What Does an Instructional Designer Do? Role, Skills & Salary

Devlin Peck
. Updated on 
January 30, 2024
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Are you thinking about becoming an instructional designer but still want to learn more about what the job really involves??

Then, you’ve come to the right place!

Ready to get started? Let’s start off with what exactly an instructional designer is.

What is an instructional designer?

Before we get into what an instructional designer is, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what instructional design is.

Instructional design (ID) is the process of creating instructional experiences that facilitate learning. ID leverages learning theory and research to help people design and develop effective learning solutions.

To learn more about instructional design, check out this guide.

An instructional designer is a person who works behind the scenes to create those learning experiences. They create a wide range of learning materials, including e-learning courses, instructor-led training programs, and performance support tools.

IDs rely on the best practices from education, design, psychology, systems theory, and creative writing.

I talk more about what instructional design is in this video:

Read on to learn about what being an instructional designer is actually like.

Where do instructional designers work?

The instructional design industry is booming, and instructional designers are in high deman

There are over 99,000 instructional designers working in the US right now. Chances are, you’ve seen the position on at least one “top jobs” list because of high job satisfaction and a good work-life balance.

It shows no signs of slowing down, either – the industry’s annual job growth is often estimated to be more than 10%.

But where do instructional designers actually work?

Instructional designers work in a variety of settings, including schools, universities, businesses, and government agencies.

Now that you know where they work, let’s talk about the role of instructional designer itself.

What does an instructional designer do?

Instructional designers are responsible for designing and developing learning experiences. They work with subject matter experts to identify learning needs, apply instructional design theories and methods, and create learning materials and assessments. They seldom deliver the learning experience. Instead, they work behind the scenes.

Simply put, instructional designers combine theory, research, and best practices to design effective learning materials. This looks different in every situation

In the corporate world, instructional designers build interactive eLearning courses that will be housed in large companies’ corporate universities and develop training documents or solutions to be used in a company-wide scale.

In higher education settings, instructional designers help faculty and staff turn their in-person courses into online courses and maintain existing ones.

Government instructional designers typically function the same way as corporate instructional designers do, but their tasks will depend on what the organization does.

But really, “instructional designer” can mean a lot of things. Most often, they interview subject matter experts, write instructional content, and draw storyboards that will be developed into interactive eLearning materials. They might also help develop job aids, guides, decks, and other deliverables.

The responsibilities of an instructional designer differ based on the environment the designer works in.

Instructional designers who work for external vendors often have differentiated roles. For example, a performance consultant conducts the analysis that helps the instructional designer construct the course. Once that’s done, they pass things off to an eLearning developer, who converts it into an interactive experience.

If an instructional designer works in-house, they’re responsible for supporting company employees or the customers. They’re also more likely to do each of the jobs that may be divided up between individual roles in external vendor settings.

So, what do you need to do in order to become an instructional designer? Keep reading to find out.

What education level does an instructional designer need?

While you can get your bachelor’s or even master’s degree to become an instructional designer, it’s not always necessary. Some instructional designers choose just to take instructional design courses.

It really depends on what kind of instructional design you want to do. For instance, government roles will call for a certain level of education, but corporate settings are more interested in your actual skills.

If you decide to stick to getting your instructional design education from online courses, check out my Instructional Design Bootcamp. My team and I will help you transition to a full-time remote instructional design role in just six months.

That’s how my students, just like Sean, land their first instructional design roles. Sean was a teacher who wanted to switch careers to find better work-life balance. After discovering instructional design and the bootcamp, he landed an instructional design role within just a few months.

But you might be wondering what sort of skills you’ll need to get a head start as an instructional designer. I’ll tell you in the next section.

What skill do you have to have to be an instructional designer?

Above all else, an instructional designer should be able to understand what every learner needs and know how to develop relevant materials that are tailored to them.

But there are some other things you should have at least a basic understanding of, too.

Like the ADDIE model, which is the best-known framework for designing the kind of instruction that improves human performance.

ADDIE stands for the five key steps of the instructional design process: Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation. Following these steps is how an instructional designer creates an impactful learning experience for any type of learner.

Other adult learning theories that are important to know include Gagne’s Nine Events, Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels, and Mayer’s Principles.

You can learn more about adult learning theories and how to approach them in this video:

Another important framework that instructional designers need to be familiar with is Bloom’s Taxonomy. It’s what guides the .writing of learning objectives for any kind of cognitive task.

Bloom’s Taxonomy is set in a pyramid, with the least complex level of understanding sitting at the bottom. Each level builds on the one underneath it until it reaches the top, which is the most complex form of understanding and knowledge application.

I talk more about what Bloom’s Taxonomy is and how to use it in this video:

Of course, there are other skills that go into being an instructional designer.

To succeed as one, you should be able to present educational content in a way that all students can easily learn from. Likewise, you should have experience in eLearning development, learning management systems, Microsoft PowerPoint, Articulate Storyline, and project management.

Great instructional designers also have the necessary soft skills, such as communication, storytelling, complex problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity.

For a complete list of the most important instructional designer skills, take a look at this guide.

That said, one of the most common questions I hear from my students is: “How much money does an instructional designer earn each year?”

Read on to find out..

What is the average instructional design salary?

So, if you decide to pursue instructional design, what kind of salary can you expect to make?

According to a global study of instructional designers I conducted in the last years, those who work as full-time employees make an average of $83,347 USD.

Salaries can range from $30,000 to $183,000.

Ultimately, it all depends on what kind of work you do.

Since instructional designers can work as employees, freelancers, or consultants, the pay varies. Employees get a salary, while freelancers and consultants often charge by the project or by the hour.

On average, self-employed instructional designers earn $84,796, but salaries worldwide can be as high as $325,000.

What kind of instructional designers earn the highest salaries?

Corporate instructional designers earn the highest salaries ($85,452), followed by government instructional designers ($84,085) and non-profit instructional designers ($76,335). Those working in higher education earn the least on average at $68,474. Feel like instructional design is something for you? Then, let’s talk about what it takes to become an instructional designer.

How do you become an instructional designer?

When you think about getting started on your own instructional design career path, it may seem overwhelming and intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be.

Here, I’ve broken it down into seven steps:

Learn the instructional design theory

As an instructional designer, you’ll need to be able to draw on research from visual design, educational psychology, user experience design, and more. Some key theories and models to learn include:

Learn the eLearning development technical skills

Not all instructional design roles require that you know the technology, but most do. Most IDs work on writing the instruction and developing it into its final format.

Storyline 360 is the most popular rapid eLearning tool and one you should know as an ID. Other potential technologies include Adobe Illustrator, Adobe XD, HTML5, CSS, and Javascript. (You don’t need to know how to code, but they can help you stand out.)

Learn visual design and composition

Instructional design needs to do more than just look, feel, and sound good. It should be easily digestible and reduce the cognitive load of learners.

And that means it should be designed by an instructional designer with a strong grasp of visual design and composition.

There are four basic principles of visual design: contrast, proximity, repetition, and alignment. If you can use them in your own design, you can rest easy knowing it’s intuitive and appears professional.

I talk more about it here:

Build your instructional design portfolio

A portfolio will allow employers to have a clear understanding of what you can do as an instructional designer, making it the most powerful tool you have in the instructional design job hunt.

To create an instructional design portfolio, you’ll need to first build several polished projects that reflect your capabilities. They should display well on whatever website design tool you choose, whether it’s something like Squarespace or Webflow.

If you’re not sure where to start or what to include, check out other designers’ portfolios to see what they’ve included.

As you build it, remember to explain your process clearly, be yourself, and remain professional. You might also consider asking for feedback from friends, family, and even the employers who have viewed the portfolio.

Network with other instructional designers

Even with a robust portfolio, knowing how to network is crucial when it comes to getting jobs or contracts. It will also help get you in front of the right people, stay up to date, and learn from others.

LinkedIn and online events and conferences are all great, accessible networking spaces.

Create your instructional design resume

To land a job, you’ll need a great resume.

While you could go the traditional route with Times New Roman font and single spacing, your resume will be much better received if you include your personal brand. Use consistent fonts, colors, and design elements.

And don’t forget to include a link to your digital portfolio at the top!

Ace the instructional design interview

Whatever you do, don’t go into a job interview unprepared. You can expect interviewers to ask about your experience, process, skill set, and goals – and it’s critical that you’re able to talk about it.

I recommend practicing with those around you and coming up with answers to questions like:

Next steps

There you have it: a complete guide to what instructional designers do!

If you’re ready to jumpstart your instructional design career but don’t know where to start, check out my step-by-step checklist on how to become an instructional designer.

Devlin Peck
Devlin Peck
Devlin Peck is the founder of DevlinPeck.com, where he helps people build instructional design skills and break into the industry. He previously worked as a freelance instructional designer and graduated from Florida State University.
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