Should Web Designers Also Be Web Developers?

I’m still engrossed in my search for a new job. It’s an interesting experience considering I started working at my last gig weeks after graduating from university and didn’t spend much time at all having to search for a job. Four years later I’m back on the job market and it’s taking considerably longer and is more stressful finding anything along the lines of graphic design.

A few weeks ago it came to me upon much dread that perhaps this was a sign that I needed to expand upon my skill set. As I look at job postings, I’m not seeing much at all for print design but there seems to be a slew of job listings for web designers. Any graphic designer will tell you that designing for the Web is an entirely different beast. Any web designer will tell you the same about designing for print. Both have some elements in common such as composition, color theory and needing to know how and where to use Jpg, Gif or PNG files.

In my quest to expand my skill set and perhaps make myself more marketable in today’s tough economy, I finally broke down and decided to take a course through a local community college that would help me expand my knowledge of web design. One reason I’ve been so resistant toward jumping onto the web design bandwagon is because in some ways I feel web design is more limiting. With print design, you can go crazy. There’s really no limit to the size, the colors, the possibilities of what you can do. With web design, you’re usually tackling a website that of course can only be but so big, images that may look awesome huge and in your face that now need to be minimized and may not work as well and you suddenly have to program and code everything on top of producing captivating visuals.

Or do you?

As I get deeper into this course in XHTML and CSS suddenly I’m presented with another curious question: are web designers also web developers?

I looked online for an answer and was presented with conflicting messages. Web designers often think of themselves as graphic designers who simply design graphics for the web rather than for print. Yet the jobs and employers looking for web designers also expect the web designer to be a developer. Many of the job listings that I see for web designers or web masters ask them to know Adobe Creative Suite, HTML, CSS, SEO, Java, Drupal and the list goes on and on. This goes back to my argument that many employers seem to be looking for the one-in-all designer: the one person who can basically do what an entire team should be doing. Is it entirely unreasonable to ask a web designer to know how to code? I don’t think so. The profession “graphic designer” is an umbrella term for many artists and designers: a graphic designer can be an illustrator, a logo designer, they can design business collateral, advertisements, marketing pieces but they don’t necessarily know how to do everything – and that’s ok, at least in my opinion.

Next week in addition to the course I’m taking in XHTML and CSS I will be starting a 6-week course in Java Programming. Many of you may go “Huh? What does that have do with design?” Well, perhaps nothing but if you look at what employers are asking from web designers, you’d think otherwise. I believe we’re moving toward a point where a web designer and a graphic designer are all the same thing and the designer will need to know how to design for both print and web. The designer will also need to know a bit about coding and web development, know about CSS and the design/creative team will be replaced by just one or two people being responsible for all the design needs for a company.

Out of curiosity I googled “what do web designers need to know” and came across “Do Web Designers Need To Know Web Development” by Intervals. This article goes in depth and really covers the question well. At the end they recommend web designers at least know these things about web development:

1. Pixel Resolution: Web designers should know that the optimal pixel resolution for web images is 72 ppi. Also, websites should fit 800×600, 1024×768ppi. You want your websites to be viewable but not too large nor too small.

2. Image Formats: At the very least a web designer needs to know when using a JPG, GIF or PNG is appropriate. Each displays color a bit differently and can vary in size. You don’t want a JPG that’s a couple MBs in size because it’ll take longer to load and for web users, the longer it takes something to load, the more likely they are to bail and leave the page entirely before taking in your website and its content.

3. Basic HTML: You should know the general markup language. In my last job, I was hired to oversee the print design of a magazine. Months into my employment I had webmaster duties dropped in my lap with the explanation being that graphic designers and web designers pretty much did the same thing. Yes, I was actually told that and you can laugh at that load of baloney. Still, I needed to know everything from how to format text (start/end paragraphs, bold fonts, italicize text) to the proper tags and code necessary for displaying images. There are tons of sites online that cover basic HTML and I think every designer should start becoming acquainted with HTML because at some point, you’ll be dealing with it whether you like it or not. Learning XHTML and CSS is a bit of a step up from the basics but that’s where a lot of web development/coding is going so knowing either will set you apart.

4. CSS: Cascading style sheets are basically documents used to style entire websites. If you have a site with dozens or hundreds of pages but the overall style and design of each page has to remain consistent and the same, you’ll want to create and know how to change and edit a website’s CSS. It sounds intimidating but again, you don’t have to be a total expert but just know the basics.

I’ll add to Interval’s list by suggesting a few additional things web designers should know to put them ahead of the game:

1. Google Analytics: When I was having to serve as webmaster, even though I’d been hired to be a print designer, I was suddenly asked a lot of questions such as “how many unique visitors came to our site this month?”, “How many hits does this and that page get every month?”, “How are people finding us online?” Now to a graphic designer these questions probably sound like they deserve a “How the heck would I know?” response but your employers expect you to be able to spit out stats and figures about your site. An easy tool to use is Google Analytics which is easy to setup and then spits out tons of helpful facts and figures about your site. As a web designer, why would you be interested in things like unique visitors and bounce rates? Because often it speaks volumes about your site’s design and the organization of the data. If people are coming to your site and leaving after 10 seconds and the bounce rate is above 50%, something is wrong with your design.

2. SEO: You’ll hear this word tossed around all the time – SEO (or search engine optimization). When designing for the web, you have a lot of competition. Businesses and individuals want their websites and content at the top of search pages (especially Google) and are usually distraught when this doesn’t happen. In many cases a website that isn’t ranked high on Google or other search engines and one that gets few views is considered a bad site, and that is usually equated to bad design. Here’s a few tips (95 to be exact) for good SEO that will at least give you a starting point in discussing it with your clients so that they are aware of how to get their sites ranked higher and visited more frequently.

3. Learn, learn, learn. As I’ve found out, there’s never a point where you can say you know all there is to know about designing for the Web. If you’re a designer, take courses in programming and development. Dreamweaver, Java, Flash, PHP, MySQL are all in high demand so knowing how to program and design will not kill you but give you prolonged life in today’s tough job market. If you’re a developer, take a few courses in design and learn your way around Adobe Illustrator, InDesign and Photoshop. A lot of jobs are looking for the rare one-in-all person who can do it all. While you need to be upfront and play up your strengths, don’t let your weaknesses and lack of knowledge kill your job security or prospects.

What do you all think? Do web designers need to be web developers and vice versa? What issues are you encountering with this situation in today’s job market? Leave your comments and tips in the discussion/comments area of this post.

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