The term 'Web Designer' is possibly one of the most over-used yet misunderstood labels...
The web industry incorporates many different facets, and most of these are actually quite different in scope - and shouldn’t be bundled under the ‘Web Designer’ heading.
Essentially, there are three main aspects to the web industry; the creative element, the technical process, and the marketing & business side. To the average person in the street, a web designer is someone who designs the look and feel of a website. And many people will consider a web designer to be a form of graphic artist. But in actuality, the lines are becoming increasingly blurred between the technical and creative side, as both are so intertwined.
If we break things down into their various roles, then it becomes more obvious how everything sits together:
Digital Graphic Artists
First, we have the graphic artists, who design & put together the graphic icons and pictures that you see on a web page. These are not strictly web designers per-se, and more often than not are multimedia artists utilising graphic design & layout software, (like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator), to create the graphic building blocks and elements of the site. This part is more about artistic & creative ability than anything else.
Secondly, we have the web designers, who use design environments like Adobe Dreamweaver to create the layout and feel of the website. They use the graphics that are supplied by the artist, and often work with a client to initially create the feel and navigational structure of the site.
An amateur web designer tends to start with the 'form' of the website, rather than the 'function'. But, to truly create an effective site, you have to start with an understanding of what you need the site to actually do. This may be an online catalogue of products, or maybe it's an e-commerce site which needs to be able to sell directly from the page. Maybe you need to showcase products via video and a heavily graphical interface, or maybe it's mostly an informational site where the necessity is simple access to key text information.
No matter what you want from a site, it must - at it’s most basic level - fulfil the function for which it is designed. So many sites look fantastic but are a nightmare to navigate and find what you want - and so people leave and never return. The goal of any good web designer is to first and foremost create an experience that people enjoy and feel comfortable with - so they come back again.
Web Design Tools & Environments
The key tools used by web designers are their design environments, with Adobe Creative Suite being the most commercially popular. 'Dreamweaver' is the software that builds websites, with 'Flash' providing access to animated and interactive graphical content. Dreamweaver could be looked at as a glorified Word Processor in many ways. It allows you to place graphics and text according to certain rules and parameters, and then create basic interactivity through page-linking.
Dreamweaver (or any other web-design environment) creates HTML (HyperText Markup Language) program code in the background. This is the language of web-browsers, and is a script which essentially draws and controls the page you are viewing.
Paired with HTML are the layout tag languages like CSS & XML. These enable more streamlined HTML code and more efficient layout techniques, which will work on multiple platforms (as they are standardised). This means the page will look the same on MS Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Chrome, Opera, Safari etc. (at least, that's the idea!) So although you are placing graphic blocks and adding text, in the background, Dreamweaver is turning this into 'code'. A comprehensive understanding of these languages is very important if you are to be a commercially viable web-designer.
They will also generally have a strong understanding of SQL Database technology, as this is how most modern large sites store their information. A typical e-commerce site does not have a team of web designers who have created it’s thousands of pages in layout form. Instead, a place-holder template will have been created, and the contents will be dynamically inserted from a database. Besides being hugely more efficient to build, manage and update, it also aids in the feel of the site remaining constant.
Web Master is the general term used for the person who maintains and administers a website. This person can vary hugely in their abilities, from someone with no technical or design knowledge at all, like a forum administrator, up to a skilled systems architect. Typically, because of the scope of this term, it’s largely meaningless to use as a label, except as a point of contact for a website.
The term ‘Internet marketing’ has many different connotations. To many, it’s simply about affiliate marketing, to others it’s about developing a full ecommerce business. Essentially, it’s the intersection of a broad swath of business and commercially-oriented marketing skills including:
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)
An area which deals with how a website is indexed by the search engines - so that it may be found more easily (this can be an entire business in itself).
Search Engine Marketing (SEM)
This deals with all aspects of on-line marketing and getting actual visitors to your site; essentially traffic generation.
This is a huge area, but in broad terms, an affiliate marketer promotes services and products from another business - to earn commissions and bonuses. Their goal is to generate a large volume of traffic to specific landing-pages, to try and convert them into sales or leads for that business. Landing-pages can be hosted on their own-sites or provided by the company whose product is being marketed.
Niche Marketing (Google AdSense & ClickBank Revenue etc.)
Niche Marketing is all about building small websites on specific subjects, and then monetising that website with different forms of advertising and offers - which will hopefully earn the site-owner some money. Niche’s are generally picked based on the volume of traffic available across the internet for certain search-phrases, the commercial likelihood that visitors will actually buy something, and the site-owners expectation of how easy it will be to get a good ranking in the search engines – so that they can get the traffic required.
Google provides the AdSense service, which enables a site-owner to place targeted adverts from a wide variety of companies on their site, and then get paid when someone clicks on that advert. There are also many other competitors to AdSense, but Google’s offering is generally the most robust and well paid.
ClickBank, along with a number of other companies, provide a large database of online-delivery products that can be promoted and sold at a commission.
This should give you a rough overview of the different sides of the web industry, and enable you to get an idea of how they fit together. If you’re intending to be a full-scope, commercial web designer, or you want to start your own on-line business in any way, then you’ll find that you need a solid grounding in virtually all of the above areas, (with the exception of graphic design). Even if you don’t need in-depth training and understanding in every area, you’ll want to at least understand the terminology and concepts, so you can outsource the job to the right person and not get taken for a ride!
Most people start their online businesses small, and gradually build them up until they replace the income from their job. This is generally not as quick a process as most people would like it to be, as there is so much to grasp and learn. But, it is important to have realistic expectations and build the right foundations, as otherwise you could get into deep water financially.