Freelancers Face-off: Designer vs Developer

by in Articles on 13th Apr 2011 · Comments

As the web industry grows designers and developers are butting heads more frequently. While they both have the same goals, achieving them is not as easy. The two groups can also be perceived differently in terms of value in the eyes of the client as well as amongst themselves.

Which role, if any, is held in a higher esteem and how much should the respective parties earn? This has been a highly debatable topic for quite some time in the web industry.

Freelancers Face-off: Designer vs Developer

Chatting with Top Designers & Developers

For this topic I had the pleasure of getting feedback from renowned and successful designers and developers (and those that specialize in both)! Get insights into critical questions you’ve all had on your mind through their honest feedback. I hope their wisdom and perceptions will provide a clear understanding of these roles that are often thought to be interchangeable. Here are our interviewees:

As a designer/developer or both, which profession do you think is harder in terms of job scope?

Let’s start by addressing just what each party does. A Web Designer is responsible for the visual look and feel of a website. Their goal is to solve a quantifiable issue addressed by the client through the use of layout, color, and typography. While focusing on creating a unique branding experience, it is often common for designers to get lost on how things will function. On the other hand, a Web Developer’s role is to do just that – make a functional, accessible experience for the viewer. They’re focused on creating a website the “right way” and will be the first to point out something that doesn’t make sense.

It is often thought each role relies on either of the brain’s two hemispheres. The designer, often relying on intuition, relies on the right side of the brain whereas the logical, linear developer makes use of the left side. If you’re wondering how this may lead to animosity on either side I’ll point you to this article by Web Designer Depot.

Crossword

Designers/Developers Verdict

As a designer/developer or both, which profession do you think is harder in terms of job scope?

AmberAmber Weinberg, Developer
“Designing is definitely harder in terms of pleasing the client because it's so ambiguous. Development is harder in terms of skill because there are so many different languages to learn.”
SpeiderSpeider Schneider, Designer
"I'm a designer but I think both disciplines are difficult due to changes and "design-by-committee." Whenever you have to make changes, you face either a lot of redesigning or re-coding. Both mean a lot of headaches and frustration. Even without changes, both are hard and need knowledge and technical know-how."
KaylaKayla Knight, Designer & Developer
"I then got into design, though, and realized there’s a lot more to it. Over the years I've had to learn different user interface techniques, advanced photoshop tricks, perfect my understanding of basic design principles and finally how to put them into good practice. One of the biggest things I've noticed in job scope from a developer-to-designer is that designers have to work with a lot more clients that are uneducated in the field. As a developer, many of my projects come from designers looking to team up. They already know the business, they can explain to me exactly what they need/want."
CameronCameron Chapman, Designer
"I think both have their difficulties. I always look at it as design is about 60-70% creativity, and 30-40% problem solving. Developing and coding is the opposite, about 60-70% problem-solving, and 30-40% creativity. Design is easier on the surface, if only because it's more intuitive to an extent, and the technical aspects are easier to learn. Programming, on the other hand, is more complicated to learn."
ChrisChris Spooner, Designer
"Being more of an artistic person I'd say Development is a harder profession simply because I don't know as much about the subject, so I'd struggle with any development related tasks. Overall though there are difficulties in both jobs, a designer can find it challenging to capture the message that's required in visual format whereas a developer might face more technical difficulties when ironing out bugs in a website."
JonJon Philips, Designer & Developer
"I think both can be difficult and it's a matter of planning. No matter if you're a designer or a developer, good planning will make your job a whole lot easier. I personally prefer designing and working on interfaces and solving UI and UX problems to coding, but that's my personal preference. I think both professions mean more than just designing or coding, each have to wear many hats (usability, user experience, etc...)”
DavidDavid Walsh, Developer
"As someone who considers himself 90% developer and 10% designer (and I use that term loosely), I would argue that the developer's job is much harder. And in saying that, I certainly don't mean to discredit the designer's role or skill. Developers can be faced with extremely difficult problems and tasks. Getting technologies that aren't meant to work together communicating, providing solutions to difficult logistical problems, etc. Look at some of the subprojects within Dojo's “dojox” namespace: charting libraries, GFX (programmatic vector graphic creation), mobile frameworks, WYSIWYG editors – these efforts take hundreds of hours of development to achieve and are never truly complete.”

Do you feel one group is viewed more favorably in the eyes of the client?

You show your portfolio to a client and they can see all the great potential you can offer their product or service, but do they understand all the back-end development work that goes into their website? Do they even care? While it is important to note that appearance is vital in web design, functionality ultimately is something that will make the visitor stay on your website.

Client

Before you say a client is likely to appreciate what a designer can do for them let me remind you that the design process isn’t always as smooth sailing as that first client interaction. With websites like Clients From Hell, it’s apparent the designer/client relationship can be rocky and there’s often a disconnect between what the client perceptions are and the seasoned designers point of view. It’s in the best interest of both parties to lay out the expectations and objectives of the particular project beforehand, removing any sort of confusions that may arise later on. If you’re at a tough spot it is often up to the designer to educate and advise the client, in these situations, on what is correct.

Designers/Developers Verdict

Do you feel one group is viewed more favorably in the eyes of the client?

SpeiderSpeider Schneider, Designer
“I think clients all believe they have a creative design sense but have no idea what it takes to do the technical end of web development. When drag-and-drop programs were out there for creating web sites with simple HTML, clients made their own sites and proudly told people they "designed their own sites." That explains the infusion of prancing glitter unicorns farting rainbows, even on business sites! As far as pay levels, I think developers are more respected but crowdsourcing is killing all creative/technical fees. At least there are no contests screaming, "code our web site and win an iPod!" Are there?”
KaylaKayla Knight, Designer & Developer
“In contrast, a client can see a designer's work and know whether it's something they want to pay for or not. On top of that, a designer can talk about how a great design and user interface can be arranged to get the website more results (even though browser compatibility and fast loading times can do the same thing), but clients just seem to understand a designer's view more clearly.”
DavidDavid Walsh, Developer
“I've always felt that the designer is viewed more favorably by the client because they can provide a picture (the design) that the client can smile about. The designer is considered creative and can easily illustrate to a client what they did and why. The client can point to something within the design and say “I don't like that” or “Can we move this over there?” The process is much more transparent to the client. A developer is much less appreciated by clients because clients expect a website to work. The client has nothing to point to and has very little concept of the problems and pitfalls of doing what they ask for. When a website feature isn't working correctly (or is perceived to not work correctly), the client usually cannot provide any detail. In my experience, clients generally just get mad and demand it be fixed as soon as possible. In many cases, being a web developer can be a very thankless, “man-behind-the-curtain” type of job.”
CatalinCatalin Rosu, Designer & Developer
"I'm not sure if a group is viewed more favorably or not than another but I'd say that when it comes to coding/developing there are two options: you know how to code or you don't. On the other hand, when it comes to design, clients tend to express their personal opinions more than they should."
CassJacob Cass, Designer
"I don't think that many clients understand what goes into making a website / app / etc. both in terms of design & development. Even some designers don't know what is involved in the development process, especially with the more complicated back end work. It's our job to educate & explain why they need something, rather than how it is done."
GubeJacob Gube, Designer & Developer
“Not only do I consider myself both a developer and a designer, I've also worked with many, many designers and developers. In my years of experience, the only people I see being favored are those that do it well, on time, and on budget. I've seen developers and designers being well-loved by their employers because they work efficiently and produce high-quality work. I've also seen developers and designers fail, not because of their profession, but rather, because of their poor work. At the end of the day, it's the product and the bottom line that ultimately decides whether you're going to get another gig from the same employer. It's a simplistic viewpoint, but one that's grounded in reality."

How do the design/development communities compare? Which is better supported/more popular? Why? Where do you find web development and/or design resources?

The online community is another integral part of a designer or developer’s ongoing education. It is where one goes for feedback, inspiration, and to stay on top of the latest news and trends in this ever-changing industry. A quick google search yields an abundance of forums, blogs, and websites dedicated to the topic of web design and development, and it can be in your best interest to discover just what these sites are all about.

Oftentimes, they may be intertwined as far as delivering content for one medium, so if you’re looking for tutorials on a new web design trend you can find out in that same article the best coding practices that will make the design truly functional.

Comparison

Another integral asset of a designer/developer’s foundation is the offline community: events, meetups, conferences and tweetups. As someone who works primarily online it may be easy to exist solely online and forget the offline community. Face to face contact with real human beings, however, is necessary for a balanced life and to avoid burnout.

Resources in your area:

Designers/Developers Verdict

How do the design/development communities compare? Which is better supported/more popular? Why? Where do you find web development and/or design resources?

KaylaKayla Knight, Designer & Developer
“There are plenty of great web design blogs and resources out there, so much that the industry is almost over-saturated with them, but I feel there are only a few select quality development dedicated blogs/websites. (My favorite -- Nettuts!) At other times, these blogs/websites feature both, but still lean more towards design much of the time. I'm all about looking within the community to find great new resources. I always ask around on Twitter, in forums, or follow links through blog posts and within those blog post's comments."
ArleyArley McBlain, Designer & Developer
“Developers have an easier defined role in many ways, so often their problems are easier to collaborate and share knowledge on – take WordPress for instance. As a developer I can go to the forum and ask a question – I’ll almost always get answers back within the day from other WP developers."
GubeJacob Gube, Designer & Developer
“I run a site for web developers and web designers, so I'm fortunate enough to get the best of both worlds coming to our sites. There is a slight lean towards a bigger community of designers, but that might be because we rarely publish purely developer-oriented posts that cover web app development (like PHP or MySQL). Unlike a site like Nettuts+; we mostly go for front-end/client-side web development tutorials and articles (e.g. JavaScript, jQuery, MooTools, CSS, HTML). Regardless of whether you're interested in development or design, a great resource right now is Twitter; follow Twitter accounts that share your own interests to keep up with news and resources pertaining to your particular field of interest. Some of my favorites: @smashingmag, @DesignerDepot, and @VandelayDesign."
TomasTomas Laurinavicius, Designer
“In my opinion the design community is much bigger all around the world compared to the development community. Graphics and designed stuff surround us every single day: advertisement billboards, newspapers, TV, Internet, print media etc. The design sphere is more attractive because there you can express mood, feelings and make your ideas come true easily while the development world is more standardized and requires logical thinking and a wide range of knowledge."
AmberAmber Weinberg, Developer
"They both have great communities and most of the time they intermingle. I will say the design community has more resource sites that aren't blogs, like dribbble, which is why I came up with my own developer resource site, Codesnipp.it. For resources, I stick to a lot of popular blogs like Six Revisions, Smashing Magazine, Spyre Studios, Drawar and Finch's blog. For non-blog resources I normally use something like the WordPress Codex or just Google for the solution."
CameronCameron Chapman, Designer
“I see a lot of support in both communities, and some cross-over. The main difference I see is that the design community tends to be a bit more vocal. I think that has to do with the fact that design is easy to show off; it's easy to create a site showcasing other designs, or to post on Twitter or elsewhere when a project is complete, and people can instantly see what you've done. Development, because it's more "behind the scenes" is harder to do that with. It's still done, but it doesn't get the same kind of recognition as design. Design is viewed more closely with "art", while I think a lot of people view development more like math or science. A lot of people who aren't technically-minded will just shut down at the mention of anything that sounds technical, which prevents them from appreciating a well-coded app or site."

Do you think the earning potential is greater for a designer or a developer?

Earning potential for both freelance Designers and Developers is all across the board depending on your personal skill set. You can consult AIGA’s Annual Survey of Design Salaries to find salary ranges for a specific role. Developers, statistically, are found to earn more, however more time is often allotted to their often time-intensive projects. A Designer who caters to a specific niche, and charges a premium for their services, can often make up the difference they may see their counterpart earning.

Cash

Designers/Developers Verdict

Do you think the earning potential is greater for a designer or a developer?

StevenSteven Bradley Glicksman, Designer
“I think there's endless potential for either and how much you ultimately earn comes down to what you put into your career and how well you maximize your skills. To make the most of your earning potential you should also be learning business in general as well as marketing and I think those with an entrepreneurial spirit tend to go further financially than those who spend their lives working for others."
GubeJacob Gube, Designer & Developer
“Speaking from what I see, designers make more in the sense of compensation as a function of time. This is for run-of-the-mill, freelance design versus development gigs. However, where the web is moving right now, developers are certainly reaching great levels of success through their personal projects (e.g. mobile apps, SaaS web apps, WordPress themes). The best way to make it as an entrepreneur developer or designer is either to partner up with one another or be able to do both."
CameronCameron Chapman, Designer
"At the moment, I think developers have greater earning potential. This is partly due to the expanding app market, which is where developers are thriving. Companies are paying tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to have an app developed, and so good developers can easily capitalize on that. Design, on the other hand, is being devalued more and more by low-cost outsourcing to countries with much lower labor costs. Good designers are still in demand, but it's getting harder to become recognized as a good designer if you're not already established."
KaylaKayla Knight, Designer & Developer
"Statistically, developers do earn more, but it does depend on what your focus is on and your personal skill set. Developers who make custom applications with extensive programming can obviously make more than designers, but they may also put in a lot more time and talent into each project. An experienced designer, however, with a specialized market for advanced and intelligent user interface design will likely make more than the average front-end HTML/CSS developer."
ShannonShannon Noack, Designer
“Developers typically earn more on average, depending on the skills they possess and what they can develop. Hard work and perseverance will take you further than any kind of skill you have though, and you can make good money in both industries."
LeonYaili de Leon, Designer
“I don't think the answer is that black and white. A good designer who has development knowledge or a good developer who has an eye for design are incredibly rare (the good ones) and a priceless asset for any team. I think as long as the person has a strong focus on at least one discipline, the earning potential is high."

Do you think designers or developers are looked upon differently in the website building community?

As the web community continues to grow, so does appreciation for the skill set needed for each role. How many times have you logged onto a major design job board and seen postings not only for Junior through Senior Level Web Designers and Developers, but UI/UX Designers, Interaction Designers, and Information Architects? In some form or another, the medium for each role is the same and individuals in the community understand the importance of each skill-set as the web expands.

Blocks

Designers/Developers Verdict

Do you think designers or developers are looked upon differently in the website building community?

DavidDavid Walsh, Developer
“Definitely. I tend to believe that designers are more revered within the web community, mostly because designs are visual. Ask yourself this: if a designer uses some jQuery to sex up a design, the designer gets credit, whereas the developers behind jQuery who engineered the animations get none (in that instance). I think it's natural that people want to see pretty things and it's designers that make that happen. I'm quite jealous of them!"
ShannonShannon Noack, Designer
“I don't think either one is looked upon differently, both are respected and necessary for a great site. You need to have a great-looking site, and it also needs to function well. I think the community understands and respects that."
AmberAmber Weinberg, Developer
“Sometimes developers can be a bit mean to designers since they don't always know what can or can't be done in code. Likewise, designers can sometimes get huffy if their work isn't pixel-perfect in the browser."
SpeiderSpeider Schneider, Designer
"I think we are better at understanding our strengths and working well together. I have never had an argument with a developer about the design of a site and vice versa. I'm sure there are the little petty views such as designers are thought of as prima donnas and developers are seen as technical nerds with no creative vision...who don't bathe enough ;). That happens because there is some truth in it. The last project I art directed had a very argumentative designer and the developers and I hated her. Weeks later, the site is still not up and I can't get an answer from the head of the development team as to why. There will always be bickering among a team, but I think it has more to do with individuals than it does with roles in general."
CameronCameron Chapman, Designer
“It depends on who you ask. Some people give designers all the credit, while others give developers all the credit. I think both are equally important. Of course, if you can do both, you're in an even better position."
JanJan Cavan, Designer
“I did think that a few years ago but with the existing CMS platforms like WordPress, Expression Engine and easily-available Javascript frameworks which a lot of designers are now very familiar with, it has made designers do pretty much a lot of what we had always relied on developers to do. But that's not to say that there no longer is any distinction between the two. A developer's knowledge is still very much required depending on the project scope."
JonJon Philips, Designer & Developer
“I think so. There's a really vibrant community of designers, especially with sites like Dribbble and LoveDsgn. Of course there are sites for developers only, sites like Dzone for example. I think that at the end of the day it's about working together to achieve great results, so no matter if you're a designer or a developer, there's a place for you in the community and everyone has different strengths. Designers are often looked at as artists and 'creative types' while developers may be a bit less artistic (?) but maybe more structured in their work."

Do you think there should be any distinction between designers and developers?

These days, when the tools are readily at your disposal to learn, is it necessary to even distinguish between a designer and developer? While there are undoubtedly those who are willing to cross over from one platform to the other to broaden their frame of work, it’s often best to keep your feet planted firmly as is. If you’re someone who specializes in database development are you really going to enjoy working in Photoshop and vice versa? Some skills may be far off on the other side of the spectrum and learning them isn’t always easy when you’re busy with work as it is.

Distinction Between Designers and Developers

In contrast, you may find it helpful to get your feet wet and learn some code, and in doing so, fully understand the medium you’re designing for. At the very least a web designer should know about HTML/CSS. Understanding the core building blocks of websites makes designers infinitely better at creating usable designs. In doing so, you may find your designs make more sense in the context of the medium. With that knowledge under your belt, it also means better communication when handing your work off to a developer and a lot less headaches!

Conversely, it will be advantageous for the developer to understand the designer’s intent and try to execute that vision faithfully while being open to suggestions from their peers. Doing so can cut back on the “what were they thinking?” frustrations and foster a more positive working relationship.

Designers/Developers Verdict

Do you think there should be any distinction between designers and developers?

DavidDavid Walsh, Developer
“Absolutely. One idiom I've always told myself is “Focus on what you're good at, focus on what you love.” For me that's spending time with my text editor. The next web professional may tell themselves that and realize it's having PhotoShop/Illustrator open all day. The problem with being great at both is that you can end up being a jack of all trades, master of none."
StevenSteven Bradley Glicksman, Designer
“I think the best designers and developers will at the very least have an understanding and some skill in what the other side does. The more a designer knows development or the more a developer knows design, the better each will be at what they do."
ShannonShannon Noack, Designer
“I think it's important for both industries to work together and understand one another. The more we know about both professions, the better we can support each other. Designers must have some knowledge of how a website is put together and what works and doesn't work online. When designing a site, I always keep in mind how I'll code the site I'm creating and if a client suggests something that isn't possible, I educate them on what they could do instead. And vice versa, from a development standpoint, it's important that a developer understands aesthetics and visual basics so that they can make educated decisions to fill in the gaps on a design if needed."
SpeiderSpeider Schneider, Designer
“Pardon me, but "DUH!" You are talking about right and left-brain functions. Designers are not great developers and the other way around. There are designers who are passable developers (and here's where I will get nasty remarks in the comments section), but they are not GREAT! The same goes for developers. "GREAT" is the keyword here. Not "passable" or "okay" or "good enough." Sorry to say but you know it's true. This may change in the near future depending on programs and future training, as well as the individuals and how they handle technology...and the demands and needs of clients. Not an easy question, so I take back my, "DUH!" I speak at a lot of art schools across the U.S. and I know what I see. The training just isn't there or students just don't want to take development and design on an equal footing. I believe it's apples and oranges and both are needed to create the best solution. You can tell the size of a company or experience with web development/design by their help wanted ads. If they want a "graphic designer" who knows all the angles of development, it is a one-person department and you will see the ad repeated over months because those people are extremely rare. If you see an ad for a designer OR a developer, it is a larger firm or design studio that knows the difference and what each discipline does well."
GubeJacob Gube, Designer & Developer
“Should there be distinction between designers and developers? I know for a fact that these two professions have distinct skill sets, job roles, and personality requirements. I do think that we should all work together to create a unified, top-notch product. Obviously, when two vastly different people are put in a room -- both having very desirable skills and both extremely critical to a site build -- egos tend to flare up. The key is to recognize your role in the project and be respectful of your co-workers.”
JonJon Philips, Designer & Developer
“Definitely! Not all designers can code and not all developers can design. I guess that's where the whole 'should designers learn how to code' debate comes from. I personally think that designers don't need to code. It's not because you’re a designer that you focus solely on website designs, there's also print design, t-shirt designs and ton more. I think someone who designs and codes websites should be called a web-designer/developer. It's hard to put a title on what we do, but I guess web-designer & developer can be that title. Of course it's easy to go and try to break it down and start coming up with titles such as 'user experience designer' or 'hybrid designer & developer' or other titles. But at the end of it if you can design and code and you do it on a regular basis, you are a designer and developer. What you specialize in and enjoy the most is a different story altogether."

Design or Development?

Web Design and Development is a secure and growing market. The demand for your services isn’t going away anytime soon so rest easy knowing you will be doing what you love for some time. It’s unlikely you won’t hit a couple rough spots along the way in your working relationships. How you successfully navigating through those times in your career can make a big difference in your productivity and overall happiness. Tap into your network and constantly ask questions and seek out ways to understand your partners.

Above all, try to remember design should never take priority over development and conversely, development without an engaging design won’t stand the test of time either. Striking a balance between the two, where both address the other’s concerns, is a worthwhile goal to strive for. Please share your opinion in the comments section below.

Web Designers vs Developers

Further Reading

Stephanie Hamilton is a freelance Graphic and Web Designer by day and a blogger by night. Holding a BFA in Graphic Design, she has several years experience designing the latest in print and building better user interfaces and websites. She also enjoy writing as a creative outlet and blog regularly for her business and contribute to others as well.