How to Become an Instructional Designer [6-Step Guide]

5 min read
How to Become an Instructional Designer [6-Step Guide]

Nowadays, it seems like employers everywhere are looking for skilled instructional designers. This fast-growing career field features good-paying jobs across a wide variety of industries such as education, government, business, manufacturing and more.

However, while there is much interest among curious, creative professionals seeking their next opportunity, there is also some uncertainty about how to become an instructional designer. Read on for some insider tips and strategies for success.

Instructional design is rapidly increasing in popularity with job opportunities coming from a wide variety of industries such as education, government, business, manufacturing and more. But while this career is highly in demand, many people are unsure of how to enter the field.

Research by EdSurge indicates that some 87% of instructional designers have earned a master’s degree. And while earning your master’s may be the best pathway for those serious about launching or advancing a career in learning design, there are many other steps you can take to expand your knowledge of the field and position yourself for success.

The 9 Reasons You Should Consider a Career in Instructional Design (Plus Salary Info) — Get The Guide >>

How to Become an Instructional Designer

Online research reveals a wealth of information about career pathways for aspiring learning designers. One of the most comprehensive sources is blogger/consultant Devlin Peck’s informative post on “How to Become an Instructional Designer.” Peck’s expert insight highlights three simple steps to becoming an instructional designer. However, the instructional and learning design experts at the University of San Diego recommend a few additional steps.

1. Learn Instructional Design Theory & Skills

 Essential theories, principles and frameworks are integral to the practice of instructional design, as is experience using the leading technological tools. The needed technical skills typically include software such as Articulate Storyline 360, Adobe Photoshop, as well as familiarity with graphic design, HTML5 and learning management systems (LMS).

2. Network

Growing your professional network is, of course, a highly recommended strategy for learning about any area of interest while also developing contacts whose knowledge and connections may prove helpful as you work toward your goals. Online events, conferences and social media platforms like Twitter and the Instructional Design Forum on LinkedIn are also helpful in networking. Dr. Luke Hobson shares his perspective on Why Instructional Designers Need to Use LinkedIn to Build Their Network, on his blog dedicated to instructional design in higher education.

Fortunately, the field of instructional design features an engaged and supportive online community of industry professionals who are eager to share information and ideas. In addition to Devlin Peck and Connie Malamed, helpful online resources include:

3. Create a Strong Online Portfolio

Your Instructional Design Portfolio should represent the best of what you know and are able to do in the field of instructional/learning design. There are many sources of information about why and how to build your portfolio. The Association for Talent Development, a professional organization of learning and development professionals, offers 10 key tips for Developing Your Portfolio as an Innovative Instructional Designer.  

Devlin Peck also offers detailed strategies for how to build your instructional design portfolio, sharing examples from his own work and that of other accomplished instructional designers, and stating that one of the best ways to expand your understanding of what is possible in instructional design is to “draw inspiration from others.”

He suggests that key elements of your online portfolio include:

  1. Projects: Sounds obvious, but “your instructional design projects should be front and center on your portfolio site.”
  2. Picture of yourself: Optional, but helpful in establishing a connection, credibility and trust.
  3. About page: Sharing well-chosen words about your work experience, your passion for the work or telling your “story,” can also be instrumental in connecting with employers.
  4. Testimonials: Peck emphasizes their importance, saying, “Potential clients and employers don’t want to just take your word about how great you are — they want to see what others have had to say.”
  5. Logo: Not mandatory, “but including a logo and branding assets will help differentiate your site.
  6. Contact page or call to action: “Your portfolio site should invite the viewer to take the next step and reach out to you,” through a contact form or a prominently displayed email address.

4. Get Experience

Finding a way to get practical experience can be challenging for those who are just getting started, but beginning to learn the tools and theories and then using your skills and knowledge to begin creating sample projects is a great way to develop and display your skills.

Perhaps there are opportunities at your current job to gain experience in creating training materials (for example, using PowerPoint and other tools to put together work-related presentations). Another great source of inspiration are the instructional design challenges posted on the Go Design Something website. Site creator K. Anthony says, if you’ve wanted to get started on a project but you couldn’t figure out how to get started, this is the site to get you going.

5. Earn a Master’s Degree

In a field where a high percentage of practitioners have a master’s degree under their belt (87%, according to EdSurge), earning an advanced degree is a proven way to accomplish all of the actions discussed above while learning everything about the profession from experienced instructional designers.

Today, there is a growing number of master’s degree programs training the next generation of learning designers and ID industry leaders. For example, the University of San Diego has just launched an innovative, online Master of Science in Learning Design and Technology degree program that is designed to meet the needs of aspiring learning designers, as well as the employers who are seeking skilled professionals.

The USD Learning Design and Technology master’s degree program is designed to be a comprehensive, career-building educational experience for those new to the profession, as well as established instructional designers looking to expand their skills, as well as their project management and ID leadership capabilities, to advance in the field or explore related opportunities.

The program, delivered in a fully online format that is ideal for working professionals, places strong emphasis on grooming successful instructional design practitioners. Throughout the MS-LDT program, students work to build a peer-evaluated online portfolio that showcases instructional design skills and projects, and can be used to wow prospective employers when applying for jobs or promotions.

The 9 Reasons You Should Consider a Career in Instructional Design (Plus Salary Info) — Get The Guide >>

6. Ace the Interview

When preparing for job interviews, get all of your professional materials organized and prepare to answer questions that best illustrate your knowledge and experience. Some good interview prep steps include:

  • Update your portfolio
  • Have a good story to tell
  • Identify what excites you about instructional design
  • Be prepared to discuss your process, design decisions and evaluation measures
  • Choose particular challenges to discuss and your strategies for working around roadblocks
  • Prepare situational answers if prompted with hypothetical scenarios

Armed with demonstrable experience, a robust portfolio and a master’s degree from a reputable university, you will surely be able to make the jump into the exciting field of instructional design.

See overview: University of San Diego – Master of Science in Learning Design and Technology

9 Things to Know About Careers in Instructional Design

Explore Your Future in This Exciting, High-Paying, In-Demand Field

9 things to know about a career in industrial design ebook cover