At a Crossroads
Way back in 2005, when I first started to get interested in learning to code, I remember being confused about something: Was I training to be a web designer or a web developer?
Being a web designer sounded ideal: I’d get to create beautiful things for the internet, and use up all my creative juices on typography pairings, color schemes, and giving websites that certain je ne sais quois. At the same time, though, I worried I wouldn’t have what it takes to be a web designer. With no history in graphic design, or any design training at all, I wondered who would ever trust me with the aesthetics of their site.
And when I thought about web development, I though: “This is what I should want to do. I’ll make a ton of money and have all the power in the world to build awesome websites and web apps. But what if it’s boring?”
But as I learned HTML and CSS, met more designers and developers, and started working on my own freelance websites, I realized that I had it all wrong. It’s not that you don’t have to make a choice between web design and development. Really, the issue is that my idea of the differences between web design and web development were pretty off the mark. This is the blog post I wish I could have read when I first dipped my toe in the technical waters.
In this post, you’re going to get:
- A rundown of the biggest myths about web designers and web developers, so you can make an informed decision about which path is right for you,
- A comprehensive infographic breaking down EXACTLY what skills and tools web designers and developers use,
- A breakdown of the basic skills ALL techies need,
- A framework for figuring out which path fits your personality best,
But before I dive in, I want to let the cat out of the bag. The truth is, it doesn’t matter one iota whether you choose to start out in web design or web development! Getting digital skills will position you to make more money and have some of the most in-demand skills out there, regardless of whether they fall into the category of web design or web development.
This guide is based on general personality characteristics and a synopses of day-to-day tasks. If some of it seems oversimplified, that’s because I want to make it super simple for you to make a decision. In reality? There is a TON of overlap between web designers and web developers, and there’s no right or wrong starting point!
Step 1: Dispel the Myths
Before you can make any decisions about what kind of tech career you want, you need to make sure you know exactly what web designers and developers do.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably been socialized to define “web designer” and “web developer” in ways that don’t represent what it’s actually like to be one, and you’ve never even talked to a real-life web designer or developer.
My biggest misconceptions about designers and developers had to do with how much money they make, how steep the learning curve is, and what kind of work they actually do. I mistakenly believed the myths that:
LEARNING TO BE A PROGRAMMER IS HARDER THAN LEARNING TO BE A DESIGNER (OR THE OTHER WAY AROUND).
Some assume that because development involves higher level programming, it will be harder to learn than design. Others see design as more difficult because they think that it requires more innate (rather than learned) creativity.
In fact, when you’re starting from scratch, any new skill is a challenge. Web development and web design aren’t inherently more or less challenging—your strengths and weaknesses will dictate which is the path of least resistance for you.
DEVELOPERS MAKE FAR AND AWAY MORE $$$.
If you look at average salaries, it does appear at first glance that web developers make far more money than web designers:
- Web designer: $66,000
- Web developer: $87,000
*Indeed salary search for the US.
But if you start searching more specific areas of web design, you’ll see that the salaries are competitive:
- Interaction designer: $93,000
- Mobile designer: $92,000
- User Experience designer: $92,000
*Indeed salary search for the US.
It’s true that on average, developers make more money, but as a beginner this isn’t something you’ll have to worry about. Whether you start learning web development or web design, you probably won’t be a senior full-stack developer (and make the very top salary) within a few months, since that usually requires several years of experience.
And besides, web designers make plenty of money. Since both are lucrative options, it’s better to choose what will make you happier rather than what you think will pay more.
WEB DESIGNERS DON’T CODE.
Now, there are some designers out there who don’t code, particularly print designers and some digital graphic designers, but most WEB designers can turn their designs into working prototypes using HTML and CSS. The best way to make good money AND be able to deliver what clients and employers want most, is to be a whole package of designing and coding magic.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. You need to know what designers and developers actually DO all day!
Step 2: Figure out exactly what designers and developers do.
Now that you’ve gotten some of the myths cleared up, you need to know how designers and developers actually spend their time.
The first thing to note is that both designers and developers can build a site from scratch. Designers lean more towards the careful planning, and developers are stronger in implementing designs, BUT they can both build a fully functional site.
Web designers and developers both code on a regular basis. On a team, designers and developers work together, with designers focusing on user experience design and planning and developers focusing on code.
If that still sounds a little vague, check out this handy (and pretty!) infographic and see the exact skills and tools designers and developers use:
Step 3: Analyze yourself.
Now that you are well informed about the true differences between web design and web development, you need to figure out which one fits YOU. And if you’re looking at those descriptions and thinking, “I could do any one of these!” that’s okay. These simplified descriptions of the general characteristics of web designers and developers should help:
Web designers tend to experience the world in a visual way. For example, when giving you directions, they might tell you to turn right when you see the big tree.
Web designers also tend to rely on intuition and feeling, since they spend a lot of time developing the look and feel of websites. For example, if you asked them to write a word in the center of a page, they would probably eyeball it.
Web designers love to come up with big ideas and imagine the whole picture. For example, if a web designer were building a theme park, they would love to focus first on the overall “vibe” of the theme park, the layout, and the way a visitor would experience it, before getting into details like the colors, shapes, and names of the rides.
Web developers tend to approach the world from a logical, scientific standpoint. If they were lost, rather than looking for a familiar landmark to guide them, they might look up at the stars or drop a GPS pin.
Web developers also tend to see the world as a vast collection of data that can be used for different purposes. If you asked a web developer to write a word in the center of a page, they would look for a tool to measure it in the quickest, most efficient way, maybe by folding the paper evenly into 4 squares or grabbing a ruler.
Web developers like to handle big projects by taking them one step at a time and paying close attention to the details. If a web developer were building a theme park, she would love working on the details of the physics of the rides and the number of visitors the park could accommodate, and she’d work through them one small step at a time.
And unicorns? Well they’re a unique combination of both!
And remember, it really doesn’t matter how you start learning tech skills, or what path you take. It only matters that you learn tech skills. As soon as you learn those basic skills that both web designers and developers need, like HTML and CSS, you’ll be that much closer to uncovering the tech career that will be perfect for you.