Person 1: So, what do you do for a living?
Person 2: I’m a web designer.
Person 1: Oh, no way! I need a website, can you build me one?
Person 2: Erm … no, no I can’t.
Would you ask an architect to lay the bricks of your new house? No. Would you ask a playwright to play the main part of every play they’d ever written? Of course not. Would you ask a web designer to develop you a website? Well… maybe.
In all honesty, it can be a blurred line. I've come across many a web developer who will have a good crack at designing a website and make a pretty decent job of it and some designers who are quite adept at knocking together a half decent Wordpress site. The additional skill of either designer or developer are often acquired through necessity by one or the other but both are very different disciplines.
Taking the scenario of an architect and builder for example. To put it simply, the designer is the architect and the developer is the builder. The architect designs the building to a strict set of requirements dictated by their client, the builder takes that design, digs the foundations, sources the materials and starts laying the bricks as per the architect's blueprints and makes sure that the darn thing stands up.
Of course there are many more stages to the conception and construction of a building as there are to the design and development of a website, but we don’t want to get bogged down in that kind of detail, we just want to know that if we ever find ourselves talking to a web developer, we don’t go asking them to design our new company logo.
I got interested in web design around 2008. I’d always been a fan of graphic art and spent many an hour messing around on photoshop making gig posters and the like and wondered how I might put this interest to use and make a little money out of it at the same time. A good friend of mine was a freelance web designer and suggested I take a look at getting involved. So I did and in 2009 I went to college to learn all about web design. The course I took didn’t just concentrate on design, it also looked at web development, so before I knew it I was learning code too which I very much enjoyed. It was around this time that I started to lose interest in being a web designer and decided that being a web developer was much more fun. So, I started off a designer and morphed into a developer. Now I know this doesn’t help explain the difference between the two, but it does show that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
In the Gecko office, we have a design team and we have a development team. Our top designer (who we’ll call Bob just to save any arguments) studied art and design in its many facets for many years, while our best developer (who we’ll call Babs for the same reason) studied advanced mathematics and computer science before embarking on a successful career as a web developer. Two very different paths that eventually come together to build one product which I think it’s why people confuse the two areas.
What does a web designer do?
The designer represents both the artistic and the functional vision of a web project. This could range from the palette of colours used in the final design to determine how a user is likely to interact with a small button in the top right-hand corner and if that button is actually useful at all. Besides the project manager, the designer will be one of the first people a client would interact with about their project. They’d discuss ideas, concepts and functionality before going off to start ‘mocking-up’ a first visual draft. This draft might be a layout wireframe or full colour and graphic representation of the final product depending on how the designer works and what the project demands. The designer will consider such things as how a site will work across different screen sizes (desktop, tablet and mobile), the websites likely user base and how that affects layout and use of colour and images (children, adults or perhaps people with disabilities such as visual impairments for example) among many other things. This can be a lengthy process and will no doubt include an ongoing conversation with the client and project manager and probably the developer too when the designer requires clarification on certain technical points.
After a first draft is produced and presented to the client there is usually a large amount of discussion and feedback for the designer to consider for further drafts. A designer doesn’t just need to be great at design, they also need to be a good communicator and be able to take onboard a client's comments and be able to confidently make suggestions for improvements and know when to hold back. On rare occasions a first draft may be all that’s required and the development can begin but mostly many revisions will be made until a final design is agreed and signed off by the client. Once approved, the development can start.
What does a web developer do?
So now that the design has been approved by the client, development can begin. By this time the developer is likely to have some pretty in-depth knowledge about the build. Throughout the design process, the developer should have had a number of interactions with the designer, answering questions and making functionality suggestions etc. This is not always the case though. Say the designer works for a separate company to the developer. In a situation like this the interaction between the two might have been limited or non-existent up until the point of development which is obviously not an ideal situation, but with clear designs and a good set of instructions, it shouldn’t hinder development too much.
Most development agencies have a basic site template with the most common functionality already set up and ready to be worked on. This gives the developer a good head start, prevents the need for developing the same base functionality again and again for each new site and saves everyone time and money overall. This template will usually be installed on a development server (not the live server where the site will eventually live) ready for work to begin. It’s this stage the developer will have the most fun and the most frustration with. Development isn’t just about knowing your code and how best to put it into effect, it’s also about problem-solving.
BUGS. With every bit of code written, you can pretty much guarantee that there’s a bug to fix before you can move on to the next bit of code. By bug I mean an issue, an error, something not working as expected, something not working at all….. just… something. A bug could be caused by a missing semicolon, an extra space or a hash that should have been a full-stop. And when you’re staring three or four thousand lines of code in the face, finding the bug can be a daunting and lengthy process. Many a developer has briefly stepped into the arena of madness in search of that elusive creepy-crawly. Luckily as technology has progressed a plethora of tools have become available to aid the debugging process. A good developer will know how to use these tools to narrow down and stomp on that pesky insect before the computer ends up through the office window.
So besides an excellent knowledge of code and stellar problem-solving skills, a developer also has to know how to work efficiently. This could be reusing snippets of code used elsewhere in the project that can be easily modified for another purpose or knowing when enough development is enough and the product can be delivered. It’s easy to get bogged down in adding unnecessarily complicated functionality that a client may struggle to use. Despite the complexity of the code, a developer should always have the possible inexperience end users in mind.
What do we do now?
So the designer has created a beautifully clean design that the client loves, it’s easy to use and translates seamlessly across all devices. The developer has produced clean and (almost) bug-free code that brings the designers vision to fruition. The site has been tested and the client trained on how to use it and it launches into the world without issue. Great, we can close the book on that one then.
Not so fast. A project is never a closed book. As the internet changes and devices become more powerful and capable, websites and apps must keep up. If a client's requirements change over time a website must be adaptable. Design and development is a fluid process and whenever there is a need for an update to the code or layout, designers and developers should be able to just reach back in and start the wheels turning again. While there is no such thing as being able to future proof a website, there is such a thing as anticipating the change and building with this in mind. And so while the relationship between designer and developer keeps a project moving on, each is very much a master of their own craft.
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