Web Design vs. Web Development: What's the Difference?

Stephanie Corrigan
Web Design vs. Web Development: What's the Difference?
The terms web design and web development are often used interchangeably. Although there can be some overlap between the two, design and development are two different fields requiring different skillsets. In this post, we'll take a closer look at the similarities and differences between web design vs. web development.

Before we dive into each field in more detail, let's break down the fundamental differences between web design and web development. By the end of this post, you should have a clear understanding of each role and which is the best fit for your career goals. Spoiler alert: it is possible to excel at both design and development--keep reading to find out how.

Web design vs. web development: An overview

Back when I first started exploring the idea of creating websites for a living, I was faced with a conundrum: Should I focus on web design or web development? My initial instinct was to do both, but as I learned more about each field, I realized that design was far more up my alley than development.

If you're interested in building a freelance career in the digital realm, both web design and development are good specialties to consider. New businesses are cropping up every day, and every business needs a website. Plus, these are skills that would allow you to work remotely, if that's your cup of tea. And in case you're not interested in freelancing, you can rest assured that both design and development are in high demand in the corporate and startup worlds.

There's no shortage in demand for both designers and developers

In a nutshell, web design involves creating the visual aesthetic and user experience of a website. Web designers are well-versed in visual design principles and use design and prototyping software like Photoshop and Figma. Web developers, on the other hand, are programmers responsible for building out the functionality of a website. Website development requires expertise in either front-end or back-end coding languages.

With these differences in mind, deciding between web design vs. web development might be a simple choice for you. Are you creative and visually oriented? Or do you enjoy solving technical problems and figuring out how things work? If you're a mix of both, you may consider specializing in both web design and development. But if you're still unsure which is right for you, keep reading to learn more about the differences between web design vs. web development.

What is a web designer?

Web design is more than just making websites look pretty. Although the importance of aesthetics in design is undeniable, websites are also about ease of use, efficiency, and usability. There are various skills and techniques that web designers utilize to design websites that are both strategic and beautiful.

Web design fundamentals

In order to succeed in web design, it's essential to have a strong grasp of visual design best practices. Listed below are some of the most important design fundamentals that come into play when designing websites:

  • Layout: Good layout design makes the content on a page easy to consume. (Related: Why is layout important in graphic design?)
  • Color theory and psychology: When used strategically, color helps spark emotion and communicate a brand's messaging. (Related: How to strategically use color in website design)
  • Hierarchy: Hierarchy helps communicate the relative importance of different elements in a design.
  • Contrast: In design, contrast contributes to hierarchy and legibility and helps highlight important elements.
  • Typography: The use of typography in web design is key for effective visual communication. (Related: What is typography?)

Web designer specialties

In addition to visual design fundamentals, web design requires knowledge of user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) best practices. These two fields are important and broad enough that many web designers specialize in one or the other. Below we'll look at the different web design specialties in more detail.

Visual design is a hybrid of UX and UI design
Visual design is a hybrid of UX and UI design

User experience (UX) designer

UX designers are responsible for figuring out how to capture a user's attention, encourage them to take action, and keep them coming back for more. In other words, UX is about usability and efficiency. The UX design process is research intensive and sometimes involves conducting interviews with individuals who fit the website's target demographic. Other tasks include, but are not limited to, wire-framing, prototyping and A/B testing.

User interface (UI) designer

UI design builds on the structural foundation established during the UX process to create a visually appealing website interface. The UI designer primarily focuses on aesthetics and ease of use. Another important role of UI design is creating visual consistency across a website or app in order to eliminate confusion.

Visual designer

A visual designer incorporates both UX and UI to design websites and other interfaces that are efficient, easy to use, and aesthetically pleasing. Visual design is sometimes confused with graphic design; whereas graphic designers typically work on a variety of print and digital design media, visual designers focus on web and app interface design.

Web design tools

Web designers have a number of different tools and software at their disposal. While it's not necessary to be proficient in all of these tools, below are some of the most popular ones that are worth checking out if you're interested in web design:

  • Adobe Photoshop: Although Photoshop is an image editing software, it's often used for website wireframes and design mockups. Photoshop is also useful for creating website banners and other visual elements.
  • Adobe XD: Unlike Photoshop, XD was created specifically for UX/UI design. It's my personal go-to for designing websites.
  • Sketch: Another popular design tool created specifically for UX/UI design.
  • Figma: A collaborative and primarily web-based prototyping tool. Figma is the preferred web design software of Ran Segall, Flux Academy's founder.
  • Balsamiq: A wireframing tool on a mission "to help rid the world of bad user interfaces."

Interested in learning more about web design? Ran Segall has a free introductory web design course on YouTube--check out part one below.

What is a web developer?

Web developers are programmers who translate designs into code that instructs a website on how to function. Web development is complex and intricate work. Because web developers are well compensated and always in high demand, these reasons alone may entice you to choose web development over web design. However, it's important to understand what you're getting into before you make a decision; let's take a closer look at the skills required for web development.

Web development fundamentals

After the web designer establishes how a website will look, the web developer steps in to turn the design into a living, breathing website. Below are some of the fundamental principles every web developer needs to know:

  • Website structure and hierarchy: Using HTML tags, web developers create structural and organizational hierarchy for web pages.
  • Responsive web development: Every website needs to work efficiently on mobile, tablet, and desktop.
  • Git, GitHub, and the command line: GitHub is an open source platform for managing version control using Git.
  • Hosting and the File Transfer Protocol (FTP): Once development is complete, the developer is responsible for pushing the website live. This process varies depending on where the website was developed (i.e. on a local server vs. in the client's hosting account).
  • Security: Web developers should know how to help clients secure their websites in order to reduce their likelihood of getting hacked.

Web developer specialties

Web development is split into two areas: front-end and back-end. Since each area requires different skillsets, many web developers specialize in one or the other. Full-stack developers, akin to visual designers in the web design arena, are experts in both front- and back-end development.

Full-stack development is a hybrid of front-end and back-end development
Full-stack development is a hybrid of front-end and back-end development

Front-end developer

As the name suggests, front-end development involves building out the visible, or user-facing, elements of a website. The primary coding languages used for front-end work include HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Some web designers are familiar with these languages as well, resulting in web design and development hybrids (aka unicorns).

Back-end developer

Back-end development involves building out the core structure of a website. This is "behind the scenes" work that isn't visible to the website user. Back-end developers utilize complex programming languages such as PHP, Ruby, Python, and Java. These languages allow them to integrate databases, servers, and applications.

Full-stack developer

Combining the skills of front- and back-end development creates full-stack developers. This specialty requires expertise in a lot of different programming languages. This skillset can make a developer more adaptable, although their front- and back-end skills may not be as strong as someone who specializes in one or the other.

Web development tools

Web development has come a long way since the World Wide Web was first established. Today, there are many tools out there that make web development easier, faster, and generally more efficient. Below are a few of the most popular tools that every web developer should consider adding to their virtual toolbox:

  • Sublime Text: As a web developer, the vast majority of your work requires a code editor. Sublime is a popular choice due to its efficiency and ease of use.
  • Chrome Developer Tools: Chrome's built-in Dev Tools allows you to edit a website's HTML, CSS, and JavaScript code in real time without affecting the live site. This free tool is indispensable for troubleshooting.
  • GitHub: As mentioned above, GitHub is invaluable for version control; in other words, it makes it easy to revert to a previous version of your code if you mess something up.
  • Web frameworks: Depending on whether you specialize in front- or back-end development, there are various frameworks and libraries at your disposal that'll make your job much easier. Popular font-end frameworks include Angular, React, and Vue. On the back-end, we have Express, Django, and Rails, to name a few.

Want to learn more about web development but feeling a bit daunted by all the different tools and programming languages? Check out Ran Segall’s Free Webflow Masterclass to discover a way to develop websites without coding.

Web design vs. web development: Which career path is right for you?

Now that we've looked at the roles of web designers and developers in detail, do you have an idea of which specialty is the best fit for you? Don't forget, there are specialties within each field to consider as well: UX vs. UI design and front-end vs. back-end development. Reference the handy infographic below for a visual breakdown of the different fields and specialties.

A simple comparison between web design vs. web development
A simple comparison between web design vs. web development

If you're finding it too difficult or limiting to specialize in design or development, you may be a unicorn. In the tech world, unicorns are rare individuals who excel in two different fields--in this case, web design and development. If you want to be a successful unicorn, you'll need to have a good eye for aesthetics and become familiar with visual design fundamentals and software. In addition, you'll need to learn several programming languages.

All that said, there's one caveat to web development that we haven't touched on yet: There are ways to design and develop websites without coding. This is possible through modern website builders like WordPress, Webflow, Squarespace, and WiX. By utilizing these platforms, you can design and build custom or template-based websites without using front- and back-end programming languages.

Unsurprisingly, creating custom websites without coding has become a popular choice for freelance web designers, myself included. Eliminating the web development process saves a significant amount of time and money--it's a win-win for both the freelancer and the client.

Learn how to design and develop websites without coding

Here at Flux Academy, our platform of choice for creating custom websites without coding is Webflow. Webflow is a powerful visual development tool for creating beautiful, premium websites. Unlike other template-based platforms, the possibilities with Webflow are virtually limitless; better yet, it's possible to build a website in Webflow in a matter of hours, as opposed to days or weeks.

If you're interested in creating a lucrative career as a freelance web designer and developer, consider enrolling in our Webflow Masterclass. In this comprehensive course, you'll learn how to create custom websites from start to finish using Webflow. You'll also have the opportunity to build up your portfolio and get feedback from a team of experts.

Click here to learn more about what's covered in the Webflow Masterclass; hear from other students who completed the course, and discover whether it's a good fit for you.

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