What Does an Instructional Designer Do? [+ Career Info & FAQs]
Instructional design — an important education-related field that traces its roots to World War II — is certainly in the spotlight these days. That’s because employers in academia and across all industries are seeking skilled learning designers to create high-quality online education and training experiences for students and employees alike.
This significant trend is driven partly by the COVID-19 pandemic, of course, but also by the ongoing economic shift toward more and more work being done remotely. But exactly what is instructional design? And what does an instructional designer do?
While the “day in the life” of an instructional designer will vary greatly, there are certain key skills and knowledge that are common to many of today’s most interesting instructional designer jobs. Such jobs typically attract people who have a curious mind, a penchant for lifelong learning and a desire to engage in meaningful education-related work. Additional common denominators include strong demand and healthy salaries for professionals who possess sought-after skills, education and experience.
Read on for an in-depth look at the types of work being performed by instructional designers across a wide range of industries and professional settings, as well as common job responsibilities and career FAQs.
What is Instructional Design?
After many decades playing an essential, often behind-the-scenes role in helping people learn needed knowledge and skills, the field of instructional design — also increasingly referred to today as learning design — suddenly (or perhaps not so suddenly) finds itself on the front lines.
Inside Higher Ed refers to the field as “The Hottest Job in Higher Education,” but that’s just part of the story. Unofficially, it’s also one of the hottest jobs across multiple fields, with strong career opportunities in businesses, government agencies, nonprofits and organizations of all shapes, sizes and missions.
Instructional Design [Definition]
“Instructional design is the process by which learning products and experiences are designed, developed and delivered. These learning products include online courses, instructional manuals, video tutorials, learning simulations, etc.,” according to Instructional Design Central, an online community that connects instructional design-related professionals across the nation and around the globe.
As mentioned above, the field of instructional design dates back to World War II, when America’s war effort included immense training needs that demanded a highly effective and methodological approach.
“Their aim was to find the most efficient way of training up new pilots, navigators and other crewmen. This resulted in the development of military training content based around principles of good instruction and behavioral science,” according to a history offered by the online learning firm Growth Engineering.
The field of instructional design has evolved significantly from its wartime origins to the present era, with today’s professionals using new technologies and also incorporating “design thinking” principles intended to better understand the learners for whom materials are being created. However, the practice of taking a theory-based approach to helping people learn what they need to know has remained constant.
Key principles and characteristics of instructional design include the need for learning solutions that are:
- Theory-driven: Guided by research-based best practices about how people learn
- Query-driven: Developed by asking the right questions, including those intended to best understand the learner and the objectives
- Data-driven: Built on information that includes interviews with subject matter experts (SMEs) and learners, program evaluation data, outcomes data and more
- Outcomes-driven: Created with attention to defining and adhering to well-defined instructional goals and objectives, and tied to measurable outcomes and success metrics
What is an Instructional Designer?
Instructional designers are the “architects” of a wide range of learning experiences, says Instructional Design Central, using their unique skills, often in collaboration with subject matter experts, to “create and deliver learning products for business, K-12, higher education and government organizations.”
IDC also reports that, in addition to widespread applications in academia, more and more organizations are “turning toward instructional designers to solve business performance problems through the delivery of effective learning experiences.”
Instructional design blogger and consultant Devlin Peck notes that, “In today’s world, the position ‘instructional designer’ has come to represent a wide array of job tasks and responsibilities. Most often, instructional designers interview SMEs, write instructional content, create storyboards, and then develop the storyboards into interactive eLearning experiences. They may also develop job aids, facilitator guides, slide decks, and other learning deliverables.”
In addition to instructional designer, there is a wide range of job titles for those working in instructional design and related disciplines, including:
- Learning Designer
- Learner Experience Designer
- Learning Strategist
- Instructional Designer
- Content Developer
- Curriculum Coordinator
- Corporate Trainer
- Project Manager
- Educational Consultant
- Curriculum Developer
- Instructional Design Technologist
- Educational Technologist
- eLearning Designer
- Learning Strategies Director
Instructional Designer Job Descriptions [+ Key Responsibilities]
Excelling in the field of instructional design requires proficiency not just in key technology tools, but also in the theories and best practices that provide the framework for using such tools to create meaningful and highly effective learning experiences.
Key tools used by instructional designers include:
- Articulate 360’s Storyline 360 (see video), which “empowers you to create any interactive eLearning course you can imagine for any device imaginable, from desktop and laptop computers to tablets and smartphones”
- Adobe Captivate (see video), described by the company as “an all-in-one solution for creating incredible eLearning that meets the needs of your on-the-go audience”
Instructional designers and learning designers wear many hats, including but not necessarily limited to:
- Collaborator – Utilizing teamwork skills (coordination, communication, adaptability, decision making) to contribute to project success.
- Communicator – Possessing strong written and verbal skills to communicate effectively with clients, collaborators and learners.
- Content Creator – Producing instructional materials used to support various learning activities within a range of learning environments.
- Content Curator – Collecting, organizing and sharing relevant web-based content.
- Course Designer – In higher ed, this involves collaborating with faculty on course delivery decisions as well as course builds and maintenance within a Learning Management System (LMS); in corporate ID work, course design tasks can include curriculum development and storyboarding for eLearning courses.
- Lifelong Learner – Keeping knowledge and skills up to date and staying abreast of how the field is evolving.
- Problem Solver – Taking a process-oriented approach to designing solutions.
- Project Manager – Working with subject matter experts, managing client expectations; keeping projects on track, within scope and budget, delivered on time.
- Thinker – Being creative, thinking outside the box, employing empathy to address the needs of all learners.
- Trainer – Delivering instructor-led or virtual instructor-led training sessions.
Career website TheBalanceCareers.com breaks down the fundamental duties and responsibilities of instructional designers as follows:
- Write learning objectives
- Determine the scope of educational projects
- Create the layout of the instructional material
- Work with subject matter experts
- Write content
- Develop audio, visual, and interactive media aids
- Plan and create assessments
Peck, the blogger/consultant, goes in-depth about instructional design theories, principles and methodologies in a comprehensive blog post titled “How to Become an Instructional Designer.”
Different Types of Instructional Designer Careers
Connie Malamed, a consultant and author who runs “The eLearning Coach” website, explains that the roles and responsibilities “can be so diverse and varied, that you might not even recognize there’s an instructional designer (or learning experience designer) behind the curtain.” In a post titled “Finding Your Place in an Instructional Design Career,” she lists 12 potential pathways for current and aspiring IDs:
- Working in corporate, nonprofit, academic or government settings
- Designing internal, client-based or commercial products (ex. internal training)
- Designing for specific audience types (age groups, other languages of learning needs)
- Working with a small or large team (can affect scope of responsibilities)
- Becoming a content specialist/SME (if you have a special area of interest)
- Designing for different types of media experiences and learning formats
- Working as a technical specialist or developer (focusing on the tech side of ID)
- Working as a media specialist (ex. audio, video, graphics production)
- Becoming a project manager
- Working in curriculum design (devising strategies to meet agreed-upon goals)
- Managing an LMS (Learning Management System)
- Working as a community manager (facilitating engagement in online communities)
Where Do Instructional Designers Work?
From higher education and corporations to government agencies, nonprofits and more, instructional design is in play practically everywhere today. That’s because organizations of all types — health care, financial services, retail and eCommerce, manufacturing, security, etc. — are moving toward conducting more of their employee training and education needs online or remotely.
Big business sees opportunity to work more efficiently and cost effectively; for example, IBM reportedly saved $200 million by switching to online training. But it’s also about getting essential educational materials into the hands and laptops of key people when and where they need it.
The changing balance between onsite vs. remote engagement — both in education and in the workforce — creates unprecedented career opportunities for educators, trainers and others who have the skills needed to create online education and training materials, designed with user experience and optimal learning in mind.
A quick search for instructional designer and learning designer jobs at LinkedIn reveals several thousand listings at companies in technology, health care, financial services, food, retail/eCommerce, gaming and more, as well as colleges and universities. Familiar names seeking instructional designers include Google, Amazon, Tesla, Microsoft, Uber, Facebook, Fidelity, Morgan Stanley, Gartner, Xerox, Harvard, US Foods, GrubHub, Chewy, GoHealth, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Bergdorf Goodman, Yamaha, General Dynamics and many more.
In addition to public schools, many colleges and universities (Harvard, Cornell, BYU, etc.) and the U.S. Government, employment website Glassdoor reports that top companies hiring instructional designers include: Apple, Bank of America, UnitedHealth Group, Lockheed Martin, HubSpot, Southwest Airlines, IBM, Nike, Fitbit and, yes, LinkedIn.
Required Education for an Instructional Designer
Most instructional design jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree. And it is common to see learning designer job listings that specify: bachelor’s degree required; master’s degree preferred.
The blogger/consultant Peck puts it this way, “In short: you don’t need a master’s degree, but it will definitely help.” He adds, “there are a few situations in which having a degree may be necessary. This is particularly true for higher education positions and some government contracts.”
If you do choose to earn an instructional design or learning design master’s degree, be sure to select a program that has an expert faculty of experienced learning designers/educators who work closely with you to develop market-ready skills that employers are looking for.
A survey of 853 instructional design professionals (the Intentional Futures report funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) indicates that some 87% of instructional designers have earned a master’s degree.
Instructional Design in Action (the ADDIE Model)
The ADDIE model is one of the central tenets of instructional design. The familiar acronym stands for the five key stages of the instructional design process: Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation and Evaluation.
Devlin Peck calls it “the most well-known framework for designing instruction to improve human performance.”
Developed by Florida State University’s Center for Educational Technology in the 1970s, it is still vital to the field today, though there are contrasting opinions as to whether the model should be followed religiously or used as an essential set of guidelines.
“Despite the acronym’s popularity in the field of learning and development, organizations rarely follow the ADDIE model as it was originally defined,” says Peck. “Instead, organizations pull pieces from ADDIE and adapt them to use with other models as they see fit.”
“Modern learning and development professionals should exhibit mastery in each of the 5 phases,” says Peck. And eLearning Industry calls it “the best way to learn how to create an online course.”
A review of the ADDIE model by some of the experts cited above breaks down the process as follows:
Start by asking questions that help you “create training with the right audience and learning goal in mind.” Key questions include:
- Who is the target audience of the course?
- How much do they know about the subject?
- What are the desired learning outcomes?
This is often described as outlining the course or learning material, according to eLearning Industry, which says, “Some instructional designers create a simple bulleted outline or mind map, but the most common type of outline is a storyboard.” The storyboard is “a slide-by-slide draft of the actual course” that will often include description of graphics or other multimedia elements and a script.
This is “the building phase,” says eLearning Industry, “when you finally get to dive into your favorite eLearning tool to create the course.” Peck notes that in most cases, “development is conducted by the same instructional designers who design the instruction” — typically using “a rapid authoring tool, such as Articulate Storyline or Adobe Captivate.”
This phase involves delivering the completed course to the learners, either virtually or face-to-face. “For eLearning,” says Peck, “this means putting the courses or activities on the learning management system (LMS), enrolling members from the target audience, and notifying them that the courses are available and/or required.”
This phase is about measuring the effectiveness of the course or training materials.
According to ELM Learning, this means assessing such questions as: “Did the learners learn what you wanted them to learn? Were they able to apply new skills? Were they motivated to learn? You can find out by checking assessment targets through the LMS, surveying learners and instructors, conducting interviews — whatever method you choose to get feedback.”
Career Advice from Experts [+ Instructional Design Resources]
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:
- E-Learning Heroes – community sponsored by Articulate
- Instructional Design Central – LinkedIn group hosted by industry advocate IDC
According to Malamed, “Many organizations hire instructional designers to create internal training for their own employees. This might include training required to meet regulations, to improve workplace performance and for professional development. Organizations also create custom learning experiences for external clients. Some develop education and training products for the marketplace. The pressures, deadlines and focus of each of these approaches will affect the intensity of the workplace environment.”
Peck outlines the differences between higher education and corporate instructional design work, as well as full-time vs. self-employed IDs, in his comprehensive “How To” post.
Instructional design bloggers/consultants:
Blog posts and guides:
- How to Become an Instructional Designer [+ Career & Salary Guide]| USD MS-LDT
- 12 Fresh Instructional Design Trends To Explore | Skyepack
- A Quick Guide to Four Instructional Design Models | Shift Learning
- 15 Instructional Design Books You Should Know About | eLearning Coach
Instructional Design Job FAQs
Q: Why is instructional design such an in-demand career field these days?
A: Partly in response to both COVID-19 and other economic trends, companies of all types and sizes across all industries are moving toward conducting more and more of their employee training online. Educational institutions are also greatly expanding their emphasis on virtual and online offerings.
Q: How much do instructional designers get paid?
A: Salary information from employment websites shows annual pay starting in the $65k range and tracking much higher depending on the employer and the level of responsibility. Figures are subject to change as new data comes in, but here is a sampling of instructional designer salary ranges as of the publication of this report:
- ZipRecruiter lists an average salary of $80,182, ranging up to $132,500
- Glassdoor lists an average salary of $70,173, ranging up to $100,000
- Salary.com lists an average salary of $76,690, ranging up to $93,120
Q: Is the field of learning design accessible to career changers?
A: Yes. Thanks to the growing need for professionals with learning design skills, it is expected that many future learning designers will come from a range of other life experiences, professional backgrounds and areas of expertise.
The report is brought to you by the University of San Diego’s career-building, online Master of Science in Learning Design and Technology degree program.