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web designThere’s a lot of con­fusion about the dif­ference between a web designer and a web developer. That’s a problem when you’re trying to decide which to hire. However, assuming they’re both the same can cause even bigger problems.

It often helps to think of your website as a mar­keting vehicle. In that sense, web designers build a chassis and dash­board around an engine and tweak things so that they all work together. Developers build the engine and other working parts. Of course, there’s a bit more to than that.

What’s a Web Designer?

Web designers are cre­atives — but the job goes far beyond just making things look pretty. A designer is an artist who knows how to make things work. For web designers, that means under­standing at least three types of code:

  • HTML is the code that glues the web together. It doesn’t do much beyond grouping the content into headings, para­graphs and other struc­tures. It is also used to define forms — but can’t do much to process them
  • CSS adds style to the content, defining fonts, colours and the pos­i­tioning of all the page ele­ments. It can do a bit of anim­ation, too
  • JavaScript adds inter­activity to web pages. It can animate stuff, process forms and change content without reloading the page. It can also use cookies to remember your pref­er­ences and to pass data from one page to the next. Web designers often use “lib­raries” of common JavaScript com­ponents, such as jQuery.

These types of code tell the browser on your com­puter what to do. We call that the “front end” of the web con­nection. So, the pro­gramming part of a web designer’s job (espe­cially JavaScript pro­gramming) is called “front end devel­opment”. That doesn’t make them a “web developer,” though — hence the confusion.

Typically, web designers also know how to use key front-end web design, graphic design and photo-editing tools like Adobe’s Dreamweaver, Illustrator and Photoshop.

…But Wait — There’s More!

So, a web designer is an artist who knows how to code, right? Sometimes — but really, pro­fes­sional web design isn’t just about knowing how to draw and code. It’s about knowing what to draw and code.

You see, much as web designers want to please you as a client, the good ones know that suc­cessful web­sites are built for the target audience, not the site owner. So they don’t just study cre­ative stuff like typo­graphy, com­pos­ition and colour balance. They also study colour psy­chology, user beha­viour, interface design, usab­ility, access­ib­ility and much more. They also need to know how to adapt page layouts to dif­ferent-sized screens (aka “Responsive Web Design”) and the quirks of dif­ferent browsers. Some web designers study mar­keting, social media and search engine optim­isation, too.

In short, it takes a huge range of skills to be a really good web designer — and that takes years to develop. Those without that exper­ience often just render your layout ideas into code and graphics. They are website builders, not really designers or developers. With exper­i­enced web designers, it’s best to just explain your goals, provide any resources they need, and trust the solu­tions they offer.

What’s a Web Developer?

web developmentWeb developers are engineers. They build the engines that power the web. Specifically, they write pro­grams that tell web servers what to do.

Web servers are pro­grams that listen for requests from web browsers and deliver web pages in response. This is seen as the “back-end” of the con­nection. For many sites, the server builds pages on the fly, com­bining code with content stored in a database. So, web developers code in special “back-end” or “server-side” lan­guages that tell the server how to write HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

So, web developers need to know those three “front end” lan­guages and at least one of the popular “back-end” lan­guages like PHP, Ruby or Python. However, it doesn’t stop there.

Databases speak dif­ferent lan­guages again. So, web developers also need to know at least one of those, like MySQL, MSSQL or MongoDB. Then there are dif­ferent types of server, each with their own com­mands — most notably Apache, IIS and NodeJS. These typ­ically either run on Linux or Windows systems that may need to be managed with text com­mands. Many systems — like Google Maps — also let developers use their ser­vices through “APIs”, which are still more sets of commands.

Great — So What Does All That Do?

Developers are skilled problem-solvers who focus on mod­elling pro­cesses and building applic­a­tions that perform tasks rather than just presenting content. For “web apps”, the skills above are usually enough. Those who also build mobile apps may also need to study more tra­di­tional pro­gramming lan­guages like C++ or Java.

Thankfully, there are plenty of com­ponent lib­raries and “RAD” (Rapid Application Development) tools to help with common tasks. Still, these are built by techies for techies, so they come with their own learning curve. Good developers also study software design, security and interface design — but not so much the graphic art and usab­ility stuff.

Beyond that, it gets com­plicated — and we’re not even into devops yet.

If you’re thinking that’s another huge set of extremely valuable skills that must take years to learn, you’re right. That’s one reason very few people can do both. The other is that visual design and in-depth pro­gramming require vastly dif­ferent mind-sets. In fact, they seem to be mutually exclusive for almost everyone.

Except Unicorns.

Wait — Unicorns?

web designer developer techno unicorn (origami Bladerunner unicorn)

Well that’s what folks call people who can do both — they’re that rare.

“As rare as a rep­licant that can pass for human,” he says, because Bladerunner ref­er­ences seem more rel­evant to techno-uni­corns than mythical steeds.

Anyway, it’s common for web designers and web developers to take on tasks beyond their ori­ginal skill set. However, cov­ering both huge ranges of skills equally well takes a very special mind-set and many years of experience.

Now, the common cri­ticism of Unicorns is that a Jack-of-all-trades is a master of none. That’s actually a common mis­quote of a phrase that ori­ginally praised gen­er­alists. Still, it’s obvi­ously easier to master just one skill than many. As a result, most career advice focuses on how people need to specialise.

That’s very short sighted, but we rarely hear the counter-argu­ments — so here’s a brief rundown:

  • Few people are true masters of a single skill. What really matters is whether or not the indi­vidual’s skill is good enough for the task at hand
  • Many pro­jects require col­lab­or­ation, which benefits from those involved under­standing each others’ jobs. This is espe­cially true of web projects
  • The “man-month” is a myth. Adding people to a project typ­ically increases costs by more than it cuts work time, because larger teams need more management
  • Specialists see everything from their own, single per­spective — which they’ll always claim is all-important
  • Specialists may see, but rarely fully under­stand, the inter­ac­tions between their field and others. Connections between other related fields are even more obscure to them. So they can’t see the bigger picture. That can be a critical failing in business

Think about it. If you’re building a house, it’s great to have a team of spe­cialists. Still, what if you can’t afford a full team? Do you ask your master car­penter to do the wiring and plumbing? Or do you look for someone who has adequate exper­ience in all three skill sets? Sometimes, a Jack-of-all-trades is exactly what you need.

So, Do I Need a Web Designer or a Web Developer?

Sometimes, you only need a web designer.

If you just want a site that presents a few pages of text and images, pos­sibly with videos or PDF down­loads, you probably won’t need a developer. Even if you want to be able to edit your site, or sell stuff online — pre­built plat­forms like WordPress and PrestaShop mean that most web designers can handle that unless you want some­thing really unusual.

If you want your web project to model a spe­cific or uncommon process, you’ll probably need both. Or a Unicorn, if you can find one*.

*Full dis­closure: In case you hadn’t guessed, with over 20 years’ exper­ience — I’m one of those techno-uni­corns. You can stop looking now.