What is a web designer?

by
Monica Galvan
Learn what a web designer is
With so many design specialties out there, it's tough to narrow down on only one. Learn what a web designer is, the software you need to know, core skills to be successful, and how to learn web design on your terms.

Whether you’re new to design or have been practicing for a few years now, you may have realized there are several specialties within a design career. If you search for design roles on any job board site, you’ll see various titles including graphic designers, production designers, visual designers, product designers, UX designers, UI designers, web designers, and many others. It can be confusing and hard to know exactly what each role works on and which is right for you. 

In this article, we’ll dive deep into what a web designer is, what their role and responsibilities are, some of the tools they use, the difference between web design and development, the tools and software you use, the core skills you need as a designer, and more.

What is a web designer?

Let’s start with a basic understanding of what a web designer is and what they do. A web designer is responsible for creating new websites from scratch and/or making updates to existing websites. 

A web designer uses various software, tools, and technologies to create a functional website. They might also be tasked with designing navigational elements, using HTML and CSS code, incorporating SEO into websites, and updating and tracking website changes. 

Specific tasks will vary depending on if you’re a full-time web designer for a company or a freelance web designer who works on individual projects with clients. For example, the larger the company you work for, the more specialized the role. Whereas, the smaller the company, the more likely you are to wear multiple hats and own the design process from start to finish. And of course, as a freelancer, you can decide how to structure your web design process, the types of projects you work on, and the clients you work with.

What does a web designer do?

As a web designer, your job is to take your client or company’s content (both visual and written) and organize it in a way that tells a story and achieves a specific goal.

You’ll focus on the user experience first by creating low and high-fidelity wireframes to dictate what content goes where and the flow as a user navigates through the website. You’ll design the navigation, a great first impression on the homepage, and always consider the mobile and desktop experience. 

Example of high-fidelity wireframes
(source: Adam Kalin on Dribbble)

After nailing down the user experience, you’ll focus on designing the user interface. You’ll create dynamic color combinations, work with typography, create supporting graphics and icons, and mockup the final polished UI design. You may be designing these UI elements completely from scratch or working with pre-existing brand guidelines provided by the client.

Here is a quick rundown of the web design process explained in 5 minutes:

Web design vs web development

You’ve probably heard the terms web design and development go hand in hand but they’re actually distinctly different parts of the process. While web design focuses on the experience and visual aspects of a website, web development is the backend and requires more technical skills. 

If you’re solely a web designer, you’ll focus on designing the visuals and then collaborate with a web developer to prep your final designs for web development. They will focus on the technical aspect of taking your assets and making the website work. 

But just because web design and development are two separate parts of the process, that doesn’t mean your job as a web designer is done when you hand off your assets and mockup. All along the website process, from design through development, both roles should collaborate and inform each other on key decisions along the way. Without good communication, the project may not get done in time and you may not achieve your client’s goals.

Merging web design and development into one role

If you’re a freelancer you can decide to take care of both roles, web design and development, which will make you more valuable to a client and allow you to charge more. Our favorite way to add development to your web design services is Webflow. It’s the easiest way for designers to design and develop a customizable website.

Core skills you need as a web designer

Visual design

Understanding the basics of visual design is key to being a web designer. You need to know design fundamentals like how to work with color, typography, how to use grids, establish hierarchy, and more. Knowing how to use these elements properly will help you create a beautiful and functional website.

UX

UX (User Experience) focuses on how a user interacts with a product like a website, an app, or even physical products like a TV remote or a car. The field of UX is wide and can range from UX researchers to UX designers. But for the purposes of web design, think of UX as how your website works, how information is organized, and how to guide your user to a specific outcome.

HTML

There are three “languages” that most websites consist of: HTML, CSS, and Javascript. They’re all technically “languages,” although HTML and CSS are not classified as true programming languages.

HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) is the standard markup language for creating web pages. It consists of a series of elements that tell the browser how to display the content. Examples of HTML elements are headers, footers, paragraphs, links, images, and more. HTML is what search engine crawlers read when they index your website. HTML is crucial to every website project.

Example of how HTML is written with tags

CSS

CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) supports HTML. While HTML tells the browser what content to display, CSS is the code that tells browsers how to format the style of the content. You can adjust the colors, change the fonts, add background colors, and so more with CSS. This is where all the fun comes in as you create a truly customized website experience.

Example of how CSS is written, specifying background color, font size, and more

Javascript (optional)

You can code your designs using just HTML and CSS only. Knowing Javascript is by no means a requirement for being a web designer and you can outsource it. But understanding the basics of what’s possible with Javascript will help give you a huge advantage over your competition.

JavaScript is a scripting language used to create and control dynamic website content (anything that moves, refreshes, or changes on your screen without requiring you to manually reload a web page). Examples of Javascript in action are the Facebook timeline automatically updating or when Google auto-suggests keywords as you’re typing a query in the search bar.

SEO (optional)

Another skill that’s helpful to be familiar with as a web designer and help you stand out is SEO (search engine optimization). Understanding SEO will help you increase the quantity and quality of traffic to your website through organic search engine results. 

Without traffic, no one will visit your website. Without quality traffic, no one will buy your product or sign up for your services. Typically SEO can be a separate role or service provided but again, understanding the basics will make you the optimal choice to work with (and another way to increase what you charge your clients).

Communication and client management

While communication and client management may be listed last, this by no means they’re not important soft skills to have as a web designer. You’ll need to have good communication skills for all the different people you’ll be talking with throughout the web design process. 

You need to be able to articulate your design decisions and explain the why behind your design solution. If you want to be a successful freelance web designer, learning how to communicate well and create good client relationships is key if you want to continue to be hired again. Cultivating good relationships will bring back clients and their referrals. 

Does this all sound like your cup of tea? Check out this video by Ran if you want to get the gist of how you'd get started:

Web design software

There’s no right or wrong answer on what the best tools and software are for web designers to use. It depends on the project and who you’re designing for. 

For example, if you work as an in-house designer, you’ll need to learn how to use the software the design team already uses. You can’t come in and use Adobe XD or Sketch if the whole organization uses Figma. Large tech companies tend to use specific software that works best for their team’s collaboration. For this reason, Figma is a favorite among tech companies simply for how easy it is to collaborate cross-functionally and share files with multiple designers on a team. This makes it easy for one designer to take over when someone is out of office and for another team to view, share, and comment with feedback.

If you’re a freelancer then you have more flexibility with the tools and software you use. You’re the business owner so you can dictate what you use. Of course, some clients may request you work with a specific software (maybe they have pre-existing files), but it's up to you to decide if you want to work with those clients.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll mainly be discussing our favorites within the Adobe program suite. However, there are free options and other alternatives if you prefer using another. But essentially you’ll need 3 types of software:

  • Image editing software — Adobe Photoshop 
  • Vector editing software — Adobe Illustrator
  • Screen design software — Adobe XD
Web design software: Photoshop for images, Illustrator for vectors, and Adobe XD for screen design

Photoshop

Photoshop is an image editing software, it was not built for screen design. Rather than using Photoshop to design the actual UI of your website, use it mostly to create image assets for your designs. However, depending on the project you're designing, it might be easier for you to stick within the program to design the website.

For example, if your design has complicated image editing elements like shadows, patterns, and textures, you may not want to spend the time creating them in Photoshop, exporting, and importing them into another design software. This can waste a lot of time going back and forth especially if there are multiple rounds of changes with feedback, so you may want to keep the design in Photoshop to keep things simple.

Example of a homepage design mockup in Adobe Photoshop

But there are major cons to using Photoshop. One of the big ones is it’s not the best for exporting assets which is extremely important when it comes time to develop the website. It’s also not the most user-friendly for designing with multiple artboards, creating reusable components, and keeping the design consistent. Ran explains in detail the pros and cons of using Photoshop on a web design project in this video:

A couple of alternatives to Photoshop are Pixlr and Gimp.

Illustrator

Illustrator is a vector-based software. You can use it to create simple icons and complex illustrations, any vector assets for your website project. While most screen design software offer basic vector capabilities like shapes and the pen tool, sometimes it’s easier to create them in Illustrator, which is the industry’s best software for creating vectors.

Courtesy of the Adobe Blog

Adobe XD

Adobe XD is a free screen design tool by Adobe and where it all comes together. You can use XD to create wireframes and design the final UI for your website. Switch to prototype mode to link multiple artboards together, add animations, and share a working prototype with your client so they can see how the website flows. 

New to Adobe XD? Watch this tutorial where Ran walks you through how to design a homepage in XD.

Alternatives to Adobe XD

As mentioned before, there’s no right or wrong answer and there are many different screen design tools out there. A few others are Figma, InVision, and Sketch. Each has its pros, cons, and best use case scenarios. At the end of the day, the tool you use doesn’t matter. As long as it achieves the goal of designing a successful website, that’s all that matters.

How to learn web design

After reading through what a web designer is, what they do, and the skills needed to be successful, you’ve decided you want to pursue web design. Now what? 

You can learn the core skills you need to be a web designer online at your own pace. You don’t need to get a Bachelors's Degree in Design and study for 4 years before getting started. There are many free resources out there to help you learn to design and countless tutorials on YouTube (check out some of ours on the Flux YouTube design channel). 

But watching a tutorial here and there is exhausting, you might get confused along the way, and not know what to do first. We offer a free web design course, check out lesson 1 here:

If you’re itching to learn more, especially how to make web design a successful career then consider checking out one of our courses. In the $10k Website Process, you’ll learn step-by-step not only how to design beautiful websites that achieve your client’s goals but you’ll also learn how to manage the web development process so you can take full control of the entire website and make more money.

FREE WEBDESIGN COURSE IN YOUR INBOX

Start growing your business today with Ran’s High-Value Web Designer Secrets email course that teaches you the three most significant things he’s learned as a freelancer.