Front-End Web Developer vs. Web Designer

What’s the difference between a front-end web developer and a web designer?

So for the longest time I struggled with what I called myself. I said I was a web designer, but I wasn’t sure even what that was… In fact I don’t think many people truly do. For example, try to do a job search for web designer. Look at the results closely, particularly at the requirements. What in the world? See how one employer believes a web designer needs to know HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP, MySQL, and Apache (the complete list is usually much longer), and another employer believes a web designers requirements are HTML, CSS and Photoshop (better defined as a web graphic designer). Sometimes the later requires a “good sense of design”. With such a wide arrangement of ideas of what a web designer should be, I decided to call myself a front-end web developer.

Wikipedia defines web design very well

In the better portion of the past decade I have been honing my skills in such a wide array of topics that I decided you know what, enough. I had started out with the basics (HTML, CSS) as a lot of front-end web developers do. I was able to learn those pretty quickly and was eager to move on to something more dynamic, so I began to learn PHP and MySQL. Now if you are not a professional in this field, you may not know that each of these technologies have its own subset of technologies and techniques you need to learn to be proficient, such as cross browser compatibility, different layout approaches (such as responsive and adaptive design), table-less design (for the older schools of web), different approaches to image handling like sprites, transparency and vector images. I could definitely go on. To be completely honest, you can get a job where all they need you to do is master one of these and yet some employers expect you to know everything from the server side to the client side, which I think is fine but it would be inconceivable to me that anyone could know.

Why can’t I know everything?

The truth is it’s impossible to keep up with the technology and technique changes that occur in our field. For example page layout standards have changed tremendously in the last three years. We went from table-less layout, to grid layouts, to adaptive layouts, then the introduction to responsive design came about and since it wasn’t quite supported yet, a hybrid of adaptive/responsive , then responsive design come to light and now we are adjusting the way we approach responsive design with techniques like the mobile first approach. At the time I wrote this, it seems we are in a place where yet still we are not exactly comfortable how we are doing some things.

Ok, all that long winded talk is my way of saying that if you want to be a master at anything, you cannot be the jack of everything. For this reason I decided my title should be more definitive. So, front-end web developer it is. In reality what I am doing by changing my title to front-end web developer is cutting the list of requirements an employer can ask of me in half. The front-end web developer can be responsible for anything and everything front-end or “client side”. This title is still of course very broad and leaves a lot to know. But I think that front-end web developer keeps me in enough topics to keep me from redundancy issues and not too many subjects to feel spread too thin. Below is a list of some typical technologies and techniques used to build a website front to back.

Some typical technologies and tasks in the web development life cycle:

Pre-Production Client Side Server Side
  • Visual and Aesthetic design
  • Typography
  • Image Production (raster, vector)
  • Planning and Preparation
  • Development Environments
On the client side of a website there are quite a bit more technologies than you may expect.

  • HTML
  • CSS
  • Cross Browser Compatibility
  • Cross Device Compatibility
  • JavaScript
  • Typography
  • AJAX
  • Others – Other technologies such as Flash and Silverlight are out there, but used much less in the general field, although some positions may require you to know these subjects very well.
The server side of things is where the left brain take over. Generally speaking, the server side is where the more technical folks will work, where client side is much more right brained (creative).

  • Scripting Code (like C#, PHP, Perl, Python and Ruby)
  • Server Administration
  • Server CMD Prompt
Who’s in Charge

Web Designer? Who knows.

Front-End Web Developer/Back-End Web Developer

Front-End Web Developer

Back-End Web Developer

There is a ton more to tell you about the server side I’m sure. As I said earlier, this is why I call myself a front-end web developer.

11 responses to “Front-End Web Developer vs. Web Designer”

  1. Ivailo says:

    Hey man, great explanation of the differences between front-end and back-end developers. I am an aspiring web developer myself, and I just started getting into the basics (HTML and CSS), however I’m not quite sure which direction to take once I’ve mastered the building blocks. I personally believe I’m quite creative and I know I’ll be able to design captivating websites should I take the front-end route like yourself, however, I fear the job market and salary range isn’t in my favour here. I did basic programming in high-school and I was also quite efficient in that so I see potential for myself in back-end development as well. Please share your personal experience in this field with me and give me any advice that you think might help me commit to a certain direction in this industry as I can see you have a solid background in web development. Feel free to send me a reply on the email I wrote above. Thanks, much appreciated.

    • ehaltom says:

      Hey there Ivailo, one of the most important things to keep in mind is where you want to go. If you want to be a developer, I suggest concentrate on being a great developer. If you have it in you to be a great designer (front end developer), then be a great at it. It’s not bad to be a do it all guy, but it is bad to be a novice at everything. I suggest mastering one thing at a time, and trust me when I say take your time. HTML is about as simple as it gets and even in that arena things are getting more comprehensive with things like canvas coming on the scene.

      Here is my personalized advice for you. Since you are coming in from the front side of things and development intrigues you, your next step in my eyes is obvious. Javascript! Javascript is considered a full fledged programming language. It’s object oriented and is a perfect beginner language to learn. It teaches you object orientation and a bunch of other general coding knowledge without the confusion and complexity of database driven applications.

      Depending on your skills and talents, being a front-end developer can be a very well paying gig, especially if your a self motivated freelancer. It is also a very convenient way of getting yourself into back-end development depending on your positions relationship to other developers and the structure of the company. Deciding what you do is a matter of soul searching and research. Me, I would do what I can do best and enjoy most. Maybe my next article will be why I’m not a movie critic. 🙂 Good luck to you, I hope you get to where you want to go.

  2. Milan says:

    Man great article, we are in same position, same start, html, css, jscript, php, mysql…then you’ll have to decide on which side you go ’cause you CAN’T doing both. 🙂 Greetings!

  3. Jennifer says:

    Stumbled across this post looking for clarity on these differences. Thanks for the perspective, it was really helpful! Unfortunately, now I’m even more confused as to which path to follow. I may not be artistic enough to handle front end, and I’m not sure I’m analytical enough to troubleshoot the back end of things. At nearly 40 I am trying to make a big career switch into software/web development and it seems every time I get started I’m bogged down again with all the choices out there. Don’t suppose there’s a career path one can take where all you have to do is say “Hey, that’s ugly, fix it!” Would love to get paid a ton for that!

  4. […] was really disheartening until I ran into Eric Haltom’s front-end developer’s blog. He describes wrestling with the name of his job title until he […]

  5. jess says:

    Great article! I am a graphic designer but often run into the problem when looking for jobs and the job description is for a graphic designer who also does web design. *Those are two different types of people, two different types of jobs*! I am a graphic designer who can do front-end web design but when it comes to developing and back end as the description suggests, forget it, and like finding a needle in a haystack is how you will find one of those.

    • ehaltom says:

      Sounds like your all right brained to me. I wish I could say I’m the same. I was raised by my mother who really pushed arts and crafts on me and as I got older it turns out I’m more of a right brained guy.

  6. Roth says:

    This was nice and very helpful. I was a professional photographer a few years back. I started taking classes part time as now a days everyone and their mom is a photographer. Living in the Bay Area I just needed something new. I think as I’m coming to a end of my classes this info just got my fire burning again on the front-end part. I will learn the basic of the back-end just so I have a little understanding. But I think I’m more of a front-end. I love Photoshop and Dreamweaver and some of the Adobe CC tools. Thanks.

  7. Yve says:

    Great article, I find myself confused on which route to go. I want to learn visual design, but I also want to get into front end developer. I am planning on taking classes but not sure which one I should start with? I am interested in both. Should I just go with front end developer first?

  8. Roland says:

    Man you nailed this one, I felt exactly like you did while climbing my small little corporate ladder. You just confirmed all my doubts I ever had that what I did was never enough, especially coming from an uneducated background.

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