The Difference Between Web Designers and Web Developers

December 22, 2009

If you’ve ever worked in, on, with, or around the Internet, you’ve undoubtedly heard the terms “Web Designer” and “Web Developer”.  Oftentimes, the two phrases are used interchangeably by someone who is not familiar with the industry.  Perhaps the concept is irrelevant to a client who just wants to get their website up and running.  Or to a server administrator who has his concerns in the silicon, steel and software that power your website.  And what about the nice lady over in Human Resources who blotches up the job posting during the hiring process?  I mean — designer and developer — they’re the same thing, right?

Let’s face it, if you have the word “Web” in your euphemism, you’ve probably been hammered with questions from both sides of the playing field.  Designers will hear things like “how can we add a database to the website?”, while developers struggle to answer questions about layout, color selection, image placement, and font styles.

The truth is, however, that most Web Designers don’t know a thing about Base64 encoding, MIME types, SOAP requests, regular expressions, or SQL injection.  On the flip side, there aren’t a lot of Web Developers that can create visually stunning websites which gloat the type of appeal that Rembrandt himself would appreciate.

Due to the demanding nature of the industry, it’s all too common to find individuals who are unqualified, inexperienced, or simply not very good at one or the other trying to make their way through a project that requires both creative and technical skills.  This is why many underfunded, poorly planned Web-based projects fail.  Most of the blame can usually be attributed to the fact that not a lot of people actually understand what the difference is between a Web Designer and a Web Developer.  This includes everything from skillsets to the actual role each position plays in the formation of a Web-based project.

Perhaps the most effective way to differentiate between the two positions is to establish a clear line that separates the roles and responsibilities of each position in the context of a Web-based project.  This will, of course, vary from project to project and from person to person, but we can define a reasonable boundary which the average Web Designer and Web Developer will be comfortable with.

What Exactly is a Web Designer?

The best Web Designers are of the creative type.  They have a knack for getting inside of their clients’ heads and realizing their clients’ vision.  They take this vision and masterfully convert it into an aesthetically pleasing, artistic design that aims to impress millions of potential viewers.  Some designers study typography, user interface design, and usability.  Most include tools such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and DreamWeaver in their arsenal and frequent sites such as iStockPhoto, Kuler, and a long list of CSS galleries.

It is common, albeit arguable, that a designer’s role should also include slicing images, writing (X)HTML, coding CSS, and drafting or editing copy.  For the most part, you can think of a Web Designer as a creative expert.

What Exactly is a Web Developer?

Web Developers are usually more technical in nature.  They tend to have excellent problem solving skills and are generally good at math.  On a daily basis, a developer will write code in five or more different languages including (X)HTML, CSS, JavaScript, [PHP, ASP, ColdFusion, Ruby, Python, Perl, etc.], and some flavor of SQL.  Web Developers can usually be found wielding some kind of text editor or IDE, an FTP client, three or more web browsers, and development plugins such as Firebug.  They frequent sites similar to the PHP manual, the Mozilla JavaScript reference, and the jQuery Documentation.  A developer also knows what an API is and how to develop with it.

Although Web Developers are sometimes referred to as programmers, their skills usually exceed those of a conventional software developer.  Think of a Web Developer as more of a technical expert with programming skills.

What About People That Do Both?

As suggested earlier, it is actually quite common for Web Designers and Web Developers to be expected to take on tasks that are outside of their personal skillsets.  In my experience, I would only consider a very small number of people that I’ve worked with to be proficient in both design and development.  In most cases, you’ll find a cocky developer that thinks his designs are the greatest thing that ever hit the Internet when, in reality, they’re mediocre at best.  It’s far less common to find a designer who thinks he can code up an entire Web application.

So, Which One Should I Choose?

Which one you choose depends on what exactly you are trying to do, but in many cases your project will require skills from both.  If you’re looking to start a new website or to redesign your old one, you’ll want to look for someone with design talent.  If you’re looking for some kind of database, E-Commerce solution, or integration with another application, you’ll want to look for someone with strong development skills.

Despite the fact that this writing strives to define the difference between Web Designers and Web Developers, the reality is that you’re bound to find designers who know at least a little bit about development and developers who know at least a little bit about design.  Although both are very different positions which provide entirely different skillsets, the fact of the matter is that most designers and developers have, or will at some point, become factotums — at least to a certain degree.  Some may never bother to differentiate themselves as one or the other.

Perhaps the most important aspect of managing a Web-based project is being able to determine what skills a particular project requires, and who is the right person for the job.  In this industry it is very clear that, despite a reasonable separation of roles and responsibilities, an individual’s job title is not always a reflection of their personal expertise.  It is, alas, more often an indication of their position in terms of demand and naivety.

By Cory LaViska

Cory LaViska

Cory has worked on the web for over a decade. Currently, he runs Surreal CMS and a handful of online tools for web developers. He’s also responsible for the blog you’re reading right now.

Discussion

This discussion is now closed. If you want to leave feedback, you’re welcome to do so on Twitter.

  1. I am a (female) “web developer”. I have been programming web sites and standalone applications using HTML, PHP, ASP, javascript, JAVA, perl and C since approximately 1997. I can usually be found wielding a text editor or an IDE. I am perfectly comfortable writing regular expressions and using UNIX commands.

    However, I also have an artistic side and am a perfectly competent “Web Designer”. I have a master’s degree in art history. I practice painting, photography, and video editing in my free time. I am regularly asked to create UI designs, buttons and other graphic elements at work. Most of the time my work is basic and functional, but didn’t the great American architect Louis Sullivan say “form follows function”? I believe that this is an excellent guiding principle for the web as well. A web site is not an old master painting. It is more like a modern building. We often talk about a site in architectural terms. And like a building, a web site should be logical and useful first. It’s logic will give it a visual and aesthetic appeal.

    Anyway, interesting article. I agree with most of what you say.

    May 6th, 2010Heather Propes
  2. I have a BBA in Digital Media Marketing. Most of my courses have centered around business but apparently since employers see the word “Digital” in my resume they automatically think I am the master of the internet (i.e anything and everything to do with the web). I am so tired of constantly explaining to people I don’t speak HTML, Java, or CSS. I’ve dabbled in it but I am far from proficient. People need to know that information architecture is an incredibly broad definition that involves so much more than any one person can be proficient at (even if @Heather up there can).

    July 2nd, 2012Tim
  3. Hello, I am not an experienced guy in this field, but I am wanting to start a career in it. So, very good information I got from here. I also have had some confusion regarding web designers and developers which has now been removed. Now, I am able to make a decision. Hope more things in the future will be clear. Thanks for providing this valuable comparison.

    December 29th, 2012Gautam Kumar
  4. Now if only people would know the difference between graphic designers and web designers!

    March 27th, 2013Kathy Borne
  5. Great post! I like how you differentiate between which role is technical and which is creative. I think a lot of people don’t realize how important this differentiation is, as it’s a matter of what each person’s strengths are. I wrote a post that helps explain this. Do you find people confuse these two roles a lot?

    June 4th, 2013Matchist
  6. I am so confused right now. Before being hired by a company as a Web Developer “AND” yes I repeat AND Web Designer I wasn’t sure of what these two terms meant exactly. I do developing only, but now am stuck here. What should I do? My first task includes both designing and developing a website.

    June 5th, 2013Mohit
  7. Mohit, if it were me, I would speak to management about the possibility of separating the two roles. First, explain why both positions are necessary. Then, explain how having both a designer and a developer on the team will benefit your organization. It may not be feasible for them to hire another person right away, but at least you’ve educated them on the difference and planted the seed :)

    June 5th, 2013Cory LaViska
  8. I like this discussion. Being both is very difficult but possible over many years. They are indeed separate roles but nothing precludes somebody from learning both if they have enough time and patience. It would be a better idea to work as a team and master one or the other. I can understand how a totally independent freelancer would like to learn both, though.

    August 4th, 2013Stephen
  9. Well, you pretty much nailed it! At least you are the one person who understands the difference. I’d consider my self a web designer by trade, and developer by necessity. Truth is I probably do land on both sides of the line. Either way, I’m losing touch with the things I love trying to make web business float. It pays the bills, but it’s not helping me make time for artistic endeavors. The creativity I use for clients is very rudimentary, but it somehow takes all of my energy. They can be abusive. Also, web business requires a lot of acronyms and that’s another can of worms. At least this one debate can be somewhat settled by referencing your article. Thank you.

    November 1st, 2013Adam