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How to Decide Between Being a Web Designer or Developer

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Way back in 2013, 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.

On the contrary, web designers write HTML and CSS code. And some (!) even use a CSS preprocessor like Sass or LESS and write JavaScript. For example, say they need a smooth scrolling site—some designers (we call them unicorns!) can code it up themselves.

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.

Web designers who can code, especially those that have next-level skills like Sass and JavaScript, are in HUGE demand. We call them unicorns. And, if you start out with the Skillcrush Web Designer Blueprint, you can take Skillcrush 102 as an individual class after that to learn JavaScript and jQuery and become one of those elusive unicorns!

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:

Infographic: Web Design or Development


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

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

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!

If you need more guidance when it comes to choosing which way to start your tech career, try these resources:

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.

And when it comes down to it, sometimes the best thing you can do is talk to someone who’s a few steps ahead of you. Use Twitter to get in touch with web designers and developers, or email us at hello@skillcrush.com, and we can talk it out!

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  1. Rynne Replied

    Your “Design/Dev Unicorn” there nails me to a “T”! As such, let me tell you, it can be difficult to find the right “fit” in terms of job opportunities. Most companies want either a designer OR a developer, and the requirements they list for each individually are just out of reach enough from the Unicorn Zone as to push us unicorns out of the running. Most design positions want a graphics degree and a stunning portfolio we may or may not have had any opportunity to build; most development positions require heavy lifting on the coding end better suited to an engineer.

    As a result we unicorns can wind up making a number of lateral career moves,
    typically in front-end/UI development, some of which will occasionally leverage our design chops but most of which will leave us languishing. Perhaps things are different in the “big apple” but in both DC and Silicon Valley this is what I have found to be the case.

    • lc Replied

      Very interesting insight – especially welcome from an insider’s perspective. Thanks, Rynne!

  2. Angela Replied

    This blog post is invaluable to someone starting from scratch! Thank you!! I’m going to start at the top of that Unicorn list and work my way down. At first, I thought about doing the Developer Blueprint, but I think it’ll be better if I learn those skills on my own and then take the Web Designer Blueprint or even WordPress!

  3. Whitney Replied

    If I offered a Unicorn 40K/year plus bonus and annual raise in do you think that would be reasonable?

    • James Replied

      Depending on their level of experience, the benefit package and location it could be reasonable. However, on average that is a low salary for any developer.

    • Jen Replied

      Are you hiring remotely? I just took that blueprint but I have little work experience so I would absolutely take that offer to start out!

  4. Caitlin Replied

    The ‘Analyze Yourself’ step was the most useful for me.
    I want to start with design and become a unicorn!

  5. Linda Replied

    This is sooo cool! Thanks a lot. it really helped me clear my doubts. No skill is a waste.

  6. KW Replied

    Thank you for this breakdown and this article. It was a straightforward and simple read, but with much information. This definitely gave me some thinking points to consider.

  7. Rosoldier Replied

    I want to become a web developer but then seems i have been tryin to be like a web designer

  8. Deepika Patel Replied

    I was in complete dilemma whether to go for designing or developing. Your article was like a blessing in disguise, especially the infographic! Thanks.

  9. Chris Replied

    This is exactly what I needed to hear! I should get as many skills as I can, and then use them to develop a specialization, not the other way around :) <3

  10. Vikram Replied

    i know

    many of these photoshop , html , javascript , flash for animation , coreldraw , and finaly i am going to learn dreamviewer and CSS

  11. Arjun Khode Replied

    Very helpful. Nice charts and font too!

  12. Dennis DeBlitz Replied

    Awesome informative article 😁😁 Now I know who I’d be and want to …. As digital / print designer … 🙂 Thank you.

  13. gem josh Replied

    wow!wow!, am impreesed.this article is really helpful, thanks alot.

  14. indy Replied

    Such a fantastic article! You don’t understand how much this has helped me with my career path

  15. Jash Replied

    Wow! Thank you for this comprehensive and simple, but still very detailed article. :D

  16. Piko Replied

    Thank you very much for the article: I really enjoyed it. 

  17. qothw Replied

    “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?”

    This is exactly it!! This is why I’ve been having so much trouble deciding on a path. I love the design aspect of it, but I feel like I should be coding. I do like coding but what if it’s boring?!?! I don’t want to be stuck in a boring job.
    That’s why I decided to try the Visual Design blueprint. Since it’s bigger than the web design (and included it in the blueprint) then I can move to code it if I want.

  18. StephanieSJS Replied

    Thank you!!! I’m super interested but with zero experience it’s hard to find a starting point.  This points you in the right direction.

  19. Anonymous Replied

    Share your thoughts…its inspiring..most especially for beginners

  20. Cate Replied

    Thank you SO MUCH for this. I can’t even tell you how much it helped me.

  21. Cypherrr Replied

    Can a web developer be a web designer? I mean if he/she’s craftsy and creative, is it possible that he/she can find a job concerning web design? Or can he/she be a unicorn with just taking a 4 year course? I’m afraid I can’t be one because of my course. :(

  22. YoshuaCaptain Replied

    Love the simplicity of the post. Also like the “je ne sais quoi”. : )

  23. khawar Abbas Replied

    Web designing is a more suitable career for me rather than web developing. Web design is about how you made the website most attractive. I enjoy creating different ideas for web designing. I am happy with my career.

  24. Simply Obed Replied

    My friends think one must be a web designer before you can be a developer but i keep telling them it by choice and your personality. Hope this will strengthen my argument. And thanks so much for this. Just followed you (@simplyobed) would always love to interact with you.

  25. Camila Replied

    I thought this was going to be more complete. In all the companies that I’ve worked on, I, as a (Junior and then Ssr. ) web developer, coded the front end markup (HTML, CSS, SASS, LESS, whatever they wanted), the interactivity (JavaScript, JQuery), and also WordPress Themes (PHP), while having a Web Designer only designing, and another web developer (back end) working on the server side, more PHP and the databases. 

    I think you should differentiate between front and back end developers, and also…. web developers don’t use SASS/LESS? What?!

    • Randle Browning Replied

      Hey Camila! Thanks so much for sharing! We asked around and realized you’re totally right about Sass being a dev skill rather than a design skill. The infographic is updated to reflect that. And I know what you mean about there being so many more subcategories of “web developer” out there. We’ve got a post coming out that goes more in-depth. It sounds like you’re a veteran with lots of experience though!

  26. Ann Wright Replied

    Love this post! Thanks for the info. I am eager to learn how to code. I will stay tuned and am already following on twitter. I know I can learn this stuff but I am scratching to survive over here. Hope I will soon be able to buy and follow a blueprint.

    • Randle Browning Replied

      Hey Ann! So glad you liked the post and hope to see you in a blueprint soon! In the meantime, there’s a lot you can learn online for free: http://learntocodewith.me/posts/code-for-free/ Learning to code online (without a guide/community) can be overwhelming, but it’s still a GREAT place to start!

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