Most people use the terms web designer and web developer interchangeably, but they are vastly different things. Both make websites, and both work with web technologies, but their goals, skills, and purposes are entirely unique. If you ignore the web portion and focus on their keywords you can more easily understand what they do. Designers make things look good; developers make things work.
Designers design things. They design everything from logos to billboards to packaging to websites. A web designer makes a website look good. They are the people that add in all the aesthetic details, so a website looks pleasing to whomever is looking at it. This is done in mostly the same fashion as all other design – they use a program like photoshop or figma (link) and add in pictures and details until they get a finished flat product. Recent years has had an influx of DIY products release that has started to intermingle purposes so that web designers can act like web developers – but they are not. With programs and services like Wix, SquareSpace, and Webflow, web designers can make full websites without doing any coding.
When a business owner builds a website with a DIY service the website is usually very flat without many brandable aesthetic details. When a web designer builds a website with a DIY service they put a premium on the aesthetics so the website can potentially look very professional. Functionally though, these websites will perform exactly the same. Conversions will be better with the professional designs, but performance will be problematic without a web developer because DIY programs that auto generate code usually generate bad code. They usually follow algorithms, or equations, to create an end result that looks the same to the user, but the algorithms aren’t perfect and usually go through five steps where only one was necessary. This results in very large file dependencies, which results in slow websites – which results in more users leaving your website, which results in less traffic, which results in fewer sales and phone calls. DIY solutions also have a very strict locked down system for what you can and cannot do. This results in some things being very easy, and others being literally impossible. If your goal is merely to get a website this doesn’t usually matter, but if your goal is to have a good website this can be very problematic. Easy example – if you want to add a certification to your header so your potential clients immediately understand your licensing and skills this is extremely easy to do with a custom website – but can sometimes be impossible if the prebuilt theme the DIY platform doesn’t support it. Custom websites do what you want, DIY websites do what they want.
Developers develop things. They develop everything from operating systems to phone apps to robots to web applications and websites. They are the people that use code to make everything work. A web developer makes a website fast, functional, and accessible. They know the technical details on how to make a website run quickly and meet specific technological needs. While it is much rarer than a designer trying to create a website on their own, some web developers do create websites without using a web designer, and their websites look terrible. Websites made my developers without a designer lack aesthetic details to make the website look good. Everything will work, but it will be very boring. Easy example: craigslist. The site works, but it looks terrible because there are no design elements.
When a web designer works with a web developer you get the best of both worlds and avoid the pitfalls that come from a lack of expertise. The designer will make the website look fantastic while the developer will make the website performant and functional. Sites done this way usually go through an initial design phase that get approvals for what the website will look like and then be handed to the developer to be coded by hand. Sites like this tend to take longer but perform significantly better. They will look amazing, which will keep your customers interested and make you look like an established professional company, and they will perform well so they will work on all devices, load fast, and meet the technical requirements that matter to search engines and website functionality. Every business website needs a build process that has both a web designer and a web developer.
Unfortunately, most websites today are not only built without a web designer and web developer working together, they are made without designers or developers at all. With the ease of use and increase in DIY website services lots of people are creating websites that are neither designers nor developers. These websites look bad, perform bad, and are just bad all around. Some of these are done by scam agencies that feel can provide websites to clients without knowing what they are doing. Because most people don’t know what makes a good website they don’t understand that they are paying for a bad product. If they are able to provide you with a website in a day then you didn’t have a designer, a developer, or any type of professional product. For extremely low budget solutions this can work, but you do need to be aware that these products should be very cheap and are not the same product as professional websites.
Some people that work with internet marketing will make websites with alternative goals. This is most common with SEO (Search Engine Optimization) agencies but can also happen with social media agencies or other digital marketers. SEO agencies want to make a website that ranks well in search engines and only care about that one goal and don’t focus on the aesthetics, conversions, performance, or any other than thing than what position it ranks in Google. These agencies usually design on WordPress and don’t design or code, they just use a prebuilt theme and slap a lot of plugins on it until the site does what they want. These are not good websites, and it is important to understand that ranking on search engines is not the only thing that matters for a website, and that websites can rank without sacrificing their quality. Their websites do not look that way because it helps them rank, it looks that way because the only way they can sell their service is if you have a website, but they don’t know how to make good websites.
When hiring any agency, it is important to focus on the quality every step of the way. Are they sending you designs for approval? Do the designs look good? Is it being custom developed or made by a drag and drop editor? Is it being built in code or using lots of WordPress Plugins? Different websites have different goals and different price points and it is important to know what you are buying.