So, you’re wondering how to become an instructional designer. Congratulations! Instructional design is a satisfying, lucrative career, and there’s an ever-growing need for competent instructional designers.
I’ve written this article to serve as a one-stop-shop resource to help people interested in becoming an instructional designer do exactly that: learn the necessary skills and land their first instructional design job. The article is comprehensive, and as such, quite long. I recommend bookmarking this page and returning to it as needed to guide you along your journey to becoming an instructional designer.
We’ll start by exploring what an instructional designer is, what an instructional designer does, and why you may want to become one, then we’ll dive into the specifics of exactly how to become an instructional designer.
Table of Contents
What is an Instructional Designer? <--- start here
- Learn Visual Design and Composition
- Consider an Instructional Design Master’s Degree
- Gain Instructional Design Experience
- Create your Resume and Apply to Jobs
- Prepare for Job Interviews
Instructional designers specialize in the systematic design and development of instruction. They work in a wide range of industries, and their primary purpose is to help people acquire new knowledge and skills. To make this possible, they draw on research and best practices from educational psychology, organizational psychology, systems theory, and more.
Also, while trainers or teachers deliver instruction to a live audience, instructional designers work behind the scenes; they collaborate with subject matter experts (SMEs) and colleagues to design the instruction, but they very rarely deliver it themselves.
Instructional designers report high job satisfaction, demand above-average salaries, and enjoy good work-life balance. So, if instructional design work aligns with your interests and you feel confident that you can learn the skillset (as discussed in this article), then it’s an excellent career to pursue.
Some designers struggle finding meaning in their work, but this is often dependent on their particular jobs or workplaces — it often doesn’t take much more than an intentional job search to find a position that has more of an impact on improving people’s lives.
Here are some additional facts that demonstrate why instructional design is a promising career:
- Average instructional designer salary in the USA is $60,000+, and six-figure annual incomes are common for corporate and self-employed instructional designers.
- Annual job growth is often estimated at 10%+.
- ‘Instructional designer’ frequently makes it onto ‘top jobs’ lists due to the high level of job satisfaction and the good work-life balance (Source 1, Source 2).
In today’s world, the position “instructional designer” has come to represent a wide array of job tasks and responsibilities.
Typically, an instructional designer is someone who interviews subject matter experts (SMEs), writes instructional content, and then develops that content into an online or face-to-face learning experience.
However, instructional designers at different organizations can have vastly different workloads or job tasks. Let’s consider some of the most common ways to differentiate between the tasks that instructional designers perform.
In the corporate world, instructional designers spend much of their time using eLearning authoring tools to build interactive eLearning courses. Almost every large corporation has their version of a corporate university with a host of eLearning offerings, and they need instructional designers to help develop content that will help upskill their employees. Turnaround times are quick and and processes are likely well-documented.
In higher education, instructional designers spend much of their time in meetings and helping faculty members convert face-to-face courses into online offerings. They may also help faculty maintain their existing courses.
Also, rather than using rapid eLearning authoring tools, higher education instructional designers develop and modify courses in a learning management system (LMS), such as Blackboard or Canvas.
As a side note — government agencies often reflect the corporate instructional design experience more than the higher education instructional design experience. It does depend on the organization, though; these are just the general differences.
Another way to distinguish between the daily tasks of an instructional designer is to consider whether they work in-house or for an external vendor. In-house instructional designers work to support their companies’ own employees or end-customers (such as at Apple, Amazon, Walmart, etc.) whereas instructional designers who work for external vendors will help develop eLearning for the vendor’s clients. Examples of vendors are AllenComm, SweetRush, and Kineo.
At external vendors, instructional designers are more likely to have differentiated roles. Performance consultants may conduct the analysis, instructional designers may design the instruction, and eLearning developers may convert the instruction into an interactive online experience. When working in-house, instructional designers are often expected to wear all of these hats (and sometimes more, such as LMS administration and program evaluation!).
The daily tasks of a self-employed instructional designer may look quite different from those of a full-time instructional designer.
Some self-employed instructional designers take up long-term contract work, so while they’re technically “self-employed,” they may be expected to work 40 hours per week for a single company.
Self-employed instructional designers can also operate as freelancers, working remotely for multiple clients at any given time. This arrangement allows you to choose which projects to take on and set your own schedule, but it requires you to complete a host of other tasks that a full-time instructional designer at a company wouldn’t have to.
When you’re self-employed, you’re essentially a small business owner. You need to market your services, pay self-employment taxes and healthcare, negotiate contracts, manage client expectations, invoice / bill for your services, and so much more.
This article focuses exclusively on developing the skillset necessary to work as an instructional designer and land your first instructional design job. It does not delve into all of the skills necessary to build a successful freelance instructional design practice. If you’re interested in learning more about freelancing or growing a small agency, you can contact me and let me know that this type of content would be appealing.
Now that we’ve covered the general variation between different instructional design roles, let’s move into the knowledge and skills required to become an instructional designer.
Due to instructional design’s interdisciplinary nature, instructional designers are expected to stay abreast of research in visual design, educational psychology, and, of course, instructional design itself.
This section covers some of the most common psychology theories, design principles, and instructional methodologies that employers will expect you to discuss in interviews and use on the job. However, this list is not exhaustive. Reputable Master’s programs will cover the theory in much more detail, and we will discuss graduate programs later in this article.
Let’s get started.
1. The ADDIE Model of Instructional Design
If you’re just starting to learn about instructional design, then ADDIE is the best place to start. ADDIE is an instructional design model that helps you use a systematic approach to designing instruction; more specifically, it’s an acronym that stands for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation.
Let’s take a closer look at each phase in detail:
- Analysis: During this phase, you first conduct a needs assessment to determine if training is necessary to help resolve the issue at hand. If it would, then you continue by collecting data about the target audience, instructional context, and performance context. (Learn more about the 4 most common types of analysis for instructional design here.)
- Design: This is the phase where you design instruction, and this is where instructional design gets its name. It includes writing objectives, interviewing subject matter experts, writing instructional content, and potentially storyboarding the learning experience.
- Development: This is where you develop the content into the form that end-users will interact with it. For example, you’d develop job aids, interactive eLearning, or facilitator guides and participant workbooks during this phase.
- Implementation: During implementation, you deliver the learning experience or resource(s) to the target audience. This can be done via an LMS, in a classroom, or over email.
- Evaluation: Evaluation consists of analyzing the learning and performance data and revising the intervention as needed to optimize its effectiveness.
It’s important to note that while ADDIE was originally designed for each phase to occur in order, that is no longer the reality (plus, the model has changed significantly since its original conception in the 1970’s). Modern approaches to L&D often require you to manage each phase of ADDIE simultaneously — data and evaluation strategy should be addressed from the beginning of any project, and new insights will frequently affect design and development decisions.
So, despite each phase fitting nicely into its own box on paper, you may not want to talk about them as if they definitively occur one phase after the next.
2. Gagne's Nine Events of Instruction
You can turn to Gagne’s nine events of instruction to determine which elements to include in your instructional course or program. Despite Robert Gagne completing this work in 1965, his principles are built upon research that still holds strong today. Because of this, many lesson plans and eLearning approaches aim to satisfy each of Gagne’s 9 events.
Let’s take a closer look at each event in more detail.
- Gain attention: For this event, you present a stimulus to capture the learner’s attention. This can include playing an engaging video clip, asking a thought-provoking question, or even turning the lights on and off in a face-to-face setting.
- State objectives: The purpose of this event is to inform the learner what they will learn or gain from the instructional experience. You don’t want to do this in formal, instructional design language, either. Instead, use conversational language that the learner can grasp easily.
- Stimulate recall: Gagne is a congitivist, and as such, he argues that knowledge acquisition builds upon the knowledge that already exists within your long-term memory. So, for this event, you prompt the learner to pull from their prior knowledge — this brings it to the forefront of their mind and makes it easier to assimilate new knowledge.
- Present content: This is the instructional event that we’re most familiar with: content presentation! It’s where you present the content that the learners are supposed to learn. You can present this content via lectures, multimedia, PDFs, and much more.
- Provide guidance: If any step confuses instructional designers, it’s this one. Guidance helps the learner along in the learning experience. It can include tips regarding how to consume the content, prompts to help with navigating an online course, and optional tooltips that the learner can access as needed.
- Elicit performance: This is where you give the learner opportunities to apply what they’ve learned; you can also think of this step as “provide practice opportunities,” which is an essential piece of any learning experience.
- Provide feedback: Providing feedback is also crucial for learning, as this is what helps people figure out what they’re doing wrong so that they can do it better in the future. Tailored, immediate feedback is often the most effective.
- Assess performance: Assessments often come at the end of a learning experience, and these are good opportunities for learners to see where they’re excelling and where they should devote additional effort. It also provides learning data that the designer can use to improve the effectiveness of the learning experience for future participants.
- Enhance transfer and retention: Satisfying this event can be tricky, but it must be pulled off well for the instructional experience to be worthwhile. It refers to facilitating the transfer of knowledge and skills from the learning experience onto the job. This can be achieved with realistic practice activities and discussions about how the new knowledge and skills can be used in the workplace.
As you can see, Gagne mapped out each element necessary for an effective instructional experience. These nine events do not need to occur in order, but doing so is often the most logical approach.
3. Action Mapping
Action mapping is a performance consulting approach to training design developed by Cathy Moore. It is used at many Fortune 500 companies, and it responds very well to the corporate L&D needs of our time.
For example, many organizations spend large budgets to churn out training courses, but these courses rarely address real business or performance needs. As such, they waste the organization’s budget that could have been spent on efforts that produce measurable results.
This is where action mapping comes in. It advocates identifying a clearly defined business goal, identifying the high-priority actions that employees must perform to achieve that goal, and then designing interventions to help employees perform those actions correctly.
By orienting L&D efforts to the business goal, instructional design teams can better hold themselves accountable for the results that they produce. This is of utmost importance in corporate settings, especially when training is being designed under the pretense of solving a human performance problem.
The other main benefit of Moore’s approach is the action map itself. It keeps you focused on the actions that people need to perform on the job, not just the information that subject matter experts (SMEs) and other leaders think the employees should know.
Behaviorism is an approach to psychology that focuses completely on external, measurable behaviors. It also dives into the specifics of behavior modification (conditioning) via rewards and punishments.
The behaviorist concept most relevant to learning and development (L&D) is operant conditioning. This approach to learning argues that you can increase the frequency of a given behavior by rewarding people for performing it, and you can decrease the frequency of a given behavior by punishing people for performing it.
Despite the complexity, it would be worth your while to read up on behaviorism so that you can better recognize the psychological underpinnings of many L&D interventions; behaviorist principles underlie much of the modern thinking surrounding compensation, praise, badges, completion certificates, and more.
5. Cognitive Information Processing
Cognitive information processing is another body of thought in psychology literature. It posits that you must look at the processes occurring within the human mind to truly understand human behavior, and it relates human cognitive processes to those of a computer.
For example, this is a (simplified) version of how cognitive information processing theory explains human learning:
- All of the input that comes through your senses (everything you see, hear, feel, etc.) enters your sensory memory.
- As you attend to different pieces of sensory input, those pieces enter your short-term, or “working,” memory.
- You can also pull information from your long-term memory, which is called retrieval.
- As you relate new information in your short-term memory to information that you’ve retrieved from your long-term memory, the new information becomes ‘encoded’ into your long-term memory.
We will not go much deeper into the methods of cognitive information processing, but it’s important for all instructional designers to have a handle on cognitive load theory.
Cognitive load theory states that humans have a limited cognitive capacity at any given time — this is why we can often hold seven digits in our short-term memory, but not 20. It also explains why we can’t focus on what multiple people are saying to us at the same time.
This theory will impact your instructional design decisions — you don’t want to include any extraneous (unnecessary) content, animations, or visuals because this will add unnecessary friction to the learning process. You would only want to include the information that’s essential for satisfying the learning or performance objectives.
6. Kirkpatrick's Model of Evaluation
Kirkpatrick’s model is well-known in the field of L&D, and many employers, clients, and peers alike speak about Kirkpatrick’s “levels” as if they are commonplace terms that all instructional designers already know. Because of this, you should definitely familiarize yourself with this model.
At its core, Kirckpatrick’s model outlines the four levels of data that you should evaluate to determine the effectiveness of a training initiative. Let’s take a closer look at each level:
- Reaction: Level 1 reaction data refers to how learners ‘feel’ about the training. Is it relevant to their jobs? Did they enjoy taking it? Did they find it relevant to what they need to perform on the job? You can answer these questions via interviews and questionnaires, but this data won’t do much more beyond making you reconsider your approach to the training experience (if reactions are negative). The surveys to collect this level of data are often referred to as “smile sheets.”
- Learning: Level 2 learning data tells you whether learners actually learned something during the training experience. Particularly, it focuses on whether they acquired new knowledge, skills, or attitudes. You can collect this type of data via quizzes and assessments, and you can use xAPI to get much richer details about how learners are interacting with and learning from the experience.
- Behavior: Level 3 behavior data tells you whether learners are using their new knowledge and skills on the job. Many L&D teams do not collect this type of data, but this data is magnitudes more important than the data from the first two levels. You can collect behavior data via direct observation, metrics that are tied to the employee’s performance, and interviews with the employee’s supervisor.
- Results: Level 4 data refers to the results that the initiative has produced within the organization. This type of evaluation is almost never conducted in modern L&D departments today due to its complexity, but it is the most important level of evaluation. For example, it’s one thing to help call center employees use screen sharing more often on their calls (level 3 data), but if this isn’t producing a positive return for the business, then the efforts may not be worthwhile.
That’s all for Kirkpatrick’s model! I recommend quizzing yourself every now and then to ensure that you know the levels; these terms are thrown around frequently and, as discussed, you will be expected to know them.
Once you begin practicing instructional design and considering how to evaluate your efforts, Kirkpatrick’s levels of evaluation will likely become second nature.
7. Mayer's Principles of Multimedia Learning
Richard Mayer highlights 12 research-backed principles to follow when designing multimedia learning. If you’re going to design or develop eLearning, then you should definitely have a solid grasp of these principles; violating them leads to a very poor learner experience.
Let’s take a look at a few of the most prevalent principles:
- Redundancy principle: People learn more easily from graphics and narration alone than from graphics, narration, and on-screen text.
- Signaling principle: People learn more easily when there are visual cues signaling how the material is organized.
- Coherence principle: People learn more easily when extraneous words, visuals, and sounds are excluded (remember cognitive load theory?).
- Voice principle: People learn more easily from human voices than from machine-generated voices.
- Personalization principle: People learn more easily from words in a conversational tone than words in a formal, academic tone.
These are just five of the principles, but you’re probably already seeing how valuable they are. If you’re interested in reading more about all 12 principles (which I recommend doing time and time again until you can abide by them automatically), then you can check out this post.
8. Learning Objectives and Instructional Alignment
Writing learning objectives is a cornerstone task of any instructional designer. These objectives outline exactly what you intend for participants to achieve by the end of the learning experience, and the stem often follows this format:
By the end of this course / workshop / activity, learners will be able to:
Then you’d include each of your objectives, starting with an action verb (for example: ‘State each of Gagne’s 9 events’).
However, there are some very important guidelines that you should follow when writing objectives. Most importantly, your objective should be measurable. Consider the following objective:
By the end of this course, learners will be able to understand how a computer works.
Is this a good objective? If you answered yes, then think about how you might determine if someone has achieved this objective satisfactorily. Do they need to turn on a computer? Or do they need to explain, in detail, what’s happening within the system from the second that it receives power? The objective above does not make this clear.
Because of this vagueness, you want to avoid using verbs like ‘understand,’ ‘know’ or ‘learn’ to craft your learning objectives. Instead, use specific, measurable action verbs from Bloom’s taxonomy.
We will not dive further into learning objectives here because there is such a wealth of information on how to write them well, and reputable graduate programs devote a good deal of time to this.
Instructional alignment is a related concept that is absolutely essential for instructional designers. Once you’ve written your learning objectives, you’ll need to ensure that every practice question, assessment item, and even every visual is tied directly to one of your learning objectives. You need to imagine a straight arrow going right through your objectives, content, practice activities, and assessments.
I’d argue that alignment is one of the most important instructional design concepts, primarily because it helps avoid any unnecessary details or information. However, this does put a lot of pressure on you to ensure that your objectives are instructionally sound and worthwhile.
Learn the Instructional Design Theories, Principles, and Methodologies: Wrap-up
As I mentioned earlier, the theories, principles, and methodologies covered above are not exhaustive. You will need to do additional reading on your own to round out your theoretical knowledge, but this should give you a good starting point for speaking intelligently about the field and designing instruction in line with some of the field’s core concepts.
While not all instructional design roles require you to know much of the technology, the vast majority of them do. This is because, as discussed, most instructional designers are expected to not only write the instruction, but also develop it into its final online or face-to-face format.
Many of the skills outlined here apply to developing eLearning, and that’s because this skillset is so in-demand in today’s economy. So, acknowledging that the tech climate can and does change somewhat frequently, I assure you that learning these skills will make you valuable to most companies that are seeking instructional designers today.
1. Articulate Storyline
Articulate Storyline 360 is widely regarded as the best rapid eLearning authoring tool on the market. It isn’t perfect by a long shot, but you can develop highly custom, interactive eLearning in a fraction of the time that it would take you with another rapid authoring tool (such as Adobe Captivate or Trivantis Lectora, which are used by some companies and development houses).
Storyline is also quite easy to learn. Think of Storyline as a more powerful version of PowerPoint. It has a similar user interface to PowerPoint, but in Storyline you can also add layers to each slide (like in PhotoShop or Illustrator), add variables and conditions to create a dynamic user experience, and add triggers to make the experience interactive.
Articulate also offers a free 60-day trial for Storyline 360. This is more than enough time to develop your skillset with the tool and create a few practice projects. In fact, you can learn the basics - such as adding photos and text to a slide, adding interactivity with triggers, and using the built-in quiz functionality and interaction types - in just a few days.
There are many paid books and courses out there that you can use to learn Storyline, but I recommend downloading the free trial, following along with Storyline’s documentation, and getting your hands dirty building eLearning interactions of your own. You don’t need a paid course to learn how to master the tool.
You’ll need to go beyond the basics, though. What separates an average Storyline developer from a good Storyline developer is the ability to use variables and conditions to build more complex custom interaction types. If you have a coding background or you’re good with logic (if-then statements, for example), then this will come naturally to you.
So, you have the trial and you’re ready to challenge yourself, but what do you create? The best place to start is with the eLearning Heroes Challenges on Articulate’s very own forum. Every week, David Anderson posts a new eLearning challenge for everyone in the community to respond to.
It’s worthwhile to complete these challenges for three main reasons:
- It gives you a creative project idea that you can run with and learn the tool in the process.
- You can view the other participants’ projects to see how they responded to the challenge, which is great for finding inspiration. Also, when people share their source files, you can dig into the programming to see how they built their interactions.
- The projects that you create in response to the challenges can and will serve as portfolio pieces for you. This will help you land work down the road. (We’ll cover building your portfolio later in this article.)
2. Adobe Illustrator
As an instructional designer, it’s rarely necessary to master the entire Adobe suite. However, if you’re going to develop eLearning using illustrations and vector graphics, you should know your way around Illustrator.
You’re probably not going to create many graphics from scratch simply because there usually isn’t enough time or budget available for you to do so. Also, graphic design work is typically cheaper than instructional design work, so if you do need completely custom graphics, there will probably be an in-house graphic designer for you to work with, or you can contract it out if you’re running your own shop.
That being said, you will need to know how to manipulate vector graphics, and Illustrator is a great tool for doing so.
With Illustrator, you can download the file from freepik, grab the cafe storefront, change the colors and text, and export it for use in Storyline — all in a matter of 5 minutes or less.
To develop the foundational skillset for manipulating graphics like this, I highly recommend the Illustrator CC 2019 Fundamentals course with Deke McClelland on LinkedIn Learning.
The tutorial series may move slowly in the beginning, but don’t skip anything. You will learn some key information about working with digital files in general, and you will also set up your Illustrator user interface in a way that maximizes efficiency.
If you don’t have a LinkedIn Learning subscription, you can use a free trial. Also, many public libraries in the USA offer access to LinekdIn Learning (formerly known as Lynda) for free, so you can inquire with your local library to see if this is an option.
As a side note, you may also want to learn Adobe PhotoShop. I haven’t had to use it much as an eLearning developer, but if you (or your company) prefer to work with photorealistic images rather than vector graphics and illustrations, then PhotoShop will be a more valuable tool in your toolkit. There are also alternatives to Adobe products, such as those in the Affinity design suite.
Also, once you know your way around either PhotoShop or Illustrator, it’s much easier to learn the other. If you have the time and / or drive, I recommend learning both. In fact, if possible, try learning as many tools in the Adobe Creative Cloud as you can. They will only make you more valuable, and learning them will round out your skillset as a creative digital professional.
3. TechSmith Snag-It
While TechSmith is most well-known for Camtasia, Snag-It is an excellent piece of technology. It lets you take extremely precise screenshots, rapidly edit them immediately afterwards, and then share or export them as you please.
This saves an immense amount of time over traditional screenshot workflows, especially when you’re creating documentations that demands a large volume of in-software screenshots.
Due to its ease of use, you will not need to spend much time “learning” this software in the traditional sense. Instead, I recommend picking it up and using it as your default screenshotting method going forward. It’s also capable of screen recording, but Camtasia is a more robust tool for this if you need to use any advanced screen recording capabilities.
4. TechSmith Camtasia
Camtasia is a great tool for instructional designers to create and edit videos. One of its strongest features is that it’s very efficient and easy to use; on top of this, it has a host of templates, advanced screen recording features, and so much more.
While I often use Snag-It to conduct simple screen recordings (and Storyline has screen recording functionality, too), Camtasia is great if you need advanced functionality and more control over your screencasts. I recommend downloading the trial, learning your way around the tool, and then tabling it until you find a need for it in your daily work.
Before rapid eLearning authoring tools hit the market, software developers had to web development languages like these to develop eLearning from the ground up. That’s no longer necessary, but having a solid basis in these computer languages will ensure that you’re up-to-date on your technical skills and setting yourself apart from most instructional designers.
So, while most instructional designers don’t have in-depth knowledge of these languages, learning them will allow you to extend the capabilities of eLearning authoring tools, build web pages to host your learning resources, and take full advantage of xAPI (discussed next).
To learn these skills, Free Code Camp is an excellent resource. This site provides step-by-step lessons that you can undertake to earn your Responsive Web Design Certification, and you’ll also be able to complete realistic projects that require you to think like a programmer.
I also recommend checking out Scrimba. You can take courses on this platform where an instructor guides you through the code, and you can pause the experience at any time to play around with the code and see how it affects the output.
6. The Experience API (xAPI)
xAPI is a specification that allows you to track how users are interacting with learning experiences — better yet, it’s interoperable, allowing you to also track data about how employees are performing on the job. When you analyze these streams of data, you can draw powerful conclusions about the effectiveness of your learning programs.
For example, using custom xAPI statements, you can easily see:
- How long someone spends on any given slide or resource in your eLearning interaction
- Whether or not someone accesses a specific link, resource, or tooltip
- Every selection that a user makes on graded and ungraded questions alike
- How often users go to another tab in their browsers
- The exact text that users enter into open-response questions
- And so much more!
I’ve written a 3-part tutorial series that will teach you exactly how to send your first custom xAPI statement from a Storyline course.
- xAPI expert Anthony Altieri has an in-depth LinkedIn Learning course.
- Torrance Learning hosts the completely free, well-known xAPI cohort twice per year. This is a project-based learning experience where you can attend weekly lectures, join a project group, discuss xAPI with others, see what everyone else is working on, and more.
So, while learning how to send custom xAPI statements isn’t absolutely necessary to land a job, it makes you very valuable to companies that take advantage of the modern technology (especially as xAPI adoption grows in the coming years).
Vyond (formerly known as GoAnimate) is a rapid video authoring tool that you can use to create animated videos relatively quickly. The tool lets you develop in 3 different art styles: business, contemporary, and whiteboard.
Videos like this are excellent for soft skills training, explainer videos, microlearning, and much more. The tool is great for instructional designers because it’s easy to use and much faster to develop with than if you were trying to build an animated video from scratch. This makes it viable for eLearning budgets that can’t afford completely custom animation.
So, while this tool isn’t completely necessary, learning it ensures that you have another tech skill up your sleeve that employers will find valuable.
However, CONTRACTORS BEWARE: this cloud-based tool does not let you easily share source files, and you can only do so by paying for an additional seat on your account. They do their best to lock you (and your clients) onto the platform, so I do not recommend using your own Vyond account if your clients expect to receive an editable source file.
8. Learning Management Systems (LMSs)
Finally, you should know your way around an LMS. Even though there are hundreds of LMSs on the market, you should learn what they’re generally used for and capable of.
The reason for this is that virtually every mid- to large-sized company uses an LMS to host their eLearning content and deliver it to their employees. Instructional designers in full-time in-house roles are often expected to manage courses and users with these tools, so LMS experience is a common requirement for instructional design jobs. This is especially true in higher education where the LMS doubles as the content authoring tool.
The best way to learn LMS administration without access to an LMS at your current job is to take advantage of free trials and demos. I recommend trying Adobe Captivate Prime LMS — it has a good user interface, is simple to learn, and will show you the key LMS functionality.
One more note — Learning Experience Platforms (LXPs) are gaining traction in the learning tech market and may be replacing more traditional LMSs. You don’t need to worry too much about this as a new instructional designer, but it wouldn’t hurt to read up on typical LXP features so that you can speak about them intelligently.
Learn the Tech: Wrap-up
That covers all of the core tech that you should have a grasp on as an instructional designer. If it seems overwhelming — don’t worry. You can likely land a job or contract with only Storyline and Illustrator under your belt, but you should make continuous effort to learn the others on this list.
As you keep up with the technology, your diverse toolkit will ensure that you stay relevant and valuable to companies and training departments around the world.
You may think that as long as your instruction is sound and your learning experience is functional then you’re good to go. But you would be wrong.
How content is displayed visually has a large impact on how that content is consumed. Visual design is not important only to make things look pretty. Used well, visual design and composition can demonstrate relationships, make content easier to consume, and reduce cognitive load.
Many seasoned professionals also argue that how something looks doesn’t matter. This is in response to the influx of high-budget ‘flashiness’ in eLearning that’s often unnecessary and uncalled for, but it’s hard to argue with the four basic principles of visual design.
The four principles are contrast, proximity, repetition, and alignment. By learning about these principles and applying them in your own work (from eLearning slide layouts to printed materials), you’ll ensure that your work looks clean, intuitive, and professional at first glance.
Let’s take a closer look at each principle in more detail:
- Contrast refers to how ‘different’ two elements are from one another. This can refer to color, size, shape, and more. Think black text on a white background or 36-point header text with 14-point body text. Contrast adds visual interest, guides the user’s gaze, and helps add hierarchy to the composition.
- Proximity refers to how far apart or close together different elements are situated in relation to one another. When elements are close together, it signifies that they are closely related; when they are far apart, it signifies that they are less closely related. This will influence how you position text and images on a page.
- Repetition mandates that you repeat design elements throughout your composition. This makes your design more cohesive, and it also has functional benefits; for example, if you use primary buttons throughout your eLearning interaction, then they should all have the same visual design. This makes it easier for the user to recognize immediately which elements are buttons.
- Alignment refers to how different design elements are aligned with one another. Every element should be aligned with another element on the page, unless you are breaking that rule intentionally. This makes your design look more polished, cohesive, and professional.
Think of this section as a very brief introduction to visual design. I highly recommend grabbing a copy of The Non-Designer’s Design Book and practicing with these principles until they become second nature.
Once you’ve learned the theory and developed your technology skills, you’re ready to build your instructional design portfolio. Your portfolio will be the most powerful tool at your disposal to land instructional design jobs or contracts.
When most employers are looking at potential candidates, they want to see what you can produce for their organization. You want these employers to look at your portfolio and think to themselves, “this is exactly what we want.” By eliciting this desire, you maximize your chances for landing an interview and the job / contract itself.
On top of the clear benefit of landing yourself a job or paid contracts, building your portfolio is also an opportunity to reflect on your process, share your work with other designers, and carve out a space on the web that’s all about you and your professional development.
1. Build Solid Projects
The main point of your portfolio website is to put your projects on display. So, before you start building your portfolio website, you should create at least three solid portfolio pieces. You’ve likely created some interactions and projects as you’ve learned the technology, but you will want your core portfolio pieces to be as polished as possible.
You may be wondering what to create. If you’re self-employed and pursuing contract work, then you should develop portfolio pieces that reflect the type of work that you’d like to do. For example, if you want to create eLearning branching scenarios for clients, then you should develop a few for your portfolio. Or if you want to focus entirely on face-to-face instruction (not recommended in today’s L&D climate), then you would focus solely on facilitator guides and participant workbooks.
However, you may desire a full-time job. You can definitely land a job with an eLearning-only portfolio, but since job descriptions vary so much within instructional design, it’s a good idea to include a variety of projects in your portfolio. You can include interactive eLearning, job aids, podcasts, face-to-face learning materials, educational videos, and more.
If you’re unsure what topics to focus on for your projects, then the best place to start is to focus on what you know. Since you may not have a subject matter expert available, it’s up to you to ensure the accuracy of your content. Some people choose highly accessible topics, such as how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and others draw from their previous experience to create materials that will help others learn.
Better yet, you can develop learning materials based off of the information that you’re learning on your journey to become an instructional designer. For example, take a section of this article, research it more deeply, and turn it into an interactive eLearning experience to help pass the knowledge and skills along to others. This has the added benefit of helping you learn the information more deeply as you teach it.
2. Choose a Tool
After you have a few solid projects, you’ll want to decide which tool to use to design your portfolio website. Each option has its strengths and weaknesses, outlined here:
- SquareSpace / Wix / Weebly: These What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get (WYSIWYG) editors are extremely easy to use because they are aimed at non-technical people who need to bring websites live quickly. They don’t require you to figure out hosting on your own, paid plans often come with free domains, and you will not need to write a single line of code. That being said, this comes at a cost. WYSIWYG site builders offer limited customization, and you will not be able to upload files directly to the root directory (instead, you will need to use a web hosting service like Amazon S3 to host your Storyline projects). Finally, if you do go with a WYSIWYG option, I highly recommend purchasing a paid plan to remove their branding and use your own domain.
- WordPress: While WordPress may technically be a WYSIWYG editor, using wordpress.org gives you much more freedom to customize your website and access its root directory. There are plenty of themes on themeforest, and you have the freedom to use whatever hosting service that you’d like. This requires slightly more technical know-how, but it pays off in a site that you have more control over. There are also thousands of plug-ins that you can use to extend the functionality of your website without writing a line of code.
- Your portfolio itself becomes a portfolio piece to show off to potential clients
- You have complete control over the site…there is no detail that you will not be able to change
As you can see, I highly recommend coding your site from scratch if you have the time. Once I spent several hundred hours doing so at the beginning of my career, client inquiries skyrocketed and I was able to focus on my business full-time.
However, if you do not have the time or desire to learn the technical know-how necessary to build your site from the ground up, I recommend using either WordPress (more customization options but larger time commitment) or SquareSpace (very easy to use and decent customization).
3. Additional Tips for Building your Portfolio
Here are some additional tips for creating your instructional design portfolio:
- Be yourself: Your portfolio is your own personal corner of the web, so you should take the time to give it your own personal touches. If bright bursts of color make you happy, try incorporating that into your site’s design. If you take an efficient, streamlined approach to your work, then consider adopting a minimalist design.
- Remain professional: Despite your portfolio being yours, you need to keep in mind that employers will be looking at it. Think about the impression that your content may give off; if you’re okay with the potential negative viewpoints that it may be faced with, then at least you’re taking a calculated risk. Also, while you may love hitting the clubs in your free time, it’s probably best to keep that kind of information off of your portfolio site’s about page. Again, though — it’s up to you!
- Explain your process: A collection of well-designed portfolio pieces is impressive, but employers still may be hesitant to hire you if you don’t clearly explain your process. They often want to see your approach to designing the piece: how did you make your decisions? What role did you play in its design and development? How long did it take you? By answering questions like this, you give employers deeper insight into how you work and solve problems.
- Consider blogging: It’s never too early to start blogging. Think about your blog as a platform to share what you learn with instructional designers; even if you’ve just learned something, try writing up a post that will help others learn the same thing. This simultaneously builds your credibility and helps others in the field.
- Get feedback: Feedback is love, and it will definitely push your work products further. Ask friends, peers, and even potential employers to give feedback on your portfolio and the projects within. By listening to and applying this feedback, you will ensure that your site is optimized for success.
- Seek inspiration: Looking at other designers’ portfolios is an excellent way to generate ideas for your own portfolio. Look at the content they include, the design choices that they make, and the way they discuss their expertise. Melissa Milloway put together a list of 14 eLearning portfolios, and Scott Winstead put together a list of 34 instructional design portfolio samples.
Many people considering instructional design as a career ask themselves if they should pursue a Master’s degree in the field. These degrees go by many names, but some of the most common keywords include Instructional Design, Educational Technology, Instructional Systems, Learning Design, and Workplace Performance.
In short: you don’t need a Master’s degree, but it will definitely help. If your primary goal is to land a job, then your focus should be building a solid portfolio (we’ll cover this more in the next section).
However, 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. When government agencies start accepting proposals for a project, they may have specific requirements about the education-level of the designers. And, for positions in higher education, employers often place higher value on formal academic credentials.
So, if your focus is on landing a corporate job or securing corporate contract work, then you can do without the Master’s degree.
That being said, instructional design degree programs can definitely help accelerate your learning and professional development. Reputable programs will ensure that you’re up to date on the latest theory (some of which I’ve discussed above), you’ll have plenty of project opportunities to build your portfolio, and you’ll be able to build strong professional relationships with your professors and peers.
To choose a program, you should look into the curriculum, the professors, and the post-graduation statistics. I recommend choosing a program that’s heavy on instructional design theory and hands-on projects. It’s best to stay away from programs that are technology-heavy due to how frequently the technology in this field changes.
So, whether you’re in a degree program or not, learning the technology will fall in your own hands. You need to take it upon yourself to learn the tools and build your portfolio if you want to maximize your chances of success.
If you’re looking for something that’s less of a commitment than a full Master’s program but will still help you get your foot in the door, you can consider a graduate certificate program. Certificate programs usually consist of five classes, and they will cover the core instructional design theory and principles that you will need to know to get started in the field.
So, if you feel so inclined, then earn a Master’s degree or graduate certificate to learn the theory, network, and gain hands-on practice, but take learning the tech into your own hands.
Networking is very important for landing contracts or securing a job. It may help get your resume and portfolio in front of the right people, but it also helps you learn from mentors and stay up to date within the field.
Let’s take a closer look at three key networking avenues.
LinkedIn is where you should devote the majority of your networking efforts, especially if your primary goal is to land paid work. For example, before I started working from referrals, nearly all of my clients first found me on LinkedIn, then visited my portfolio, then reached out to me via email. My business never would have taken off like it did if it wasn’t for my efforts on LinkedIn.
First, you want to get your profile in good shape. Here are some tips for doing so:
- Write an attention-grabbing headline. I recommend something that will set you apart from the crowd but still clearly demonstrate what you do and the value that you bring. You can also include ‘title’ keywords in your headline, such as ‘Instructional Designer | eLearning developer | etc.’, but you should still include something attention-grabbing to ensure that people click on your profile to learn more.
- Write a compelling summary. This is where people are expecting to learn more about who you are and what you do. Keep it conversational and explain to others how and why you got into the field, as well as what you can do for their organization. Include keywords like ‘instructional design’ and ‘eLearning’ throughout, and include a link to your portfolio.
- Tailor your professional experience. In your experience section, you want to include your past positions along with short summaries or bulleted lists of your responsibilities and accomplishments. Try tailoring your talking points to the L&D field; highlight any tasks that you completed related to teaching, curriculum design, new technology implementations, or even problem-solving.
- Request recommendations. LinkedIn recommendations are public endorsements about what it’s like to work with you. Ask past colleagues, peers, or supervisors to take some time to write you a recommendation; this social proof goes a long way in giving employers a clearer picture of who you are.
Once your LinkedIn profile gives off the impression that you’re a professional, aspiring instructional designer, then you’re ready to start networking.
Start with the people whose work or portfolios that you’ve come across, and always include a personalized note along with your invitation. Let people know you found out about them and why you’d like to connect (to share knowledge, follow their journey, stay in touch, etc.). If you’re interested, feel free to send me an invitation to connect.
After exhausting the contact list that you already have in mind, you can start searching for people by job title. Some common titles are instructional designer, eLearning developer, learning experience designer, curriculum developer. You can search for instructional design managers and team leads, too.
When you find people that you’d like to connect with, send them a request to connect along with a personalized invite. Be honest and transparent, and the recipient will more likely than not accept your request.
As your connections grow, take your time to read people’s profiles. Reach out to them if your curiosity is sparked by something that they’ve included. Try to start genuine conversations, let people know where you’re at in your career, and return to LinkedIn daily to interact with your feed.
2. Instructional Design and eLearning Conferences
As a whole, it seems that instructional designers love attending conferences. Twitter and LinkedIn feeds are often filled with conference updates and conversations during the big ones, and it’s hard to go a day on professional social media without seeing people advertising their speaking sessions.
That being said, conferences are excellent places for networking. They bring together a wide range of professionals in the field, and there are always recruiters and managers looking to bring on new talent. The sessions will help you stay up to date on the latest industry trends and best practices, and there are often meet-ups and dinners after the sessions are over for the day.
However, conferences are expensive. The most popular ones, such as DevLearn and ATD, are nearly $2,000, and on top of that you need to cover your lodging and airfare. That being said, many conferences offer concessions for speakers (and some even reserve a set number of slots for first time spearkers!), so you can always put together a speaking proposal to try to reduce the financial burden.
In short, conferences are not entirely necessary. In today’s world, you can do all of the networking that you can at a conference from the comfort of your home, and you can save a lot of money, too. Face-to-face interactions are richer and more nuanced, though, so if money isn’t an issue, then going to conferences can only help.
Next to LinkedIn, Twitter is the social media platform with the most active group of L&D professionals. Similar to LinkedIn, I recommend following all of the L&D professionals that you already know of, then search for title keywords to find others in the field.
Twitter is slightly less professional than LinkedIn, and many people post tweets that are slightly more personal. More importantly, though, people often share L&D articles that they find interesting and post their latest thoughts on different aspects of the field. This makes it a great platform for staying up-to-date in the field and learning more about other L&D professionals.
Finally, several organizations host instructional design Twitter chats. For those unfamiliar with this concept, Twitter chats are scheduled for certain times every week. Everyone monitors the hashtag associated with the Twitter chat, and then you can respond to questions from the moderator or respond directly to other people’s contributions. It’s a great way to get your name out there and engage in discussions about learning and instructional design.
While your portfolio will help you the most with landing paid work, many employers and potential clients want to see that you’ve successfully pulled off real-world projects for other people.
The best way to gain experience with instructional design is to do so at your current organization. You can inform your supervisor of your goal, and you can inquire about potential projects that you could help with. Organizations often recognize the value in developing their people, so if you’ve developed a skillset to help them do so, they stand to benefit from that.
If you’re a student, you can ask professors and student organizations if they need any online learning materials to help them teach their classes or educate their constituents.
Another option is to reach out to local nonprofits to see if they could use the help of an instructional designer. This is a great way to gain experience and help a cause that you believe in at the same time.
Once you’re ready to start applying to instructional design jobs, you’re going to need to craft your resume. As far as the content is concerned, you should pull out tasks and responsibilities that are most relevant to those of an instructional designer; focus on curriculum development, educating others, creating learning materials, using new technology, and, at the very least, solving problems.
You can create a traditional, Times New Roman 12-point font resume, but it will be a much more effective effort in personal branding if you create your resume to mirror the design of your portfolio. Use the same font, colors, and design elements, and include a link to your portfolio right at the top of your resume. This will make it a seamless experience for employers transitioning from your paper resume to your digital portfolio.
Once you have the resume in place, begin applying to jobs. ‘Instructional designer’ is the most common title, but feel free to search for some of the others that we’ve discussed: eLearning designer / developer, curriculum developer, learning experience designer, and learning and development specialist.
If you’ve done well with crafting your resume and creating a strong portfolio, then you are very likely to land some instructional design interviews. Employers will ask you about your previous experience, process, skillset, and goals. You likely have a good understanding of this yourself, but you need to feel comfortable talking about it with others.
Considering this, it’s a good idea to talk about your story as an instructional designer with as many people that are willing to listen. Answer questions such as:
- How did your previous experience lead you to instructional design?
- What have you done to level up your skillset?
- What part of instructional design do you like most, and why?
- What value can you bring to an organization?
When you can answer questions like these comfortably, then you’re ready to interview.
Many employers will also want to see what you can do given their own constraints, so they will ask you to complete practice projects. While it’s unfortunate that they require you to work for free, this is a necessity for many full-time interview processes (at least, it is when you’re just starting out).
If you’ve made it this far in the guide, then congratulations! Internalizing the content herein is a surefire way to break into the field, and at the very least, the guidance I’ve included will help you figure out what to learn next.
If you have additional questions about becoming an instructional designer or learning the skillset, you can definitely contact me, but there are other great places to learn more, too. I recommend browsing the instructional design subreddit daily. People post many great questions there, and plenty of expert instructional designers share their knowledge free of charge.
Finally, if you would like for me to discuss your action plan with you or help you learn the skillset 1-on-1, you can book a coaching session. However, I’m happy discussing your journey with you and offering additional guidance free of charge via email.
And that’s a wrap! Thank you for taking the time to read this guide, and I wish you the best of luck on your journey.