The Difference Between Web Designers And Web Developers

So you’re interested in building a website for your business? Exciting! 

Building a new website can be a great way to evolve an existing brand and refine your voice. If you’re starting a new company, your website is a big part of how you want to present your business to the world. 

If it’s your first time (or even your second or third) building a website can also be a slog if you don’t have the right team in place, with people who know what they’re responsible for, and how it all fits together. 

You can hire an agency that does everything all in-house (like us) or you can hire independent contractors to do their part and put the pieces together. But not all web firms offer the same services and good luck finding one person who has all the skills you need. Most likely you’ll need both a developer and a designer (and probably a copywriter but that’s a different post). So we’ll break down the difference between the two, that way you know what you’re looking for and you aren’t trying to hire the wrong person to do the job. 

I’ll just hire someone to Design and Code 

Best of luck to you, friend! Coding (building the site) and designing (creating the front end look) are generally hard skills to find in the same person. They are totally separate expertise that uses opposite parts of the brain and ways of thinking. 

Developers tend to be left-brained, linear thinkers. While designers are right-brained creatives. Most likely trying to find someone who can do both means you’re either going to be compromising on the skill of one piece of the puzzle, or paying big bucks because you found a unicorn to build your site. I’ll explain…

What does a Web Designer do? 

The designer is more of the artist, they use your images, content, brand colors, and other elements to create the visual look of your site. Think of them as a bit of both an architect and an interior designer. The web designer helps set how the overall bones of the site will look, as well as the details that create a cohesive look and feel. 

They often use software like Photoshop or Sketch to build the front end look of your site. This is all fluff and no stuff, none of this is operational, or a short cut to having a functional website sooner.  What the designer creates is all for show at this point, it is what will help tell the developer what to do. 

Without the design, you’re basically just telling a general contractor to “build a house”, maybe you’ll tell them how many square feet it should be, but that’s clearly not enough information to build the house you want. This is why, first, we design!

Where the Web Developer comes in

Developers are code-driven and precise, they take the elements the designer created and then write the code that creates a functioning website. To build your house, you’ll need a contractor that: uses the blueprint to build a foundation, the frame, then also installs all the plumbing, electrical, insulation, gas, walls, etc, everything you’d need to make it livable. 

This is certainly a simplification of what a web developer does for the most basic type of website, what we’d call a ‘brochure site’. The website largely exists to provide information and help users connect with your staff. There might be some simple features like animation or a conditional form but the site isn’t expected to really DO much of anything. 

Cool (custom) features like a member’s only area, event management, or an eCommerce store that needs to filter and sort products are a big step up. A designer lays out how that product page will look, but no one is going to buy anything unless the developer builds the backend coding for purchases. 

Two Main Types of Sites: Custom or Templates

These are pretty much what they sound like, a custom site is designed and coded from scratch. Start with a blank slate, and your imagination and budget are the limits. 

In the WordPress world (we build our sites in WordPress), templates are called themes. All the style is put together out-of-the-box (so to speak) but you can still make it your own, by customizing the style in the theme’s settings. Changing colors, fonts, images and content blocks like calls to action or a blog post carousel are usually standard features. The nice part of using a template is that you can get away with not needing a designer or developer, but someone who can work in the theme you chose, or DIY it yourself. 

You can still have a custom-designed website on a pre-built theme, too. You will need a designer and probably a developer to make it all work but it is the middle ground between full custom and a template site. 

What’s right for you? Choosing between Custom or Template

Aside from price there a few other considerations to make when deciding what route you want to go. There are 3 main reasons to choose custom development over a template. 

1) You have total control over the design elements, EVERYTHING. But that everything is limited to just what you need, not a lot of extras. Most pre-built themes come with easy to use styling and “page builder” features that allow users with no coding experience to build nicely designed layouts – which sounds good but often the theme is just putting roadblocks in your way and you (or a developer you hire) has to fight with it to make it do what you want. 

2) Site speed. The page-builder features are heavy functionality on the back end resulting in “code bloat”, ultimately slowing your website down. Custom themes have only the most essential features, not a seemingly unlimited choice of colors, fonts, styles, animations, layouts, and more. 

And since page load speed is not only a huge search engine ranking factor but also a user experience pain point, you can’t sacrifice load time for anything. Because no one will stay around long enough to see your video load if it takes more than 3ish seconds. I’m going to say it once more, for the people in the back. 

You cannot sacrifice load time for anything. 

3) Consistency. Your site has been live for 6 months but now you need a new page. You’re confident that you can tackle this page on your own without needing your web person… With a custom theme, it gives you a design structure where you have only so many choices for the content on that page, making it harder to move away from the look/feel of the site – it stays consistent. With too much freedom, and if design isn’t in your skillset, the site can start to look disjointed quickly.

That being said, on a custom site, if you need new features or a page that doesn’t work within the styling, you will need your designer and dev to help you – and that is more money out of your pocket. 

How much money are we really talking about here?

This should not come as a surprise, custom anything is always going to be more expensive. So yes, custom design is expensive. Custom development and design are going to be even more expensive. 

In general, the cheapest we think you can build a quality website for (not by us, but by someone with WordPress experience) with a template is around $5-10k depending on the number of pages, and that’s assuming you’re not going to hire a copywriter either. If it’s any cheaper, you’re probably cutting too many corners on something that will be essential to the success of your business venture. 

You need to determine how important your website is to your business (spoiler alert: VERY) and just because it might be a higher price tag than you were hoping for, doesn’t mean it can’t still be a good value. 

A custom-designed site means you’ll actually stand out, you won’t look like everyone else in your industry, and it can do a much better job of speaking to the target audience you’re trying to reach. This means website users are more likely to convert, which is the whole point of the website right?! Pairing that with custom development means your site will stay consistent over time because your rotating admin assistant won’t be able to jump in there and make changes that degrade the site design by posting a new page that’s not formatted correctly. In our experience, custom sites start around 20K and go up from there. 

I’ll give it to you straight

If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be to do it right, the first time. I can’t tell you how many sites have come to us ‘new’ but still in need of a complete overhaul.  

To custom code, you need someone who knows what they’re doing – do not hire your 16-year-old nephew who thinks they know what they’re doing for your main marketing vehicle for your company. Maybe if they have some experience with WordPress websites, are very tech-savvy, and a good self-learner, they might be able to DIY a small, brochure website using a theme with minimal design customizations. But there is absolutely no way they’re going to be coding a custom anything.  

A well-built site will have a longer shelf life, is more likely to rank better in search results, and most importantly, get customers to make a purchase. So let’s talk about what you need, and figure out the best approach to building your new website. 

More Articles

Conversion Rate Optimization Strategy For The Win

by Alysha Schultz | Jun 1st, 2020

5 Web Design Trends in 2020

by Kelly Miller | May 15th, 2020

Good v. Bad Web Design

by Kelly Knowles | May 7th, 2020

Local SEO Strategies For Higher Ed Recruitment

by Alysha Schultz | Apr 21st, 2020

Navigating Local SEO Directories

by Nick Footer | Apr 13th, 2020
See all articles