What design job titles really mean

Job titles can be a confusing way to navigate the employment market. For example, what some employers might refer to as a front-end developer, another will call a web designer.

But while there are no hard-and-fast rules about what you have to call a particular role when advertising, there are a certain set of accepted role names that broadly share similar responsibilities. With this in mind, and in the interests of helping demystify who does what, check out some of the most common job titles below, and what they really mean.

Keep in mind that it's all open to interpretation though, so if you're looking for a job be sure to carefully read the job specification before applying!

01. Designer/graphic designer/web designer

Whether you're a graphic designer, web designer or just plain designer, you'll need the same basic understanding of design principles

Whether you're a graphic designer, web designer or just plain designer, you'll need the same basic understanding of design principles

We'll start with the easy ones. As a general rule, if a job title features the word 'designer' within it, you can expect the role to include a degree of actual designing.

A designer will typically be using software such as Photoshop and/or Illustrator on a daily basis, alongside any additional software related to the specialism (such as a print designer using InDesign, a cloth designer using ScotWeave and so on).

A web designer will likely be using skills in HTML and CSS, and most probably also in JavaScript on a daily basis. Some employers will also expect you to be conversant with Photoshop - taking a practical approach to creating mockups and flats - while others view the term 'web designer' as being almost synonymous with 'front-end developer' (see 05), so it's always important to read the job description and person specification carefully.

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02. Art director/creative director

Jenny Theolin (https://twitter.com/JennyTheolin) has followed the classic design path from art director to creative director

Jenny Theolin (https://twitter.com/JennyTheolin) has followed the classic design path from art director to creative director

An art director sets the overall tone and timbre for a piece of work. This can be the way that a stage is dressed and lit for a theatre production, the choice of colour palette for a movie, the acquisition and theme of a photo shoot or defining the values and graphic approach to a website.

An art director is typically a fairly senior position, although at smaller firms you may find that there are elements of this included within the broader term 'graphic designer' when dealing with print or web. For the career-minded, art director can be a stepping stone to creative director – the top of the design tree.

As Gary Holt of branding agency SomeOne explains: "A great creative director is someone who's able to build an environment and ethos where the very best ideas can be born and thrive. Then fills that environment with the brightest talent. If they can find and retain the brightest, then the agency shines. Harbor the dullest and the agency flame soon goes out."

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03. Motion designer

Motion designers create animated graphics and titles

Motion designers create animated graphics and titles

You'll normally find a motion designer in the broadcast or movie industries, working specifically on creating animated graphics and titles. They'll typically use the likes of Apple Motion, After Effects, Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro, Avid and possibly Maya, 3D Studio Max and other modelling software.

As with all the job titles we've listed here, it's really important to check the job specification because sometimes this role will require a lot of experience in 3D, while other jobs with the same title require none.

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04. Web developer

Unlike a designer, a web developer role usually doesn't involve any visual designing at all. You'll be focused on the back end of a website, coding in languages such as PHP, Ruby, C# and VB.NET. This role is unlikely to have any direct access to or influence over the design or presentation of a website. Not to be confused with...

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05. Front-end developer

Unlike the web developer (see 04), a front-end developer does get involved in creating the visual presentation of a website. They will typically translate a mockup into a fully functioning website.

The skills used for this role include HTML, CSS and JavaScript, although sometimes there may be some low-level backend work thrown in too. Traditionally a front-end developer would get more involved in the implementation, and less in the design of the website itself. However, there is increasing cross-over between the front-end developer and web designer roles, to the extent that some use the terms interchangeably.

Next page: more design job titles and what they mean

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Sam Hampton-Smith

Sam is a designer and illustrator based in Scotland, UK. He splits his time between art and design, motion and video and writing for various creative titles. He has written a book about web design, Pro CSS3 Layout Techniques and contributed to typography book, Fonts and Typefaces Made Easy.