Web design & web development – what’s the difference?

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I remember in my tender age how simpler and seemingly normal even to most folks by then to refer every type of washing powder as Surf.

Yes I did and you know everyone was cool with it, no harm came with it. Everybody would be aware of what was being referred to, it was just any of those washing powders not necessarily a specific brand. Good old days.

Now with my topic issue, nowadays these terms are virtually interchangeable as web designers and developers differ the way they describe their services. The truth, however, is that the terms reference two fundamentally different aspects of the website building process requiring two unique skill sets.

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The question now being, why is it important that you know the difference as you look for a web professional to build your company website?

Let’s take a closer look – Web design

Before we talk about anything, one critical procedure for every web designer should be to begin by determining a client’s website objectives then everything else follows. No, you can’t just go straight into fixing your fancy graphics into a client’s website before establishing their goals.-unless they are like those clients who “just” want it done.

You need to know the target market, how they would most likely want to interact with the website and or the service provider. From the client side try to figure out what they want to achieve by setting up a website, be it improved customer services or they want to use it as a hub for their stuff where they can drive more sales via linking their web content with other digital channels such as social media. (Facebook, Twitter etc)

So you will realise web designers may use several basic design principles to achieve an aesthetically pleasing layout which also offers excellent user experience.

These I will discuss later but in the meantime let’s find out what a graphic designer is all about.

As I like to call graphic designers creative experts, these folks’ main focus is on the look and feel of a website and I will tell you their pride lies in visual design.

What they do or should, of course, is to first get to know their client’s vision and then convert it into an artistic design that is pleasing to viewers or users of the website.

Graphic designers are mostly interested in how visitors interact with the website so these guys really put more effort in giving a website the most user-friendly interface.

Essentially, their biggest task is the selection of the most appropriate colours, layout, font and images which ultimately creates the whole personality of the website. Besides the aesthetic aspect, the usability of the website is a priority. Web designers create pages that the target market can relate to.

Take it this way; you would expect a nursery school website or just a website targeted at children to be designed with brighter colours, large fonts, and more images and less text. This would make the website attractive and captures the attention of the target audience.

Hence their job has more to do with colour scheming, graphic designing and information flow. Their work language sounds like HTML, CSS as well as JavaScript and these enable them create stunning websites.

Some of the most important web design principles

  • Balance – It’s quite important for every web designer to create a balanced web layout. In web design, there are heavy (large and dark colours) and light (small and lighter colours) elements. These must be applied in correct proportion to achieve a balanced website design.
  • Contrast – if you are a web designer you surely know that contrasting colours should be placed opposite one another on the colour wheel. So here is when you look at contrasting sizes, textures and shapes to define and draw attention to certain sections of the website.
  • Emphasis – this calls for the web designer to avoid over-emphasis of certain web elements. For instance, you cannot have a web page highlighted more than 50% on the page layout; this would be so boring and distracting so to say.
  • Compatibility-it’s equally important having a website accessible on multiple or portable devices such as tablets. In this age, you cannot risk designing one contrary to this.

So what about web development?

Web developers, many call them programmers, make use of the design created to build a fully functional website. These are the people behind the smooth functionality of every single feature visitors interact with on a website.
They take care of all the behind-the-scenes of a website.

So, in other words, I refer web design as a non-interactive “picture” of a website. Why so? This is because web developers take the design and break it up into a system that is “live”. I’m talking about a system at this point that now allows you to give commands and get responses with just a click.

Let’s say you find something interesting on my website, you want to share with your friends on social media, and the share button works just as it’s supposed to, that’s what my developer is about – bringing life to every feature or icon on that website.

So these guys, of course, use some specific tools or coding languages in building websites. Some would just use HTML or even a more dynamic approach incorporating programming languages such as PHP to develop the various website pages.

Web developers may choose to utilise Content Management System (CMS) like WordPress or Joomla in order to streamline development and allow clients an easy way to maintain and update their website.

I’m sure you now have the understanding that these guys are capable of converting a static layout into a dynamic website by using image and content sliders, responsive or active links and buttons, and other interactive elements.

So they are usually more technical in nature. And they tend to have excellent problem-solving skills. Although web developers are sometimes referred to as programmers, their skills usually exceed those of a conventional software developer. Think of a web developer as more of a technical expert with programming skills.

Therefore, as you have seen, there is a thin line between these two skill sets since web designers can also be able to do what a developer does and vice versa.

It would be a hell of a deal though to have a team or at least one, who posses both skills which can be useful in web project management.

22 Comments

  1. quite simply

    Web Designers aka Frontend Developers design the frontend look and feel of a website sometimes they might build it themselves ususally in HTML/CSS/JS etc

    Web Developers aka Backend Developers design the underlying framework or system underneath the frontend design – they might use frameworks/cms like WordPress or Joomla or may write directly in a language like PHP or Ruby or similar

    thats the clear distiction – TBH though, most of the “designers” or “developers” i’ve met in ZW (sorry if i’m tarring you all with same brush here) are just glorified skin tweakers – they take a skin/template that looks roughly like they want then tweak it for taste – you can see this when you notice that most sites by a particular developer look virtually the same with only basic stylistic differences like colour and choice of font + logo etc. In my opinion thats neither design nor development. 🙁 we need more people that have the skills to build from scratch or rather from more basic blocks rather than just take something thats as good as done and tweak it a little bit

    1. peterc says:

      I more or agree with @Antony but IMHO, building things from scratch is not a thing anymore. I’d rather fire up a docker container(pulled) with most tools. Again I’d choose a framework like Play, Spring etc

    2. Ngonidzashe Mhuruyengwe says:

      I will agree and disagree at the same time.

      Agree – building two websites that look virtually the same save for color and fonts is bad. A website represents the identity of an entity (corporate, blog, institute etc.) so unless two entities are exactly identical then no two websites should ‘intentionally’ be the same.

      Disagree – On any day, if you are a web designer or a web developer and you came across a framework, template or skin that represents exactly what the client needs please take it. Save yourself some work. I have seen designers and developers decide to do otherwise only to come up with a different look alike that perform dismally.

      Building something from scratch that already exists is called time wasting.
      Building something that already exists and making it inferior is called well..stupidity.

      My advice is this, if one is a ‘real developer’ then check the integrity of the underlying code. Check the template. If you do not know how to do this then use available tool e.g for wordpress there a barrage of tools like http://themecheck.org/

      1. My philosophy has always been pick the right tools for the job, this includes frameworks/CMS and even upon occasion base templates/themes too – on others it has been a basic build from scratch because no framework or tool meets the requirements – granted that is something rarer these days – my point was more about
        the knock off’s that are done in a misleading manner that its “new” work when nothing new really is added

        1. peterc says:

          +1 for that

    3. Ar says:

      I do not agree with your assertion that Zim has go poor developers or tweakers as you call it. Myself I am a tweaker when I am paid little money. I cant spend hours coding a website to get 50 bucks. The truth is that people pay little bucks in Zimbabwe for web work and as a result people use easy tools to make them websites. The only time that I stretched to the limit my coding prowess and truly learnt Rails was when I worked with a team of demanding clients based in Berlin, who offered me an amount that was too good. I therefore think as long as the market in Zim pays less and is not demanding the more we will see developers with low skills.

    4. Richard Djeniko says:

      That is interesting basically and carefully examining with the use of appropriate programming language (html, css, js and many more) do what is needful (backend) with right framework develops best selling applications of all time. The frontend (designers ) should not be overlooked.

    5. Tongai says:

      Actually a Web designer isn’t necessarily a front end developer. While it is usually an added advantage for a Web designer to posses fundamental knowledge of html, css and javascript, these are not prerequisites of the job. A Web designer is responsible for designing the look and feel of the website before it is coded. The primary role of the web designer is to design the user interface that users will interact with, while also designing the user experience for the website.

      In a good work flow a designer will create a mockup of the website in either Photoshop, illustrator, sketch or a similar program, this will then be passed on to the development team who will convert the design into code. Many Zimbabwean “designers” I know skip the design stage completely and go straight to code. Not only is this a bad habit but it is also time consuming. It’s a lot easier to make changes to a mockup than it is to change your code.

      A front end developer on the other hand is a Web developer who specialises in front end languages such as html, css and javascript.

    6. Meh Hikwa says:

      Web Designers – Basically design the look and feel of the website, which we may refer to as UI (User interface) design. The designer at the same time could work on the UX design (User experince design): usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the user and the product i.e hence mobile / web / app experiences.
      If then the Web designer has programming skills HTML CSS JS etc which build the UI/UX you could them term that web designer a frontend developer. In some cases the frontend developer may go alll the way to creating or using frameworks and or libraries such as CMS (WordPress, Drupal), Jquery/Javascript and Angular for the UX aspect of the website.

      Web Developer – Creates the inner workings of a website. This guy could have the above skill and knowledge but essentially he/she deals with the core functionality of the website – database management, IA design (information architurecture design), Security issues and much more. Core programming languages PHP, .NET, Python, C, Ruby, Java, MySQL and other many emerging ones

  2. YesItsTrue says:

    PHP is not a programming language.

    1. Mac says:

      I don’t understand if you say PHP is not a programming language.Maybe we need to first understand what a programming language is. Isn’t it simply something that can be read by a computer which then command specific operations to take effect.? PHP as it was primarily designed to make web pages,it is a programming language

      I would agree to the fact that its not as pretty much a beautiful language for some web developers for certain reasons .For example statistics show that more than 70% of websites with JAVA as their server side language attract high traffic, the value drops to below 15% for websites having PHP as their server side language.

      But we obviously differ how we treat these things but its good if you can enlighten us how you see PHP as not a programming language.

    2. [email protected] says:

      It’s usually better to confirm before make such ignorant assertions.
      I’m sure you missed that it’s tiring complete.

      Will give you a chance to say you didn’t mean it the literal sense, because what you’re saying is bull$h*t

    3. Tate says:

      So what is it then

  3. peterc says:

    Only total noob or a non-programmer would say this kind of BS. PHP just like C, Lisp, White Space and myriads of programming languages is a Turing complete language. This site probably runs some version of WordPress which is also written in PHP. What have you done with x86 assembly then, maybe it’s too high level for you as well, you prefer binary. My point is high level languages(including the so called scripting languages) are also programming languages.

  4. LoveJ says:

    “Although web developers are sometimes referred to as programmers, their skills usually exceed those of a conventional software developer. ”

    please explain your above statement. what does a conventional software developer look like? What is a web developer developing if its not software for the web?

  5. Tino says:

    @Peterc. I totally disagree with you and I think that’s why we find most web teams are not that innovative due to the reliance on pre-fabricated frameworks, which end up bloating the site since most features they ship with end up under utilised.

    1. peterc says:

      tldr; don’t reinvent the wheel

      1:
      If a problem has been solved before don’t waste time reinventing the wheel.
      Frameworks are meant to solve common problems like IO, parsing request params, headers et cetra. They are well tested and are most likely more secure that something you put together from “scratch”.

      2:
      It’s not about you[the developer]. It’s all about the end user. If you don’t ship, users will never get to see your product. That means, as a business, you are losing lots of money. I am talking rapid development here. Use every tool at your disposal to get your product out there before someone else does. I will use Rails and go live in 3 months while you take years doing things that have been done before.

  6. Tino says:

    @Peterc, If you mean front-end frameworks I might agree they are a perfect fit for rapid prototyping, yes. Just for ideation, bringing everyone on the team on the same page but not for production for the same reason I mentioned earlier of bloat.

  7. Tino says:

    @Peterc, with front-end frameworks I might agree they are a perfect fit for rapid prototyping, yes. Just for ideation, bringing everyone on the team on the same page but not for production for the same reason I mentioned earlier of bloat.

    1. peterc says:

      Rails is a back-end web framework.

  8. Priyanka Pal says:

    Here I am posting my view on this article
    http://mozwebdev.in/

    1. Imi Vanhu Musadaro says:

      That is an example of the shoddy web design/development houses people are talking about. The Contact Us page still has place holder text. Laughable…

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