Whether you are developing an RFP for a large ecommerce website or are a small business looking for people or tools to build a website, you’ll likely run into the terms “web design” and “web development”.
Even though they are sometimes used interchangeably, they do refer to distinct aspects of a well-built website. Here’s the short version.
Web Design refers to how a website appears in a browser. Web Development refers to what appears on a website in a browser.
In other words, web design refers to a website’s layout, structure, color schemes, media placements, typography, etc while web development refers to the content, source code, and user interface that shows the user what they want. Additionally, development refers to all the logistics of storing & rendering the website as a whole.
Web design is usually short-hand for the “front-end” of a website while web development is short-hand for the “back-end” of a website.
But honestly, even this definition is so over-simplified that it’s a bit misleading.
A long, long time ago, websites were simply a collection of HTML & CSS files. Everything that showed up in someone’s browser was inside the file that loaded. Back then, a web designer did everything…because creating those files was all that you could really do.
But a little bit later (but still a long time ago), different people started managing HTML / CSS differently. Websites had become so large, that it wasn’t possible to update individual files in bulk.
Instead, all the different parts of a website were split up and put into a database. Content, templates, layouts, media files, fonts, etc – everything became a line in a database. Websites had “content management systems” to assemble different bits of information from the database into an automagically built HTML file everytime a browser requested it.
And this is when web development really became separate from web design.
Web design became more focused on the look of a website and how all these automagically generated files would fit together across an entire website. They became the architects of the website building world.
Web development became more focused on the functionality of a website and how those automagically generated files would actually get…generated. They became the engineers of the website building world.
And to stick with the building analogy, the contractors became, well, software. Website software got much, much better to where it could do the actual building based on web developers’ and web designers’ instructions.
Software as Designer & Developer
Software has also become much better at both web design and web development, further blurring the lines about who is doing what.
In the WordPress world, web designers have been handing off a lot of design work to pre-made themes and templates, thus freeing up designers to focus on branding & graphic design. Web developers have been handing off code development to pre-made plugins, thus freeing up developers to look at bigger picture speed, security, and user experience issues.
In the broader Web, hosted platforms and builders provide centralized (i.e., “global”) web development so that customers can focus exclusively on design, marketing & operations. This extends not only to website builders, but also ecommerce sites – even enterprise grade ecommerce websites.
In fact, more and more hosted platforms and builders are centralizing design with customizable templates and media libraries.
Designer vs. Developer as a Customer
Websites are a bundle of tradeoffs. There will always be a tradeoff between convenience and control. There will always be a tradeoff between quality and affordability. There will also be a tradeoff between uniqueness and support.
Deciding whether you need a professional developer or designer is no longer purely about your needs, but about your wants and current resources.
If you want maximum control, quality and uniqueness then you’ll need a professional designer and developer.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you want maximum convenience, affordability, and support – you can grab a solid, all-in-one website builder.
There is no right answer and no “best” choice – it all starts understanding your own goals and what all is on offer so that you can find the best fit.
There is no magic to web design or web development. They are both solving the same issues that websites have had since the beginning of the Web. But they have both changed…and overlap more than ever.
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