I recently saw a discussion online asking the question, “Do Web designers need Web developers anymore?” This is a very important question but not because of what it asks but because of what it suggests. This question suggests there is a movement toward designers not needing developers. This is absolutely not true. There are many examples and reasons why that is not true but it’s still a surprisingly common question. There is one case (arguably) where designers don’t need developers (or vice versa). For small, information-only sites you can get away with just a designer (or just a developer).
There are many WYSIWYG tools, templates, and canned solutions that let a designer build a simple site alone. Just as there are many graphics applications, free graphics, and templates that would let a developer build a site alone. That is of course if you only need a very simple site. The simple informative type site is the internet equivalent of a highway billboard or a flier, it’s just a placeholder for information. If that’s all you need then a designer alone can build your site. As soon as you pass beyond that level then you cannot have your designer and developer in one. Here are some major reasons you do not want a developer and designer in one.
Art vs. Science
Developers are typically science and technology minded, they are not usually artists (at least not great ones). By the same token, most artists are not great coders. Good code takes discipline, training, and strict adherence to standards. While there may be exceptions to this generalization, most people that are logic/code minded are not great artists and vice versa. Remember back in high school how the English teacher always complained about not being able to do math and the math teacher couldn’t spell his own name? Same thing. Separating design and code with specialists in each area and you will dramatically increase the quality of both while only marginally increasing your cost (<20% usually).
Search Engine and Social Media Optimization
Designers generally do not keep up on the current best practices in search engine and social media optimization, its not their job. Just like developers usually aren’t paying attention to the latest versions of Photoshop or what colors are “in” this year. A designer built site may look good but if no one can find it then it doesn’t matter how good it looks. While SEO and SMO are not very complicated they do need to be done and done right.
Modularity and Scalability
A web site is a piece of software and good software requires the separation of front-end (user interface) from back-end (processing). In the case of a website this line can get blurred or obscured completely, especially for small informative only site. When you hire a designer alone to build your site you are explicitly hiring a person that thinks in terms of front-end (user interface). A designer will build your site to display correctly but your site will be built to work dependent on the way it looks and vice versa. Why is this bad? Because then you can’t change the way it looks without changing the way it works and vice versa – the two are one. Suppose you want to give your site a face-lift? You should be able to make major alterations to look and feel without changing the way anything functional behaves. For example on this site there is a faq section that is functional (draws information from a database dynamically). That piece of back-end code delivers faq messages regardless of the look and feel of the site. The face of the site can be altered but that piece of code remains unchanged and it still works. Another example, suppose you want to expand your site and add major functionality. You should be able to scale up the functionality without concern for look and feel. Your site should be built to scale up functionally with the look and feel coming along for the ride seamlessly. Hire a designer only and you almost guarantee you will break both modularity and scalability.
Marketing vs. Production
The design of your website is a marketing function, not a production activity. Think of a magazine layout vs. the writers – two different people with different skills. One is concerned with look and feel, colors, target market, etc. The other is concerned with the technical details. Similarly think of a car designer vs. the factory workers that put the car together – different people. When you design your site you are in a marketing phase. In the design you need someone well versed in style and presentation who understands color, feel, target audience, etc. When you build your site you need a programmer. Put those two tasks in one person and you’ll cheat yourself out of the best of both.
Asking the “designer vs. developer” question is like asking “Do building architects need home builders anymore?” or “Do automotive designers need automotive builders anymore?” Of course they do. The evolution of any technology is always toward specialization and separation of labor not away from it. The beginning of any technology sees the inventor, designer, and builder as all the same person – as it was in the beginning of the web (i.e. the webmaster). The maturation of any technology sees specialties and specialists growing, not merging (generally speaking). This is especially true in any technology that can capitalize on concurrent production (e.g. a car engine can be built concurrent to the body). In any complex web site the back-end can be built concurrent to the front-end design and construction. This requires the separation of labor not the merging of labor.
There will be people that will say a designer and developer can be one. Everyone “knows” that one guy that claims he can do both. If that all-in-one wonder person exists then he’s the exception to the rule. Not all sites need to be spectacular, some are just placeholders for basic information, however if you want a really good site then you need separate designers and developers.