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University of Sunderland

What is web design and development?

Posted on: January 14, 2022
Infographic of a computer, tablet and phone showing web design in progress

Our world is increasingly a digital one, with many of us spending a significant amount of time online. Smartphones, tablets and laptops mean that some of us are never really offline. 

The breakout of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 resulted in many of us using online platforms and cloud computing more than ever before. Both our work lives and social lives have been dominated by ways to connect digitally and everything from shopping to healthcare has migrated to becoming predominantly digital using mobile apps as well as websites to improve the experience. 

But who designs and develops these sites and apps? Web designers and web developers are the professionals who imagine and configure what these digital realms look like.

What is the difference between web design and web development?

Website design starts with designing the layout of a website, which is based on understanding the user experience. User experience (UX) design incorporates knowledge of how the user experiences an interface and its usability, which is a subcategory of UX. Usability measures how well a user in a specific context can use a product to achieve what they need to do satisfactorily. User interaction (UI) design considers navigation such as the route the user takes between web pages or what buttons they click to find the information they need before they buy a product, for example.

Web designers may or may not be involved in mapping out the pages of a site using a wireframe to help optimise UX and functionality. But they will certainly be leading on designing the look of the site’s user interface to make it aesthetically pleasing by incorporating elements like typography and colour schemes. Website design traditionally involves elements of graphic design but also increasingly requires some understanding of user experience and user interaction to do a good job.

Designing a website demands a wide range of skill sets that balance the need for practicality with engaging visual design. It also asks that accessibility be taken into account for the visually impaired (low vision, blindness and colour blindness), and those with deafness or hearing difficulties, mobility impairment, and cognitive disability. For example, full descriptions of images should be added as alt text, that way, those with screen readers are able to hear the description of what an image is depicting. Visually impaired users also rely on good contrast between text colour and the background.

Web development on the other hand, involves coding languages like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript that are used in software development. While the web designer should certainly include accessibility as a factor that influences design, the developer needs to be able to implement this effectively through coding. Back-end developers focus on the infrastructure of a site or web application, such as hosting and security, by using coding languages like Java, PHP, and Ruby. Front-end development specialises in functionality, mostly using the programming language of JavaScript. Full-stack developers straddle both of these areas of expertise and so are often in demand for their skills.

Coding is perceived as a specialist skill. It requires the ability to visualise what is being built while writing the code that will enable that vision to be realised. Although developers work primarily in code, it’s beneficial to be able to use design software like Photoshop, Illustrator and Sketch to help with the visualisation process. A grasp of UX and UI fundamentals also overlaps both website design and development.

Do you need to be able to code to build a website?

Open-source content management systems (CMS) like WordPress allow designers and non-designers to create websites using pre-made templates or themes without coding knowledge. However, the templates or themes are customisable so that if you can code you can make the designs more unique or add functionality with plug-ins.

A CMS like WordPress grew out of the popularity for blogs in the early 2000s (other popular site-building offerings include Squarespace and Wix) but the internet landscape has changed with more sites essentially operating as shopfronts for businesses and so site design has changed too. WordPress uses PHP, which is a server-side scripting language, meaning that it runs on the web hosting server and not your own server. The hosting site very cleverly translates PHP into HTML, turning it into a visible webpage every time it receives a notification from a browser that the domain name has been typed into the address bar.

What is information architecture?

Information architecture is considered to be the science of organising and structuring content on a website, web, or mobile application, or on social media software. Information architecture (IA) is actually a field in its own right with problem-solving at its heart. 

Richard Saul Wurman is generally credited as the founder of IA; he also created the TED conference. Specialists in IA went on to form the Information Architecture Institute which defines information architecture as “the practice of deciding how to arrange the parts of something to be understandable.”

What is content design?

Writing copy and content for a website is usually incorporated into the design process and is sometimes referred to as content design. A copywriter with an understanding of UX will work with the designer and an SEO consultant can advise on what keywords will help the website rank highly on search engines. 

Visitors to any site will often have questions like, what exactly does the business do? Who owns the business and why did they start it? Where do the products come from or what kinds of expertise do the services provide? If all these questions can be answered briefly on the homepage without too much scrolling, that’s ideal. Information can then be elaborated upon on pages like the About Us page or an FAQs page.

Copywriters may be part of a wider digital marketing team which can also inform a lot of the design and development processes as marketing teams have insights into what customers are looking for and the language that they use. Web design and development professionals will have their own insights into best practice and functionality, so the process must be a collaborative one for best results.

Develop a new career

Those who can build websites, apps, and software have a crucial role to play in today’s technology-driven world, especially with companies across all industries migrating to predominantly digital platforms due to the ongoing pandemic. 

The MSc Computer Science from the University of Sunderland has been designed so that even if you don’t have a background in computer science you can excel in this exciting sector. 

Even back in 2017, 84% of firms said that digital and IT skills were more important to their business than two years ago according to the British Chambers of Commerce

Find out more about how you can take the leap to becoming a web designer or developer and start learning while you work.

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