Digital Marketing

What is Web Design?

min read

You need a web design for your online presence. Your problem: You’re not sure what “web design” really is, and if you need it.

Web Design is a craft with an amazing amount of power – the power to choose, the power to influence.

Web Design is a craft with responsibility. The responsibility to help create a better world for all. So let’s get stuck in to what and who it actually is!

A web designer sketching a wireframe for a web design

What is a web designer?

That sounds like a pretty easy question, right?

Web Designers design websites, end of the story.

Well, the truth is that the term Web Designer means many different things to many different people and the field is diversifying so fast that it serves more as a catch-all of multiple disciplines rather than a clearly defined individual.

One of the reasons that Web Design is so hard to define is that as a discipline is covers so much ground.

The Web has grown to encompass a multitude of devices, delivery methods, and content types.

A web designer choosing Pantone colours for a web design

Consider that content created by web designers can be consumed by browsers, screen readers, apps, phones, tablets, printers, RSS feed readers, and a host of other non-traditional devices like cars and glasses.

In that respect, web design is no longer just designing for the browser but designing for all user experiences.

Web design planning

There’s also the issue of what type of content you’re creating;

  • Is it a combination of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript?
  • Does it also include images or streaming video or audio?
  • Will you be purchasing unique fonts?
  • Will it require embeds such as Instagram feeds?
  • Will it have interactive animated elements?
  • Or is it a combination of all of the above?

And what about functionality?

  • Does it involve eCommerce?
  • Will you need scripts or forms that respond to user input?
  • Does the website retrieve information from databases or other server side functionality?
  • Does it require you to access services from external websites like Twitter, Facebook, or Google Maps?

If you look at it from that vantage, web design can seem a little intimidating – it can be easy to be overwhelmed by the array of choices.

More than once I’ve heard, “I just want a simple web design for my business” – however, you’ll need an expert that will specialise in one area or another – Design, UX, Photography, Copywriting and more.

Your chosen designer will need a solid understanding of how the web works, who you’re trying to reach, and what technologies are involved in creating your website – whether it’s a simple design or not.

Web designers planning the user journey using post-it notes

It’s useful for your Designer to get a real understanding about what is going on behind the scenes, and how to properly structure your site.

Web design theory and experience

A lot of the key considerations of a web design can include;

  • Navigation and website structure / architecture
  • Menus – think drop-downs or off-screen on mobile
  • Content structure and page layout
  • Search and form fields
  • Links, Lists, quotes, tables and other common elements
  • Buttons, call to actions, modals, carousels
  • Images, video and audio
  • Specific schema such as a Product, Recipe, Course, Event or Job listing
  • Third-party elements such as chat bots, embeds, social media, adverts

So, although the web design encompasses a wide array of disciplines, the term Web Designer can be restricted to what we refer to as the Front End.

We cover more about the process in our article – The typical web design workflow

Front End includes the visual part of web design, planning and structuring the sites, user interface design, and client-side interactivity.

A large portion of Front End development is surrounding the user experience, considering the user journey, layout of content, interactions and Web Accessibility.

I’d also like to point out that very few web designers are able to do everything that I’ve mentioned.

Many specialise in areas that compliment their skill set or that interests them the most.

Often their skills are usually acquired based on the type of sites they work on and the features that those sites need.

Different areas of web design

Pay Gap Law web design of Homepage and inside page.
Web Designs for our law firm “Pay Gap Law” based in Glasgow

When I was first starting out in the mid 90s, all you really needed to know was a little HTML, how to create links, and how to place images on the page.

You go out and find a tool like Macromedia Dreamweaver or GoLive and you were set. Well, we face a much different landscape now.

One in which there are so many technologies and processes used that it’s quite common to find web designers that specialise in a specific area of web design or a specific technology.

I want to share a few of those specialisations with you so you can have a better idea as to specific areas that you might wanna focus on and have a clearer picture of the amount of diversity involved in the field of web design.

First, I wanna talk about a Generalist.

A Generalist is a designer that is strong in the core skills of web design and is relatively well practiced in the entire process of creating sites, from planning and prototyping all the way through building and testing.

This is the individual that can build an entire site from scratch usually without the help of others.

If specific challenges arise outside their area of expertise, they usually bring in another specialist or challenge themselves to add another skill to their already well-rounded skill set.

Next, we have Visual Designers.

These are designers that are primarily concerned with the visual design of sites and interfaces. Colour, layout, typography, and graphics are their typical area of focus.

They tend to be individuals with strong design skills and are often graphic designers who transition towards web design.

User Experience

Another specialty that’s been discussed a lot recently is UX Design. UX stands for User Experience and in my opinion the label UX designer has been overused a bit in terms of web design.

UX signifies the focus on the user experience meaning the designer attempts to create sites and applications that through their design fostered the desired experience for the user.

If you use that broad of a definition, however, almost every designer is a UX Designer. I mean, aren’t we all concerned with the experience of our users?

I’d like to clarify that a UX Designer isn’t a visual designer that’s decided to use the term. A true UX Designer is someone who has studied human behaviour and tendencies and then designs in accordance with them.

Consistent brand used through a Saas front end web design interface
Booster by Halo Lab

Often UX Designers have no web skills at all and are used as consultants to help sites create a user-focused experience.

Regardless, make sure you really understand what UX Design means so that you’re approaching the discipline correctly.

A related article expands on this – Mobile Site Design Principles

Interaction design

Interactive Designers do just that. They focus on building interfaces that create seamless interactions between users and sites.

They’re closely aligned with UX Designers but they tend to be more focused on behavioural technologies like JavaScript that allow them to modify static HTML interfaces into immersive interactive experiences.

Motion Designers focus on animation. In many cases, these are traditional animators that have moved to the web as a means of distribution or are now working on web projects that require animation.

Animation of a team holding a glowing orb, which floats around browser windows and paper (like an idea)
Viral Tunnel by Danil Aksenov for Fireart Studio

These could also be web designers that are interested in animated content or designers that work in game development.

Although Flash is long dead, animation and games on the web got a revival and Motion Graphic Designers are increasingly using JavaScript and HTML5 technologies such as Canvas.

This has lead to a blurring of the lines between designers and true Web developers.

No-code designers

Many modern web designers rely on the use of “DIY platforms” or “No Code” solutions such as Webflow, GoDaddy page builder, Wix, Squarespace or Elementor for WordPress.

It can tie the designer to a specific platform, the ecosystems of these platforms are big enough to support a robust community of designers and developers.

We talk about these platforms more in our post – Which website builder / platform / software tool is best?

While these are just the few of the areas of web design that can be specialist, I want to point out that in reality, very few web designers specialise in just one area.

Web designers tend to start out with a specific skill set or focus and then over the course of their careers pick up new skills or blend in new specialisations as they arise.

The web evolves quickly and one of the responsibilities of web professionals is to evolve right along with it.

Choosing the right person or web design agency for your project, is key to ensuring you meet your goals.

Caroline Hagan

Caroline brings over 15 years as a Designer and Developer; featured in .NET magazine, the only woman in the UK accredited for Google Mobile Sites. A business mentor with Enterprise Nation, STEM Ambassador and Google Women Techmaker Ambassador Previous client projects include Blackberry, FIAT, Clark Shoes and Sky.