The Difference Between Web Design and Web Development

Design focuses on appearance; development addresses architecture

Web development team in office

 Yuri_Arcurs / Getty Images

Many people use the two terms web design and web development interchangeably, but they really do have two very different meanings. If you’re looking for a new job in the web design industry, or if you are someone looking to hire a web professional to build a website for you or your company, you need to know the difference between these two terms and the skillsets that come with them.

What Is Web Design?

Web design is the most common term for professionals in this industry. Oftentimes, when people say they are a "web designer," they refer to a very broad set of skills—one of which is visual design.

The "design" part of this equation deals with the customer-facing or front-end part of the website. A web designer is concerned with how a site looks and how the customers interact with it (they are sometimes also referred to as user experience designers or UX designers).

Good web designers use the principles of design to create a site that looks great. They also understand web usability and how to create sites that are user-friendly. Their designs encourage interactivity because it’s so easy and intuitive to do so. Designers do much more than make a site "look pretty." They truly dictate the usability of a website's interface.

What Is Web Development?

Web development comes in two flavors: Front-end development and back-end development. Some of the skills in these two flavors overlap, but they do have very different purposes in the web design profession.

A front-end developer takes the visual design of a website (whether they created that design or it was handed to them by a visual designer) and builds it in code. A front-end developer uses HTML for the structure of the site, CSS to dictate the visual styles and layout, and perhaps even some Javascript. For some small sites, front-end development may be the only kind of development that is needed for that project. For more complex projects, "back-end" development will come into play.

Back-end development deals with more advanced programming and interactions on web pages. A back-end web developer focuses on how a site works and how the customers get things done on it using certain functionality. This skillset could include working with code that interfaces with a database or creating features like E-commerce shopping carts that connect to online payment processors and more.

Good web developers may know how to program CGI and scripts like PHP. They also understand how web forms work and how different software packages and application programming interfaces connect those different kinds of software to create solutions that meet a specific customer's needs. Back-end web developers may also be required to create new functionality from scratch if there are no existing software tools or packages that can be leveraged to meet their clients' needs.

Many People Blur the Lines

While some web professionals specialize or focus on certain areas, many of them blur the lines between different disciplines. They may be most comfortable working with visual designs using programs like Adobe Photoshop, but they may also know something about HTML and CSS and may be able to code some basic pages. Having this cross-knowledge is actually very helpful as it can make you much more marketable in the industry and better at what you do overall.

A visual designer who understands how web pages are built will be better equipped to design those pages and experiences. Similarly, a web developer who has a grasp of the basics of design and visual communication can make smart choices as they code up pages and interactions for their project.

Ultimately, whether you have this cross knowledge or not, when you apply for a job or look for someone to work on your site, you need to know what you’re looking for—web design or web development. The skills you hire for will play a major role in the cost of what you will have to spend to get that work done.

In many cases, design and front-end development for smaller, more straightforward sites will be much less (on an hourly basis) than hiring an advanced back-end coder. For larger sites and projects, you will actually be hiring teams that contain web professionals who cover all of these different disciplines.