Combining design and development

Hi everyone,

TLDR: I’m writing this topic because I feel alone in an area somewhere between design and web development and I don’t know which career path to choose.

I recently graduated from university (Computer Science), but because I want a different career path I’m currently focusing on webdesign and web development. Before starting university I also build some websites, which at that time included HTML4, CSS2, PHP, MySQL, SEO, analytics, basic CMS development (from scratch), and designing full website layouts (in Photoshop/Illustrator for example) and logo’s. My dream was to be a freelance web designer and in the back of my mind this dream hasn’t changed but I feel like the world has changed so much that I don’t know where I fit in anymore.

Most web designers these days seem to use frameworks such as SquareSpace/ WebFlow/ WordPress for development of their designs. To be honest, I don’t know much about any of these but it feels weird to rely on such tools while I know how to code? But will I be able to build something that is better all by myself? And what about content management?

Currently, I have my first potential client (a friend) who has self-build static WordPress site, but wants me to build a new website that contains less bugs and design flaws and has better SEO. Building a static website is no problem for me and I’m also interested to learn modern SEO techniques. But why is SEO never mentioned as being part of web development path? Learning SEO feels like leaving the ‘path’, even though I’m not following any clear path. And again, what about content management how to realize this for my client and why isn’t this also on the ‘web development path’?

So far (in the last month or so) I learned Figma (a design tool), advanced CSS3 (flexbox, CSS animations, building responsive layouts), HTML5 basics, JavaScript and some jQuery, NodeJS, MongoDB and Express. Except for Figma, this is all part of The Advanced Web Developer Bootcamp on Udemy. Later in this course I will also learn React and many other frameworks. I applied the techniques I learned so far by designing and developing a website that contains a nice landing page and a simple interactive API page. But what should I do next?

I feel like I have three options:

  1. Focus on a freelance career as both a designer and developer and hope for the best in regard to finding clients. I believe this includes learning SEO, WordPress or other CMS tool (?), ‘business/social skills’, having a portfolio site and start building websites for clients as soon as possible.
  2. Continue learning (front-end) web development and apply for a (remote) dev job.
  3. Learn everything in the Adobe Suite/ Figma/ Sketch, build a portfolio and apply for a (remote) design job.

I want to start generating income at least within 5 months from now (either as freelancer or employed somewhere), but this combination of design and development seems very difficult to find/realize. Any ideas?

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It’s not impossible at all, just much harder than being just a designer or just a programmer, because you’ve got double the skills to learn. On top of that, freelancing means there would be a third, equally important set of [business, politics] skills you also need to learn.

Re this:

Because it’s quicker. If you are a designer who also does some programming, using something that can mainly be configured rather than coded reduces the workload a lot. There is a reason design agencies use WP/PHP so heavily (and why Gatsby and Next.js for example are gaining ground quickly).

If you want to work freelance, it is likely that the majority of the time available to you will be spent on business tasks, not coding or designing. Because of this, anything you can do to speed things up becomes a necessity, otherwise you don’t eat/pay rent/mortgage/etc. You will not be being paid a wage: you need to produce income yourself. And you will not have the luxury of being able to spend lots of time researching and developing things from scratch.

Same reason (for example) copywriting isn’t mentioned or monetisation via ads or whatever, it’s not web development. SEO is marketing.

1 Like

@DanCouper Thanks for your reply.

I understand that using available tools, either WordPress or design templates, reduces the workload, but on the other hand I remember the proud feeling when I build websites that I designed ánd developed (including SEO, analytics, and everything else) completely from scratch. I wonder whether I will feel the same when I’m only fully responsible for only one part of the process? Even using JavaScript libraries to simplify tasks (e.g. jQuery, passport) or modern CSS features feels a bit like ‘cheating’, although I do use those of course.

Working freelance might not be very suited for me. My social skills aren’t that great and I also don’t look forward to doing business tasks for the majority of my time, but I’m also much more productive when I work from home and can schedule my own work hours compared to working in an office.

Right now I believe that pursuing a career as front-end developer (preferably remote) would be the best option. It might not require creative skills, but at least I’m still ‘building things’, which I enjoy much more than purely writing algorithms in Python or doing data science for example.

The weird thing about SEO and other marketing skills is that, in my experience, every potential client assumes that SEO is part of my skillset. A client who needs a simple static website also doesn’t want to go to person A for webdesign, person B for web development and person C for marketing.

Anyways, for my current and first client/friend (i.e. no real payment) I’m now considering to make something simple in WordPress and do some SEO, although both is not really helping me to advance in webdesign or web development, it will help him and who knows how I can use WordPress or SEO in the future.

Hey CC, I’d suggest going to Indeed.com and looking at Front End Developer jobs in your area. You will probably find it enlightening.

My biggest takeaway was that it is largely a different “career-track” than the freelance website designer one that most non-coders think of. When most people think of a website designer, they want:

  • a nice-looking, but standard site
  • traffic
  • conversions (ie, sales)

The first one is easily achieved using one of the thousands of templates. The other two are, as you’ve noticed, SEO/copywriting/marketing.

But when you search on the job boards for “Front End Developer,” you get a largely different kind of skillset, one more in line with the many technologies you mentioned. The tech most mentioned in my area is “JavaScript,” “HTML”, “React,” “Angular”, “RESTful API,” and “UX.”

Nothing about WordPress, SEO, or marketing!

However, I will note that “design” did show up in a significant minority of positions, as did “UX” or “UI,” and these positions typically want expertise in Adobe stuff.

Perhaps that is the sort of position you might want to target.

You definitely won’t, but as I say, you need to eat. It is unlikely that you can repeatedly build something exceptional from scratch at a fast enough rate to sustain yourself. This is how jobs work: you are doing work for someone else. Sometimes you may be lucky and something will be a passion project for you, most of the time it will absolutely not be.

It involves running a real business and talking to people a lot (not necessarily in person all the time, but you need to be able to communicate well and navigate politics), these are kinda prerequisites.

They’ll may also assume you know basic business stuff as well, and things like managing projects. SEO is much more strongly connected to how a website is developed than those things, but it still not “web development” – how a site is built can affect SEO, but those are often basics to do with search engines favouring specific best practices, more in depth SEO isn’t really to do with dev. They may well also assume you know design :man_shrugging: You have to know a bit about a lot of things if you work freelance, that’s just how it works.

Thanks for the advice again. I’ve already seen many front-end jobs and UX jobs on Indeed. I understand that this is a completely different career track compared to freelancing, but I know so little about all these options therefore I find it hard to choose right now, but since learning everything at the same time is not realistic and eventually I won’t be able to apply all this knowledge in one job so I have to choose anyways.

I’m not sure if I’m allowed to link this website, but I recently found a portfolio (https://awandres.github.io) of a freelancer who actually builds websites for clients with NodeJS, Express, Angular, React, and so on but also makes Wordpress sites and does SEO. So somehow I should be possible, but for now I think I will start focusing on front-end development and some UX design, to find a junior position as creative front-end developer somewhere and maybe later learn more skills to also do some freelance work.

What does “development” look like for WordPress?

You can stand up WordPress instances for sites for people. That takes selecting a good template, choosing the appropriate plugins, and loading the content. In most cases you’ll have to fiddle around with the CSS a bit to get it looking exactly right. You’ll also need to rig backups and https (not http) access if the hosting provider doesn’t do it for you. It helps a lot to have some HTML5/CSS chops to do a good job of this.

You can develop your own plugins to do the stuff you need done. That’s pretty much a “development” task, and takes knowledge of php and the WordPress core.

You can develop your own custom themes. That’s mostly a “design” task involving CSS, HTML5, jQuery, and a little bit of php.

Some say SEO isn’t part of web design and development. With respect, I totally disagree. If your web site provides useful information and you want people to find it, it’s important to structure your site so the crawlers (mostly the Google crawler, but there are others) can make sense of it. It’s not just marketing, it’s information design. It’s the task of integrating your site into the World Wide Web.

The good news: WordPress offers some really good, free, SEO plugins. I like Yoast, because it pesters me if I haven’t structured my posts to be easily searchable.

WordPress: Once you get the hang of it, you’ll never lose it. And it comes in handy when you need a custom web site to test deep linking to your high-end single-page React site you develop. And, WordPress gives you lots of good experience with the “rigging” or “operations” part of web development: registering domains, setting up DNS, getting appropriate LetsEncrypt https certificates, setting up backups, and all that.

You don’t have to make a choice between design and development until you decide you will work with somebody else with good skills in one of those disciplines. You can help your friends with WordPress and do node/react work in the same day.