March 26, 2021

Web Design Agency vs. Development & Why You Should Care

Web design and development are not the same. Web design is about beauty, while development is about brains. Both are important when finding the right agency.

Web Design is a Must Have for Any Business Today

COVID-19 simply sped up the digital delivery of products and services that has been happening for quite some time. However, with a much more crowded competitive landscape, a quality web design is a must have for any business today.

Nik Sundin has a great post on Medium argues “A well-designed website is now a necessity for any brand, and you need to hire the best creative agency to build it.”. This post outlines a list of web design agencies that make up the upper tier of web design firms.

With all respect to Nik, very few businesses could afford the prices these firms charge. We agree with Nik that there is an important tradeoff between budget and performance that each business needs to weigh.

In order to make those choices wisely, it is important to understand the difference between web design and development. At the high-end agencies, these come as a package. However, if you cannot afford tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars for your site, then you have some decision to make. 

Not all smaller companies have experience in both. Therefore, you may have to make some choices between cost, design, and performance when selecting a website design agency for your small business.

Web Design Agency What is Web Design

What is Web Design

When building a website, it is important to remember that your website is first, and foremost a communication and marketing tool. This is its primary focus, and to do it well, there are several elements that are required, namely user experience (UX), Branding, visual design, content, and marketing knowhow.

Marketing Know-How

Since we believe your website is a marketing tool first, it is so important that you know what problem you are trying to solve, for whom, and why that is valuable. Without understanding these things, and the best UX, design, and content will not drive sales. 

The Best Design Cannot Fix Bad Marketing. 

With all respect to our fellow web design agencies and developers, this is the point they miss most often. It is so much more important to know WHAT you want to say BEFORE you try to say it. 

Many will jump right in with UX and design when creating a website. While critically important, they are tools to help you communicate and not the end itself. 

Since many do not have years of experience in marketing, It is reasonable to gravitate to what you know, but if a clear marketing strategy and vision did not guide these tools, the result will be suboptimal.

Communication (n) - a thing we all do, but don’t fully understand

This is just a quick recap of what we covered in the psychology behind great web design. We just wanted to hit the highlights of this post as it is important ground to cover before.

Communication is messy, and we will cover the messy parts in UX, UI, and design as they weigh heavily on how our message is received. In marketing, it’s more about the goal behind the question. Communication is the what, but the needs drive the why. 

It is critical to understand the why behind the question so you can provide right answers. For this, we fall back on a very old, but still relevant model of needs.

Web Design Agency Maslov

Human needs states can be complicated, but most times, we can group them into simple areas. These areas set the context for consumer insights that we will cover in the next section.

Key Marketing Inputs Needed for Superb Web Design

There are four key elements needed BEFORE you start your web design and development efforts. They are: the customer insight, brand benefit, brand positioning, and brand identity.

Web Design Agency What is Web Design insight checklist

The customer insight is the emotional and rational need that your potential customer has that has caused him or her to seek your site. Maslov is a good starting point.

The brand benefit is how your product or service solves this need in some unique or meaningfully different way.

The brand positioning explains how your product or service differs from other competitive solutions.

Web Design Agency Positioning Statement

The brand identity is the personification of your brand in the consumer's mind. It is the avatar you wear when solving the problem. Your avatar could be a friendly neighbor, or it could be a trusted advisor, like a doctor. It is the voice in which you speak.

After reviewing these elements, I hope that is clear why these are so important to the next phases of web design. Your UX, visual design, and content depend so heavily on your identity and messaging that it only stands to reason this needs to come first.

It also drives all the digital experiences and digital marketing services that any digital marketing agency will use to reach your target audience and grow your business.

User Experience (UX)

As we covered in the Psychology behind great web design, communication is a complex blend of social process, symbols, meaning, and environment. It is not an isolated event, but a cumulative interaction which is influenced by the past, present, and expectations for the future.

Web Design Agency What is Communication

Simply put, there is a ton of clutter, noise, and baggage that your message needs to cut through in order to be heard and understood correctly. This is where UX, user interface design (UI), and graphic design come in.

Environmental Factors & Expectations

Customers already have experience with other sites. Therefore, they have set expectations as to what they will and will not accept. The site has to be intuitive, user-friendly, easy to navigate, easy to understand, visually appealing, and memorable. This has become the cost of entry.

Goal of UX is to Leave a Lasting Impression

An effective website leaves a positive impression on the user that lasts. Ensuring a positive experience for your user is easier said than done, but there are some core guiding principles.

Web Design Agency What is UX
User Research

Luckily for us, we’ve done this step because we put the marketing elements first. We know why a user is coming to visit us. We know what needs he or she is trying to meet and which questions he or she is likely to ask. This gives us a great head start in improving user experience.

Visual Design as a Navigational Tools

Users come to sites to find information. Users claim that finding information is seven times more important than visual elements. Therefore, we need to design with that information in mind and resist the temptation to add distractions.

User Friendly

The vast majority of users leave sites because they cannot find what they are looking for quickly. Therefore, the UX should be intuitive. If we know why they are searching for information, then make it easier for them to find it.

Visual Design

Visual Design is how we make UX happen. There are five fundamental elements that drive visual design on websites: scale, visual hierarchy, balance, contrast, and gestalt principles.

Web Design Agency Design Hierarchy


The size of the object is proportional to the importance of the information. 

Visual Hierarchy

The golden ratio is a good example of a visual hierarchy where the information is presented in a logical order, with the most important first and flowing in a sequential order to the least. 


Balance allows you to present equally important information across the screen. No one area is more important than the other. 


Allow you to highlight the differences between two areas or two opposing points 


This last principle is that nothing is perceived in a vacuum. Humans take the whole of the page into context. Therefore, it is not wise to use too many principles at once and to view them in the final format because full view may alter the meaning. 

Web Design Agency Branding


Branding is more than colors, names, and fonts. Branding is your voice. It is the tone and manner in which you send and receive messages. 

Your brand is your avatar. It needs to be consistent and congruent with your overall design.

User Interface (UI)

The user interface has to have the same intuitive and user friendly design as the rest of the site. A slow plug-in can ruin a beautiful interface and award winning design. If you follow the same principles above, then if there is a problem with the UI, it is more likely in the development end than the design end. Therefore, UI is a great segue into web development.

Web Design Agency Engagement

What is Web Development

Web Development is the behind the scenes coding that is required so that the website functions as expected. All the elements above required a solid foundation upon which to operate. For many, web development is a behind-the-scenes activity. However, given the impact it can have, it is very important to understand it.

Content Management Systems (CMS)

This is the most popular form of development platform used by web developers and web designers today. You probably know them by their brand names, WordPress, Wix, etc. 

Web development has a set operating system, hosting, and theme. The coding is complete and exists in a format which can be modified.

CMS has made it easy, inexpensive and fast to get sites up and running. However, they have trade-offs that need to be considered.

Web Design Agency CMS


The significant advantage of a CMS is convenience. Users with little to no experience in web development can get a site live in minutes. Now, that site is likely to put a heavy burden on the browser as much of the code and content will need to be parsed, the hosting may be slow or shared, and the list goes on. 


The fundamental trade-off is performance in terms of speed. This is especially true on mobile. 

Not only does the browser have to build the page, but also figure out how to shrink it without affecting the user’s experience. 

For example, a ten-room mansion will not fit on a 100 sq. ft. plot of land. Therefore, something must give either load times, user experience, and/or both.

As you can see, you can spend all that effort on designing a great UX only to have it fail because of a poor choice in website development.

The other drawback is in the user interface, as there is a fair amount of plug in use. Plug-ins can be slow to load or execute, which can further hinder the experience.

Custom Web Design

These are sites built by web developers. We built them using just the code required to provide the web design effect you desire. UX is not hampered by coding. We build the code specifically for the UX and UI you desire.

Custom provides fast performance without sacrificing high quality. However, this performance comes at a price. High-end design firms typically use a custom or hybrid model, which is why they are more expensive than CMS based solutions.

Hybrid Model

Theme optimization also requires a developer. He or she would physically remove the excess code from your theme. This requires significant coding knowledge to do it correctly.

The hybrid model provides speed similar to a custom while allowing some of the same convenience features of the theme and its platform. Hybrid models are cheaper. It can lessen the impact of plug-ins, but it cannot eliminate them.

Web Design Agency Right for You

How to find the Right Balance for You

This can be one of the most challenging decisions to make when you are just starting out. Pricing varies widely, and it is really hard to compare apples to apples. 

I mean the following chart as a rough guide of what to expect for different web design services available.

This is not definitive, but it provides you with the tradeoffs that you will need to consider when deciding your budget.

CMS: WordPress, Wix, etc. use their platform and a purchased theme. The cost of the theme is inclusive of the price. This assumes a basic package.

CMS Optimization: Uses the theme above but makes changes and optimization to the code so that it runs better on mobile devices.

Custom: Is a fully custom build design or uses a ‘custom’ like platform such as Webflow, where the code and site can be downloaded and housed on any server

Visual Design: Follows visual design principles as outlined in the previous sections. Typically, this is stock art with some customizations. Cost of photography, video, etc. is typically passed through to the client at cost.

Marketing Expertise: Guides you through the full branding process from the need state, through insight, benefit, and ending with positioning and brand identity

Content Creation: Creates the copy with your input based on the marketing strategy and SEO strategy which build on the key questions from the marketing strategy.

Mobile UX/UI: Ensures fully responsive and fast to provide seamless UX and UI across all platforms.

Web Design Agency Pricing Table & Expecations

In Summary...

With a web design agency, the result depends on the amount you have to invest. Not everyone can afford to invest the sums shown above. Therefore, it is important to set your expectations accordingly. 

Unfortunately, many web design agencies will promise you anything to get your business. If the promises are wildly different from the chart above, it is wise to be skeptical.

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About the Author

Brian Cairns, CEO of Prostrategix Consulting. Over 25 years of business experience as a corporate executive, entrepreneur, and small business owner. For more information, please visit my LinkenIn profile

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