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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.