North Central College students working on web design.

What does a web designer do?

Jacob Imm

Sep 30, 2022

What does a web designer do?

Web design may be one of the most talked-about fields people don’t realize they’re talking about. Think about it–we spend so much of our time looking at websites and web-based apps that we hardly even think about it anymore. We are also very critical of what we see, scrutinizing where links are located on a page, how easy it is to find your way around, and even how “vibrant” or “clean” something is. 

What we don’t think about is that someone decided every aspect of that presentation. They have studied what works for getting web users’ attention and how to keep it. They’ve learned how to code and put that entire page together just from a series of commands input into a program. And they have done what they can to make your life easier, so you will return to their site or app again and again.

Do you have a feel for making those decisions and want to get the technical expertise you need to figure it out? Maybe a career as a web designer is right for you. Let’s take a closer look at what web designers do and how you can improve your chances of finding work in this fast-moving and important field.

What is a web designer?

The first and easiest assumption is that a web designer does all the magic in the background, resulting in a website in front of us on our laptop, desktop, or personal device. The truth is that building a website is a complex process that involves people operating at numerous levels. The “nuts and bolts” of how any Internet-based program operates are more the realm of web developers. Web design is a marriage between technical skill and the creative parts of the brain. Think of a web designer as a graphic designer who works in and around an information technology department.

Johnny Levanier of 99designs explains the job description this way: “Web designers are typically focused on what is called the ‘front-end’ of the website, the part of the website users actually see and interact with (as opposed to the ‘back-end’ code that makes the website function). This means they can be responsible for choosing everything from the photos and imagery, the fonts, shape language, color scheme, buttons, and how all of these elements fit together.”

Much of the digital design field involves having an artistic eye while operating on a different kind of canvas. Whereas a clothing designer works with fabric and a magazine designer might work with Adobe Photoshop, website design is about creating images and programs such that they are appealing and logical to the eye of an active web user. You need to be able to balance a sense of style with a strong grounding in computer programming to be a good web designer.

How does a Web designer differ from a UX designer?

Terms you might commonly hear in conjunction with the roles of a website designer or the idea of web development are user experience (UX) and user interface (UI). These ideas are so important in digital marketing that wholly different positions oversee UX, UI and other web designer jobs. So what is the difference between web design, UX design and UI design? 

According to Levanier, “(A) UX designer focuses on the user’s needs, and designs skeletal web page layouts (called wireframes) that optimize website elements around user behaviors and expectation, while (a) UI designer designs interactive elements such as buttons and forms. (A) a web designer focuses on all of the visual elements of a website, and turns wireframe layouts into finished web page designs.”

In other words, a web designer needs to think about the look and feel of an entire web product, from the visual elements to the interaction design. In contrast, a UX or UI designer focuses more closely on one aspect. A job that incorporates all of these responsibilities along with the back end of online applications is called a full stack developer and brings a slightly different list of web designer requirements you can learn more about in our guide on the subject. 

How do you become a web designer?

A web design career has to start somewhere, with a degree in web design or a similar field as an obvious first step. You can begin to prepare for the field even before college, and you can also make a plan for what courses you want to take based on your knowledge of specific skills you want to have.

Find out more about North Central College

Nick Babich of Mockplus lays out a ten-step plan for building a functional resume in web design:

1. Learn web design theory

2. Learn how to code - Especially how to get sites working with responsive design and interaction design.

3. Get the right tools - Babich says the specific ones to have a good grasp of are graphical design, prototyping, and coding.

4. Make yourself familiar with popular CMS (Content Management Systems)

5. Build a habit of testing your design regularly.

6. Improve your communication skills - This is one thing in particular that a great college education can help tremendously. It’s a common misconception that getting web design and development positions make interacting with people irrelevant. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Web designers rarely work alone, instead needing to collaborate with other parts of a web team on UX, UI, and the back end, as well as consult with different departments in a company to ensure web applications are doing everything they need to. They also need to interact with clients and users productively. A web designer needs to be able to express their own ideas to people on various levels of technical expertise and absorb and interpret criticism from those who don’t know as much as they do. Developing soft skills like these is an important part of the general education courses at any good college, so make sure you focus on them even if you’re not taking classes that fit exactly into your major.

7. Keep an eye on coming trends - As with any field, web design constantly evolves to include new trends and incorporate new user preferences. In addition to being a frequent user of design websites, look for publications and podcasts that talk about emerging trends.

8. Join web design communities - Babich notes, “The best way to learn is to learn from the best. It’s extremely important not only to join web design communities but also to be an active member. Join popular online communities such as Sitepoint or Uxmastery. Follow web experts such as Sara Soueidan, Brad Frost, Jeffrey Zeldman, and Jesse James Garrett on Twitter.”

9. Seek critique and learn to iterate - Web design is still an emerging field, and because of its dynamic nature, you need numerous points of view on your work. While satisfying yourself is important, ultimately, your work is measured by how well it works for others. So be sure to ask people what they think of the web assets you put together. User test and look for specific feedback on what could be better. You improve by putting in a lot of time, experimenting, and doing the same work repeatedly.

10. Focus on creating your portfolio - Web design is such a visual field that no potential employer can be expected to take your word on your qualifications. Make sure you have a record of everything you work on, including side projects you may do in your spare time. Update your portfolio frequently, even while you have a job. Walk into every potential employment scenario with something to show off easily and impressively.

What are the skills needed to be a web designer?

Getting one job is a challenge for a working web designer, but to advance and stay relevant in the field, you need to be constantly working on your craft. What specific things should you work on and keep working on? According to Kelli Smith of Skillcrush, there are nine vital areas you need to be proficient in to be a successful web designer:

1. Visual design

2. UX

3. Graphic design and web design software - You want to be able to use the products that are the best use, and when it comes to web design, the gold standard is an obvious name: Adobe. Adobe Dreamweaver, Illustrator, InDesign and other parts of the Adobe Suite are number one for a reason and are likely what you will learn and what you’ll spend most of your time using as a professional. Other leading software to look for includes CorelDraw, Canva, Affinity Designer and Sketch.

4. HTML - Commonly taught and still heavily employed, especially for text-based elements, HTML isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But make sure you are sharp in this markup language, as a lot of development software will provide shortcuts around it, and you don’t want to be caught without seeing the changes in how HTML is employed.

5. CSS & JavaScript - While HTML is foundational and used everywhere, JavaScript has replaced it as the most popular programming language. So being able to use it and style sheets is not only a good idea but expected. Kelli Smith said, “While you can code up your designs using just HTML and CSS if you can also program using JavaScript, you’ll have a huge leg up against the competition. JavaScript, a front-end and back-end programming language, allows you to take static elements on your site and make them interactive.” 

6. Time management

7. Communication skills

8. SEO / digital marketing / social media - Every company at which you work is going to be concerned with doing whatever they can to reach out to more customers. It is vital to understand how they use search engine optimization, digital marketing, and social media to do so and how to make the visual elements of their web assets work in tandem instead of against those elements. Stay current on trends and techniques in these areas and how Google’s algorithm changes so your sites are as functional as possible.

9. Business / client management - Your work may speak for itself, but that doesn’t change the fact that you need to be able to balance your finances and work with your clients if you choose to run your own web design firm or work as a freelance designer. 

No matter what else you might do, your path to becoming a web designer needs to start with a great college education. Look for a school like North Central College, which will place you optimally at the intersection of computer science and art and design. Experienced faculty at North Central share technical expertise from working in the digital field and stoke your creativity and expression as a designer while training you in the principles of the liberal arts. You need to work with people as well as you do with programs. They can also give you the knowledge you need about fields closely linked to web design, like types of interactive media and the answer to “What is interactive media advertising?”

Find out more about web design at North Central College today. 

Jacob Imm is the associate director of communication in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 12 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.



Johnny Levanier, 99designs. 

Nick Babich, Mockplus. 

Kelli Smith, Skillcrush.