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Web Design and Development: what's the difference?

Despite requiring very different skill sets, web design and development are sometimes automatically associated with each other. Although this is not entirely wrong (as we will explain later) it is also not completely true. They are tremendously important to build a prosperous digital product, but web design and development do not share the same concerns and priorities within the process - their responsibilities also differ.

It is then crucial to understand what each term means clearly. This article aims to explain the difference between web design and development and further identify where the neutral territory is.

Table of Contents

What is Web Design?
What is Web Development
What is the difference between web design and development?
    ➤  Do web designers code?
How to learn web design?
Web designer skills and tools

What is Web Design?

Web design consists of the design of a digital product (websites and apps). It may encompass several fields, such as User Interface (UI), User Experience (UX), and even Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Overall, web design must acknowledge the usability of a website or app, considering its layout (i.e., the structure), visual aesthetics (e.g., colors and fonts), and sometimes the content.

What is Web Development?

Web Development is the process of developing websites and applications for the internet or intranets (private networks). As a process, web development can include various specializations, such as working on the webserver, web engineering, network security configuration, and even web design. However, the everyday use of the term "web development" typically refers to coding or writing markups and does not often include design aspects.

In other words, is web design part of web development? Technically yes, because web development includes everything that needs to be worked on to build a website or application. But, in day to day, does the commonly used term "web development" implies web design? It often does not since it is a term that professionals usually use to describe writing code, markups, and overall more back-end development-related tasks. Therefore, web development and web design can be sometimes perceived as separate subjects, but it is not that straightforward.

What is the difference between web design and development?

Before distinguishing web design from development is essential to consider that there are three types of developers: back-end, front-end, and full-stack.

  • The back-end developer is responsible for the server-side and for everything that communicates between the database and the browser;
  • The front-end developer is the one working on the client-side of software development, thus focusing on how users see the product;
  • Full-stack developers are developers who have both back-end and front-end skills.

More often than not, the difference between what is up to the web designer's responsibility and what is already considered front-end development is perceived as a very thin line and can be debatable in some cases.

On the one hand, designing a web application requires a lot of user research to understand how users experience the application and how everything should be structured considering usability and visual aesthetics. On the other hand, front-end development focuses on coding the interface and, as said before, on developing the client-side of an application.

Hence, simply put, web design implies tasks, skills, and tools that are more focused on design and how the application feels and looks. In comparison, front-end development is more focused on implementing the design in the application and on how well does that implementation work with the back-end.

Consequently, some responsibilities and skills may overlap. For instance, it is common that both front-end developers and web designers can work with a similar set of tools and have good knowledge of usability and heuristic principles. For this reason, sometimes, the role of web designer and front-end developer can be performed by the same person. Moreover, job positions for web designers may also include UX, UI, and Graphic Design responsibilities.

At Imaginary Cloud, we believe a UI developer can be a mix of front-end and design. More precisely, a UI developer can be considered a front-end developer with knowledge of User Interface principles and design concepts. Sounds confusing? Let us illustrate.

Web Design and Development

The above picture demonstrates our interpretation of what is usually considered more in the "development area" and where the "web design field" begins.

Do web designers code?

The mechanism behind the web application and how it works is not the web designer's concern. So, it is usually not expected that all designers code since the core of web design is design and not front-end development. Nonetheless, many web designers are well-familiarized and benefit from working with HTML, CSS, and even JavaScript.

How to learn web design?

The first step to learning web design is understanding the design process and how a design comes to life. In that sense, our Product Design Process describes in detail the four phases and twelve steps to create a user-centered digital product. The four phases are:

  • Research
  • Ideation
  • Execution
  • Technical Assessment

Product Design Process - Phases and Steps

Second, keep in mind that web design is still about design. Therefore, to learn web design, one must acquire visual design skills and in-depth knowledge of design principles, rules, and concepts, such as how to master the colors and layout of a digital product.

Another vital aspect of web design is interaction design, a subfield of UX that focuses on how the user interacts with a digital product. Despite how good-looking a website or app is, it will not succeed if users cannot achieve their objectives in a simple and easy way. In other words, it is doomed to fail if usability and functionality are disregarded.

Moreover, understanding the basics of HTML and CSS can be a huge advantage not only to design and build websites but also to improve communication with the development team. As previously mentioned, it is not a must, but it sure helps! And to be fair, it is also very valued in the job market.

Last but not least, SEO knowledge can make a massive difference in a digital product's performance, so we definitely recommend being aware of at least the main recognized rules when it comes to search engine optimization.

In sum, when learning web design, one should:

  1. Understand the product design process of a digital product;
  2. Know how to apply design concepts and rules;
  3. Follow usability and functionality principles;
  4. Acquire basic coding skills;
  5. Understand and implement good SEO practices.

Web designer skills and tools

Creating a successful digital product requires an advanced process that goes beyond aesthetics concerns. More precisely, it entails a good knowledge of business analysis, user research, psychology, and software development.

Due to that, a web designer can be a demanding and versatile job position, requiring very specific technical and soft skills. Here are the top 5 skills a web designer should have:

Familiar with several Design Tools
There are many available tools out there which can help web designer build outstanding digital products. Some of our favorites are Figma, Illustrator, and Photoshop. Moreover, there are also new design tools for teams working remotely; in fact, that is one of Figma's best features, but MURAL and Miro are also looking promising.

Excellent Listener (not just a great one)
A great (and the first) soft skill to master is listening. It is crucial to listen to what the clients want, their visions, values, and story. This ability should be the starting point to an outstanding web design project because good communication requires an excellent comprehension of what is being communicated. Simple as that, yet not always easy to execute.

HTML and CSS
HTML is the base for a well-structured document, while CSS is all about the style! In this case, Visual Studio Code or Dreamweaver are both great options to edit front-end coding. For those aiming for the extra mile regarding web development skills, JavaScript would be the cherry on top of the cake!

Good Communication
As we have mentioned several times throughout this article, developing a digital product should not (in most cases) be a one-man's job. Usually, it requires teams of developers and designers to work together and be aligned. Thus, communication is key! If the idea is not clear for each member, the creation can either go wrong or take way more time than it should due to constant adjustments.

Curiosity and Open Mind
As said, in addition to master design and usability principles, a web designer must also know other areas, such as business, psychology, development, and so on. Hence, it is essential to keep an open mind to learn new tools and explore other fields that may be out of the comfort zone. Plus, the more curious a web designer is about different interests, the more they can understand different users.

Conclusion

Let's say web development is a planetary system, and one of the planets it includes is precisely web design. Web design is vital when developing a digital product since it ensures usability, good user experience, and great aesthetics.

Once web development and web design concepts are well-defined, it is not hard to understand the difference between back-end development and graphic design. However, that gap is not as straightforward regarding the responsibilities of front-end and UI.

As explained, at the core of web design are the tasks, skills, and tools that are more focused on design and how the product feels and looks. Contrarily, front-end development is more focused on implementing the design (produced by web design) in the software and on how well does that implementation work with the back-end.

To become a web designer, one must know design principles, design interaction, usability, basic coding, and even some SEO rules. It is a very versatile role, thus requiring particular technical and soft skills.

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