Web Designers vs. Web Developers: What Is The Difference & Which Do You Need To Hire?

April 2020 · 6 min read

In this post, we will explain how web designers and web developers are different, and how to decide which one you need for your project. We will offer tips about talent sourcing, expected salaries, and qualities to look for when hiring.

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There are many different ways to describe the people who build software, mobile apps, web applications, and websites: “programmers”, “developers”, “engineers”, and “coders” are just a few of the job titles used. In this complicated landscape, it can be difficult to pick out which distinctions are just semantic, and which have an important meaning.

When it comes to “web designers” and “web developers”, the difference between the two is undoubtedly a distinction worth making. While some people may have both a designer and a developer skillset, many self-described “web designers” or “web developers” lean more towards either creative or analytical skills. By confusing these two job titles, you may inadvertently end up hiring someone who is unable to meet your organization’s needs.

What is the Difference Between a Web Developer and a Web Designer?

Web developers and web designers both work on websites, but the two professions are a little bit different. While web developers focus mainly on the website’s functionality and structure, designers are more focused on appearance (color schemes and palette, graphic design, typography, and element sizes, for example).

Because of their different areas of expertise, web developers and web designers may be familiar with different types of technologies. Kevin Dhimitri, a web design consultant based in New York City, explains the typical skill set an employer can expect from each of these professionals. “Web designers tend to be very skilled at Photoshop, CSS, HTML, and JavaScript. A web designer's goal is to make the website beautiful and smooth. A web developer, on the other hand, specializes in creating the backend of the website. [He or she] should be skilled in PHP, MySQL, Apache, and various other technologies and frameworks.”

Other programming languages a back-end developer may need to know include Ruby and Python which are popular.

The specific knowledge of a web designer or developer will have varies by individual. However, in general, employers can expect a web designer to have greater familiarity with creative and design software such as Photoshop and Illustrator, while a web developer should know a few of the most common coding languages used in web development.

How Do Web Designers And Web Developers Work Together?

Although web designers and web developers have different ways of viewing the website building process, they are ultimately responsible for working together to create a cohesive product.

Hannah Wright, the founder of design template company SaaS Design, describes the relationship between the two roles this way: “Web designers are kind of like architects, in that they help you turn your ideas into a realistic, cohesive plan—whereas developers are builders that help bring that vision to life. Both roles are necessary when building out a successful website or a new product.”

The specific way companies use web designers and web developers may vary. In some organizations, web designers are almost completely removed from website development. They may simply be responsible for creating static wireframes using design software or the help of UI/UX designers. These wireframes are later handed off to a development team. In other companies, web designers take more responsibility over front-end development. Some companies may choose to combine these two roles entirely, hiring combined “web designer/developers” with a diverse skill profile to take charge of the entire project from start to finish.

Do You Need A Web Designer Or A Web Developer For Your Project?

Whether you need a web designer or a web developer for your project depends very much on your organization’s priorities and budget. Smaller companies with limited budgets often look for a single professional with a broader skillset, while larger companies tend to hire more specialized individuals with an in-depth knowledge in their field.

One factor to keep in mind is that in today’s online ecosystem, many “do-it-yourself” website platforms exist. These technologies allow web designers to build simple websites directly based on their designs, with minimal coding knowledge. However, for more complex projects where custom-built functionality is needed, a web developer can be an invaluable resource.

Marcus Miller, Head of Web and Digital Marketing at UK-based agency Bowler Hat, recommends that prospective employers make a decision based on their most important needs and goals. “Is the design your driving focus? Do you need bespoke functionality? If you have complex functionality and design is really important, then you may need both a web designer and a web developer.”

“The large majority of websites can be built by a web designer using modern cloud-based platforms like Wix, WordPress, Squarespace or Shopify (for ecommerce). Some sites will need a little more flexibility and will use self-hosted CMS systems like WordPress (which has a cloud and self-hosted variant). A smaller amount of sites will need a custom build, for which you need a website developer.”

In general, a web developer with extensive coding knowledge will be able to provide a greater depth of customization, and will likely be able to help if something goes wrong with your website. However, for projects where the website’s appearance is of primary importance (for example, a simple blog or portfolio), a web designer may be a better and more cost-effective choice. For enterprise-level websites that need both a highly sophisticated design and complex functionalities, and a robust user experience, hiring a team including both web designers and web developers can be the best decision.

What Is The Salary Of A Web Designer/Developer?

The salaries of web designers and developers can vary quite a lot based on seniority, geographic location, company size, whether they are freelancers or work in-house and their coding skills. That being said, here are some average salary estimates for the United States, according to Payscale.com:

Web designers earn an average annual salary of $49,811, while web developers make a significantly higher $59,287 on average. Senior salaries can rise well above these figures, with senior web designers earning an average of $71,101, and senior web developer salaries reaching $87,834 on average.

As you can see, web developer salaries tend to be higher than web designer salaries in general. Some companies hire for a combined “Web Designer and Developer” position; the average for this lands somewhere in the middle of average designer and developer salaries, at $56,264.

How to Hire A Web Designer Or Developer

Once you have decided whether to hire a web designer or developer, it is helpful to know where to look in order to find talent that fits your needs. Browse job descriptions already out there and keep in mind that you can choose between hiring full-time or freelance professionals—using freelancers can give you added flexibility if you only have one or a few projects to work on.

DesignerHire offers a useful list of resources for hiring web designers. Many of these websites can be used to hire developers as well. Here are some of our recommendations:

Freelance Marketplaces To Hire Web Designers

Freelance marketplaces can help you easily find vetted freelancers for your project. Most marketplaces allow you to accept bids from freelancers and see a portfolio which includes past work.

Some of the most commonly used freelance marketplaces are Toptal, Upwork, People Per Hour, and Freelancer. On these websites, you will be able to find a large number of web designers and developers to choose from. Premium marketplaces like Toptal offer additional help with narrowing down your search, as they use a stricter vetting process to select their freelancers.

Design Job Boards and Portfolio Sites

These design-specific websites offer a platform where designers can display their portfolio and search for full-time or freelance jobs. Some of the top design job boards to check out include Dribbble, Working Not Working (WNW), and Behance.

Conclusion: Things To Think About When Hiring A Web Designer Or Developer

Finally, here are some expert tips for hiring web designers and developers:

Hannah Wright from SaaS Design has hired both designers and developers, and recommends always asking for a portfolio of recent work. She also suggests searching for talent online, because “it allows you to choose from a variety of talent all over the world (rather than being limited by location). It's also ideal because you can view a portfolio of their digital work from the beginning.”

Dave Hatter, Cyber Security Consultant at InTrust IT in Cincinnati, has hired more than 20 developers over the last several decades. He advises prospective employers to vet candidates carefully. “Understand what you are trying to build so that you know the skills required. Ask to talk to previous clients and employers. Ask to see their work, [and] do a technical interview.”

Web designers and web developers often work together, and there is a lot of overlap in the popular understanding of these fields. However, it is important to understand what exactly you need when hiring a designer or developer, in order to find someone with the right skills for your project. For the best chance of success, be sure to describe your project in as much detail as possible to your prospective designer/developer—a good professional should be able to offer you a clear “yes” or “no” answer as to whether they can meet your needs or not.

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