Not all web designers are created equal

You already know that a website is not a website is not a website. Take a quick browse around the net and you’ll see the countless different variations out there. Some will wow you. Some might leave you cold. Some are complex, some simple. Some just work, beautifully.


The same applies to web designers? Not all web designers are created equal.


I’m not here to whinge about cheap, offshore web designers versus hard-working Australian small business web designers (although don’t get me started…!) This post aims to highlight the differences between web designers, web developers and all the different permutations that are so often lumped under the title of “Web Design”. It’s confusing, I know.


How to choose someone to design your website


I was at a function recently where 3 out of 6 people around a table introduced themselves as web designers (I was one of them). Yet we quickly established that we each had quite separate areas of expertise and therefore separate clientele. We weren’t going to be stepping on each other’s toes, and were happy to carry on chatting.


Our companions were left confused. “So when I want a website for my new business,” one of them ventured, “how do I know which of you to work with?”


The 64 million dollar question. How do you choose a web designer that will suit your specific needs? Especially if you don’t know the first thing about web design? There is no easy answer.


The fact is, you probably don’t know exactly what your website needs until you explain your business and its requirements to someone who can match those to a technical solution. Even if you’ve seen another site that you really like, your own might need to be built quite differently even if it follows a similar look. With design, the late, great Steve Jobs from Apple said it perfectly:


“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”



Web Designer vs Web Developer


These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, adding further confusion. In a large web project, there would be quite separate tasks assigned to different individuals or teams.


Web Designers:

  • The web designers create the look and layout of the site, sometimes referred to as the ‘front end’.
  • Their expertise lies with visual aspects of colours, fonts and graphics, as well as design concepts such as ‘white space’.
  • Web designers should also be concerned with the placement of content and the ease of navigation for visitors to the site.
  • Some designers just design, but don’t code. That is, they deliver the design layout in Photoshop format or similar, perhaps with ‘wireframes’ and template layouts. They leave the coding and programming to a developer.


Web Developers:

  • The web developers are also known as “web programmers” and look after the ‘back end’.
  • This entails the more ‘geeky’ technical aspects such as code, databases, and how to integrate different functions into a practical workflow for the user.
  • Some developers only do ‘back-end’ and aren’t keen to create the front-end design.


Web designers and developers therefore need to work closely together – and are notorious for getting on each other’s nerves through misunderstandings.


There’s also a hybrid breed (like myself) of designer-developers. I think that needs a new name. Perhaps Web Creation?


word cloud on web design
Confused about the terms web designer vs web developer? There are countless variations in skills and specialities.


For you, the time-poor, confused small business startup, you “just want a website”. To save you being the go-between for feuding designers and developers, choose a hybrid. A developer who has design skills, or vice versa. People who ‘design’ in WordPress and other frameworks usually fit into this category too.


A really good website creator will also understand marketing, SEO and the art of writing for the web. If your budget can stretch to it, you might consider a design studio who will have a team of people with specialised expertise in each of these areas.


Web Design does not equal WordPress


One of the most common requests I hear is: “Can you make me a WordPress site?”. My response is “Why do you want it in WordPress?” Usually it’s because their friend, sister, neighbour or kid told them that WordPress is “da bomb”. Certainly WordPress is popular and widely used. It doesn’t mean it’s always the best solution. I have used and customised WordPress, but it’s not my favourite platform. And I don’t specialise in it. So if someone insists on WordPress, I tell them I’m not the designer for them.


But if you give me a chance to understand what you want from your website (and more importantly what your clients want from your website) then we can explore together whether I have a different – hopefully better – solution to meet those needs.


Put the e-cart before the horse


If your site needs ecommerce (aka “shopping carts”), there are more permutations to consider.  You may need to determine which ecommerce platform will suit your product set prior to sourcing a web designer. Again, there will be web designers/developers who specialise in one or more of these platforms.


WordPress does have some shopping cart plugins, but depending on your store’s needs, you might be better off building on a more specialised ecommerce platform such as Shopify, BigCommerce, Volusion or Magento. To see which might be suitable for you, check the comparison reviews and tools at



Updating an existing website


Say you already have a website but are looking for a new designer to update/refresh/maintain it. Depending on how it was built, you might need to find someone with the right skills. Was it built in WordPress, Joomla, Drupal or something else? Many designers specialise in only one or two platforms as it can be a big learning curve (and time investment) to understand each platform. You’d be better off adding the platform type to your Google search, eg. “joomla web design Sydney”.


If you really dislike the user interface for the website (ie. the CMS that allows you to update your own content) and want a complete overhaul of the site, then you may want to find a designer who uses another platform, eg.”web design Sydney –joomla” (the “-joomla” tells Google to exclude that word from its search results. See more about Google search tricks here). Note: I’m just using Joomla as an example here; not specifically dissing it.


You probably won’t know at this point what platform you’d prefer, so it’s time to shop around.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

— Henry Ford.

What to ask of a Web designer or developer


Remember to concentrate on your own business needs, rather than the technicalities of the solution. After all, you know your business, and the designer knows theirs. Together you can determine if one meshes well with the other.


Sample questions might include:


  • My customers will need to view my products in detail, submit reviews of them, and comment on other’s reviews. What do you suggest for that?
  • I want my site to be updated regularly. What do you recommend? (For more on the pros and cons of a CMS to do the updates yourself, read this post.)
  • I need to showcase my photos, and add new ones every month. Will my website enable that, and how will it look?
  • My existing site is in WordPress. I’m used to it and would like to stay with WordPress but change the look. Can you do that?
  • It will need a shopping cart to handle 200 products. Which do you recommend?
  • What will you require from me? Do you need me to supply text and images? Will I need to source my own copywriter?
  • What do I need to do about SEO and getting traffic to my site?


Their answers may very well be “yes, I can do that in WordPress”. You could either sign up there and then, or wait and speak to another designer or two to see what other suggestions are put forward. Be aware that the WordPress designer/developer may only be skilled in that one platform. So ask others why they recommend an alternate platform.


And finally, choose someone with who you “click”. If the client and the designer understand each other’s business and roles, it will produce a much better result. I suggest you also read my previous posts on choosing a good web designer and on how to brief them.



Author: RobynRHD

I'm a small business web design specialist with interests in social media and other online marketing methods. As my blog intro states: "Steering small businesses in the right direction with what I hope is practical, realistic advice and useful tips, amidst the constantly changing noise and hype. I'd like to help you sort out what you really need and how to go about it." I'm a proud Aussie, living in Sydney, and an avid fan of Column 8 in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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