With the increasing size of bandwidth caps there is an ability for designers to utilize much larger assets for website layouts. The SVG image format is one such example that has also pushed for browser support. But another common feature is the use of large background images for website headers & landing pages.
Often referred to as a hero image, these have become much more prominent over the past decade. I want to provide a quick overview covering the purpose of hero images and why they are beneficial to web designers. It is a relatively simple concept but every UI designer should understand how to apply & use these images properly.
What and Why?
Allow me to explain the purpose of these images by expounding the “what” first. A hero image is a large banner-style image often placed above-the-fold in a website layout. These are typically photographs but could be anything from vector artwork to illustrations or digital paintings.
So why use such a large image and why take up all that space on the screen? There are various reasons but they often associate with some call to action. Every user who lands on the page starts at the very top. This means everyone has to see that hero image – and if there’s a link or button within that section it may quickly draw attention.
Likewise you might use a hero image to sell a product or service. Design studios often use large photographs of their team working hard on projects. eCommerce websites might use a hero image to model new clothes or items for sale. This gives a more intimate touch to the website and cuts right to the point(ie. look at what we do!).
So long story short, these oversized images at the top of websites are mostly used for attention combined with aesthetic effect. They’re very much like the popular girl in school – some people may not like her, but enough people do like her that in the end it’s worth placing her on your site. Okay the latter portion of that analogy is weird but even though some may be against hero images they perform quite well for CTA conversions.
Starting with a Mockup
Great designs usually start with a clean mockup. This would be the best time to scope out hero images for use in the layout. High-profile websites will hire professional photographers or web designers who have some knowledge of photography to capture great photos. These could be photos of a restaurant, gym, car, boat, laptop, strip club… if there’s a need for a website, there’s a need for photos on that website.
Harnessing the raw magical power of a DSLR feels amazing. A personal camera offers plenty of benefits when it comes time to edit in Photoshop to adjust for a certain layout style. But this isn’t always possible and you may need to use alternative photos instead. Thankfully there are some resources online that offer free Creative Commons photographs for design work.
One such resource is Pexels which curates free high-quality stock photography. And I know the word “stock” makes you think of overly-cheerful businessmen in unnaturally-seated positions but these are different. Pexels organizes photos based on quality and they’re often submitted by photographers all around the world. Another alternative is Flickr but not everything on their website is licensed under Creative Commons.
Knowing how to obtain the photographs is probably the most difficult part. If you’re a photographer it makes the process easier and surprisingly fun. Otherwise start out by practicing with free CC photos from Pexels or similar websites.
If you’re building naturally responsive layouts then images and other media should naturally adapt to various screen sizes. Lots of responsive CSS solutions have been posted online if you’re using an image with the HTML img tag. A fullscreen background image behaves very similarly but requires a different block of code for responsive traits.
Since a majority of websites are progressing towards responsive design it would be in your best interest to stick with it. Thus a hero image should be displayed near its highest resolution possible, even greater than 1920px to accommodate 1080p resolution monitors.
Vector backgrounds are still in a limbo of browser support which can be a deterrent. I would suggest using JPEG files for images and going for a maximum of 2500-3000 pixels wide. If the image seems too large you can always reduce the size or the quality. Plus background images could be scaled so a 1000px window only sees the first 1000px of the image with the rest hidden.
When first meeting someone it’s often good advice to aim for common interests. Get the conversation moving towards a subject you both enjoy – or a subject where you can at least feign interest. This same advice will apply to hero images because relating to the audience will draw their attention in a meaningful way.
Granted this is not easy, but there’s no shortcut to practice and repetition. Study what other designers have used for header images. Learn which types of photography make you curious. Some photographs just need to accommodate the layout and provide a “home-sweet-home” feeling to new visitors.
Relation is going to be different for every project but it’s something that can be learned. You just need to think critically about the website and consider what type of imagery would be most appropriate. Some websites, like restaurants and portfolios, do better with very large photos showcasing the content. Other websites like social networks can get away with more generic stock photography.
Figure out the audience and determine what could best relate to their needs and the project’s needs. Using an image with a dual meaning can often get people thinking and more engaged in the discourse.
I would assume that most designers have already known about hero images even if they didn’t know the proper terminology. These ubiquitous little buggers have slipped into most landing pages and startup website layouts. I hope this article can outline the benefits of using a hero image on practically any type of website. You just need a good reason and solid method of garnering attention – the rest, as they say, is photography.
If you’re into web photography then check out this related post: