What is the difference between a web designer and a web developer?

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Posted at 13:00 on 29 May 2008

We got an application in from a seemingly very talented web designer the other day in response to our job posting. With some pretty impressive artwork on her online portfolio, she might be a serious consideration if we were looking for someone to fulfil a role involving primarily graphic design.

However, there is just one question. We are looking for a developer, rather than a designer -- so will she make the grade in that particular department?

I get the impression that the difference between web developers and web designers is somewhat lost on many people. This is probably quite understandable -- the edges between the two is a rather blurry one, with a good deal of overlap, and both require a lot of creativity -- and many people manage to handle both roles remarkably well. However, they involve completely different skill sets and aptitudes.

Designers tend to focus very much on the front end. They are (or at least they should be) good at art and graphic design, and if they are designing for the web, they should know HTML and CSS. They will be able to produce great WordPress themes, Flash animations and other eye candy. They most likely also know some basic PHP, MySQL and JavaScript.

The great unknown, however, is how well they can handle the more technical aspects of building a web application. Some of them are good at this, some are not so good. It is all too easy to forget that web development is software development -- as a web developer, you are concerned with the much more technical aspects of the job. You need to understand database normalisation and object oriented design patterns, for starters, otherwise you will end up producing unnecessary duplication and bad code. You also need to have a firm grasp of security -- at the very least you should understand topics such as SQL injection, cross site scripting and defence in depth. Then there are other aspects such as data structures, string manipulation, regular expressions, web services, scalability, caching, threading, concurrency, transactions, and so on. If any of that sounds like Klingon to you, then either you are not a developer or else you need to mug up on a few basic essentials.

Indeed, since you have to understand fairly difficult concepts such as concurrency, scalability and threading, web development can actually be harder to get right than traditional desktop development.

I sometimes wonder if web development gets such a bad reputation for the quality of code sometimes because there are a lot of people out there describing themselves as web developers when actually they are better suited to working as web designers. In order to be a good developer you need to be able to think at multiple levels of abstraction at the same time, pick up on patterns in things, and so on. Not everyone has the brain circuitry that enables them to do this.

By all accounts, a good test of this is how you handle recursion. Many people -- even some computer science students -- simply can't understand it, viewing it purely as a bug that causes a stack overflow and therefore needs to be avoided. However, being able to use recursion effectively is a fundamental skill that crops up over and over again in programming. Traversing a directory tree, the nodes in a DOM document, or the page structure in a hierarchical content management system, should be second nature to all developers everywhere.