Web Designer VS. Web Developer

WARNING: This article is kind of boring but it needs to be said.

For the last three months I’ve been driving around the Tampa Bay area like a madman trying to find a job.

“Frustrating” doesn’t begin to describe my search thus far. It’s chaotic. I’m a web designer with a degree and over 7 years of experience and if you’d have asked me when I graduated college how long I’d think it would take me, at this point, to find a job – I wouldn’t have answered you with “I dunno… Maybe, like, a quarter of a year.”

So why can’t I get a job? I’ve got the references, the experience, the fancy piece of paper from the over-priced academic institution. I’m checking all the boxes, but I think I’ve finally managed to pin down the red flags…

The trouble with “Web Design AND Development”

My degree is in web design and development, so I market myself accordingly. Eventually some interviewer is going to ask you, if they haven’t already, which of these two areas you are stronger in – design or development. Apparently in the professional world, you can’t be both because a designer/developer is a creature of myth.

Designers

I used to think that wasn’t the case. I used to think there were plenty of exceptional designers who also knew how to code the $#!t out of a website and build killer applications based on their own designs and wire-frames. Experience has taught me that those people, if they exist at all, are an exotic and rare breed. Most great designers spend hours focused on refining their design skills, learning the ins and outs of design software, and studying the work and trends of other designers. The most superb designers do only that – design.

Even designers who claim to have built their own websites these days have typically used some kind of automated tool to help them. Examine their code and you’ll find a jumble of pre-generated javascript and obscure XML that you know they didn’t write. They may have designed every last piece of material for 20 different marketing campaigns, or completely re-branded a fortune 500 company, or created 30 internationally recognized logos since they graduated college 4 years ago, but there’s no way in hell they had time to write the elaborate script that keeps track of their users’ cookies or control the transition effects of their image slider.

When a graphic designer says they built their own site, it’s kind of insulting to those of us who actually take the time to sit down and hammer out the code and figure out how it all works. If you rank among the designers who use some service like Square Space or Wix to make your site, don’t claim to have done it yourself.

Developers

On the other hand, you can’t expect to be an amazing developer if you are spending half of your time sketching out logos for companies or putting together a pamphlet in InDesign. Maybe you can build and manage an oracle database, but odds are you don’t know how to properly kern the type on your business cards, or distinguish Garamond from Anevir. You just can’t walk the line forever. Eventually you’re going to have to choose which side of that fence has the greener grass.

The development world is even more segmented and specific than the design arena. For example, people won’t take you seriously if you say “My two strongest languages are PHP and JavaScript.” because those two languages are very different and do different things, and most likely the company interviewing you is looking for someone who can do one of those things exceptionally well, instead of someone who can do both of those things at an intermediate level.

Companies

I mean sure, you’re a pro PHP dev. That’s awesome. Good luck getting a job as a developer if the company wants someone who knows angular.js because with all that time you spent building PHP applications, I doubt you are familiar with the intricacies of various javascript libraries. And if the company wants a .NET developer then just forget it. Anyone who is looking for devs on the ASP side of things is likely going to avoid the letters PHP printed on a resume.

The segmentation issue isn’t all our fault though. Companies are increasingly asking for the most oddball combinations of technologies from their prospective developers. It’s not enough anymore to know jQuery and JS. Now you can expect a company to want you to know Three.js, Angular, Node, Python, HTML, CSS and will give you bonus points if you have experience with ASP.

The other day I saw a position that wanted someone with experience in the ZEND framework (PHP) and could write Linux shell scripts, but also requested that applicants have at least 7 years of Python developing experience (a language that’s only really become popular in the last 5 years). The list requirements were so absurdly niche and so impossibly specific that you had to wonder why if they had ever found someone to fill that position previously, that they had not done everything in their power to keep such a person working in their company. I can’t imagine that developers who are adept in ZEND, Linux, and Python are just walking around out there in droves, or that they stay unemployed for long. Good luck to that company though, in the time it’ll take them to find exactly what they are looking for they could have hired someone with a basic knowledge of these technologies and trained them to do exactly what the company needs them to do.

If any hiring managers happen to be reading this maybe you should consider hiring and training someone who has the basic skills you need and whom you could train to do things in the style and methods that your company needs. Or you could ignore my advice and wait around forever for the ace of all trades to come waltzing in to your building one day, only to leave moments later when he or she discovers you aren’t willing to pay the $80k a year they want for their unique skillset.
Web Designers

Hopefully by now I’ve illustrated the issue with being a web designer. You’re stuck somewhere in the middle ground between designers and developers; caught up in the crossfire of two completely different, and very demanding professions. Not to mention more and more automated services keep popping up which enable people to make pretty captivating websites without an extensive knowledge of code. Web design used to be my passion, but now I caution anyone considering a career in this field to choose to specialize and hone your skills in either design OR development, but not both.

As for me, my interests are shifting more and more each day to development and closely related fields. I still consider design a hobby of mine, but that’s where it ends. I design stuff for my own site, but as I delve more into other interests like building circuitry projects on my Arduino, or setting up my own VPN on the Raspberry Pi, I find I’m spending more and more time cranking out code and sharpening my programming abilities.

TL;DR – If you find yourself struggling to make a decision between design and development, don’t kid yourself. You can’t do both. If you decide to be a developer, focus on becoming the expert of a certain framework or language instead of trying to learn them all.