What skills do you need as an instructional designer?
Today, you’ll learn what it takes to get to the top of the industry with 15 must-have instructional design skills.
Ready to get started? Let’s dive in.
Instructional designers are responsible for creating educational materials that make learning easier. So, as an instructional designer, you need to be able to analyze your learners' needs and develop relevant learning materials for them.
You also need to be skilled in using technology and various forms of media to present learning materials in a way that helps people absorb information effectively.
Ok, so what separates a top instructional designer from an average one? Here’s what you need to know.
People ask me what skills they need to become top instructional designers, but honestly, there’s no cookie-cutter answer. Some instructional design jobs will highlight specific skills more than others.
With that said, there are a few common skills that you should consider adding to your portfolio and resume.
For example, my own hiring manager report shows what skills hiring managers are interested in. These skills, which I’ve listed below, will help you stand out from your peers as an instructional designer.
Besides skills, hiring managers are especially interested in:
In many cases, a hiring manager will even be willing to overlook the lack of a dedicated degree, be it a bachelor’s or master’s degree.
While 42.6% of hiring managers do prefer hiring IDs with a bachelor’s degree, and 33.7% emphasize IDs with a master’s degree, you can land a job in ID without either. How? By having the right skills.
Instead of focusing solely on your educational credentials, many hiring managers will hone in on your overall body of work and the additional skills you’ve developed.
So, what are those skills? Let’s find out.
In my opinion, there are 15 skills that every instructional designer really needs. Others are “nice to have” but less vital.
Take a look below to figure out which ones you already have in your toolbox, and which ones you should prioritize learning.
Articulate Storyline is currently the most popular rapid authoring tool out there. So, as an instructional designer, you need to know how to use it. In fact, 86.1% of hiring managers from my report consider Storyline one of the top three tools and technologies IDs should know.
In other words? It’s not a tool you want to miss. Not only is it powerful and intuitive, but it also provides an easy-to-use interface for creating engaging, interactive learning experiences.
IDs widely use it to create:
With Storyline 360, you can create interactive content that’s viewable on any device, including desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Ultimately, it’s the go-to tool for most instructional designers.
Check out this video where I show you how to learn Storyline:
And in this video, we build an example project together:
Or, if you want to dive deep and create your own portfolio projects, check out the Storyline Project Lab. In this program, you’ll learn how to develop like a pro while creating stand-out projects for your portfolio.
As my student James notes:
“The most amazing thing is that I was able to get my first full-time instructional design position recently by utilizing the techniques that I learned early in the lab. They helped me ace the practice assignment and secure the job.”
As one of the most in-demand ID skills on this list, 74.3% of hiring managers look at eLearning development when filling a role.
That’s a big percentage. So, why is this skill in demand?
Because as technology advances, so too does the potential for eLearning. Businesses and organizations want to offer their employees and customers convenient, effective, and engaging educational experiences.
And, you guessed it: eLearning is an ideal way to do that.
With the right tools and strategies in place, instructional designers can create powerful, interactive online learning experiences tailored to learners' specific needs.
At its core, eLearning development is about creating digital learning materials, like online courses, learning modules, and interactive activities.
So, to ensure that eLearning content is compelling and engaging, you need to understand your learners’ needs and then design learning experiences that are tailored to them.
You also need to be familiar with the latest technologies and trends. This includes using the latest tools, software, and instructional design models.
And finally, you also need to ensure that the materials are properly tested and evaluated by testing usability, accessibility, and effectiveness, and ensuring that the materials are up-to-date.
Let’s move on to the next skill – communication.
For instructional designers, soft skills are as important as some of the more technical instructional design skills on this list. In fact, 65.3% of hiring professionals look at communication as a crucial skill when evaluating a candidate.
So, this is definitely something to work on.
As an instructional designer, you have to work effectively with others, including Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and graphic designers. Strong writing, storyboarding, and verbal communication skills will help you effectively communicate with clients and create the content required in your role.
When working with clients, you need to articulate a project's goals and objectives clearly. You also need to come up with creative and innovative ideas that will bring the client’s vision to life. Being able to think critically and come up with out-of-the-box solutions is essential.
Here’s another essential skill to have: writing.
As an instructional designer, you’ll need to be able to write content that’s both engaging and informative. You might be writing storyboards, scripts, and even emails to key stakeholders.
Whatever it is, it’s crucial to have good writing skills and articulate complex concepts in an easy-to-understand way.
Instructional design theory and science is just as relevant now as it was years ago. ID theory and science help instructional designers in several ways. For example, you can:
Understanding ID theory extends to hireability, too. In fact, 61.4% of hiring professionals consider this a top-three skill, and 24.8% think it’s a skill that current applicants need to improve on.
A learning management system (or LMS, such as Blackboard and TalentLMS) can store, manage, and deliver learning materials directly to learners. Plus, with an LMS, you can quickly and easily update courses as needed to reflect any content changes.
Understandably, instructional design and an LMS are handy for organizations with many employees. By using an LMS, organizations can offer all of their employees access to a wide range of learning materials, no matter where they’re located. This helps ensure that they can roll out learning experiences to the exact audiences that need them.
Beyond just providing access to learning materials, though, an LMS can also be used to track employee progress and performance. So, for example, an instructional designer can use an LMS to administer tests, quizzes, and other assessments to ensure employees are getting the most out of their learning experience.
You can also leverage an LMS to host webinars, discussion boards, and other online events, which allow employees to participate in real-time learning sessions and discuss relevant topics.
So, what’s the bottom line about LMS skills? They’re in demand.
In fact, when you look through my hiring manager report, you’ll see that an impressive 49.5% of hiring managers think knowing how to use an LMS is important.
Check out my video on this topic here:
47.5% of hiring managers think Microsoft PowerPoint is still a mission-critical skill, and I agree (especially if you need to design instructor-led sessions). After all, it is one of the most popular presentation tools available today.
When used correctly, PowerPoint can be an invaluable tool. By taking the time to understand the program and its features, instructional designers can create engaging and effective presentations that will help learners grasp new concepts quickly and easily.
Adult learning theory is the study of how adults learn – and it’s an essential skill for instructional designers. As I mentioned above, 61.4% of hiring managers think it’s important that their candidates know how to apply ID theory. What’s more, 69.3% want their candidates to understand the ADDIE model.
So, what is the ADDIE model?
ADDIE stands for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation. By following the five steps of ADDIE, instructional designers can create compelling learning experiences that meet their learners’ needs.
Other popular adult learning theories include:
In this video, I talk more about adult learning theories and how to approach them in a practical way:
61.4% of hiring professionals think being able to write learning objectives is a must-have skill.
And that makes sense. After all, successfully meeting such learning objectives is the ultimate goal of any project.
In other words, the audience needs to understand exactly what they should be able to do after completing the learning experience. So, establishing learning objectives provides a framework for the project and ensures that all involved parties clearly understand the intended result.
Learning objectives guide your instructional design and help you make strong instructional design decisions. Basically, everything in your project should be aligned with the learning objectives.
To create learning objectives, start with the stem, which sets up the format for the objectives themselves.
(“By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:__”)
After that, start each objective with a strong action verb. Make sure you keep them measurable and meaningful.
Ask yourself how you’ll know if someone has achieved the objective by the end of the lesson. Will they have learned something they can apply in real life?
Here’s more on how to write strong learning objectives:
Cognitive load can be a make-or-break factor in instructional design since it affects how much information learners can remember and how quickly they can process new concepts.
Understanding how to manage cognitive load can help instructional designers create effective courses that promote learning and retention.
Because here’s the thing: cognitive load theory follows the idea that the human brain can only process so much information simultaneously.
In other words, when learners receive too much information at once, they become overwhelmed and need help to process the material effectively.
In instructional design, cognitive load management aims at reducing the amount of information presented to learners at any given time so they can focus on and retain the core concepts.
There are several strategies instructional designers can use to manage cognitive load. The most important is chunking, which involves breaking complex topics into smaller, more manageable pieces.
If you present information in smaller chunks, learners can focus on one concept at a time and retain it more easily. This also reduces the amount of cognitive effort required to process the material.
Another essential strategy is to reduce the amount of extraneous information presented to learners in the first place. Unnecessary information can be distracting, overwhelming, and lead to a loss of focus. So, concentrate on delivering essential information and scrap the rest.
Finally, instructional designers should consider using multimedia in their courses. Why? Because it can illustrate concepts and help learners better understand and remember the material.
According to my report, it’s clear that understanding how to manage cognitive load is a must-have in any instructional design skills arsenal. In fact, 43.6% of surveyed hiring managers think it’s one of the most important traits.
Applying good visual design to your eLearning projects is a great way to create a successful learning experience. Visuals are one of the best tools in eLearning — they can help learners quickly grasp concepts, capture their attention, and create an enjoyable learning experience.
Good visual design can make the difference between a mundane learning experience and an engaging one. It's an integral part of the overall eLearning experience.
So, when designing visuals for eLearning, focus on creating attractive, professional-looking designs that are easy to understand. There are several key elements to consider here:
Colors can significantly influence the overall look and feel of a project. They can help create an attractive, professional-looking design or evoke a specific type of emotion from the learner. So, when selecting colors, consider the purpose of the visuals, the tone of the content, and the audience.
Fonts are an often-overlooked element of eLearning visuals. The right font can help create a specific tone or style and make the visuals more legible. So, always try to select fonts that are easy to read and understand. In other words, skip the Comic Sans! When choosing fonts, consider the size, typeface, color, and style.
Graphics and visuals are a great way to engage learners and make content more interesting. When selecting graphics, consider the purpose of the visuals, the content, and the audience. Always ensure that they’re relevant and serving a learning purpose.
Animations can add visual interest and make the content more engaging. They also help visual learners grasp concepts quickly and make the content more memorable.
Good contrast makes good design. You can have contrast in size, color, font weight, and text size.
Alignment is one of the most important visual design principles, and THE most important principle when it comes to placing elements on the page.
Proximity has to do with how close and far apart different elements in your layout are. The closer elements are, the more closely they’re related to each other. On the flip side, the further apart they are, the less related they are.
White space, or negative space, is one of the most overlooked design elements. Why is it helpful? Because it gives your design room to breathe without cramming different elements together unnecessarily.
Think of your design as a scale that you want to keep balanced. For example, think about the space above and under text and images to maintain that balance.
Repetition means that people get familiar with your design elements. In other words, they don’t have to relearn your layout every time they go to a new slide. This is helpful for maintaining consistency. So, only break that consistency for the user experience or if the design requires it. Stick to the same buttons, fonts, and colors throughout.
When you apply good visual design to your eLearning projects, you can create a more engaging, professional-looking learning experience, as I discuss on my YouTube channel.
Check out my video about visual design principles for eLearning here:
While 35.6% of hiring managers think visual design skills are important, 20.8% think these same skills are lacking among prospective candidates. In other words? If you’re trying to stand out in a crowded job pool, brushing up on your visual design skills is a smart move.
13.9% of hiring managers think applicants need to get better at project management. So, understanding how to manage projects effectively is a great way to get ahead of the competition. With the increasing complexity of projects and the rise of virtual teams, successful project management is key to meeting deadlines, staying within budget, and ensuring quality outcomes.
So, what is project management? As the name suggests, it’s the process of planning, organizing, and controlling resources to achieve specific goals. It’s the project manager’s responsibility to direct the project team’s activities to accomplish the project goals and objectives.
The project manager is also responsible for managing the project budget and timeline and communicating with stakeholders. But why is project management important for instructional designers? Because it helps them ensure that the project is completed on time and within budget.
By mastering project management, instructional designers can ensure that they manage a project efficiently and anticipate potential issues before they arise. The result? Saved time and money.
Project management also allows instructional designers to identify and better manage resources. I like to help clients understand the different types of resources available so they can get smarter at allocating them. My method helps instructional designers optimize resources, ensuring they achieve the best outcomes possible.
Here’s the bottom line: proper project management helps instructional designers create better learning experiences. So, by understanding the different elements of project management, you can develop more effective learning strategies and activities.
Storytelling has been around since the beginning of time, and it continues to captivate audiences and leave a lasting impression. So, it’s no surprise that story elements should be woven into any engaging, interactive course. Storytelling can connect with audiences, build trust and understanding, and even educate, especially as part of a well-rounded instructional design skill set.
So, how do you include storytelling in a course?
First, make sure there’s a straightforward plot or storyline that participants can follow. This plot should be engaging, with plenty of twists and turns to keep participants interested. It should also have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
As a designer, you must be able to craft compelling stories that will captivate learners and keep them engaged. The best stories make it easy for learners to imagine themselves in the same situation.
One way to create this connection is to provide stories that are relevant to the learners’ real-life experiences. For example, if the learners work in an office environment, the stories should be based around that environment and provide examples of workplace challenges and solutions.
When learners read these stories, they should be able to identify with the characters and understand how the solutions can be applied to their own lives.
Another way to create a connection is to use stories that rely on the learners' personal experiences. This can be a great way for learners to share their knowledge and help each other understand the material better.
Ultimately, by providing vivid examples, analogies, and relatable real-world scenarios, instructional designers can bring abstract concepts to life through storytelling. Stories also provide a natural structure to the learning process, which helps create a sense of flow and continuity within the material.
Complex problem-solving is an integral part of an influential instructional designer’s toolkit. In my study, hiring managers ranked the “ability to solve real-world problems with instructional design” as the most important thing they look for in instructional design portfolios.
So, what does that mean? By leveraging the right combination of research, development, and design skills, instructional designers can develop practical solutions that are both usable and engaging.
I always emphasize that problem-solving relies heavily on metrics, especially as part of an instructional design skillset. The data you gather can provide insight into the effectiveness of problem-solving efforts and can be used to make any necessary adjustments.
Check out my video about how you can prioritize your instructional design skill-building here:
It’s also vital for both instructional designers and problem solvers to take time to evaluate their efforts. By assessing a project's results, you can determine if you solved the problem and achieved the desired outcome or not.
So, at its core, skill-based instructional design and problem-solving are both focused on achieving tangible, lasting results. Both fields rely heavily on gathering data, evaluating results, and making necessary adjustments.
Remember: a successful instructional designer or problem-solver starts with the end in mind and always strives to achieve the desired outcome.
Critical thinking is an umbrella term for various cognitive skills, such as:
For you as an instructional designer, critical thinking is key because it helps you evaluate information in a disciplined way so that you create better learning outcomes. You assess information more comprehensively and know what ideas to adopt or reject.
For instance, you need to be selective about your sources, differentiate between fact and opinion, and understand what problems you’re solving with your learning material.
According to my hiring manager report, critical thinking is one of the top three skills hiring managers across industries look for when filling a vacancy. So, this is a good skill to get better at.
Creativity helps instructional designers think outside of the box when designing experiences that are engaging, motivating, and effective for learners.
You can do this in a variety of ways by using technology, like virtual and augmented reality. But you can also use more traditional methods, like:
Instructional design is also about creating physical spaces that are conducive to learning. This could include classrooms, libraries, and even areas in a home or office.
Creativity is one of the top three skills hiring managers across industries look for, per my report. So, don’t overlook this one. It’s an important element of your instructional design skills resume.
Roughly 14% think a candidate’s business acumen is essential, and about 8% prioritize LMS administration. Finally, less than 7% prioritize xAPI, 4% want candidates to learn analytics, and another 4% emphasize Adobe Premiere/After Effects skills. Check out my report for more details.
So, while these skills aren’t always necessary, they can help you stand out from the crowd. That’s why you shouldn’t completely write them off, especially if you’re developing course materials for a technical field or consulting for software businesses.
Okay, before wrapping up, I’d like to briefly mention the varying skill sets hiring managers look for – specifically, when they’re hiring junior or senior instructional designers.
As a junior ID, you should prioritize:
You might also want to brush up on your industry-specific tools, knowledge of general ID models, and graphic design abilities.
For senior roles, the expectation is that you’ll walk in the door with experience under your belt. So, depending on the job, you’ll need to showcase leadership and managerial skills. Your employer will also expect a deep understanding of ID models, psychology, and common problems in the workplace.
So, there you have it! Those are the top instructional design skills you should familiarize yourself with. Ultimately, the goal is for you to build a strong portfolio and continue developing your skills as you progress.
Want to learn more about in-demand instructional design skills? I’m here to help.
Get my free instructional design checklist so you can learn all the steps needed to become an instructional designer.