Web designer vs. Web developer: Comparing the two careers
Design and development are two critical parts of the technology world. From the outside though, they can often look the same. Both roles are part of building world-class, user-friendly technology, so it’s easy to wonder what the difference is between a web designer vs a web developer.
While the two roles have a lot in common, there are a few distinct differences to be aware of. That’s why we wrote this guide: to be an in-depth analysis of the similarities, differences, and career paths for web designers and web developers.
Understanding web designer vs. web developer roles
Web designers and web developers are two critical roles in a technical team. Not only do they collaborate with each other, but they also work with other members of the tech team and collaborate with different teams throughout a company, such as marketing or sales.
How they work together
Designers and developers work together two primary ways:
- Linearly during a specific project.
- In a closed loop overall or across multiple projects.
In a given project, the usual flow is that a web developer will build a product that web designers then make engaging and intuitive for users. There will likely be some back and forth collaboration to ensure the product is functional, but otherwise it is relatively linear.
Across multiple projects, there is a closed loop between designers and developers. A web designer will likely provide brand or product design guidelines to the development team, ensuring that future builds are more aligned to both company and end-user needs. Further, web designers regularly run tests for things like usability, driving valuable actions, or increasing conversion (also called conversion rate optimization, or CRO). These data insights will then get shared with the development team to iterate on future product builds.
Where they fit into a tech team
Developers and designers actively collaborate with all members of the tech teams. They will work with a scrum master (or other project manager) to assess timelines and identify goal outcomes. They will also collaborate with other members of the team such as IT infrastructure staff to ensure they have the tools they need or the quality assurance (QA) team to make sure their designs meet any legal, regulatory, or scale requirements.
Where they fit into the broader company
As individual contributors on the product team, designers and developers don’t always directly collaborate with other employees. However, it’s very common for team managers and higher level executives to collaborate to ensure that the product team is building something customers want and the company can sell.
Where there might be collaboration with individual contributors is between designers, developers, sales, and marketing. Developers might teach the sales team what the product does to help them sell it better. Similarly, the design team may work with marketing to provide sample copy, art, or feature descriptions that will inform marketing campaigns.
Different kinds of website designers
The three most common kinds of web designers are: UX designer, UI designer, and interaction designer.
User experience (UX) designer
UX designers focus on making technology usable by humans, particularly creating websites or applications that people love to use. That not only means planning a pretty application with an easy flow, but working with other members of the product team to translate company goals into a great user experience. It’s one of the most well-known jobs in tech because the user experience can make or break a technology product. There are evenawards for amazing user experiences, so some companies invest a lot into how their product looks and feels.
Visual / User interface (UI) designer
Visual designer—also called a UI designer—is a broader term for any person working on the front end design of an application. A UI designer will take the overarching goals of a company (or of a specific project) and create style guides that a developer will work with. They work with brand teams very closely to create a visual look and feel for the company, which then extends into how products are built and designed.
Because of the overlap between UX and UI, many companies combine the role into one—that’s why you might see a lot of “UX/UI Designer” job postings or freelance call-outs. However, be careful to not apply for these roles unless you have the entire skill set necessary.
Interaction designers take a UX designer’s plans or wireframes and think of the details: What should a button look like? What happens when you click an element on the page? How do I apply color theory to this page? This work is meant to connect the company’s goal (what they want someone to do in the app), a user friendly interface (to make the app more intuitive), and driving value for the user in the most satisfying way possible.
Different kinds of website developers
There are four major kinds of web developers: a front end developer, back end developer, full stack developer, and mobile application developer.
Front end developer
Back end developer
Back end developers handle all code language on the server side. That means they are typically responsible for building the core functionality of a product. From there, they typically write out the application programming interface (API) and web services connections so front end developers can take the raw functionality and build the layer that customers see. Similarly, back end developers build the connectivity so mobile app developers can turn the raw functionality into an iOS or Android app.
Full stack developer
In short, a full stack developer combines the skills of a front end and back end developer into one role. The full stack developer role means building all back end elements, such as a database and core app functionality, and adding the user interface with front end languages. Having the whole skill set doesn’t necessarily mean you work alone, though. Full stack developers may collaborate with individual front end or back end developers for specific tasks or projects with a large scope.
Mobile application developer
A mobile application developer takes a product and builds it to meet mobile app marketplace standards for services like the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. They have to take whatever raw functionality the back end development team builds, understand the user experience built by the front end development team, and translate that into a mobile app interface that users can download to their smartphones.
While salary ranges are similar for both web designers and web developers, there are key differences between a web designer salary and a web developer salary.
Web designer salary
According to Payscale, web designers in the United States make between $35,000 to $78,000 per year.
Freelance web designers charge an average of $60 per hour.
A senior web designer pulls in an average salary of $104,000.
Web developer salary
In the United States, web developers make an average of $40,000 to $90,000 per year.
Freelance web developers charge an average of $75 per hour.
A senior web developer in the United States can command $61,000 to $129,000+ annually.
It’s important to note that these are averages across the entire country. Certain areas, for example Toronto in Canada or New York City and San Francisco in the United States, may see salaries go well above these ranges. However, it’s not only what you earn but what you keep. Cities with higher average salaries also tend to have higher average costs of living. That said, as more companies go remote but commit to paying top of the line salaries, this dynamic could change over time.
Technical skills and education comparison
In the past, employers often required computer science degrees (or similar) for both web designers and web developers. Now, requirements have changed significantly.
Website designer skills
Web designers might get thrown into a variety of projects and told to figure it out. As a result, they should have a general skill set spanning across all design methodologies and languages. That includes:
- Graphic design basics (for example: Figma, InVision, or Sketch)
- Adobe suite (for example: Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator)
- UX tools (for example: Axure or OmniGraffle)
- Content management systems (for example: Wordpress or Contentful)
Website developer skills
The only required education for web developers is knowledge in the programming languages that your employer (or client) uses. Learning other coding skills will depend on the team you’re working with and your career goals.
At a baseline, here’s what web developers should make sure they know:
- Databases (for example: SQL, Oracle, or MS Access)
- Frameworks (for example: Angular JS, Express, or Bootstrap)
- Version control/GIT
The easiest way to learn the programming languages of web design vs web development is to take a course—and there are plenty out there. If you didn’t have the opportunity to complete a computer science degree, you can take a coding bootcamp or leverage a variety of online courses for developers.
Non-technical skills and personality characteristics of web designer and web developer
Apart from job-specific tools, both web designers and web developers need the following skills:
- Attention to detail: Messing up one line of code or one pixel can throw off a whole project.
- Logical thinking: Planning something from end to end, taking into account various requirements.
- Problem solving: It often doesn’t work the first time and you have to figure out what happened.
- Creativity: Solutions and ideas are not linear.
- Communication: It’s not just building something, but telling other people about it in a way that makes sense to them and empowers them to do their part of the project.
Beyond these process skills, there are many qualities that make a good web developer or web designer, including:
- Curiosity: When tough problems happen, you need to be infinitely curious.
- Grit: There will be exhausting times when you would love to give up, but you can’t.
- Friendliness: A lot of your work depends on understanding other people’s needs.
These are the intangible skills that make someone amazing at the job and separate stellar workers from mediocre ones.
Five common myths about web designers vs web developers
Because these roles are not always understood, there are a lot of misconceptions about what they mean—and how the two roles interact.
1. Developers make tons more money than designers
A common trope, amplified by stories of developers becoming millionaires in Silicon Valley, is that developers make significantly more than designers. While it’s true that salaries are on average slightly higher for developers, it is not a wild difference. Further, because of varying career paths, choosing design doesn’t necessarily limit your long-term earning potential.
2. Designers don't code
Designers are tasked with making products beautiful and accessible, but that doesn’t mean they don’t code. Far from it. Designers work with multiple different coding languages such as HTML and CSS in order to build accessible websites. While a designer may work more with design-focused tools like InVision or Figma, they often know at least the foundations of coding.
3. Developers don't design
Developers have to think end-to-end when building a product. If they don’t, they risk creating something non-functional. With that in mind, developers will often do design work themselves with designers to prototype functionality with design in mind. It’s a collaborative effort that might start with designers but is shared with—and worked on by—developers.
4. Development is harder to learn than design
Design leverages just as many complex methodologies as development. While coding structure might seem more complex on the surface, the reality is both professions have elements that are easy to learn and others that are incredibly difficult to learn or master.
5. No-code tools will kill web design and development
A lot of people worry that web design is a dying career or that web developers will be replaced by no-code tools. However, if you’re considering a career path in web design vs web development, no-code tools shouldn’t scare you for two reasons:
- Most no-code tools are made for rapid prototyping, not scaling up. Eventually, projects need to be coded.
- No-code tools are still built with code logic, so the skill set of a designer or developer is still valuable.
Career options comparison
The career path opportunities for a web designer vs web developer are both rich and varied.
Web designer career path
Web designers have a very open-ended career path. The skill set of a web designer, while based in different coding languages or design programs, is entirely focused on creating beautiful and engaging digital experiences for users. That skill set is incredibly valuable in a wide variety of industries. Further, web designers do not have to follow the traditional path of starting as an individual contributor and moving to management. If you’re passionate about web design, there are ways to increase your earning potential while remaining an individual contributor.
Some career paths for a web designer includes:
- Co-founding a startup to leverage entrepreneurship on top of your design skills.
- Going freelance and getting paid a premium for your design work.
- Joining a large enterprise where you work on projects with significant scope.
- Learning more specific skills to move into UX design or to become a web developer.
- Progressing from individual contributor to team leader.
- Progressing from contributor or leader into a strategist/Chief Design Officer role.
Web developer career path
Similar to web design, web development has a very open career pathway. Depending on your passions and skill areas, you can stay within web development for an entire career and never stop learning new things. Alternatively, you can move into leadership or management if you enjoy the problem solving or coaching aspects of the work more than coding.
Some career paths for web developers include:
- Focus your efforts on a specific kind of development such as software architect or software engineering.
- If you started with only front end or back end development, expanding your skills to become a full-stack developer.
- Freelancing for a variety of clients.
- Working your way into management to become a manager of a team of web developers.
- Building up niche subject matter expertise and becoming a web development consultant, either in an established firm or on your own.
Choosing which career is right for you
If you’re starting from scratch and choosing your career options, there are a few variables to consider: your goals, your interests, the money question, and choosing employment versus freelancing.
At a very foundational level, designers focus on making things approachable (and beautiful) while developers focus on root functionality. This can become a proxy for choosing which path might be right for you. If you want your career to focus on making wonderful products accessible and interesting, you may like web development. However, if your career goals include building strong functional products that solve problems, you may like web development.
Similar to career goals, pay attention to your interests before choosing a career path. Both web development and web design require in-depth skills and contextual understanding. Think about the requirements of both and simply ask yourself: do you want to learn them? If you find yourself curious about one versus the other, that could be a signal to listen to.
If you’re wondering how to connect your interests to web design and web development, think about what draws you in about other projects. Take volunteering, for example. A motivation to design the nitty-gritty of your work might lean well to development. On the other side, if you spend your time making your finished products beautiful and user-friendly, you may really like web design.
While you can build a life with both professions, web developers tend to earn a little bit more than web designers. If that extra bit is critical to your financial situation, you may lean in the developer direction. Alternatively, you may choose to work at an established firm—or try to get hired by a US-based firm regardless of your location—to increase your chances of higher pay.
The rise of remote work is making it possible to earn great salaries without relocation. However, this isn’t necessarily a guarantee. Make sure you do your own research and know what your minimum salary (or freelance rate) needs to be so you can achieve your financial goals.
Employment vs freelancer
Choosing full-time employment versus freelance design is a deeply personal choice. Employment typically provides many additional social aspects to work, a culture to thrive in, and other perks. Freelancing, on the other hand, gives you significantly more freedom and control over your day (and your physical location). Both have their downsides as well: employment can feel stifling while freelancing requires you to always be “on” and looking for the next project.
Another good thing is that you can technically do both depending on labor laws in your area. You could opt for full-time employment and freelance in your spare time. Or you could start with freelancing and switch to full-time employment if you like the client. Either way, two keys are to make sure you set up abusiness bank account with no fees and no minimums and make sure you set up an automatic invoicing and payments platform to get paid by clients easily. That way you can focus on your work (employment and freelancing) without concerns about basic bookkeeping and financial administration.
Growing opportunities no matter what
Whether you ultimately choose web design or web development, you will have significant growth opportunities. The rapid pace of change in technology—and the digital transformation of millions of businesses in the past few years—means that learning technical skills will always be valuable. Every person will have a slightly different reason why they chose one path versus the other, and that’s absolutely okay.
The other thing to remember is that you don’t have to choose one and stick with it for life. Since both professions are closely related and in many cases overlap, switching between the two is not only possible, but happens relatively often. So as you’re making a decision, know that you have options, potential, and opportunity. Good luck!