What’s the Difference Between a Web Designer and a Web Developer?

Photo adapted from “Twins” by Gustavo Devito (Flickr, Creative Commons).

Really, this should have been the very first posting within “Web Designer / Web Developer Magazine.” I suppose it was so obvious of a topic, we actually missed it. But, hopefully we can now set the record straight-ish with this article. I’ll offer up two conflicting answers for this age-old question, as follows:

1. There Is a Vast Difference

Professional web workers tend to see a strict divide between the two disciplines.

  • “Web Design” tends to be viewed as more creative, more artistic — a focus on the actual design of the web site. Practitioners who go by this title tend to want to focus on user experience (UX), graphic design, wireframing, CSS, etc. These people often farm out the technical aspects, or work with a colleague for those parts of their projects.
  • “Web Development” tends to be viewed as the technical side — e.g., the coding behind it all. Practitioners going by this title tend to focus on the tech goodies — HTML, Javascript, PHP, MySQL, server configurations, etc.

Of course, there is cross-over between the two disciplines. In the design area, CSS in particular can be somewhat tech-oriented. And similarly, on the coding side, a good developer will focus not only on functionality, but also on outputting properly marked-up data so that it can be styled.

It’s important to note that, while many designers or developers indeed specialize, there are plenty of creative coders and tech-oriented designers in the world — many quite adept at both disciplines. It’s somewhat of a rarer breed, I’ll admit. But trust me: Plenty of multi-talented professionals exist.

Aside from all that, though, the more important point here is the next one:

2. There Is No Difference

As far as business owners (i.e., customers) are concerned — which is arguably the most important perspective — there is scarcely any distinction between these two terms. Business owners tend to not dwell on such things and simply use whatever default term they’ve come to know, without any specific technical meaning behind it.

I’ve answered calls for “web developers” that turned out to be much more design oriented than coding, and have taken on “web design” projects that required more coding than design by far.

If Medium.com is any assistance here, I would point out that the “web development” tag has 49k followers while the “web design” tag has less than 20k. I’m not sure why, or what that means, though!

In any case, there is an important lesson for web workers here, which is that these distinctive titles are not what matters in our business; what matters is providing for clients the services they desire.

Recommendation for Business Owners: What to Ask For to Get Help

Personally, I don’t recommend that clients waste time by considering this question too deeply. Rather, ask yourself: What do I want to accomplish? What’s my vision for this web site?

Explain that to some web design and / or web development companies, listen to their responses, and look at examples of what they’ve done. Whether you hire a “designer” or a “developer” is not particularly important. What’s important is whether a potential company can bring your vision to life.

Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com.