When I started to write this article, I had it tentatively titled "Web Design for Dummies". Aside from the legal implications of such a title, I also felt it wasn't accurate - that a lot of the clients we deal with on a daily basis aren't "dummies", "idiots", or whatever pejorative you like. In fact, they are all quite bright and great at what they do - in their field.
When I re-entered the field of web design, one of the best pieces of advice I received was to have put my knowledge on a T: a wide breadth of knowledge along the surface with a deeper focus into your area of specialization. This allows you to collaborate with others in your profession easier - the less time they have to spend explaining things to you, the more time can be spent on actual project development. One of the main tenets of our manifesto here at JBird Design is client education: we want to give you enough knowledge so you can navigate the ever-changing and oft-times confusing world of web design.
When dealing with web professionals, one of the most confusing aspects of deciding who to choose to build your website/webapp/Skynet 2.0 is figuring who does what? What's the difference between a web designer and a web developer? What's the difference between a graphic designer and a web designer (and why are they two separate professions)? What does back-end mean?
At one point, in the early history of the web (read: the 1990's), a web designer and web developer were often two titles for the same job. As the industry has matured and allowed for more specialization, the two titles have diverged into two distinct group: those who focus on the visual interface of a website (designers) and those who focus on the functionality and programming of a website (developers).
Let's deal with designers first. Why are graphic designers and web designers sometimes lumped into one group and other times treated as two separate disciplines? The same reason a NASCAR driver and a taxi driver are - they may have the same principles and skill sets, but they perform on two completely different courses (unless you've ever driven in downtown Atlanta.) Both web and graphic designers are adept and talented in using the principles of balance, proportion, and contrast to create effective and visually appealing design, but how a user interacts with a poster or magazine ad (usually the purview of a graphic designer) is significantly different than how a user interacts with a web design.
Beyond that, the differences are mainly in medium of execution rather than skill and talent. Some designers enjoy designing for the web, but are extremely talented regardless of the medium; designers such as Andy Rutledge and Ryan Scherf come to mind. Be advised though - graphic artists are not graphic designers. Graphic artists deal in creativity, whereas graphic designers, and designers in general deal in order and structure. Mr. Rutledge puts it best:
"Creativity is not design. Creativity has nothing to do with design. Creativity is bound by no laws, rules, or strictures …which is perhaps why it’s so intoxicating (sometimes to the point of delusion). Design, on the other hand, is based entirely on math, psychology, human perception, and a host of rigid rules and laws that can be broken by only a highly skilled few."Creativity is not Design
If designers are the skin of the website body, developers are the skeleton and organ systems. Every time you interact with a website, that interaction was facilitated by something that a developer put time and effort into ensuring it did exactly what you wanted it to do. Links, download buttons, publishing blog articles - every time you do one of these actions, a developer gets their wings. Most web developers can be split into two categories: front-end developers and back-end developers.
Back-end developers code what takes place behind the scenes and under the skin of a website. Ever wonder what exactly happens when you hit "Enter" to update your status on Facebook? Without getting too technical, a back-end developer used their magical programming skills to make sure that your status gets stored in a database, gets linked to your friends' walls, and updates any associated accounts like Twitter or LinkedIn.
Okay, what does this all mean to me?
When you are looking for a new website, or even a redesign and update to your website, you will probably need to find a company that can do both website design and development. Ask if they do both in-house, or if they outsource any particular process to sub-contractors. If they don't define a difference between design and development, that's a red flag - they may be proficient at one aspect and believe it's enough to make your website successful. It's not.
The tools used by designers and developers can vary. Don't make assumptions of their skill based on the tools they use - ask to see their portfolio, question them about their knowledge of web standards. Even if you don't completely understand the answers, they should be able to explain in the most general terms of how they adhere to those standards. And beware anyone who tries to sell you "SEO marketing".
Next week on Web Design Essentials for Businesses
In next week's installment of Web Design for Business Majors, we'll discuss the technologies and languages used to make websites show up on your device. Also, a quiz on what we learned (not really)!