Both web design and development have existed since the first website went live online in 1991. Back then, website creation was a simpler process than it is today. With the new landscape, there are more distinctions between the definitions and purposes of web design and development. Understanding these intricacies can help you choose which role is right for you and how each function fits into the process of getting a site live online.
Website design determines the look and feel of the pages and the overall composition of the site. This includes choosing colors, fonts, images, and element placement. Designers may use tools like Photoshop or other graphic design programs to create the pieces necessary to get the website looking right. They’re often the ones who meet with clients to understand their vision or those who brainstorm ideas for internal company sites. Web design helps guide the process by using principles such as:
Web development determines how the website functions. Developers sometimes go by the name programmers, but the job title programmer can apply to coders who work on projects outside of web development as well. There are two common types of web development used to get a site running:
Back-end development deals with the side of website creation that you don’t see. It creates and maintains all the parts of the site that take place on the servers to make it accessible to the public. Back-end developers focus on how to store and organize the data that makes the visually appealing elements work. They’re familiar with making databases and servers work together using coding languages like Python, Ruby, and PHP.
People often use the terms design and development interchangeably when discussing website creation. While some duties may overlap because the two roles must work together to get the site online, they are distinct functions. Web design and front-end development may be the two areas that are most often confused. This is because they both deal with the parts of the website you can see.
The biggest difference between the two is that developers spend more of their time writing code and the designers spend more time creating visual elements. While designers may know some code and developers understand the concepts of graphic design, those aren’t their primary duties.
The elements of web design are the building blocks of the visual aspect of a website. They’re the things that make the site easy to look at and understand. Some of these elements include:
Your site’s color scheme can help separate it from other similar ones in your niche. You may determine your color palette using your brand identity or by choosing one that relates to your content. For example, a water service provider might use blues and whites as a color scheme. Using a consistent palette with three colors or shades can bring order to your website and show contrast among unique elements.
Graphics are any of the visual representations you see on a website. These include logos, icons, images, GIFs, videos, static or dynamic infographics, cartoons, and even patterned backgrounds. Graphics can serve many purposes on a page, depending on the layout and functionality. For example, you may use a chart to give more information about your written content, or an icon to link to another page on your site.
The layout is the arrangement of the elements on a web page. This includes the header, footer, navigation, graphics, and written content. The layout designers choose depends on the purpose and industry of the website and how they want users to move through the page.
Navigation is the part of a website that helps users find and access the information for which they’re looking. These tools include menus, site maps, and search bars. Some sites use just one of these items and some use all of them. Choosing which navigation is right may depend on how many pages are on your site and the easiest and quickest way to help visitors sift through them.
Typography is a fancy name for the fonts used on your website, including the size and spacing of the words on the page. The fonts you choose depend on the overall theme of your website. Professional ones typically use serif or sans serif fonts like Times New Roman and Arial. These fonts are familiar, easy to read, and display well in almost every setting. Readability is the most important feature of typography. For consistency, it’s also important to keep your font choices to only three: one for headings, one for regular type, and one for accents.
This principle focuses on putting the most important information at the top of the page so people see exactly what they need at their first glance. It also helps designers determine what elements stand out from the others using color, spacing, and size. This can apply to written content, images, or motion graphics. Headings are an example of creating visual hierarchy because they tell you where a new section begins and give an introduction to what you find there.
Unlike the web design elements, these focus on making sure the website works correctly for all users. They ensure people can access and experience it with minimal problems. Some elements of web development include:
When you create a website properly, anyone can use them. That includes people who use assistive technologies and those who do not. Developers understand and use the principles of web accessibility guidelines to make sure sites are functional for everyone. They consider special code or features that help people with auditory, cognitive, speech, visual, and neurologic issues navigate sites without incident.
Some ways that developers make this possible is by checking code for any issues that may interfere with assistive devices like screen readers. They may also advise designers if colors, typefaces, or other aesthetic features are distracting or not conducive to the accessibility guidelines.
All websites have a host server. Developers code and create these servers and determine how fast they work, how much traffic they can hold, and the type of traffic they can handle. Back-end developers focus on this aspect to make sure users have the uninterrupted experience they expect without slow loading times or other connection errors.
Safe websites use a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) security protocol for safe browsing online. This creates an encrypted link between the browser and the server. Adding one of these ensures safe online transactions. For example, e-commerce websites use these to help protect people’s personal information during shopping. You can tell if a site has an SSL because the URL starts with HTTPS rather than HTTP.
More and more people access the internet from mobile devices, including from phones and tablets. That means the developers must make sure sites are accessible and functional on all devices. Front-end developers may focus on including different menu options, ensuring that images and other elements resize on different screen widths, and that nothing is falling off the page on a smaller screen.
Developers focus on how to streamline coding to make pages load faster. They may do this with the code itself, plugins, and visuals. They make sure that there aren’t unnecessary elements within the code, such as duplicate instructions or other bugs that interfere with loading speeds.
Developers can put special code in the back end to help you with tracking. These metrics may include things like visitors, sales, and lead generation. They can create this code themselves or incorporate it from third-party services like Google Analytics.
Use these steps to learn how to decide whether a career in web design or development is right for you:
Web developers deal with more technical aspects of getting a website online. They use a variety of coding languages. Developer jobs rely more heavily on mathematical and scientific principles to succeed in their roles. Web design focuses more on the creative aspects of getting a website online. They also use mathematical principles like balance, but designers may have more natural talents for understanding layout and visualization.
It’s possible to learn the skills for either role, so consider which one sounds more interesting to you. Would you like to spend more time dealing with creative elements or technical ones? Remember, even though design uses less math and science than development, it’s not the easier of the two options. Either may be easier for you, depending on your personal interests and skills.
On average, website developer salaries are higher than those for designers. According to Indeed, web designers make about $48,591 per year while developers make about $68,578 per year. However, these only cover the basic job titles. There are other, more specific areas of web design and development that may make more money or have more comparable salaries. For example, interactive designers make an average of $78,155 per year, while Java developers make an average of $100,440 per year.
The only way you might know for sure which option is better for you is by trying them both. Consider taking a class, free training, or doing research and trying both on your own at home. You can practice using design programs like Canva, Adobe Photoshop, and Illustrator, or other similar programs to see if you enjoy that option. You can also join a community like GitHub or work with web builders like WordPress to practice some front-end development and learn what it might be like to code for a living.
Getting some experience may help you decide if you find one option more interesting than the other. It may also tell you if you have the natural skills to do either job. When you get more comfortable and decide which one you like best, you can do volunteer work or help a nonprofit organization with their websites. This may make it easier to understand if you enjoy development or design as a job or just as a hobby.
Though sometimes people use the terms design and development interchangeably, there are differences between them. Understanding those differences can make it easier for you to understand what development and design teams do. It can also help you choose which of these career paths may be right for you.
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