Ask WWD: Am I a Web Designer or a Web Developer?

21 Comments

WWD reader LivNLet asked us this by email:

I’m a “web designer” but what does that mean these days? Am I also a “web developer”? I am confused.

My projects require me to not only complete the entire design/approval phase, using Mac/CS2, etc. but also use Windows to develop and hand over standards-compliant coded templates (hand coded using CSS 2.1/XHTML w/tableless layouts) to my clients. While I feel most comfortable goofing off with other creative & marketing types, I have no trouble keeping up in a backend techy meeting.

So what the heck am I? When I describe myself as a “web designer” perhaps some people see one image in their minds while others may see a different image? But if I describe myself as a “web developer” I get all kinds of goofy job offers for coding backend stuff, which I don’t know how to do nor want to do.

LivNLet, you are not the only one wondering about what to call yourself in the world of web work. Some people see web designers and web developers almost as two different species, even though, as you note, the best web designers these days bring technical savvy to their work.

This goes beyond just the question of web designer versus web developer. Corporate software developers using web technology also wonder if they can or should call themselves web developers. Some computer programmers working with heavyweight languages like Java see a strict division between what they’re doing and what a web developer using HTML, CSS, PHP, and JavaScript does, even though those web developers might consider themselves programmers. This question will become even more common as lego-style do-it-yourself web development platforms like Coghead and DabbleDB let any smart web user build a web app.

What about calling yourself a web technologist? That captures your technical savvy without implying anything about whether you write backend code. By using a more generic title, you can address your fitness for particular job opportunities as they arise, instead of hooking into people’s existing stereotypes of web designers and web developers.

Do you have a question you want the WWD community to discuss? Submit it on the contact page or bring it up in the forums.

21 Comments

Island in the Net

The discussion becomes even more confusing when some start to make distinctions between “developers” and “programmers”. Some argue that a developer is someone who can code the application from start to finish while a programmer codes a smaller part of an application.

Over on Wikipedia.org there is a distinction between designer, server-side and client-side developer.

As for myself, I have alway referred to myself as a web developer with a quick explanation that I am not proficient as “user-level” stuff like graphics and layout. Now that I have started to use AJAX that line is less clear.

Lonnie Olson

Before the big AJAX craze, this distinction was simple. Web Designers were the creative geniuses who did the graphic design, the HTML layout, and even the javascript interface logic. It is up to the Web Developers to do the backend that fills in the details of the front-end designed by the designers.

Essentially, Designers design web pages, Developers write backends to provide the data for the web pages.

Now enter the AJAX craze… Frontend code has become much more than just simple interface logic. It has now become a big part of the data generation/prorogation. It is also becoming more technical, often to the point beyond the expected skillset of the designer. This type of coding may either need a new title (Web Front-end Developer?).

And Web Technologist is terrible. It could mean everything, or it could mean nothing. Completely useless.

Al Abut

I have to disagree with cooking up more terms – I’m going to vote for proudly reclaiming an existing title and not caring what other people try to pigeonhole you as. So for me, that term that comes closest to my heart as far as what I feel like is still “web designer”, even after all these years.

Going old school, there’s an ALA article that I’ve linked to from my about page for years that sums up the debate nicely:
http://www.alistapart.com/articles/proud/

Ken Savage

Yea I have to say I usually ask if a job is frontend or backend.
Seems like the easiest and most simple way to get your point across about what my skills are.

arsenalist

In this industry a title will never convey what you really do. It has to be more verbose than that.

However usually, if you’re doing technical stuff (server side using Java, C# whatever), you will qualify as a Software Developer. Other than that, it’s all up in the air.

EricO

This topic is close to my heart as well. I come from a programming background with a degree in computer science. But as my professional career began to grow, I found that I was most drawn to the usability, interface and design aspects of programming – that combination of creativity and logic. And I understand how some programmers in areas such as C#, C++ or Java look down on the lowly web developer – after all it’s engrained in their minds at the college level that they are better than the rest because they deal with deep logic. The problem is that they can’t see the broader logic behind the other aspects that web developers must deal with, such as accessibility, compatibility and simplicity.

Regardless, I was recently offered a contract position with a web/interactive technology firm, and the position that they had titled was “Web Producer”. I saw that Jason had posted “Interactive Producer”, which is great if you deal with all forms of interactive applications, including Flash, Director, CD/DVD-based projects, and other desktop applications. Although I dip my hand in some of these fields, I have my career focused solely on web technologies. Therefore I think “Web Producer” is the best term for my goals.

A Web Producer includes creation in design, layout, standards, front-end development, interfacing and coordinating with other specialists, such as back-end developers, art directors and database managers, as well as Marketing and upper level managers. Although I do some server-side backend development, I prefer to offload the heavy lifting in this area to the web developers and other backend developers so that I can focus on the fields in my interest.
cheesy…

For companies that do not seem to have an “outside-the-box” culture, I stick with good ol’ “Web Developer.” But for the open-minded, I consider “Web Producer” a better title.

Jon

The bigger question here I think is, as everyone comments, what is the proper title?

Wait, wait, wait… how about:

“Web Master”

??

:)

All kidding aside, your comment:

The hard-boiled backend Java geeks just do not accept me as a web developer, even though they don’t know jack about making the front-end go.

Rings SO true! I can’t tell you how many C/C++, Java, C#, etc. coders I’ve had tell me that I’m not a developer because I don’t work with a compiled language, or I only work with scripts”. It’s infuriating. And they tend to say it in such a way that makes it sound like all of the work I do is elementary because “Anyone can write HTML”; when clearly there is SO much more to web design/development than HTML. Usability issues, accessibility concerns, testing/debugging, ensuring that the marketing concerns are taken care of… but I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir.

I’ve also had the expectation that creating an entire web presence (
front/back-end design, database development, design, etc.) should only take a few days because some PHB or some other suit-type character saw their kids decking out a MySpace page. Luckily not every boss and/or client is that way, but it’s something I have seen a lot of in this industry, and I just don’t get it.

elNico

Multimedia Developer puts you more towards Flash (which you probably use), Director (yes, it still gets used and it’s a powerful tool) and Video/Sound work (which goes beyond converting something to Flash Video and putting it on a web page.

For most current web workers the term would be grossly misleading, IMHO…

LivNLet

Hello Everyone,

I’m really happy to hear everyone commenting has the same concerns that I did when I asked Web Worker Daily about this topic! I’ve been lamenting over this for several months.

One thing is for sure, I make a whole lot more money now (I’m a on-site freelancer through an agency) and have great job security because of the coding skills I now have in addition to the design stuff I do.

But here is one more thing that perception seems to cause problems for me: The hard-boiled backend Java geeks just do not accept me as a web developer, even though they don’t know jack about making the front-end go. It’s funny on Monday but by Thursday I’m tired of their attitudes and finger pointing when something goes wrong that I (probably) didn’t cause.

The bigger question here I think is, as everyone comments, what is the proper title?

Web Technologist doesn’t work for me. It’s too vague.

Front-end Web Designer/Developer is the most accurate but is way too long.

“Web Designer” doesn’t do it and won’t pay my bills long-term

“Web Developer” is obviously inaccurate as well.

“Interactive Producer” is a step in the right direction but for me it doesn’t seem descriptive enough.

This is maybe lame, but how about “Multimedia Developer”?

Thoughts?

Regards,
LivNLet

Jason

I’ve been using the term “Interactive Producer.” One thing to keep in mind is that if you ever want to get a job at an agency, it helps to have had a title that they can associate with(it’s also often higher paying than a designer). “Devigner” and “Technologist” aren’t industry standard titles, so you may be hurting yourself if you use them. With Interactive Producer, it implies that I produce websites. Sometimes, I do design, sometimes I hire a designer, sometimes I hand code the front end, sometimes I pay someone else to. If anyone ever asks me to do backend programming, which again, I don’t know nor want to know, I just say that I don’t do that, however, if you’d like, you can hire me and I’ll resource it to the programmers I often work for. Then I ‘manage’ the project and put a margin on my programmer’s rates.

I found this to be a very solid title for myself, and one that people in the industry are familiar with, while not restricting myself to just one set of skills. It also allows me the freedom to manage projects however I want, and accept far bigger projects than I would have been able to get selling myself as simply a ‘designer’ or ‘developer.’

Jon

What a great post — one that is near and dear to my heart!

A former colleague of mine and I spent the better part of an afternoon trying to come up with a proper lexicon of terms for our company handbook. For us it finally broke down into the following categories:

Graphic Designer
Web Designer
Web Developer (front end)
Web Developer (back end)
Database Developer

Examples of each are as follows (though it is not an exhaustive list of tasks and/or skills):

Graphic Designer – Creates, updates, etc. letterheads, company logos, creatives for packaging, etc.

Web Designer – Takes a web page concept and transforms it into a digital mockup of the site, usually via a *.psd file, and turns it over to the Web Developer(s) to transform into the appropriate markup. Will often work with the Graphic Designer(s).

Web Developer (front end) – Builds “web pages” based off of mockups done by the Web Designer. Skills include (X)HTML, JavaScript, CSS, etc.

Web Developer (back end) – Works with the front end Web Developer(s) to create backend form validation, database lookups, and web app interactivity. May also works closely with the Database Developer.

Database Developer – Creates, updates, modifies, and optimizes any database and/or database operation.

Both the back end Web Developer and Database Developer may also have a hand in areas such as (programmatic creation/update of) log file analysis, cron maintenance, shell scripting, etc.

Most of the time an individual will wear several hats. As for me, I wear every hat but that of Graphic Designer.

I’m not sure how I feel about a blanket definition such as “web technologist”, because it’s so broad-based that it doesn’t really tell you what the job/title entails. Same thing goes for “devigner”, though that one is funny. :) “Web technologist” may not be bad on a business card, but if I were putting it on a resumé I would definitely make sure that I annotated specific skills.

Anne Zelenka

The problem with calling yourself a “web designer and developer” is that people might assume you do backend server side coding. The problem with “web technologist” is you lose the assumption of design expertise. The problem with “web designer” is that people might think you only do PhotoShop mockups then pass them on to the techies.

I call myself a web technologist, among other things (blogger, industry analyst…) but that works well for me because I’m not a design or development expert, though I can hack up a website pretty good from the server on out to the CSS.

Sigh–no really good answers. But “devigner” is an interesting one. And “front-end web developer/designer” is the most accurate, though maybe not the mouthful you want to put on your business card or blog tagline.

Brandon Wood

This is an excellent question that I often struggle with myself. I understand what I do, but many other people have preconceived notions of what a “designer” and a “developer” are, so it becomes a touchy area. I like the suggestion of “web technologist”, I’ll have to give that one a try and see how well it’s received.

Dale Cruse

I think the problem is that LivNLet sees the question as an either/or situation. In reality, it’s both. LivNLet, like me, is a “Web Designer And Developer.” That may not be as short as “Web Technologist,” but it says a whole lot more.

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