The Difference Between Design and Development

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When it comes to a digital presence, you want to look good and your first instinct is to find a great Web designer. After all, you're not writing software, so why would you want a developer? As I network with other businesses, I find they tend to fall into two camps: they either believe Web designers are the same as Web developers or they think a Web developer can only write code and can't create a Web site. Well, I'm here to set the record straight.

Wikipedia defines a Web Developer as follows:

A web developer is a programmer who specializes in, or is specifically engaged in, the development of World Wide Web applications, or distributed network applications that are run over HTTP from a web server to a web browser.

That's probably a bit more technical than you really wanted this early in the morning, but that about covers it. A Web developer specializes in applications. What about a Web Designer? What most people consider a Web Designer is really a graphics designer and Wikipedia defines graphics designers as:

A graphic designer is a professional within the graphic design and graphic arts industry who assembles together images, typography, or motion graphics to create a piece of design. A graphics designer creates the graphics primarily for published, printed or electronic media, such as brochures (sometimes) and advertising.

Again, pretty accurate, but these days a graphics designer is familiar with layout and design principles as they apply to Web sites and are almost always familiar with WordPress (or some content management system, at the very least). What I see happen most often is a business hires a designer when what they really need is a developer because they actually need to build an application to better serve their clients. Some designers take these projects on without understanding the principles of good software design and start throwing WordPress plugins together and calling it an application. It is, but it frequently falls short of meeting the client's needs.

Conversely, a developer will be hired to create a basic Web site. Most likely, one of two things happens: either the developer creates a Web site that is visually unappealing (and likely breaks a great many best practices for good design and SEO) or they put the client into some custom system that the client can't take with them or forces the client to contact their Web guy for every little change they need. Neither is desirable.

When it comes to establishing or improving your online presence, it's important that you know what your target goal is and that you make sure your Web team provides a solution for you, rather than for them. For most Web sites (what we call "brochure sites"), a designer is going to be exactly what you need. They'll be able to create your layout and set up the basic pages you need to get your message out. More complex sites or sites that you want to enable customers to interact with often (but not always) require a more technical background. The moment your designer starts talking about "custom development" means you might need to explore options with a second, more technical, Web developer. While most developers might not have a great eye for design, good ones will have a designer or two in their pocket that can help out with the pizazz, so you receive a solution that looks and works great.