There are two types of people who design websites. The first, who I'll refer to as Type 1, is someone who's less experienced or not fully focused on web design and lets technical issues or the constraints of an off-the-shelf template dictate the end web site product. The second, called Type 2, is someone who figures out what the site must do to be relevant and meet business goals and then designs the site so it does exactly that.
The major difference between these two types of web designers is the manner in which they approach the problem. Some web designers launch into full-scale development or production without a real process to make sure what they're doing is valid-- they're so concerned with making the website fit into doing what they know how to do or what their template will let it do. Other web designers will work to understand their clients and what they're really trying to achieve and can leverage their design tools by using a process-- this allows them to use what they do know and learn what they don't know to deliver what the client needs.
Type 1 Web Designers: The Wrong
With some tweaks, some graphic changes, and some fumbling with CSS this designer will create a website. Their focus may stray from what the web site actually needs to do as they get bogged down in trying to make their generic solution fit a specific need.
Type 1 designers can strike it lucky sometimes and end up with a web site that actually does what it needs to do to be effective. Unfortunately, it's a gamble since their site design is influenced more by creative or technical limitations than business limitations.
Type 2 Web Designers: The Right
Type 2 designers are focused on the business objectives and end goals for the website from the start. They have the right know-how and tools to then go and design and create the site. Their most important tool is actually their process since everything else done to create the site can succeed or fail based on this approach.
Sitemaps, wireframes, mockups, and color pallets are all things that should be discussed initially before much, if any, code gets laid down. A Type 2 designer will work with the client to discover the right ways to meet their objectives using tools like these.
The Process Your Web Designer Uses is Crucial
A simple process I use in creating websites can be summed-up by the terms: Discover. Design. Do it. There is no single process that covers every situation, but this one has been distilled enough for description that it's applicable to most of the projects I work on.
This phase begins the second a designer learns of a potential project and continues through the sales phase until there is good understanding of what the web site ultimately needs to do to be valuable to the client.
This phase uses discovered information and exposes information that still needs to be discovered. A list of features, a site map, color scheme, pictures, basic content, wireframes, and mockups in a graphics program are the result of this phase.
Wireframes are meant to focus on the placement and location of site items and are typically grayscale. Mockups should mimic the end product and look of the site by using the actual colors, pictures, shading, fonts, sizes, etc. The mockup will actually be used for creating graphic elements on the site.
The do it phase is where the actual site is created and coded-up. Sometimes, this phase might overlap earlier phases a bit if rapid protyping is needed to prove-out functionality or if developers who aren't effected by other factors need to get started developing new features or functionality to be used in the finished site.
This is the phase where Type 1 designers tend to start, if only after a brief bit of discovery or design ideas. Type 2 designers already have a very specific plan of what needs to happen once they're at this phase. In fact, they could go off and probably create a very effective and finished site even if they didn't talk with the client anymore.
An Iterative Process
An important fact to remember is this process is iterative at every point. In other words, you may repeat the discovery phase after doing some design. Or, you may redo things after designing them. However, the further along you get in the process, the more resources you must expend to make changes or more iterations.
Conclusion: The Process Defines The Designer & The Site
Typically, Type 2 designers were Type 1 designers at some point-- we all have to start learning somewhere! The real difference between the two types of designers is the process (or lack of process) they use. The process is like an architect's blueprints and will have great influence on how well a web site will perform the day it's launched as well as 3, 6, or 12-months down the line when changes need to be made to it.