The Differences Between Web Designers and Web Developers

Web designers and front-end web developers of course have their contrasts as individuals: left-brain, right-brain orientation, a noticeable imbalance in average incomes, and the stereotypes that we all know, love and laugh about. For those in the business, the differences and responsibilities are very obvious. Developers may grumble about short-sighted designers, and the two are often paired up on projects to produce a beautiful, functional application or website. But the expectations and responsibilities with those roles are changing. Here I offer my take on the whole thing, and it appears I’m not alone in my opinion.


But for the typical person on the street, they’re one and the same. It’s a person that makes websites. Simple enough.

In a world not too long ago, the line of demarcation was bold, with a 10 pt stroke. But that line is becoming more opaque quickly as it becomes more common for a front-end developer to be expected to work seamlessly in Photoshop and Illustrator. Same with designers–not knowing at least the basics of HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AJAX, PHP, and other languages is foolhardy as we zip into the future of the internet. And mobile. And Apps. And thousands of screen sizes and high resolutions.

The basics of the primary, concrete differences between the two sets has been covered pretty well. What inspired this post is a (great) book I’m currently reading from Smashing Magazine, New Perspectives on Web Design. At about 500 pages, however, the book is no magazine.

New Perspectives in Web Design

I’m about a quarter of the way through it, and despite the book title, so far what’s been covered has been nothing but code. How best to write it, organize it, how to build it as an architecture, scalability, forward-usefulness of it, semantics, etc…Nothing about “web design” at all per se. And that’s not only fine, it illustrates my point here today: that what we’re soon going to have on our hands are three distinct brands of web-worker. The hybrid generalist primarily, and a specialist of both the web design and programmer varieties. A programmer and guy I admire professionally, as do many others, Tom McFarlin, recently also reflects on this phenomenon: Developers Must Know Everything, Or I’m Out of a Job

The hybrid generalist

This is what I currently count myself as, and it’s befitting of my personality and interests. It’s also the way I believe the wind is blowing and what we’ll be seeing more and more of. And although the moniker may imply a shallow level of depth, that’s not necessarily the case. It’s just that building a wall around ourselves professionally is going to make it harder and harder to get work, as websites become more and more complex, dynamic and robust. Niches don’t seem to be more widespread as time goes on, even though the amount of skills and knowledge involved in building a high-quality website or application is large and wide, to use an understatement. You simply must know how a design will impact the code base, and vice-versa.

No matter a designer or developer, both require an innate sense of curiosity, an urge to perpetually learn, and a utilitarianism that seems like it would be absent if someone were to focus strictly on one platform, for example. It’s all so intertwined, that personally, I find it hard to know when to say “that’s enough” when delving into a new language or learning a new design skill which may currently seem superfluous, but probably won’t be for long. The web is a really fickle and amorphous place, and rabbit holes run very, very deep.

I’m not dissing specialists by any means. I liken them to PhDs or even some MDs I know that are highly talented and hardcore at their specialty or sub-specialty. But beyond orthopedics or operations management or whatever, they’re a lost cause. And with nearly any task or object an obviously bright person shouldn’t struggle with. Handling money, home repairs, technology…you name it. There are exceptions, of course, but I’m always amused when I recognize one of these one-trick ponies. Fortunately for them, specialists make a lot more money, so hiring others to do the dirty work solves the problem(usually), unless they’re poor at hiring and managing others, and are swindled or otherwise exploited. I’ve seen that quite a bit as well.

The specialist

Specialists, as I just mentioned, tend to pull in higher payments for their work, but to do so they typically must be known as “the go-to” person for their skill, which can take decades. It involves a dedication to a sole discipline, to master it, become an influencer in their field, and establish themselves as the expert. Not everyone is capable of that focus, and I know for some, the tedium and monotony would become pronounced rather quickly. But some people thrive on it and it’s greatly fulfilling.

The opportunities for specialists should be increasing, as nearly everything is becoming more technical, more complex, more integrated, and more than one human can manage when compounded with everything else. If I were to set up an agency of any formidable size, I would certainly find designers that were the best at their particular talent. And hire developers and engineers that are experts at more narrowly-focused tasks. As a manager, that’s usually more efficient and easier to manage, versus a group of people who have projects all over the place. Of course, I run a small studio consisting of myself and do, in fact, have projects all over the place. However managing myself is much easier than a team of generalists. I’ve led many teams, and always have more success when I assign specific roles befitting each team member. You don’t make your kicker a lineman, unless you have a death-wish for him.

If I look into my crystal ball, I believe we’re going to see more animation, interactivity, and feature-rich sites, that utilize developing technology such as 4k, 8k, 3-D, mobile apps for wearable devices, such as Google Glass and iWatches that communicate with other devices. Sure, the tools used to build it all are also progressing, but learning to to master those tools (and which ones are going to be the industry leader and not just disappear after a few months) is another time-consuming challenge in itself. An example that comes to mind is the recent obsession with responsive web design. Suddenly web designers and developers are expected to know how to create sites that function perfectly across thousands of different devices, at any resolution, on a variety of browsers, and at different levels of accessibility. And that’s only a handful of the considerations that must be taken into account.

This is a reason open-source works so well for developers. By making the code communal, within constraints of course, it’s much more manageable and efficient. But that’s a topic for another day.

Where do you think the industry is headed?


  1. Matt, thanks so much for the mention in this post.

    And I think you’re right – we’re likely going to see a set of “web worker” types as our field continues to evolve.

    Just surveying the landscape of technologies that are available (and even those that are up-and-coming), it’s easy to see that we’re going to have “silos” or niches in which people are going to need to be deeply specialized in order to write well-engineered, performant software.

    There are always going to be those who skim across the surface of the technologies, but I think going deep rather than wide is the way to go.


    1. Hey Tom–thanks for stopping by. Matt? You must be confusing me with another M.M. that talks WP all day–Mullenweg or Mederios. I’ll let it slide since it was 7:30 this AM. 🙂

      You’re right–the trick for people though is to find a nexus where a sustainable specialty/niche and something they’re very interested in meet. And also think about the superfluous, and often time-consuming, activities that may accompany what initially may seem narrowly-focused. Pippin, for example, is crushing it with plugins, especially EDD. But he spends an insane amount of time doing support/service/tutorials, which few people would be all that thrilled about when wanting to focus strictly on building plugins/themes/whatever. But if you can find that sweet spot and go deep, it makes for a very good business model.


      1. Ah, Michael – my bad. I knew that, too. Muscle memory for the loss perhaps? Apologies :).

        Pippin, for example, is crushing it with plugins, especially EDD. But he spends an insane amount of time doing support/service/tutorials, which few people would be all that thrilled about when wanting to focus strictly on building plugins/themes/whatever.

        This is something that I think a lot of people just getting into the product business realize – once you’re selling something that people are doing to use, you’re by default entering into the support business.

        If you’re not built for that – and I know my personality type is one that can do it but I’m not the best at it – then it can really be draining.

        That’s where having a team of people who love that kind of stuff can help you out.

Click on a tab to select how you'd like to leave your comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *