What does a web designer do? [Definitions and Myths]

If you are unfamiliar with the terminology, it can be hard to know exactly what you are looking for out of a web design company. Do you need a web designer or a web developer? Is there a difference? What about all the different types of designers? How do they differ? In this post, I’ll demystify a web designer’s role, so you’ll better understand what you are looking for. 

A web designer is a professional who is responsible for designing the layout, visual appearance, and usability of a website. A good web designer needs to understand UX (User Interface), basic knowledge of how programming works, as well as design principles as it relates to computers and mobile devices.

The Differences

Before I get into what a web designer is, let’s first discuss what they aren’t. There are many terms out there that all sound vaguely similar. By understanding how web design differs from other related fields, you can better understand what it means to be a web designer. 

Web designers versus web developers at work

Designer vs Developers

This is the most basic distinction to make. Web design and web development are often misused to mean the same thing by unfamiliar people with the industry. They are actually complementary but distinct roles. A web designer’s role is in the creation of a website’s front-end. In other words, how it is presented to the user. A web developer, by contrast, handles the back-end, the programming that makes the behind the scenes functionality of the website work. 

houston web designer at desk

Front-end Web Designers vs. Full-Stack Web Designers

I’ve already discussed what front-end web designers do. Some web design companies will offer what is called full-stack web design or full-stack web development. In this case, the same company, or perhaps the same person, will function as both the web designer and the web developer. They will handle the creation of both the front-end and the back-end of the website.

houston website designer

UX Designers vs. Web Designers

UX stands for user experience. In recent years, art has become a field all on its own. A UX designer is responsible for ensuring that the buttons are placed in a logical place on the website, that navigation is easily accessible and maximally functional. As their name implies, it is their job to ensure that the user experience is as smooth as possible. Aside from that, they don’t concern themselves with the overall look and feel of a website. The web designer is the one who takes the UX design and turns it into something presentable to the public. 

The Tools

Web designers use four primary tools to create a webpage. These are HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. If they are back-end designers, then that would include many different programming languages like PHP, Perl, or C++ depending on the platform. Let’s take a closer look at each of them:

  • HTML — Hypertext Markup Language is, as the name tells you, a markup language. Markup languages are human-readable text that tells a computer how it should present something. HTML was the first markup language for the internet and is very limited.
  • CSS — Cascading Style Sheets are like an extension to HTML. Another markup language, CSS allows the designer to have much more flexibility over the style of the HTML elements. Where HTML provides the general layout of a page, CSS provides its look and feel. 
  • JavaScript — Websites are very interactive now, and require programming logic for the front-end as well as the back-end. JavaScript is a programming language that gives the developer control over the HTML and CSS elements. For example, when you move your mouse over a navigation icon and it opens a menu, JavaScript is controlling the logic.
  • Core Website Programming Languages. Most back-end or full-stack developers will have a preferred web programming language that they specialize in while many will be able to switch depending on the website platform like WordPress Web Design or Drupal or Shopify.
WordPress website designer

The Tasks

Now that I’ve shown you the tools a web designer uses, it’s time to look at some common tasks that they perform as part of their jobs. While the job of the designer has many responsibilities, the most common are listed below. 

  • Translating Customer Needs — Customers don’t always understand the technical aspects of creating a website. It is part of the web designers job to translate the customer’s needs into something that can be accomplished with web design. This is a two-way translation. A good web designer will work with the customer to help them understand what is and isn’t possible, so the finished product is as polished as it can be. 
  • Understanding User Interface — If a UX designer works on the project, the web designer must take the finished UX design and familiarize themselves with it. When there is no UX designer, the web designer must understand good UX design on their own. 
  • Creating Graphics — Modern websites are filled with graphics. Some graphic elements may be beyond the scope of a web designer’s job, for example, company logos and branding. Most of the graphics on a website, however, are designed or sourced by the web designer. 
  • Communicating How the Design Integrates with Code — After the customer’s needs have been translated into a workable design, and the requisite graphics have been created, the designer begins creating the code of the website using the three languages I discussed in the previous section. 
  • Collaborating with Developers — Nearly all websites have back-end programming requirements now. The web developer must understand how the web designer envisions the site working, so the front-end and the back-end work together in harmony. It is the job of both people to work together to further this understanding. 

The Training

Many colleges offer degrees in web design and development, and those are certainly an option for someone looking to get into web design. Those programs will be thorough and teach the prospective student more than they will need to know for most jobs. Web design is just as much art as it tech, though, and jobs can be had without a degree. 

Any web designer who wants to work in the industry will have to take some courses on at least the three main technologies I’ve discussed: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Ideally, a web designer will have some passing knowledge of tools that web developers use, such as PHP and SQL. This is important so that they can effectively communicate with developers and create designs that will match the back-end functionality requirements.

The Myths

Myth 1: We are messy and untidy

I know many have seen the stereotypical computer nerd with their messy desk sitting in the dark, but I swear that most of us are very organized. We have to be. I am not sure where this idea of flighty designers came from, but successful designers are busy and have their hands full. This means that to be productive, we have to keep our creative space clear and tidy. 

Myth 2: The Customer Is Always Right

In web design, our web design customers aren’t the primary user of the product. The customers of our customer (got that?) that will be using the website, which means, sometimes, the customer aren’t always right. The customers mostly see the product from their own perspective, with the target of profit or conversions as the priority. 

Myth 3: That we can come up with an idea overnight

The truth? It can take hours and maybe days to get a design right. Then more time as we solicit feedback from the team and collaborate with customers.

Myth 4: We know how to build the next great website app in a few months.

I know many of us started as programmers, but others started as graphic designers. Over the years, the work has broken into different design disciplines, front-end development, back-end development, content writers, UX or user-centric experts, and more. Today, it would take a combination of people to build the next great thing and would take several months, maybe 1 or 2 years, with many iterations.

Myth 5: We Are IT Specialists

This myth goes back to the days when web design was part of the IT department. Since it was internet related, it was naturally considered a technical job. I started my career in the IT field and learned how to code websites using HTML and then learned design. Now, website design is part of the marketing department, and it’s been a long time since I cracked open a computer and changed out RAM or wired cables. If you asked most web designers about fixing a computer or setting up an email account, you’d probably find that it’s not something they could help you with.

Conclusion

Now that you know what web designers do, you can decide whether you need one and what to expect when hiring. If you decide that a web designer is necessary for your project, we’d love to talk to you! We offer quality web design services that will help drive visitors to your site and leads through your sales funnels. If you think we may be right for your job, feel free to contact us today.

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Christina Hawkins

Since 1999, Christina has been designing and building exceptional websites. With many years of experience in creating thousands of websites, she understands the need for continuing education in her field and, therefore, is constantly learning and teaching others about internet marketing and digital processes. Christina has honed her digital marketing and graphic design skills so that she can help B2B industries get their message out to their target audience in the right way. In addition to her ability as a digital marketer, Christina serves as a coach and mentor with WPElevation to other digital marketing freelancers, helping them grow their businesses. She is a sponsor and co-leader of Houston's WordPress Meetup. Recently, she spear-headed the next Houston WordCamp 2020 as its coordinator after a 10 year hiatus and became the Houston Interactive Marketing Association Director of Technology.

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