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Web Designer, Web Developer … What’s the Difference?

Even though websites are a common marketing channel in a business’s overall marketing plan, there’s still so much about them that’s mysterious.

In this article, we’re going to look at solving the mysteries around the people—the web designers, web developers and other fine folks who produce the various bits and bytes that go into a professional business website in WordPress.

Because if you’re running a law firm, a marketing consultancy or own a small- to medium-sized professional services business you’ve already got your hands full, right?

Some things to keep in mind before moving on to the main event.

Web Design Project Caveats

  • Unless you’re a big business, you’re not going to need all of these people. (Phew!)
  • Because titles are used inconsistently in the web industry, you want to focus more on the skillsets and deliverables that make sense for your unique project. And then, when you’re ready to hire someone, you’ll know what to ask for to make sure your bases are covered.
  • Since every web design project has its own unique scope of work based on the client’s requirements, the skillsets or teams needed may be different, too.
  • I’m presenting the Web Designer, Web or Brand Strategist, and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Specialist first because it is one of these people you’ll most likely hire to get your website project done. Their order doesn’t imply importance or when they’d come into play during the project, necessarily.
  • The Developer, Photographer, Copywriter and Web Host are usually coordinated by whatever web business you hire (referenced in the point just above).

Making the Case for Hybrid Designers

While some designers and developers stay in their own lane as specialists, many others (including yours truly) take a hybrid approach, happily doing design and also a variety of other things to help their clients get their websites and other visual marketing communications done.

Some big design and tech companies refer to this as being a T-shaped (or more recently, V-shaped) professional.

Taking me as an example, I’m primarily a website strategist and designer who also has hands-on skills in web development, basic SEO and project management. I also do visual branding, graphic design and have expertise in marketing promotions.

The Website Makers

Here’s a roster of the people and businesses that contribute their skills and expertise toward producing a professional business website in WordPress.

WEB or BRAND STRATEGIST

Works closely with the client through a Discovery process to clarify website marketing goals, ideal clients and competition. Understands how a business website can fit within a bigger marketing plan. Produces a Creative Brief or Brand Strategy as a roadmap to leverage the website to help achieve client goals. May also do web copywriting or partner with a copywriter.
web strategist
seo digital marketer

SEO / DIGITAL MARKETER

Creates and executes the SEO strategy to help get websites found in organic search results by targeted audiences. Bases their strategy on modern SEO best practices that currently favor content marketing.

Sometimes confused with SEO, Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is paid advertising like Google Ads (fka Google Adwords). SEM is arguably less effective for website conversions than SEO.

WEB DESIGNER

Creates the concepts, artwork and layouts for websites. Bases the visual aesthetic on the client’s existing visual brand (logo, color scheme, fonts), creative brief and meetings with the client. Produces a web design mockup that is handed over to a Web Developer for coding.

Other titles you might encounter that do web design work include: Brand Designer (specializes in creating the overall look for a company including logo design and visual identity); Graphic Designer (specializes in print); UX/UI Designer (primarily designs web and mobile products and apps based on research that prioritizes the user) and Visual Designer (creates the concepts and layouts for larger scale digital product briefs).

web designer
project manager

PROJECT MANAGER

Oversees the project, making sure the client and everyone on the team knows what to do and knows by when to do it. Keeps the project moving forward using appropriate tools and status reports so it’s done within scope, timeline and budget. (I love doing this for my clients.)

WEB COPYWRITER

Writes marketing copy for the website including headlines, calls-to-action and captions. Understands website reading behavior and uses techniques that grab attention and accommodate skimming and scanning. May collaborate with the client and designer on brand strategy and be familiar with UX, SEO and/or the StoryBrand method.
web copywriter
web photographer

WEB PHOTOGRAPHER

Stages and takes photos of the client, their team and products to support the visual brand. Composes images to work in responsive website layouts. Collaborates with the designer and client to create a must-have list of shots. Works with a stylist. Does photo editing and corrections.

WEB DEVELOPER

Takes the mockup created by the Web Designer and writes the code that brings it to life. Makes decisions about the best tech to use to make design, interactions and third-party integrations work (like mailing list management or inbound marketing platforms). Tests the site for quality assurance and launches it to the web server. Troubleshoots and fixes any technical issues.

Other titles you may encounter that do web development work include: full-stack developer (expertise in a full range of web coding languages), front-end developer (designs websites and writes markup code), back-end developer (works with complex website functions like databases).

web developer
web host

WEB HOST

Manages the web server where the website lives, focusing on speed and safety. The web host can also manage domain name registration, email services and the Domain Name System (DNS), but I recommend using at least two different companies to manage these services to avoid a complete shutdown of services if something were to go wrong. My preferred web host is SiteGround. (I get a small credit if you use my referral link.)

Conclusion

As a small- to medium-sized professional services business owner or marketer, you want to focus more on the skillsets and deliverables website pros promise to bring to your unique project and less on their titles.

We’re not trying to solve the common malpractice of using Web Designer and Web Developer interchangeably. We simply want to have clarity around the variety of people who work on a website and what they can deliver toward your unique project so you can formulate the right questions to ask and, ultimately, make a smart decision about who to hire.

And again, unless you’re here representing big business, chances are, your project won’t require working with more than one web design business, or a handful of specialists if you’re project managing the job yourself.

Your best bet? Look for people with hybrid skillsets who can fulfill more than one role and/or have the connections to bring in talent as needed. Or be prepared to fulfill some of the work yourself.

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PS: If you read through this and are still like, What? …give me a shout.