the side of a building, a striped lawn when seen from an upstairs window or a painting of a cityscape.


You would use this pattern when you don’t know where in the search area the item you are looking for is likely to be, or there is an equal chance of finding your target anywhere in/on the search area.


You'd use it by starting at a corner, normally the top left, and track right horizontally with your eyes until you reach the far side. Then, focus your eyes slightly down and track left. Carry on with this back and forth motion until you find what you are looking for or have searched the entire area.

A good search pattern for a large, rectangular area with strong horizontal or vertical features

When you want to tell someone where to find the item, you would use Cartesian coordinates in the horizontal and vertical direction to move from where you started searching. The units you use can depend upon how best you want to describe the area you are searching:

  • if your eyes track a path roughly a metre or yard wide across a building from right to left, using metres or yards might be sensible

  • if the building you are looking at has a grid of windows, you might say something like three windows along and two down

  • alternatively, you might use bricks say eleven bricks from the right, eight rows down


Up and Down

This search pattern would also be used with large, roughly rectangular areas. However, it's used when you cannot see the whole area clearly, or you need to look at parts of it relatively closely. Examples would include a vertical hedge that you have to peer into, a large field that is too big to look at more than a little bit at a time, or the child’s debris-strewn bedroom floor that we referenced earlier.

You would select this search pattern when you don’t know where what you are looking for is likely to be, or there is an equal chance of finding it anywhere on/in the search area. This is the perfect search pattern for finding that missing sock in the bedroom.


Unlike Back and Forth, where you stay in one place and just move your gaze, this search pattern requires you to move yourself around to adequately view the search area. The first thing to decide is how much of the search area you can explore adequately from one position. This is your ‘unit square’. For a dense hedge this might be a 2 feet or a ½ metre square. If you are searching a large lawn or a field, it might be one or two metres or yards in either direction.


Let's take the example of a lost football in your hedge. You would pick one corner of the hedge, say bottom left. You crouch down to examine your first unit square. Stand up higher and look at the second unit and so on until you have examined an entire column of hedge. You then move to the right and repeat going down. Then, move further right, repeating the Up and Down process.


A useful search pattern for a large area, where you cannot see all of the area at one time

Spiral In

If you have to search a relatively large area (not necessarily a circular one), Spiral In could be a very useful search pattern. Ideally, you're starting your search in the outlying 'busy' areas, where there are lots of places to look, and finishing with the emptier areas in the middle (assuming you get that far). A garden would be typical, where there are lots of flower beds, bushes, fences and trees around the edge, but the centre is mostly lawn.


This is because you are much more likely to find your target around the edges of the search area. In the garden situation, a quickly look at the lawn in the middle might suffice to say the target of your search must be around the edges, where there are more obstacles to you seeing it.

As with Up and Down, decide on a unit square that you can comfortably search from one position. Look at the area and pick an easily recognisable starting point on the boundary. If we were searching our back garden, for example, we might start at the back door of the house. You then move constantly in a given direction, say clockwise, until you arrive back at your starting point. You then move in one unit square and repeat. You carry on until you reach the centre.


Spiral In starts the search in 'busy' areas at the edge of the search area, then moves consistently in towards the 'emptier' central point

When reporting back, in a situation where there are lots of identifiable features such as a garden, it is obviously easiest to say something along the lines of “it’s underneath the buddleia” or “just to the right of the barbeque”.


If you need to give proper coordinates, it is best to use a form of polar coordinates, centred at the middle of the area you are searching, with the principal radius going from the centre (origin) to your starting point. You would then take a note of how many units in towards the centre you were before you found the target, and then express the angle in degrees or using clock face co-ordinates away from the principal radius. That would give you something like: "it's 1.5 metres out at 15 degrees clockwise".


Spiral In

This search pattern is useful in any relatively small area where you would need to look closely to find a target object: “Oh no, I’ve dropped my contact lens in the grass!”. That example is now less of a worry than it once was, with disposable contact lenses, but you get the idea. You use this search pattern when you lose something relatively small and you know have a very good idea where you lost it. It is particularly useful if your search needs to be careful as the target is easily damaged.


You would start from the point where you know you lost the object. Decide on a unit square that you can comfortably check from the position you are in. Search the first unit square, then slowly spiral out clockwise from your initial position making sure your next unit square is on the edge of the area you have already searched.


If you have a good idea where you lost something, in a relatively small area, then this is the best search pattern to use

Up and Left

You can use this any time your search area has a regular dendritic structure. The word means 'tree-like', and you can certainly use it for searching trees (spot the woodpecker), but it would also cover such things as mazes or even paths through the woods.


You could use this pattern in pretty much any situation where you have to search in a maze. It can also help when searching for something in a tree or part of a tree (bird spotting, or a lost kite). Our daughter's favourite time using this search pattern was probably going around the Amaze’n Maze at Ober Gatlinburg in Tennessee. You had a card that you had to stamp at four stamping stations in the maze and then get back to the entrance as quickly as you could to get the best prize possible. We did it once to locate the stamping stations and then used the coordinates to sprint round and get the best prize.


You use this search pattern in two different ways:

  • to cover terrain in a systematic way, such as a maze, when you will be moving around

  • to search a static object, such as a tree, when you are standing looking up at it

For a maze, start at the entrance then keep turning left when you come to a junction with a turning on your left. If you come to a dead end, turn around and backtrack to the previous junction and take the next left. If you are going forward and come to a place that you’ve already visited you also turn around and backtrack. It's that simple. This will get you to every part of the maze.


For a tree, the first question is whether it is worth the effort. It’s problematic to use as you need to look at the tree as if it were two dimensional, which it obviously isn’t, and it may have nasty things called leaves that obscure your view from where you are standing. Nevertheless, start by looking at the base and work your gaze up the trunk, turning left at every branch or twig. When you get to the end of each branch, you work your gaze back down the branch to the next junction and go left whenever you can. If you have searched the entire tree from where you are standing, move around the tree and try again from a different angle. Even so, it should help you to search a tree and leave no branch unchecked.


This is a systematic search pattern for use in mazes or things with a regular structure such as trees

On the Diagonal

When you have to make a detailed search of an area with a strong diagonal, such as you often find in paintings, photographs or other images, this is the pattern to use to find your target. However, it will also work in any terrain with a strong diagonal such as an ornamental garden.

The technique is very straightforward: imagine the image (or area you are searching) is bisected by the main diagonal. Which half has the more detail, the half above or half below? For paintings, it is typically the half below, but this isn't an absolute rule. Work out what your unit search square is, which would vary enormously depending on whether you are searching a 6" x 4" photograph or a parterre. Then, move up the main diagonal unit by unit. Once you have covered the main diagonal move into the busier half, immediately next to the diagonal and work back unit by unit. Then move away again and carry on the process until you have checked out the busier half of the image. Then, go back up to the top of the main diagonal and repeat to search the less busy half of the image.


The perfect search pattern to use with illustrative materials such as paintings and photographs

Remember, we use different search patterns to ensure that we are searching efficiently and systematically so we don't miss anything out. Selecting the appropriate search pattern for the type of area gives you the best chance of finding the target object quickly as well as giving you a means of reporting to other people how they, too, can find that object.


Search patterns, though, are only part of the story - Forget-Me-Nots such as Anticipate, Home In or Look OUT can add extra dimensions to your search. If you have used a search pattern and still haven't found what you're looking for then try using it from a different starting point or use an alternative pattern as recommended in ADDA (Alternative Directions, Different Angles).