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Suzanne Scacca
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What Is the Difference Between a Web Designer and Web DeveloperIt’s easy for people to look at websites today and think, “Anyone can build that.” Thanks to content management systems like WordPress as well as pre-coded themes and plugins, some people can.

But the fact of the matter is, it requires a combination of strong coding and savvy design skills to build a website that people want to visit, buy from, subscribe to, and so on.

This makes web designers and web developers indispensable on this day.

If you’re considering building websites for a living, then it’s important to figure out which of these roles you want to fill. It’ll make plotting your career path, training, and positioning much easier.

For example:

  • Would you rather write code that results in the kind of high-performing functionality and innovative features that make websites succeed?
  • Or would you prefer to design beautiful and user-friendly pathways that take the target audience directly to the solution they’re looking for?

These are the kinds of things you need to consider as you weigh the options.

Today, we’re going to examine the key differences between a web designer and web developer and provide answers to the common questions about what each does:

  1. What’s the difference between what web designers do and what web developers do?
  2. Are there different kinds of designers and developers?
  3. What skill sets should designers and developers have?
  4. What tools do designers and developers use?
  5. What are the average earnings for web designers and web developers?
  6. Where can you learn web design and web development?
  7. Deciding between the two paths

What’s the Difference Between What Web Designers Do and What Web Developers Do?

Simply put:

  • Web designers decide the overall look of a website.
  • Web developers turn that vision into a fully functioning website.

But more specifically:

What Do Web Developers Do?

Web developers take all of the elements that have been created — the site structure, design mockups, and prototypes, as well as the copy — and they turn it into code.

While web developers don’t usually do any design work, they often collaborate closely with web designers throughout the process.

This collaboration may begin early in the web design process, putting the developer in the position of advisor. After a web designer has conceptualized how they want a website to look and work, the developer then assesses whether or not what they envisioned can technically and cost-effectively be programmed.

Web developers and designers also collaborate later on when designers hand off client-approved designs and redlines (specifications on how to build a page) to be coded.

What Do Web Designers Do?

Like web developers, web designers don’t have a singular task or area of a website they’re responsible for.

Yes, web designers are tasked with designing digital interfaces that are both appealing and effective in leading visitors to convert (e.g. to buy or subscribe to something).

However, much of the web design process takes them into areas of research and testing, too. So, it’s usually not enough to just know how to choose an aesthetically pleasing color palette.

Web designers need to be able to design tailor-made experiences that appeal to end-users’ needs and motivations. They also need to balance that with an understanding of how their design decisions impact the coding of a website.

This often means going through an extensive process of research and planning before committing to the final design of a website.

Are There Different Kinds of Web Designers and Developers?

Just as there are different kinds of people and businesses that need websites, there are different kinds of web developers and designers to build them.

What Kind of Web Developers Are There?

Back-end Developers Front-end Developers Full-stack Developers
  • Use advanced programming languages like PHP, Java, and SQL
  • Responsible for coding the database and server
  • Handle all of the complex functionality on a website
  • Responsible for testing and debugging
  • Code with languages like CSS, HTML, and JavaScript
  • Responsible for coding the website itself
  • Build out all user-facing functionality and features
  • May specialize in CMS development (e.g. WordPress)
  • Code with basic and advanced programming languages
  • Responsible for coding everything: front- and back-ends of a site

What Kind of Web Designers Are There?

Web Designers UX Designers UI Designers UX/UI Designers
  • Often design using content management systems like WordPress
  • Focus on designing for smaller websites and clients
  • Design with professional design software
  • Focus on data-based and human-centric design
  • The process involves extensive research, testing, and validation to create the ideal user experience
  • Design with professional design software
  • Focus on usability design
  • The process involves designing an interface that is friction-free and likely to convert well
  • Design with professional design software
  • Focus on both the user experience and user interface

What Skill Sets Should Designers and Developers Have?

While there’s some overlap between the administrative responsibilities web designers and developers have, their job-specific skill sets greatly differ:

What Skills Do Web Developers Need?

Web developers own the technical side of a website, which means they need to be fluent in code.

As we’ve already mentioned, however, there are different parts of a website that developers may be responsible for programming. Because of this, the following list of skills doesn’t apply to everyone who wants to become a web developer.

Make sure you figure out which track you want to go down on, so you can master the right set of skills:

HTML A basic markup language that enables developers to style text for web browsers (front-end).
CSS A basic stylesheet language which allows developers to format the elements on a web page (front-end).
JavaScript A basic scripting language that enables developers to turn a web page from something static to something interactive (front-end).
PHP An advanced server-side programming language that developers work with through a command-line interface (CLI) to code the core of a website (back-end).
CSS pre-processors like SASS or LESS A tool that makes coding with CSS more efficient.
JavaScript frameworks like jQuery A tool that simplifies what developers have to do to execute JavaScript code.
CSS and JavaScript libraries Pre-coded resources that developers can use to save time in writing every component or interaction from-scratch.
Git A version control platform that makes it easy for developers to work with and manage various iterations of a website.

Beyond programming skills, web developers would also benefit from:

  • Good project and time management
  • Responsive web design
  • Search engine optimization (SEO)
  • Problem-solving (especially useful for debugging)
  • Communication and collaboration skills

What Skills Do Web Designers Need?

Web designers own everything having to do with the interface of a website. That said, their skill sets have to go beyond basic design concepts or color theory.

Keep in mind that if you decide to take on one of the UX or UI tracks, you’ll need a broader set of skills. So make sure you figure out which kind of designer you want to be so you can nail down the right skill set from the get-go:

Branding Even if you don’t develop branding (like logos) for clients, it’s still useful to understand the “why” behind a company’s brand and how it affects the design and messaging.
Color theory It’s not enough for color palettes to be aesthetically pleasing. Colors mean different things psychologically and culturally and this has to be accounted for.
Layout/format As screens grow smaller, the layout of a website has become an important factor in the design process.
User journey mapping Web designers need to be able to visualize the pathway target customers will take in order to build it out (UI/UX design).
Funnel development This is all about user intent and understanding how different mindsets drive users to take different actions. The design should account for these different funnels (UI/UX design).
Emotion design Empathy plays a big part in the web design process — for designers of all types. Without it, you’ll be designing for the wrong persona.
Responsive design While platforms like WordPress will take some of the work out of this for you, as will a web developer, it’s important to consider how your design choices impact users on different devices and browsers.
Interaction design This segment focuses on how to increase clickability and engagement with key elements of a website.

In addition, web designers would benefit from having these skills:

  • Good project and time management
  • Web accessibility best practices
  • HTML and CSS coding
  • Search engine optimization
  • Conversion rate optimization
  • Client communication
  • Team collaboration

What Tools Do Designers And Developers Use?

Because web developers and designers focus on completely different parts of a website, there isn’t much overlap in terms of the tools they use to get the job done.

What Kind of Tools Do Web Developers Use?

In addition to being able to manipulate coding languages, web developers should have a mastery of the following tools:

Web Developer Tools Examples
Integrated development environment (IDE) Visual Studio

Atom

Version control platform GitHub
Browser developer tools Chrome DevTools

Firefox DevTools

Web hosting, control panel, and FTP Bluehost
Content management system WordPress

Joomla

Drupal

Website testing tools Lighthouse

Selenium

Pingdom

Issue tracking and management tool Jira

What Kind of Tools Do Web Designers Use?

Web Designer Tools Examples
Web design software and tools Photoshop

Sketch

Stock photography resources Unsplash

iStock

Image optimization (compression/resizing) tools ResizeImage.net

TinyPNG

Wireframing tools Balsamiq

MockFlow

Prototyping software Adobe XD

InVision

What Kind of Tools Should Web Designers and Developers Both Use?

Because designers and developers closely collaborate, it’s important that they share a certain set of tools for easier communication and handoffs. For example:

Designer-Developer Tools Examples
Designer-developer collaboration tool Figma

InVision

Project management software Teamwork

Trello

Team chat software Skype

Slack

How Much Do Web Designers and Web Developers Earn on Average?

There are a number of contributing factors that affect how much you can earn as a web designer or web developer. Like what kind of designer or developer you are, what kind of companies you work for, as well as how much experience you have.

Source Web Designer Salary Web Developer Salary
GlassDoor $52,691 $68,524
PayScale $49,707 $59,229
ZipRecruiter $60,136 $74,678
Overall Average Salary $54,178 $67,477

Note:

While it might appear that web designers make significantly less, keep in mind that these are the averages for web designers. You can expect to earn more if you specialize in UX or UI design or if you find a particularly lucrative niche.

Where Can You Learn Web Design And Web Development?

There are two different approaches you can take to get educated in web design or web development.

Option 1: Get a Degree Or Certificate

For Web Developers

Many web developers enter the field with a degree in computer science or programming.

Top technology schools like Stanford and MIT in the U.S. provide degree tracks for this. However, there are more affordable and convenient options, too.

Colorado State University, for instance, offers online certificates in computer programming and web application development.

Southern New Hampshire University is another school that offers online programs — for degrees of all levels — in information technology.

If you’re not sure where you want to train, check out Coursera. You can find university courses that match your needs there.

For Web Designers

The degree and program you choose to enter all depend on what you envision for your career. For instance:

If you’d prefer to focus strictly on web design, then an art institute like The Academy of Art University might be the best option.

However, if you want to have a complete understanding of how the web works while becoming a master of design, you’ll find that many schools offer combined degrees like the University of Maryland’s digital media and web technology program.

There are also cheaper and more convenient online program options that enable you to choose from a wide variety of degrees and certificates in the fields of web design or computer science. Full Sail University and Franklin University are just a couple of them.

Pro Tip: Keep in mind that a degree or certificate alone won’t land you new clients — for either of these fields. You’re going to need a rock-solid portfolio site to show them, so focus on building it up as soon as possible.

Option 2: Educate Yourself

For Web Developers

If you plan to work for yourself and don’t need or want an agency to hire you, then you might not need a degree or certificate.

That doesn’t mean you can launch a web development business of your own with no training whatsoever. You’ll need to spend time teaching yourself to code.

There are plenty of free resources online where you can learn to code — some of which offer certificates when you complete the training.

You should also subscribe to a blog or website that regularly produces web development tips and tutorials. You can start by bookmarking the WebsiteSetup.org website.

There are more formal options, too, like taking (paid) courses through websites like EdX and Udemy.

For Web Designers

There’s a lot you have to learn to become a full-fledged web designer, so you’re best off taking a comprehensive but diverse approach.

For starters, subscribe to platforms like Dribbble and Behance. To keep up with the competition, you have to be familiar with how they’re designing and what’s currently on the cutting edge of design.

Secondly, go through all of the tutorials provided by your preferred design software. Photoshop and Sketch have a fantastic set of tutorials to help you get started.

Next, subscribe to blogs and YouTube channels that specialize in web design tips and tutorials. Smashing Magazine and WebDesignerDepot regularly publish new content for designers at all levels.

The more you can watch a website being designed in real-time (whether it be in a video or with screenshots), the better you’ll learn the skill yourself.

There are tons of free resources online where you can learn web design. You just need to find the resource that resonates best with you.

And if you want to master a specific skill, don’t forget to check out paid courses on top e-learning platforms like Alison, EdX, or Skillshare.

Web Designer vs. Web Developer: Which Is the Right Path for You?

Keep in mind that web design and development training is no laughing matter, especially if you want to earn beyond the average salary of your peers.

Before you invest any time or money into either field, figure out what it is that gets you excited.

Do you like the idea of writing code behind the scenes that informs how well or poorly a website performs?

Or would you prefer to design the visual appearance of a website and more actively shape the user experience?

Of course, while we’re talking about this as a matter of web development vs. web design, the truth is:

Neither can exist without the other. They’re two halves to one whole.

Even if you decide that web design is for you or vice versa, it’s important to understand what goes into being a web developer as well as you’re going to be working hand-in-hand to develop flawless solutions for clients.

So, the better you understand how your creative vision translates into code or the other way around, the more effectively and efficiently you can build websites.


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