What Does a Web Designer Do?

What Does a Web Designer Do?

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that the role of a web designer is to help you understand your website options.  But their specific methods for helping you, and the skills they bring to that process, depends on their background and expertise.

The truth is, “web designer” is a blanket term that refers to many different specializations, which we’ll cover in more detail below.  But, for the most part, they fall in to two main disciplines: Designers and Developers, each dealing with the “art” and “science” of websites, respectively.

In this post, we’re going to look at web design through the metaphor of a how a car is built and designed.

The Art of Websites (The Designer)

Web designer as an artist - Akamai Websites
A web designer creates beautiful works of web

The primary focus of a designer is to make things look good and work intuitively.  Their focus is on both the visual elements of your website and the experience of a user as they go through the various parts of your website to accomplish specific goals.

With a car, this is the person who can “pimp your ride”, through detailing and adding fancy new accessories, such as a new paint job, seat covers, a rear spoiler and the like.

There are three main types of designers you may encounter:

Visual (Graphic) Designer

The role of the visual designer is to make your website (or mobile app, or flyer, or logo) look amazing.  Their expertise is with colors, typography, and layouts to enhance the aesthetic appeal of whatever they’re designing.  In car terms, this is someone who can use a computer (or even pen and paper) to design the way your car will look, but may not actually do the work of implementing those designs on the car.

UI (User Interface) Designer

A UI Designer is also focused on the look of your website, but specifically how it relates to the way a visitor interacts with the website environment.  They are pros at making sure the buttons, animated elements and visual elements, create a truly intuitive experience for a user.  A car UI designer would be someone who focuses on how the dashboard of your car is laid out to make sure everything is easy to see and easily accessible.

UX (User Experience) Designer

A UX Designer looks at the experience that a website visitor has with the system in order to fulfill the end goal for each person.  They focus on the psychology of the user and come up with specific “personas” (or user profiles) to make sure that all the elements on the page are encouraging the right experience and actions. A UX designer for a car thinks about the goal of the driver (commuting, racing, hauling, etc.) and focuses on making a car that fits those needs.

The Science of Websites (The Developer)

Web Designer as a technician
A web developer knows how everything fits together

On the other side of the coin, a Developer’s focus is on making sure that a website works the right way.  They deal with the programming and technology that makes your website function.  With a car, the “developer” is the mechanic.  But of course, not all mechanics have the same skill set and, just like with Designers, there are three main types of Developers that you will come across:

Front End Developer

A front-end developer is someone who takes the visual style of a website and turns it into markup code or uses some light programming elements.  They deal with things like HTML, CSS and JavaScript to turn a visual design into a working website.  If you want to animate an image or create a fancy mouseover effect on your page, the front end developer is your go-to person.  With a car, this is the type of mechanic that can take a car designer’s ideas and implement them. For example, painting the car, installing the spoiler or helping change the car to make it look slick.

Back End Coder

This type of Developer is able to work with web programming languages such as PHP, or databases such as MySQL, to build a functional content management system (CMS).  Or, more likely, they are able to work with a pre-existing CMS, such as WordPress or Drupal, to configure it for a specific purpose.  They go beyond making the user-side of the website functional and can create specific features such as forums, e-commerce systems and more.  For cars, the back end coder is equivalent to a mechanic who can rebuild an engine from scratch, or knows how to build a new suspension system, or even recondition a hybrid battery.

Web Programmer

Finally, you have a web programmer.  This is the most technical skill set in the web developer arena, and they specialize in creating entire web applications.  For example, if you want to build a new version of eBay from scratch, you would need to hire a web programmer (or a dozen) to build it out.  They can take the idea of a system and create it from scratch.  In terms of a car, this is the person who can take an idea for a car, and then built it from scratch, machining the parts from metal scraps, and soldering the computer boards to get it all working right.

Which web designer should you hire?

How does your web designer measure up?
How does your web designer measure up?

The reality is, no one web designer/developer is pigeon-holed into these specific categories. Most likely they have a cross-section of skills that range from one end (visual designer) to the other (web programmer).  Because web design is a varied task that covers multiple disciplines, you end up with someone who can do multiple things, some better than others.

Generally, though, a person falls into one side or the other.  You’ll either have a designer who has some development knowledge, or a developer who has some design knowledge.  Finding someone who is an expert in all areas is like finding a unicorn on leap day during a solar eclipse.  (= rare)

So, which should you work with?  Someone who is code heavy, but light on design?  Or someone who is design heavy but light on code?  Well, there are pros and cons to each …

Web Designer Pros

  • Your website will look amazing.
  • Your brand will be consistent across all marketing efforts
  • Your website will be strongly tailored to the needs of your audience.

Web Designer Cons

  • You may not have as much functionality as you’d like (if they don’t know how to implement it)
  • You are probably limited with the number of customizations you can make to the website.
  • They will need to use pre-built functional elements, since they often can’t build them on their own.

Web Developer Pros

  • Your website will work great
  • If you need a function of your website changed, they can get in there and do it themselves
  • They know how to get your website to work with other systems, such as mobile apps or web APIs.

Web Developer Cons

  • Your website will probably look a little on the “stale” side (i.e. not very visually appealing)
  • Often developers get caught up with the technology and forget about the usability for your website visitors
  • They often can’t express technology in non-technical terms, so you may be more confused after a meeting than you were before.

So, if there is no single web designer who can fit the perfect bill, what can you do?

Filling in the web design gaps

Web Designer - Knowledge Gap
Mind the Knowledge Gap!

The best thing to do is talk to your potential web designer and understand where their focus is, and what their strengths are.  Avoid those that say they can “do anything” because that is a clear sign that they aren’t being honest with you (or with themselves).

But even if you find a web designer with some gaps, there are ways to fill them in that won’t cause any problems for you or your website.

The technology gap

Keep in mind that technology can often fill in a lot of the gaps for either a designer or developer.

For a designer, there are CMS frameworks that allow them to build a website without programming it from scratch, many with extensions allowing for extremely robust functionality, such as online stores, forums, and more.

For a developer, there are pre-built themes and design frameworks that allow them to implement a beautiful aesthetic on your website without being visually oriented themselves.

The network gap

In addition, look for a designer who has partnerships or networks with others in their field who fill in their knowledge gaps.  The designer who has friends with extensive programming experience, or the programmer who has visual design friends and colleagues, is just one question away from having the right answer to a problem that might crop up.

Many designers and developers are part of online mastermind groups or forums where they can query other professionals. If you have one of those, then you essentially have access to a huge group of web designers for the price of one.

What does this mean for you?

The best solution is to find a designer who is a specialist in one area and has resources for others.  If they are an established expert in either design or development, then that means you can be assured that they will bring that expertise to the project, and they have probably been doing it long enough to understand the resources available to them to fill in their knowledge gaps.

For example, at Akamai Websites, the founder, Mark, is design-focused.  He is excellent at the visual presentation of a website and designing a great user experience.  But he also has resources and connections with those who are strong on the development side, and able to bring them in to answer questions when needed.  He also makes use of technology that allows him to build complex website systems in a more efficient manner.

At the end of the day, the designer/developer you use really depends on what you want to build.  Our recommendation is to work with someone with whom you have good communication because being able to express your needs, and understanding their solutions, will be the strongest asset you have going forward with a web design project.

If you want to talk about your project with us, be sure to reach out and we’ll get in touch with you to learn more about your website design needs.

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