Back in 2008, when I first started designing in WordPress, one of my first challenges was defining the difference between my customers’ perception of designer vs. developer. This was an issue in the greater WordPress community as well.

Even now, if you ask 10 different people for a definition of the two, you will likely get 10 different answers. If you ask developers and designers, they are usually confident that they are one or another, but still, the gray area grows, depending on how they define themselves.

Designer vs. developer: A look at each

WordPress designers

In the simplest terms, in my opinion, the designer makes your site look good. They can take all the style elements and make your site cohesive and professional looking. They have a deep understanding of fonts, color combinations and the perfect balance. Their creative brains are on overload on a mission to get everything just right.

Website Designer Mobile

WordPress developers

These are the code people. They take the designer’s work and dig deep into PHP and CSS to connect all the dots. The complexities they face, as well as what is doable and not doable, depends on what the designer handed them. They literally speak and live code in order to put all the pieces together for perfect functionality.

Website Developer Code

But are there gray areas?

Though my broad definition of a designer was based on them creating a custom site design, there are the designers who work with existing pre-built themes, fill in the holes and maybe do some custom CSS, like changing a color here or there, or a font.

Their idea of design is not so much putting all the elements together from scratch, as filling in the puzzle pieces of the theme.

On the other hand, there are developers who take an out-of-the-box theme and hack away at it, creating an ad-hoc version of the existing theme. Or they might build up a theme by creating a child theme. How deep they go into it depends on their comfort level and knowledge.

As you can see, with that many variables, it can get confusing.

Enter the ‘devsigner’

This is where it gets interesting. Many people in the field call themselves a designer and a developer and feel capable of doing both, whatever that may mean to them.

At our local Seattle WordPress meetup, we used to break into groups: users/beginners, designers and developers. But that left one group of people who felt they didn’t fit in any of those three. Someone dubbed them “devsigners.”

In this interesting subset, most of them were really designers. But they were using site builders to create custom sites for clients. They knew a bit of code and CSS, but they weren’t fluent. Their development skills were more in tune with using the site builders and creating a custom site for clients. Thus the term, devsigner.

Is there a problem here?

You might be thinking that I’m trying to single out certain levels of designers and developers and call their bluff. That isn’t the case.

In fact, I feel that all of these different combinations and levels of knowledge and skills have their place. And for the customer? They can only benefit from the wide variety of choices they have when it’s time to hire someone to build their site.

But whatever you label yourself — designer, developer or something else — in the end, it always circles back to customer perceptions and expectations.

To the developer, designer or whatever you are

You can still call yourself a WordPress developer if you are not fluent in PHP, CSS and whatever else is required to build a site from scratch. But if I were the customer, I would have my expectations and would certainly question what you can or cannot do. The same with a designer. Or if you are both.

Be true to yourself and others. Be honest with any limitations you have. Don’t put on pretense or over-promise.

To the customer

I frequently get emails from people asking me to recommend a WordPress developer. To be honest, 80 percent of them don’t know what they are asking for. If you are the client, you are going to want to make sure you have all the criteria down for what you want in your site. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. And while you should keep in the back of your mind that developers develop and designers design, be open to those gray areas.

In a perfect world, you would have sufficient budget to hire both a designer and a developer or use an agency that employs both. That way, you get the best of both worlds. But that’s not always going to happen.

This isn’t a bad thing. Just remember, as you go along, you might need to stay flexible and revisit some of your expectations.


Also published on Medium.

Image by Eduardo Loureiro via Compfight cc