Web Design vs Web Development: What’s the Difference and Why Does it Matter?

Ever had a prospect contact you for what they thought was a new web design, when it turned out what they really needed was a developer? Maybe you’ve had the awkward experience of explaining to your copywriter that you’re a developer, not a designer, and that their copy needed to make that clear. Or perhaps you’re on the other side, and as a hybrid designer/developer, you’ve had to educate clients and prospects about how valuable that makes you.

Confusing web design with web development is an all-too-common mistake that people make, especially when they’re newbies in this new-fangled thing we call the interwebs. I was a newbie once, too, and I can attest to my own ignorance (and subsequent mistakes and misconceptions) regarding the differences between design and development, so I write all of this without judgement.


Why the Difference Matters

That said, there’s a very real difference between web development and web design, and the more we (as creatives) can clarify the difference, the better we’ll serve our markets and the stronger our businesses will be.

After all, when a client sees your site or looks at your portfolio and knows, with supreme confidence, that you are the professional who will best meet his or her needs—or when a web development prospect comes to your site, realizes you’re a designer and not a developer, and moves on without wasting either party’s time—everybody wins.

What Web Design Is (and Isn’t)

Web design is the art of designing the “public” part of a website—the page or pages that are live on the web and accessed by visitors and customers. It involves every aspect of how the site appears and functions, taking into account the principles of good visual design as well as a deep understanding of user experience and the client’s needs. [twitter_link]A good web designer makes a site look great and work well for the site user.[/twitter_link]

Web design is primarily a focus on what a site should look like and how users interact with it, and less about how to make those actions happen, i.e. coding or programming. Many (perhaps even most) web designers are not programmers, nor do they need to be—web design itself is primarily visual and organizational, which doesn’t usually require much, if any, coding skills. That said, there are very few designers who know absolutely nothing of common programming languages like Java, HTML, or PHP.


What Web Development is (and Isn’t)

Web development refers to writing the actual code and scripts that bring a website’s design to digital life. It’s the “how” behind the “what” that is design. Developers focus on how a site works, how actions can be performed on the site, and how to create the invisible chain of events that allows a site to actually work.

They may have an eye for design—or at the very least, understand the important role design plays—but generally speaking, it’s not their main focus. [twitter_link]A good web developer makes the design happen effectively and without any bugs.[/twitter_link]

Why Web Developers are an Asset to Web Designers (and Vice Versa)

Web designers and web developers perform roles that are inextricably connected. There are hybrid designer-developers, but generally speaking, the two jobs are well suited to different types of people. Web designers function in the creative aspect of websites, whereas developers function more in the analytical aspect of things.

The symbiotic relationship between web design and web development makes it a great opportunity for partnerships, especially among freelancers. While it’s possible to build a web design business that delivers websites without the need to learn much code or work with a developer, it’s not necessarily ideal for all projects (or for your long-term business strategy).


When you’re presented with a bigger or more complex project than you’re used to, link up with one of your developer friends. By outsourcing complex development work that’s beyond your realm, your fantastic project can still happen without making you crazy, and you’ll likely learn a thing or two in the process. Just don’t forget to include those additional fees in your proposal!

Final Thoughts on Design vs Development

Web design and web development are closely related career paths, but they aren’t the same thing. Designers can benefit from knowing some very basic development techniques and developers can enhance their own performance with some basic design education. But ultimately, the roles are distinct and there aren’t many who successfully offer both services in one package.

By forging strong working relationships with developers, designers create the opportunity to deliver full website design and implementation services to clients, even those in need of complex websites you don’t necessarily know how to build.

Teaming up with a developer or two gives you the chance to refer that work to a trusted partner—and have design work referred to you in return. By providing an all-in-one package, you’ll be able to serve your clients better and your developer can do the same. And, as we all know, happy clients are the key to more business.

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