Web Designers vs Web Developers - what's the difference?

Web Designers vs Web Developers

It's often useful to know the difference between Web Designers and Web Developers, since they are distinctively different job roles, and you'll see them advertised as such. 

Both have a different set of strengths and are suited to different types of web project. The definition of the roles can vary widely though and have varying degrees of overlap. Below is my take.


Comparing both roles to traditional trades, you might describe a Web Designer as a Designer/Painter/Car spayer who does some simple Joinery or Mechanics (i.e. more about the finish and presentation), and a Web Developer as an Architect/Joiner/Engineer, who may do some simple finishing, but is more dedicated to the technical side of things.

I'll mention that as a company who develops software, we are at the Web Developer side, but regularly work with designers or do simple design work ourselves. So hopefully I'm not too biased.

Web Designers

Web designers tend to be creative with good graphic design skills, and are focused on front-end presentation. They are usually competant in Photoshop (or similar graphic packages) and usually CSS/HTML and the basics of JavaScript, but perhaps more. The role of web design has evolved with design trends and tends to encompass more these days such as the following:

  • Design - creating graphic mockups and wireframes inline with user requirements.
  • Layout and presentation - presenting and laying out the information well, with an understanding of marketing and objectives in mind.
  • Usability - good knowledge of how someone will browse the website, ideally making it a simple experience.
  • HTML building and Javascript - the build work associated with creating front-end web pages. In some web agencies designers may not get involved with this and it may be left to the developer, but I see most web designers perform HTML builds these days.
  • Tend to roam about the office on scooters, turn up in casual attire, and have artistic hissy-fits (this can sometimes be true, but is intended as a joke to some designer friends - sorry!)

Web Developers

Web developers tend to be technical people, similar to software developers, and are focused on ensuring underlying functionality is sound. Developers usually have reasonable knowledge of front-end technologies but aren't so much design or marketing orientated as they are about getting things working. They usually carry out the following:

  • Coding - logic, form processing, integrating with databases. Generally making websites interactive and dynamic.
  • Databases (SQL) - designing databases, storing information from the web, and outputting it as required are often roles of the developer.
  • API integration - payment gateways, videos, address lookup services for example.
  • Performance and security, ensure both are of a high standard.
  • Planning is usually a large part of a web developers role since they need to get an idea of the full picture and scope of a project. They are usually involved in the quoting process.
  • Functional usability - developers can often bring a different set of usability skills to the table since they're more experienced with creating applications and working with databases, they've often have a good idea on how to present and navigate data effectively.
  • HTML and CSS, although usually not as knowledgeable as a designer who does it everyday and is following design trends.
  • Javascript - generally a very good knowledge, especially if they work with C# or Java because Javascript could be described as a simpler variety on the front end.
  • Server hosting and deployment of solutions, troubleshooting server issues are areas developers usually get involved in.

Common development languages are C#, Java and PHP.

Which should I choose?

As a customer or even recruiter it can be important to ensure you get the right skill-set for the project you have in mind.

In my experience most companies offering web services are more focused in one area than the other, and this mostly comes down to the type of work/projects they are doing. Of course a company may be strong in both, especially if large with different divisions, but usually for small agencies they find their own marketplace and formulise what they are good at rather than be too diverse, like any business.

For projects that require more complex functionality that gets away from a typical brochure website (i.e. web applications), web developers are usually the best choice. This is where functionality is more important than design aesthetics and makes up the bulk of the project. It would include things like interactive web projects, building a web based systems that represent the behaviour of a software application, or dealing with payment/subscriptions for example - areas of high importance. Web developers will ensure it functions correctly, is secure, and have experience to approach a wide variety of projects. Developers usually have a better understanding of the bigger picture and how to approach more complex web applications.

For projects that require good design and marketing and are less business critical (e.g. brochure style websites), design-focused agencies are the best choice since design visuals, branding, and getting marketing messages across to get the customer are the important main objectives, rather than creating a deeply functional website. Many design agencies will simplify the technical by using 3rd party content management systems or online shop platforms, many of which are freely available, or even outsource so they can concentrate on the design. But if little knowledge is known of the internal workings of 3rd party system, it may not be possible for them to fix problems quickly if at all.

Overall it's best looking at examples and portfolios to determine what a web agency has done and what they are comfortable at doing to see where strengths are, asking the right questions and obtaining client testimonials where possible. Outsourcing can sometimes be a problem, with communication problems or suppliers who have knowledge of solutions disappearing with that knowledge, so it's worth noting what percentage of a project may be outsourced and procedures when something goes wrong.


Both roles are of course not mutually exclusive, and for projects that require to be strong in both design and functionality, it's worth having both roles involved (but bearing in mind which part is the most important). No amount of fancy icing will fix a cake that tastes bad underneath!

We usually work with designers on more high-profile projects or where design is more important, where we would perform the technical areas and form solid foundations, then have them come in later to finalise and give it that extra 20% of design.

Posted on 21st July 2016 in Planning, Web

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