What is the difference between web design and web development?

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What’s the difference between web design and web development?

It’s a fair question to ask but perhaps it has a very simple, succinct answer, writes Daniel Brown, principal consultant at Computer Futures.

A quote to remember to understand web design from web development

“A web designer is the architect of a house and a developer is the builder of the house.”

This came from a JS developer in 2023 and it explains the difference quite nicely.

It’s also helpful because web design and web development are often put into the same category by freelancers’ clients, and even freelancers themselves as new candidates starting out on the market. Even at the experienced end however, titles like ‘UI developer;’ ‘UX developer,’ ‘Frontend developer’ and ‘UX designer,’ can often be misunderstood.  

What 2023's web designers and web developers will tell you

In preparation for this article exclusively for FreelanceUK, I enlisted the advice of several professionals working today in web design and web development, to obtain both comparisons and contrasts to better understand each role. 

Web designers typically come from a development background, but in more specialised design roles there's no coding required -- a concept often referred to as ‘zero code.’

In these positions, designers generate ‘mock-ups’ using tools like Figma, but with the responsibility of turning those designs into interactive code lying with the developers.

Essence, blurry lines, and your toolkit as a designer/developer

In essence, while web design often involves the creation of visual plans or prototypes, web development is focused on the coding aspect that brings those designs to life.

The line here can be blurry as there is some overlap, especially if designers use design tools that auto generate code. But typically, design is about User Interface (UI), User Experience (UX); accessibility, ‘look and feel’ -- whereas web development is building and coding (although a web developer should be aware of accessibility).

A web designer’s toolkit would include having a good eye for layout and design, colour theory, and knowledge of accessibility.

A web developer’s toolkit would include being technically sound, aware of good coding practices, with an awareness of accessibility.  

Web development and web design from a recruitment perspective…

Some institutions using a web designer often refer to them as someone who is closely contributing to the design – even though they subsequently go off and build it!

However, generally speaking people designing complex systems such as Software As A Service (SAAS) projects, and web applications that also work on the web, also call themselves UX or UI designers, depending on their skills as a designer.

In the recruitment or hiring of web developers and web designers, the evaluation criteria differ significantly.

How are developers judged, and designers assessed?

Developers are typically judged based on their CV, technical knowledge, and proficiency. Demonstrating their expertise through a portfolio of previous work, such as a GitHub repository, is common. They're also expected to showcase a certain level of professional experience.

On the other hand, the assessment of designers is largely portfolio-based, evaluating their design skills and capabilities. So a robust portfolio is crucial for web designers to effectively demonstrate their creativity.

Do web designers work separately from web developers, or together?

In bigger projects, developers and designers typically work together. However, smaller or less tech-savvy organisations often rely on developers to handle design elements, leveraging their understanding and experience to execute a project.

Each designer/developer generally has their own strengths and weaknesses, and mature teams will have a mix of skill-sets. For example, one person I know is great at UI and UX Design but is not a specialist User Researcher (even though he is a competent one!). But you’ll often find another designer who is great at just UX and Research.  So as an organisation, pairing these personnel together can balance out any potential shortcomings in your web team.

A lot of times designers and developers can be siloed -- certainly that’s the traditional set up in bigger businesses. But the downsides of separation are that there can be a lack of communication between the two, which obviously leads to issues such as incorrect implementation, gaps in the experience and inconsistency in the design and behaviour of things. So again, grouping your designer and developer together can be no bad thing!

‘The designer came up with that idea’

Where silos do exist, designers may design solutions that aren’t technically possible or that require more time/effort than the developers have to implement it. Remember, designers have a different set of skills and backgrounds to developers, so there can be a clash of ideas and priorities. 

In recent years, the digital staffing industry has grown mainly through evidencing the value that good design and good design-thinking brings, in terms of truly solving user needs and achieving business goals, typically based on the data that is gathered during the ‘generative research’ stage and the continuous testing of design solutions.

A bright outlook for UX designers

My own experience is that web design has brought organisations closer to their users -- in general. Lots of start-ups have grown to be billion-dollar companies through good design and using data to drive design decisions.

The Neilson Norman Group believes there will be 100 million UX designers by 2050, which just shows how much demand for such professionals is growing!

If you’re a new web designer or web developer reading this, I’d advise that finding the right balance, understanding each other’s roles and responsibilities -- while having mutual respect for your counterpart -- is crucial to avoid duplication of work and worse, conflict. 

Finally, show me the money!

And whichever you are, or want to be, the pay is handsome! That said, the rates commanded by a web designer and web developer can differ, depending on their skills and client requirements. Usually though, each role on a contract and freelance basis can fetch between £450 and £550 a day. However for very talented freelance web designers and skilled freelance web developers, there will be always exceptions, so upskilling can absolutely lead to premiums on the headline pay rate. The only decision now; which one are you going to be?!

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