The Difference Between Web Designers and Web Developers

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.

Original infographic courtesy of @shanesnow for Wix.

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About the author

Cory LaViska is a founder, web developer, and bootstrapper based in Orlando, Florida. Need to get in touch? Follow @claviska on Twitter!