What exactly is a web designer?

I call myself a web designer, and even I barely know what I’m doing most of the time.

The truth is, most of the code we write goes through extensive trial and error. We have a pretty good idea of what the code we’re working on is going to do – but it usually takes a few (okay, many) iterations before it works.

I don’t think it should be any other way, personally. If I was always writing code that never challenged me, I wouldn’t be stretching. There would be no risk, no excitement, no striving to do something I’d never done before. My clients would be underwhelmed with my efforts, and my websites would have a stale look to them.

So, if I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time, what do I know?

What makes a web designer any more useful than the average Joe for designing a website?

I think the answer has everything to do with all that trial and error. By making so many mistakes, web designers are less likely to repeat them. In this article, let’s look at what web designers have learned that most people haven’t.

Web Designers Know What Not To Do

mistakes help web designers, like football players getting tackled

Remember all that trial and error I mentioned earlier? Making a lot of errors has its usefulness – it teaches web designers what doesn’t work. And when we know what doesn’t work, we are less all the more likely to stumble across what does.

There is a spectrum of what’s acceptable and what isn’t when it comes to modern web design. Standards set by the World Wide Web Consortium provide rules to follow when building websites. These rules are in place to ensure websites are accessible for everyone (including people with visual impairments).

W3C standards also help web designers code better websites by not doing things that just flat out shouldn’t be done, like:

  • Dropdown menus within dropdown menus, because they are enraging to operate on mobile devices.
  • Fail to assign images with descriptive “alt” tags, because users with visual impairments rely upon these tags, as do search engines!
  • Try to jam too much text into too small an area, making it hard to read on small screens.
  • Attempt to style pages purely with elements, without CSS (Example, using a bunch of line breaks or inline spaces for layout purposes)

These are just a few examples of hundreds of “best practices” a web designer considers when coding a website. Next, let’s look at what web designers know about art and design.

Web Designers Know How To Apply Design Principles

When you visit a website, you get an impression that it either looks great – or it doesn’t. But how do you arrive at this decision?

It seems as though human beings prefer an orderly appearance over a chaotic one. Symmetry and alignment offer visual relief from cluttered information, giving us positive feelings. There are even “pleasantly asymmetrical” layout ratios that are more attractive than others. For example, a screen divided nicely into thirds just feels right. On the other hand, being slightly offset from centre might, as my college instructor would put it, “make your teeth hurt” to gaze upon.

If you want to try your eye at making teeth hurt, take The Kerning Test. Kerning is the practice of making slight horizontal adjustments to each letter in a word until it “looks right.”

kerning test for web designers
Click the “Kern me” image above to test your design skills.

By paying attention to text kerning, column alignment, and respecting white space – the website begins to look as if a professional has designed it.

That professional impression is what counts when someone visits your site. Your branding helps establish trust, and contributes to the visitor’s decision whether to engage with your company.

We Know How to Work in Teams

pit crew working on a car

Web designers spend a lot of time toggling between two worlds: design and code. Design is essentially the art of not doing things that look bad, and code is perhaps best thought of a way to make human ideas work on machines.

Both of those worlds, designing and coding, offer endless avenues of specialization. So when comparing two web designers, it’s rare to find two with big overlaps in skills and specialties.

This is where things get beautiful – as each web designer tends to fall in love with different design principles, different coding languages.

Generally, when comparing any two web designers, it’s true that they are each strong in different areas. It’s this diversity of skill that culminates in teams capable of tackling larger websites.

Web designers tend to have a general familiarity with a broad range of coding languages, development environments and systems for managing larger projects. So when it’s time to plug into a team, we usually have a pretty good idea of what everyone else is doing. This keeps management time low, and makes projects smoother.

Without this broad understanding of the various areas of specialty within the web design industry, effective team efforts would be tricky.

Web Designers Know How To Optimize Websites for Search (SEO)

web designer seo

A website without traffic isn’t very helpful to anyone. This is why knowing how to optimize your website for search engines is important.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of increasing the quality and quantity of website traffic by increasing the visibility of a website or a web page to users of a web search engine.


SEO is an ever-changing game. As Google changes its algorithm, the rest of the world tries to figure out how to get to the top of Google search.

And while the exact nature of the algorithm is unknown, Google does give explicit directions for web designers to follow in order to give their websites the best chance of ranking well.

Web designers use tools like Google Search Console, semrush.com, and answerthepublic.com to help guide design and content decisions when building websites.

The advantage in taking this approach is being able to design websites that do better in Google search when compared to sites that haven’t been optimized.

We Know How to Fix it When it Breaks

Before my little firm moved all efforts over to WordPress, I loved writing custom code. I reinvented many wheels and probably wasted a great deal of time in the process. But in doing so, I gained a satisfying fundamental understanding of how a handful of coding languages worked.

This is handy for when things go wrong, as they certainly can and do. Servers go down, or the settings change and that causes your website to malfunction.

This is when it’s useful to have a web designer available to make the bad things go away.

Unless you know how to code, certain website design issues will be outside your ability to fix. Every template has its limitations, and in order to get your website to look exactly as you see fit – being able to write code is enormously helpful.

Time spent learning to code is handy if you have that time to spare. But sometimes it’s better to hire someone. For a deeper look at this time/money decision, check out my article on how to choose between building your website yourself and hiring a web designer.

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