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«Return to Blog List Web Designer, Web Developer: What’s the Difference?

The terms “web designer” and “web developer” can mean just about anything, depending on who’s using them and why. I’m going to make a case for definitions that indicate two different skill sets, with each offering different services (perhaps with some minor overlap on occasion). Hopefully, there will eventually be widespread agreement about the differences and areas of overlap in the designations. In the meantime, there’s a comment form at the end of this post that begs for your disagreement with (or support for) my opinions about these terms.

Web Designer

Web designers are first, and foremost, designers. They might be able to tinker with javascript to make an existing jQuery plugin look or behave the way they want, and they might be able to copy and paste and rework some minor php, but they’re unable to write their own functions. And databases? Fugeddaboudit!

However, web designers are experts at CSS, Photoshop, and XHTML. Given half a chance, they can bore you to death with discussions about how to clear floats or when (or if) it’s appropriate to use tables. They understand web typography, color, spacing of elements, navigation, directing eye-path, enhancing user experience and accessibility, and have at least a working knowledge of information architecture.

Assuming they’re good at what they do, when they complete a website, it looks good, it’s easy to navigate, the information is readable, and the site’s look and feel supports and enhances the content. Web designers are sometimes referred to as “front-end developers,” but in my mind this term indicates some expertise in javascript.

Web Developer

Web developers offer significant programming services and database development in whichever flavors they have chosen to master. At a personal level, they may or may not also be web designers, but usually not. Few people are competent at both design and programming (I don’t know a single expert programmer I would hire as a designer).

I’ve also found that the term “programmer” means different things to different people (“designer” is subject to interpretation also: everyone who owns a copy of Dreamweaver or InDesign calls themselves a designer). Some people who press buttons in .NET call themselves programmers, even though they are unable to write even the simplest functions. As a result, when they’re part of a web team, the rest of the team adapts to the needs of the software, instead of having the programmer adapt to achieve the desired result.

At a company level, a web development company may be comprised of people who, individually, could not offer both design and programming at professional levels of competence. I consider myself a web designer. My company is a web development company because my business partner has very strong complementary skill sets in programming and database development. We’ve always joked that, while we can accomplish a lot together, individually we’re kind of pathetic. At least I think she was joking…

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