What’s the difference between a web designer and a web developer?

House Ambient by flashuday

by Joel on March 23, 2010

When people ask what I do I say I’m a web developer. Occasionally I’ll be asked how that is different from a web designer or if they are the same thing.

Some will argue that the difference is semantics, that web designer and web developer are interchangeable terms for people who build websites. I disagree. This is like saying a carpenter is the same as an interior designer. While a carpenter and an interior designer may both be used in creating a room/building/home that meets the needs of the owner, they have different, though perhaps overlapping, functions.

Think of a the construction of a website or a house as a continuum, a line, with structure on one end and aesthetics on the other. The structure end of the continuum deals with how one part fits into another part to create a stable platform for other parts. The aesthetics end deals with appearance and “feel,” how the the paint and furniture or colors and graphics will be used in the space. The middle is where structure and aesthetics come together to make the house or website that you want.

It’s not likely that many people operate at one end of the continuum or the other. Most carpenters have some sense of aesthetics, even if it is just knowing which style of crown molding matches the style of the house. Interior designers usually have some basic construction skills. If they had to call a carpenter each time they wanted to put a nail in a wall to hang a picture, they wouldn’t get much done. If you watch any home improvement show, you’re likely to see carpenters and designers doing a little of both.

It’s the same with websites. A developer may be more comfortable with writing code than creating graphics but you can bet that she has some basic graphics skills. A web designer may be a wizard with Photoshop but he probably has basic CSS and HTML skills as well.

In fact, having even a rudimentary understanding of the skillset on the opposite end of the continuum will help anyone perform their given task better. If you specialize to the point that you are all the way on one end of the continuum, you become incapable of completing a project by yourself; you must rely on someone with skills on the other end to do what you cannot.

Having built many sites by myself, I have always aimed at the middle, though I definitely lean towards the structure end. Solo work demands a wide range of skills. The continuum becomes multi-dimensional with lines going in many directions — database design and queries, user management, security, user experience (UX for the cool kids), multiple languages (HTML, CSS, PHP, SQL, JavaScript, etc) — but the magic still happens in the middle where the lines intersect. That’s where the action is and that’s where I want to be.

~JG

House image by flashuday

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