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What is web development?

Web development governs all the code that makes a website tick. It can be split into two categories—front-end and back-end. The front-end or client-side of an application is the code responsible for determining how the website will actually display the designs mocked up by a designer. The back-end or server-side of an application is responsible for managing data within the database and serving that data to the front-end to be displayed. As you may have guessed, it’s the front-end developer’s job that tends to share the most overlap with the web designer. Some common skills and tools traditionally viewed as unique to the front-end developer are listed below:


HTML/CSS/JavaScript

CSS preprocessors (i.e., LESS or Sass)

Frameworks (i.e., AngularJS, ReactJS, Ember)

Web template design

Libraries (i.e., jQuery)

Git and GitHub

On-site search engine optimization (SEO)

Front-end web developers don’t usually create mock-ups, select typography, or pick color palettes—these are usually provided by the designer. It’s the developer’s job to bring those mock-ups to life. That said, understanding what the designer wants requires some knowledge of best practices in UI/UX design so that the developer is able to choose the right technology to deliver the desired look and feel and experience in the final product.


Back-end developers handle the business logic and data management on the back-end of an application. They write the APIs and routing that allow data to flow between the front and back end of an application. Programming languages and tools unique to back-end developers are listed below:


Server-side programming languages (e.g., PHP, Python, Java, C#)

Server-side web development frameworks (e.g., Ruby on Rails, Symfony, .NET)

Database management systems (e.g., MySQL, MongoDB, PostgreSQL)

RESTful APIs

Authentication and security (e.g., OAuth, PassportJS)

Servers (e.g., Linux, Apache, Express)

Web developers who possess a working knowledge across the frontend and backend of a technology stack are called full-stack developers.


Web designers vs. web developers—major differences at a glance

Now that we’ve established that web design and web development are two distinct disciplines, let’s take a look at the major differences between web designers and web developers.


Most web designers do not code

Web designers are responsible for the general look and feel of a website. They might use a visual editor like Photoshop to create images or an app prototyping and animation tool such as  InVision Studio to design layouts and generate high-fidelity mockups. But none of these main responsibilities require coding.


Beyond their traditional role as visual designers, the proliferation of content management systems (CMS) such as WordPress and no-code website builders like Wix mean there are web designers who can apply their visual talents to building your website without having to know how to code.  


Web developers do not create assets

Web developers are the programmers with the coding skills needed to add functionality to a website. They translate the designer’s wireframes and mockups into code using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Web developers don’t usually have to create the visual assets themselves such as the images behind buttons, color schemes, and fonts. They just need to use code to implement them into the page.


Web developers are generally more expensive than web designers

The cost of hiring a web developer tends to be higher than the cost of hiring a web designer. According to ZipRecruiter, the average rate of web developers is $36/hr while the average rate of web designers is $29/hour. The primary reason for this discrepancy is likely supply and demand—there are more designers than developers, and coding in general is a highly sought after skill. As coding becomes more ubiquitous among the talent pool the discrepancy between rates decreases. When it comes to expertise, whether hiring developers or designers you are paying for experience.


Combining the skills of a web dev and web designer—the unicorn

What started out as a joke in the industry—the designer/developer hybrid who can do it all—is now a viable endgame for both web designers and front-end developers, thanks to the increase in the availability of educational resources across the web.


Those developers/designers who have a good grasp of skills across both sides of the spectrum are highly sought after in the industry. The "unicorn" can take your project from the conceptual stage of visual mock-ups and storyboards, and carry it through front-end development all by themselves.


Not that you'd want them to; the real value of developers who design and designers who develop are their ability to speak each other's languages. This leads not only to better communication on the team and a smoother workflow, it means you'll land on the best solution possible.


As a general rule, feel free to rely on the "unicorn" for small projects, where it’s feasible for one or two people to handle both the back and front-ends of an application. For larger projects, even if you do manage to hire a few "unicorns," more clearly defined roles are required.