The pros and cons of being a hybrid web designer/developer

Ashley Gainer's Layout avatar

If you’ve been a designer for any length of time, you’ve probably had clients request things from you that go beyond design and into the realm of development.

Web design, as you know, involves the visual and structural design of a website. You’re making creative decisions about things like layouts, navigation, and user experience. There’s certainly a good bit of science behind the decisions you make, but it’s more art than science.

It’s like architecture—you come up with the plans for a site, but developers are the ones who actually put the ricks (aka tech) in place for the site to exist. You aren’t the one out digging a foundation and hanging drywall; you’re just saying where the foundation and drywall should go.

a mans hands work on a laptop at a desk covered in miscellaneous papers. On the left hand, he sports a watch

Then there’s web development. Developers are the folks who actually go and build a website. If we’re talking art vs. science, development is definitely heavy on the science end.

Developers take a concept and find a way to execute it, but generally speaking aren’t the folks who are pouring hours of creative energy and thought into the concept. They deal in coding and tech and construction—they’re like the builders, not the architects.

There’s a caveat and you’ve probably already thought about it: designers totally build websites! But they do so using themes, plugins, and usually some CSS or HTML5. They’re building the site from the design “blueprints” (to continue the architecture idea), but they’re essentially customizing frameworks and elements that were created (coded) by developers for the specific purpose of being assembled by designers.

Very few designers will actually design a site and then code it from scratch.

And those designers who do aren’t really designers at all. They’re hybrids.

a developer edits code for a website

So what is a hybrid web designer/developer?

Designers design; developers build. A hybrid web designer/developer designs and then builds.

If you love coding and building beautiful, effective websites from the ground up, you might be a hybrid.

If you make some stuff happen in CSS and maybe you’ll build a page with HTML now and then, you’re probably not a hybrid. You’re still awesome—a designer who’s able to code in CSS, HTML, and more. The more coding skills you have, the more robust you are as a designer…but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re also a developer.

It works the other way, too. If you’re a serious coder and you know how to put together some basic websites that are easy enough to use but don’t really focus on user experience, conversion goals, or positioning, you might not really be a “web designer” in the primary sense of web design.

You, too, are still awesome! But not all developers should be designers, and there’s nothing wrong with focusing just on coding and leaving the worries about multiple menu placements and calls to action to someone else.

But, of course, if that stuff fascinates you and you’ve looked into it—or you’ve even taken coursework to learn more about the purpose of a website and how to make designs more effective, you might be a hybrid!

a macbook with multiple windows open sits on a desk next to headphones, a mouse, and a keyboard

Benefits of going hybrid

These days, hybrid web designer/developers get a lot of buzz, and with good reason. The more well-rounded you are, the more robust of a service provider you can be.

Designers who truly understand the development process can offer expert advice on what’s doable and what’s not, which can open the doors for a lot of creativity and—perhaps more importantly—shut the doors on a lot of stuff that seems cool on paper (or in wireframes) but really isn’t feasible from a construction standpoint.

As a hybrid, you’re what some people call a unicorn: a magical creature we hope to find someday, but who we don’t actually think will be able to.

Just think—a client comes to you and says “I want this! and this! and this!” and you have to bring them down to Earth because, as awesome as Divi or Genesis is, there’s no way to make all those ideas happen within those frameworks—and that’s what you’re limited to.

Now imagine being able to blow the roof off the framework, giving your client anything and everything they want despite any particular theme’s limitations, and then charging a premium price to do it.

Sounds awesome, right?

That’s because it really can be.

Plus, there’s an employment disparity between web designers and developers, with developers having many more available jobs and pulling in much more money for doing those jobs. Tapping into the developer market is a great way to make more money, if coding is something that interests you.

Drawbacks of doing both design and development

When you advertise yourself as a hybrid—or you take a job as someone who can design and code—what you’re doing is positioning yourself as one person, doing the work of two people.

You may be a powerhouse, but you might also be cutting yourself off at the knees.

a frustrated man holds his head in his hands while looking at the screen of a laptop

With two focuses, you could probably become “pretty good” at designing and at coding, or maybe really good at one end and decent enough at the other end. But it’s pretty challenging to become super-awesome at both. You’ll have a hard time really becoming a leader in either field.

In other words, you’re so well-rounded that you can’t really specialize in both.

That’s great for some folks. A lot of websites, after all, don’t need a hugely complex, robust design. Plenty of designers get their bread and butter from run-of-the-mill bloggers and small businesses who just need a basic site. And if that’s your sweet spot, you’re in a prime position to do really well.

Final thoughts on being a hybrid web designer/developer

If you really want to be the best, to be the absolute best at what you do, you might find that focusing on design and development together is too much for one brain. No shame in that—we all have our sweet spots.

But the pull of being able to execute on both design and development will give you incredible insight, and it might be worth the fight to make it happen.

To overcome the challenges of being a hybrid, you must always, always, always be learning and practicing. You might not be able to lead the pack in either of your fields, but you can certainly keep up as long as you focus.

Comments ( 2 )

  1. James

    May 5, 2017

    I'm definitely one of those hybrid types, but it has it's downfalls. I'm a fully capable designer, but where does the fence end on the development side end? How many languages and frameworks do you know and support? I've found that the more time goes on, the more employers are looking for developers that can design more so than designers who can code. You definitely end up being that Jack Of All Trades, Master Of None type going this route because it's really impossible to keep on top of everything. I personally have added social media marketing to my skillset which really spreads things thin even more so.

    • Maria

      January 18, 2018

      "Jack Of All Trades, Master Of None" is exactly how I feel about my own skillset. My portfolio is impressive but I feel as if I'm not an expert at any particular kind of design. I'm a front end developer as well and have a background in marketing design - I also went to school for illustration. I am finding that employers, no matter how impressive your portfolio is, are not willing to take a chance on hiring you unless your portfolio has PLENTY of work pinpointing what they need. I think being a hybrid designer shows an ability to adapt and a fervor to learn which should count for something... Maybe I only have a few examples of design work showing decks displaying boring financial charts - shouldn't my obvious ability of designing and organizing type be obvious that I'm capable? During one freelance assignment I single handedly designed permanent retail signage, dealt with budget and vendors, and saw my work eventually installed - and that was my first job ever designing signage. Sometimes I feel my portfolio is TOO creative... which is something I've actually been told during interviews.

  2. Forrest

    March 16, 2017

    I do both design and development for quite a few projects, I just love being able to design and build what I want. If you're thinking about knowing both the design and development aspects, it is great, but it's actually a fairly big decision and is based on what you want to do and who you want to work for. Basically, do you want to work for various large companies and be career-minded, or do you want go your own way and build your own companies and businesses?

    I recently worked for a small startup where our my varied skills were an asset to our five person team. I designed, coded, and provided quite a bit of value that a specialist couldn't provide. I'm good at both design and coding (both front and backend coding), but since I'm doing a wide range of tasks, I'll never be the best or as good as those who choose to specialize (which actually is a little hard to admit -- I do want to be the best). Once we were acquired, I was part of a 500 person company. My broad skills would never be utilized in a company where they hire very specialized designers, ux people, front-end devs, back-end devs, etc..

    I could see myself working for another small startup, using those broad ranges of skills to help build the company, and then basically hit the same point where I am no longer really needed...I'm ok with it, but I definitely realize that in this role I'll always be building myself out of a job.

    I honestly don't think I could ever really specialize and I don't really want to get on the career-track at large companies anyways, so it's all good for me. But for those thinking about taking on design and code and if you do want to work for large companies, you may want to specialize and just get really good at what you do.

Join the discussion