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There’s a lot of confusion about the difference between web designers and web developers. That’s a problem when you’re trying to decide which to hire. However, it can be an even bigger problem if that confusion leads you to assume they’re both the same.

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 designWeb designers are creatives – but their 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 good web designer – and that takes years to develop. Only the least experienced are just “pixel-pushers” who merely render your layout ideas into code and graphics. With experienced 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. We rarely hear the counter-arguments, though – 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

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 – pre-built 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 something of a techno-unicorn.