Web Design vs. Web Development: What’s the Difference?

November 10, 2023 by Emily Parker in Design, Web Development

When it comes to building your online presence, there's a whole world behind the scenes that many business owners may not be aware of. Web design and web development are two separate but vital components of creating a successful website. In this article, we'll dive into the differences between these two disciplines, helping you gain a better understanding of what each brings to the table and how to decide what you need for your project.

The difference between web design and web development is that web design deals with the look and feel of your website as well as the user experience, while web development is the under-the-hood functional aspects of your website and how it works.

A good comparison is to cars - web design corresponds with the car’s paint job, interior, shape, style, and appeal. Web development would be analogous to the engine and all of the internal machinery and mechanics which ensure that your car runs safely and reliably (or at all!)

Web Design And Web Development: A Quick Primer

Web Design and Web Development: these two terms often get tossed around interchangeably, leading to confusion. So, what's the deal? 

What Is Web Design?

Web design is like the interior design of your website. It's the realm of colors, fonts, images, and layout. A web designer's role is to make your site visually appealing, user-friendly, and aligned with your brand's identity. They create the look and feel that entices visitors to explore further and engage with your content. Anything that the end user directly engages with is the realm of the web designer.

Key Points to Know About Web Design:

  • Concerned with the aesthetics and user experience.
  • Focuses on visual elements like colors, typography, and images.
  • Shapes the layout and user interface/user experience (UI/UX)
  • Aims to engage and retain visitors through visual appeal and ease of navigation.

What Is Web Development?

Now, let's talk web development. Web developers are the behind-the-scenes architects of your site. They’ll take the visual design created by web designers and turn it into a fully functional website. This involves writing code, setting up hosting environments, creating databases, and ensuring the site works seamlessly across different devices and browsers. In the case where a website is collecting user information, a web developer ensures that it is collected safely and privately. Anything that the end user indirectly engages with (but is integral to the overall experience) is the realm of the web developer.

Key Points to Know About Web Development:

  • Concentrates on the technical aspects and functionality.
  • Involves writing code, creating databases, and server-side logic.
  • Ensures the website functions smoothly and loads quickly.
  • Responsible for the "back end" work, making everything work as it should.

In many ways, building a website is like building a house: You start by purchasing a plot of land and getting assigned a mailing address (your hosting and domain.) Then, your architect/web designer creates your blueprints (wireframes.) Next, your builders / web developers come in and lay your foundation (your platform and content management system), and begin construction of your house (developing your website’s core pages and functionality.)

After the house is built, your interior designer and trim crew comes in and installs siding, outlet covers, light switches, baseboards, carpets, and paints everything (that’s the web designer.) Finally, it’s moving day! You’ll need to find the right place for all of your things and decide what furnishings you can’t live without and which ones aren’t really useful to you any more (adding all of the content to your website and adjusting it to fit the new design, as well as paring down outdated or unnecessary material.)

Just as building your house requires several teams of people working together to make it complete, your web designer and web developer work together in tandem to ensure that your website is more than just a pretty face (or conversely, making sure it’s not functional but ugly!)

Kitchen in Progress.

A visualization of how the back end is the foundation for the front end/user experience (the web developer vs. the web designer.) Image Credit: Getty Images

How To Determine Whether You Need a Designer, A Developer, Or Both

The big question is, how do you decide if you need a web designer, a web developer, or both for your project? Here's a breakdown to help you make that call, continuing with our house analogy.

When You Need A Web Designer

Think of the web designer as your interior decorator. You'd call them when you need to spruce up the house's appearance, enhance its curb appeal, and create a welcoming atmosphere. In the digital world, you'd reach out to a web designer when:

  • Your website lacks visual appeal and user-friendliness: If your website looks outdated, unattractive, or isn't user-friendly, it's time to consult a web designer. They'll infuse creativity into your site's design, making it more engaging and aesthetically pleasing.
  • You want to establish or refresh your brand's identity: Just as a decorator aligns your home's interior with your personal style, a web designer aligns your website's look and feel with your brand's identity. They create a unique digital ambiance that resonates with your audience.
  • You need assistance with the layout and user interface: A skilled web designer can optimize your website's layout, ensuring that it's easy to navigate and delivers a top-notch user experience. It's like arranging the furniture in a way that flows seamlessly within your home.
  • Your goal is to captivate and engage your target audience visually: Web designers specialize in engaging your visitors through visual elements like colors, typography, and images. They craft a captivating first impression, much like a well-designed foyer welcomes guests into your home.

When You Need A Web Developer

Now, think of the web developer as the architect and builder of your digital house. You'd reach out to your builder when you need the structure to be sound, the plumbing to work flawlessly, and the electricity to power all your appliances. In the digital realm, you'd engage a web developer when:

  • Your website is functional but not performing optimally: If your site is running slowly, experiencing performance issues, or not meeting your expectations in terms of functionality, it's time to bring in a web developer. They're the experts in optimizing your website's performance.
  • You're experiencing slow load times and performance issues: Just as a skilled builder ensures your house stands strong, a web developer ensures your website loads quickly, functions without hiccups, and delivers a seamless user experience. They're like the experts who ensure your home's infrastructure is up to par.
  • You need to add advanced features like e-commerce, user accounts, or custom functionality: If you want to expand your digital house, adding features like sales capabilities, user accounts, or unique custom functions, a web developer can create the blueprint and build those additions.
  • Your site needs to be responsive and work flawlessly on various devices: A web developer is the one who ensures that your website functions flawlessly on different devices and browsers, just as an architect ensures that a building's design accommodates various needs and conditions.

When You Need Both A Web Designer And A Web Developer

Sometimes, you need a full-house renovation. In the digital realm, this means you need both a web designer and a web developer to collaborate seamlessly. You'd opt for this approach when:

  • You're starting from scratch with a new website: Just as a new construction project requires both an architect and an interior decorator, building a new website necessitates the combined efforts of a web designer and a web developer.
  • You want a comprehensive website overhaul: If your current website requires a complete makeover, you need the creative touch of a web designer to revamp its aesthetics and the technical expertise of a web developer to improve its functionality.
  • Your project requires a perfect balance of aesthetics and functionality: In some cases, a delicate balance of aesthetics and functionality is essential for your project's success. This is where the collaboration between a web designer and a web developer truly shines.
  • You value a seamless, end-to-end user experience: When your goal is to deliver a seamless, end-to-end user experience, the combined expertise of both professionals is necessary to ensure your digital "house" is not only beautiful but also functional and efficient.

In essence, your decision to hire a web designer, a web developer, or both is akin to deciding whether you need an interior decorator, an architect, or both for your house. By understanding their roles and when to involve them, you can create a website that not only looks stunning but also functions flawlessly, ultimately providing a warm and inviting online space for your visitors.  

Are Web Developers And Web Programmers The Same Thing?

You may have heard the terms used interchangeably, but web developers and web programmers aren’t quite the same thing, and to add to the confusion, web developers often get lumped in with web designers, and those are definitely not the same thing!

In short, web developer is a broader term that encompasses various aspects of creating and maintaining websites. Web developers typically work on both the front and back ends (to an extent), and are responsible for the overall construction and functionality of a website, as outlined above.

Web programming is a subset of web development and is more focused on the coding and scripting aspects of web development, so is mainly on the back end. Web programming is a more specialized role that specifically involves writing and maintaining code for web applications and websites.

Both roles of web developer and web programmer work together and are important (and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably), but in a more precise context, they do refer to different aspects of the web development process.

Bringing It All Together

In the ever-evolving digital landscape, web design and web development are the dynamic duo responsible for your online success. While they each have their distinct roles, remember that they often overlap. A harmonious collaboration between web designers and web developers can create a website that not only looks stunning but functions flawlessly. It's the perfect blend of art and science.

So, the next time you're considering a web project, you'll know the difference between web design and web development, and you'll be better equipped to make the right choices for your business. Whether you're looking to captivate your audience with stunning visuals or streamline your website's performance, understanding these two disciplines will be the key to unlocking your online potential.

Many web designers can create beautiful websites but lack any web development skills. Conversely, many web developers can build amazing functionality but can’t make it pretty, or easily understandable.

At White Whale Web, we excel at both disciplines - we blend modern development principles with stunning design elements to create gorgeous custom websites which are fast, user-friendly, 100% accessible and responsive, and will keep your users coming back.