Design vs. Development

When people ask me what I do for a living, I generally tell them that I build websites, but if I want it to sound more impressive [than it really is] I say that I'm a website designer. That's not technically accurate though, and not just because I don't really make a living at it (but that's another issue).

Technically, I'm a website designer/developer, but the distinction between design and development may not be meaningful to many people. It's not complicated, though. Every website goes through a design phase where conscious (we hope) decisions are made about layout, color scheme, font selection, graphics, etc. and a development phase where the coding and scripting necessary to make the design accessible to web browsers is applied. This is analogous to building a house, where an architect comes up with the floor plan and a construction crew executes it.

The design stage is the glamorous part of the process - it's where the obvious creativity takes place - but the development stage is where equal parts of creativity and practicality are combined, and that combination can be as challenging as it is non-obvious.

There's an unending dialog (or debate) in my profession about those challenges. Designers claim that developers always monkey with the layout and compromise the vision the former have worked so hard to create. Developers accuse designers of being impractical, of coming up with design elements that can't be replicated in the real world. And, often, I think both have legitimate complaints.

Lately, I've had more pure development projects than ever before, where someone comes to me with a complete design (as opposed to an idea or a vision) and wants me to make it happen. I'm working with ad agencies on a couple of websites, and with an artist on another, and they don't really need my design skills (which is a good thing, because those skills are pretty rudimentary). And, frankly, I'm dealing with some of the frustrations of the design-vs-development debate.

For one thing, a lot of designers come from print backgrounds, and the rules for print are often vastly different than for web. In some cases, print provides more flexibility and freedom, and the design elements I'm asked to implement just don't translate well to screen display. In other cases, the web provides possibilities that the designers aren't taking advantage of - to their clients' detriment - and I have to try to figure out a way to diplomatically educate them as to how their designs might be improved. In addition, print designers aren't necessarily keeping up with the latest trends in web design, which can result in layouts that looked dated from the very beginning. I'm not suggesting that all such trends are positive and should be blindly followed, but there is value in incorporating elements of current trends into more traditional layouts.

When I both design and build a website, my design ideas are explicitly influenced or tempered by my understanding of how difficult it will be to bring those ideas into practice. This is good for my client, as it makes me more efficient in getting the job done and saves the client money. But it probably results in more pedantic design work as I rarely push the envelope to try things that I'm not sure will work.

The designers I'm working with now have no such limitations, unless they've consulted with me in advance and we've discussed the technical pros and cons of their ideas (and, ideally, that happens frequently). Still, more often than not, I'm asked to do some things that left to my own devices I wouldn't try because I know they're impractical.

Despite the challenges, I enjoy playing the role of developer, especially when the designer has considerably more talent than me (which is most of them). I enjoy taking someone's vision for a website and figuring out how to bring it to life in a website using the appropriate technologies while adhering to web standards to ensure that all visitors can access the site. I know the glory is in the design, but the satisfaction at the end of the day for me is in knowing that I made something work...something that someone else finds useful.

In other words, I build websites.

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This page contains a single entry by Eric published on May 21, 2010 8:05 AM.

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