Design Development

9 minute read

Web Designer vs Web Developer: Which career should you choose?

Lauren Holliday

Lauren Holliday

What do you do?

For Patrick Haney, that question is a little more complicated.

“By day, I’m a designer and developer hybrid working on client projects through Hanerino, a two-person, design studio his wife began two years ago,” he says. “We take on a wide range of work including web design and development, user experience design for apps and mobile as well as many other design projects.”

When he is not working on contract projects he teaches web development and graphic design classes as an adjunct instructor at the CDIA.

In high school, Haney tried “every programming language he could get his hands on,” and so, naturally, he enrolled as a computer science major in college. It wasn’t long before he realized that he needed a balance of web development and design and changed majors.

“My first few jobs out of college were development focused, and while I really enjoyed what I was doing, I felt it was lacking something,” he says. “Eventually, as I began to write more HTML and CSS, I realized that the design side of the web was really intriguing. The ability to make something work, but then to make it enjoyable to use, that’s where I found my passion.”

Patrick is one of an increasing number of people who consider themselves a designer and developer hybrid, which makes sense in a world where clients lump web design and web development together as if they were the same thing.

Joel Oliveira, lead developer at Change Collective, says it may be because they only have one point of reference, and that’s what they see on their screen.

“What’s on their screen is ‘designed,’ and they might not understand the mechanics and complex system under the hood,” Oliveira says. “It’s probably simpler for those people to just pick one and go with it; just like when you call a tissue a Kleenex or folks in the south who call any and all sodas Coke.”

These “unicorns,” or people who are great designers and developers, are fairly rare and incredibly sought after in today’s market. The difference in the number of jobs available for designers versus developers is drastic.

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A quick LinkedIn search shows there are 100,271 jobs with the word "designer" in the title compared with 276,421 jobs with the word "developer," as of July 2017. On Indeed, the difference in job listings is much bigger, with 462,379 "design or designer" jobs and 1,141,358 "developer or engineer or development" jobs.

As for salaries, Indeed reports that "the average developer salary in the U.S. is approximately $91,438 per year" while "the average web designer salary in the U.S. is approximately $61,178 per year." Of course, these numbers will vary by location, skill level, company and what specific type of design or development you specialize in.

So why does one get paid so much more than the other if they’re both working together to produce the same outcome: a beautiful and functional website or an application?

Web designers are architects of the web. They focus on the look and feel of the website; and so, they should be visual arts experts, who are skilled in color scheming, graphic design and information flow. Designers are typically more in tune with their right brain hemisphere, utilizing their creativity, intuition and imagination, to design amazing user experiences.

The education requirement for a web designer is debatable. While a degree may not be needed, a full portfolio of your past work is a must. Of course, others would argue that a degree from a university is just as important. Also, you should be skilled in software such as Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and Dreamweaver.

Amanda Cheung, lead interaction developer at DockYard, works with designers and other developers to create great experiences on the computer and mobile web. She creates and reviews Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), ensuring the code is clean, maintainable, user-friendly and responsive.

Cheung actually began as a designer and had a natural progression into web development because like Haney, she felt something was missing.

“I studied fine arts in school, concentrating in painting and graphic design,” she says. “Once I graduated I started working as a graphic designer, but the job I was doing wasn’t too fulfilling for me so I took an introduction to web design and web programming classes at night. I was able to get several freelance gigs, realized how fun it was and made the transition into web development full-time.”

Kyle Bradshaw is the senior front-end developer at Digitas, and he classifies himself as solely a web developer.

“I went to an engineering school so I enjoy programming. I was never very interested in the design aspect of it. I lack artistic talent,” he says. “I could always remix other designers’ designs if it came down to it. I enjoyed the development part more.”

Oliveira is a developer as well. He enjoys how there is always an answer in code and that computer science and programming filled the proverbial creative void.

“There is always an answer – true or false, 1 or 0, works or crashes, but the means by which you could get to that answer were limitless,” he says. “How liberating! The space in between fascinated me. How efficient could I be? How fast? How cute? How confusing? How clear? The journey to finding the answer to a problem has been the reason I’ve stayed in the field to this day.”

Most developers would agree with Joel because programmers tend to think with the left side of their brain, which is the logical, linear thinking and technical side.

If web designers are the architects of the web then developers are the builders. Without coders, the plans would never come to life. They work with designers in making semantic markup languages like XHTML and CSS and transform static PSDs into interactive working web browser pages.

Typically, programmers are skilled in programming languages such as PHP, ASP, Ruby on Rails, Python, HTML, CSS and more depending on what they specialize in and their experience level. The nice thing about being a good developer is that since their skills are in such a high demand then any programmer with a good portfolio can easily get a coding job.

No matter how different or not different being a designer and/or a developer may be, the two occupations do seem to come with the same pros and cons.

Flexible work hours and ability to work from anywhere seem to be the biggest perks aside from doing something these people love to do.

Oliveira says the ability to work from anywhere can also be a huge con.

“Because I have my laptop with me almost all day and night I can and will work. It’s a constant struggle to be mindful of my work/life balance. I enjoy what I do immensely (obviously a perk), but the possibility of burnout is a very real thing,” he says.

A quick recap

A web designer:

  • Focuses on look and feel of a website
  • Uses HTML, CSS, and JavaScript
  • Is competent in color scheming, graphic design, and information flow
  • Creates a great user experience
  • Is right-brained: Strong intuition, creativity, & imagination
  • Portfolio is worth more than a degree
  • Average annual salary: $61,178

A web developer:

  • Creates the inner workings of a website
  • Is competent in programming languages (PHP, .NET, Python, C, Ruby)
  • Develops the user interface
  • Is left-brained: logic, linear thinking, technical
  • Hands-on coding experience is required (either your own products or GitHub)
  • Average annual salary: $91,438

So which profession do you choose?

Everyone I spoke to recommended not to.

Haney thinks it is important to not think of web design and development as two entirely different entities.

“Without them both, there is no usable web. Whether you’re in charge of both or working within a team doing one or the other, make sure your process flows in both directions,” he says.

As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.

If you don’t know what you want to do and are still deciding between the two, then try working with Photoshop one day, and Sublime the next. Like Steve Jobs said, “As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.” So start looking. Go find it.

And the best way to find it is to actually dive into learning it. So which path will you try first? Tell us in the comments below.


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Lauren Holliday

Lauren Holliday

Lauren Holliday is a full stack marketer, serial learner, and writer. Her work has been featured in Business Insider, The Economist, TIME, and more.