The technical differences between a web designer and a web developer can get a little confusing. I often hear the same person described as a "web designer" in one sentence and a "web developer" in the next. An easy way to think about it is this: a designer is focused on aesthetics and a developer is focused on functionality. But let's take a bit deeper of a look than that.
Websites are complex.
The reason that this discussion can even exist is that websites are complex. Over the course of the last 24 years (wow, has the web really been around that long?) websites have gone from meager lines of text to fully interactive web applications. Nearly all websites nowadays are built using a content-management-system (CMS), which is essentially a system that allows users to log in and update the website without any knowledge of code. As you can imagine, the degree of complexity involved in creating a website with users, editable data, and interactive controls is far greater than the degree of complexity involved in creating a website with just text. The main distinction between the designer and the developer is the side of complexity that they focus on.
Also, designers are often concerned about being trendy. This is probably a designer.
Designers focus on the user experience through visuals.
Though websites are complex, the most noticeable element of a website is how it looks. This is where designers come in. It's the designer's job to take your business/products/message and make a design that effectively communicates it to the visitor. This involves considerations such as artistic style and usability (how easily visitors can use your site, find content on it, etc.). These are the sorts of issues that a designer would be responsible for dealing with:
- Does the website effectively communicate what your business is about?
- Does the website look professional?
- Is it easy to find content or use features on the website?
- Is the website consistent with your company's branding?
Good design makes a big difference.
Designers exist because good design makes a big difference. It can make or break your website. It can leave visitors with a good impression of your company or leave a bad taste in your visitor's mouth.
It's safe to say that visitors to these websites don't go away impressed.
MAKING A WEBSITE, BUT SKIPPING THE PROGRAMMING
Because the focus of their work is "look & feel," designers often do not focus on learning programming languages. This is one of the fundamental differences between designers and developers (aside from the fact that designers often have a better sense of fashion).
Interestingly enough, however, the many available website tools out there make it possible for designers to take a design that they've created in Photoshop or another program and create the final website with no real knowledge of programming (other than HTML and CSS, which aren't rightly "programming languages").
Often designers will accomplish this with a pre-built CMS such as Wordpress. Think of it this way: a designer will take an existing website system (Wordpress) and simply change the way it looks. The result? A fully functional website with the design the client wants. Wordpress comes with many useful out-of-the-box features, such as page creating, editing, deleting, and much more. If a designer wants to add other common features (such as an image gallery) to the website, they can install pre-made "plugins" on the website.
THE WEAKNESS OF A DESIGNER
In many cases, designers can get by just fine. But what if your website is unique, and there are special features that you have in mind just for your website? Unfortunately, a designer will usually not be able to help you out. And that's why you can be thankful that developers exist.
Developers Focus on Functionality
Developers focus on helping your site "do" things. As discussed already, the developer's job is often bypassed by the use of a pre-built web CMS, such as Wordpress.
But where did Wordpress come from? Well, developers built it. Then they were kind and decided to share it with the world. And the features that Wordpress offers, such as easy content editing, a login system, user management, and more, only exist because a developer somewhere knew how to wield the power of programming to create an easy content editing system, a login system, etc. Then designers come along and use those tools to build the website that you see and update.
Creating Unique Features
One common area in which you'll find developers is in the creation of unique features for a website. For example, let's say that you want a website where users can list their comic book collection and trade comic books with other users. This type of website would require features that a pre-built system like Wordpress does not offer. A designer would be powerless to create such a website for you.
The solution would be to hire a developer. Developers are experts at creating functionality on a website. They know how to write features, fix bugs, and in general keep your site running smoothly.
It Might Not Be Pretty
The weakness of developers, however, is that they often have not cultivated a great sense of style. While they can make great features that function really well, these features will often look terrible. The developer focused on creating the functionality rather than making it look pretty.
But as we've already discussed, "pretty" matters, right? You don't want your customers to be turned off or confused by the way your website looks. And that is why you can be thankful that designers exist.
There's a Lot of Overlap
While that may seem like a clear cut distinction between designers and developers, it's not actually that simple. Often you'll find individuals who are both designer and developer to some degree. But usually people will lean in one direction more than another. They may be an excellent designer and a mediocre developer. This is because there is just plain SO much to know about both fields that it is incredibly difficult to be excellent at both.
Both Roles are Extremely Important
Whether you find a single individual who can perform both roles or a studio that employs individuals of each vocation, both designers and developers are extremely important. Neither role can excel without the other.