Learn everything you need to know about becoming an instructional designer, including career routes, skills, and qualifications.
In 2020, Inside Higher Ed named instructional design “the hottest job in higher education”. And statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirm that trend, expecting a 6% job growth for instructional designers between 2019 and 2029 .
So, why has demand risen, and exactly what is an instructional designer? We answer these questions and much more in our comprehensive guide. Whether you’re a graduate looking to kick-start your instructional design career or you’re considering a requalification, we’ve got you covered.
In just ten minutes, we’ll cover:
- What is an instructional designer?
- Possible career routes
- Main duties and responsibilities
- Necessary skills
- How to become an instructional designer
- Necessary qualifications
- The average salary
What is an instructional designer?
An instructional designer develops online learning experiences, content, and activities for students of all ages. This includes online courses, interactive quizzes, training videos, job aids, and other learning materials.
Instructional designers must understand both learners’ needs and organizational goals and create engaging, personalized training programs that meet them.
In addition, they must apply various instructional design models and technologies to create, deliver, and track digital learning modules.
Next up: We explore potential career tracks within the field of instructional design.
Possible instructional design career routes
As an instructional designer, you have diverse career paths available to you. The route you pick will depend on your experience, career goals, and preferences.
Here’s a closer look at some of the options open to you:
Corporate instructional designers work within businesses to design and implement employee training. They’re typically part of the learning and development or HR team.
You will create digital training programs for various learning initiatives in this role. These include:
- Compliance training
- Leadership training
- Technical training
In this type of setting, you’ll need to work closely with other stakeholders in the company to develop and design training. You’ll also be in charge of conducting needs analyses to identify potential training topics, tracking learners’ progress, and calculating training ROI.
Another popular route is to work as an instructional designer in an educational setting like a K-12 school, college, or university. This role involves creating the following types of content for academic learning:
- Instructional materials
- Study aids
- Online courses
While the audience may be different, the skills needed for corporate vs educational roles are very similar. Your main goal is to help learners achieve their educational outcomes and master the subject matter.
In-house vs elearning vendor
You can also choose to work as a full-time employee in an organization or for an agency. As with everything, there are pros and cons to both options.
In-house instructional designers will be part of an internal team developing online training solely for their company. As a result, they will be more “rooted” in the organization and form part of ongoing projects. The downside is that they will have less variety in the types of projects they work on.
On the other hand, working for a consulting firm or agency gives you the opportunity to work on diverse projects and use a wide range of tools.
That said, this type of work tends to be more demanding and requires meeting strict deadlines and client specs.
The choice is up to you and will depend on how you like to work, your experience level, and your personal circumstances.
You could also consider working as a freelance instructional designer or specializing in a specific industry.
What are the main duties and responsibilities of an instructional designer?
You may have different responsibilities depending on your role, industry, and level of seniority. But to give you an idea, here are the main duties of an instructional designer:
- Conduct a learning needs analysis to identify where training is needed
- Collaborate with SMEs and other key stakeholders
- Manage elearning tools, including LMSs and content-authoring software
- Conduct user testing
- Develop instructional materials (courses, videos, images, quizzes, learning activities)
- Implement feedback systems to gauge how training is received
- Research and apply learning models, theories, and best practices
- Evaluate elearning materials and suggest improvements
- Utilize tools and techniques to engage learners
- Train other team members on how to design and deliver learning material
- Apply accessible learning best practices
What skills should instructional designers have?
Instructional designers wear many hats and therefore need a range of soft and technical skills in their arsenal.
Here are the essential skills all instructional designers should have:
Strong communication skills
Communication is an integral part of your job as an instructional designer. This role calls for you to collaborate with subject matter experts (SMEs), graphic designers, HR teams, and other stakeholders.
That means you will need strong written and verbal communication skills to articulate the project goals, provide feedback, and explain your vision.
Written communication is especially important for instructional designers. You’ll be tasked with writing storyboards, video scripts, and text for online courses. What’s more, you’ll need to have the skills to articulate complex concepts in clear and simple language.
Elearning projects have many moving parts, so strong active listening skills are also a must. This ensures you’re able to fully understand and take on board feedback from learners, clients, or stakeholders.
Robust technical skills
Technology is a key part of instructional design. So, you will need to gain a strong working knowledge of essential elearning tools.
- Learning Management Systems (LMSs)
These platforms are used to store, deliver, and track online learning activities. As such, you’ll need to understand how they work and how to read LMS reports.
- Elearning authoring tools
This is the software that instructional designers use to create elearning materials and interactions in an LMS-friendly format. For instance, you can build online courses, quizzes, roleplays, and interactions. Popular authoring tools include Articulate 360 Storyline, Elucidat, iSpring Suite, and Adobe Captivate.
- Video editing software
Video learning is king these days, so instructional design professionals must be a dab hand at recording and editing training videos. This means knowing how to use screen recording software like Camtasia and video editing tools like Adobe Premiere Plus or Aftershock. Some authoring tools come with built-in video editors to streamline this process.
If you plan to make animated or whiteboard-style videos, you will also have to master this software.
A crucial part of working in learning and development, including instructional design, is setting learning goals and objectives. After all, whether you’re developing education for schools or corporate training, it should have a clear purpose.
As an ID professional, you will need to familiarize yourself with goal-setting frameworks such as the SMART method. These models enable you to define and communicate clear goals and objectives.
Knowledge of learning theories
There’s a lot of science behind how we learn. As an instructional designer, you will need a solid understanding of the common learning theories and their application.
Some popular adult learning models and theories you should know include:
- The ADDIE Model
- The SAM Model
- Gagne’s Nine Events
- Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels [PDF]
- Mayer’s Principles [PDF]
- Action Mapping
It’s also your responsibility to provide learners with the best chance of assimilating and retaining knowledge. This involves applying cognitive load theory when designing learning experiences.
Most hiring managers will expect you to be able to apply these theories during the elearning development process.
Discover more with our guide on popular instructional design models every pro should know.
Unless you want to deliver dry, dull training content that leaves learners feeling bored, you’ll need to develop your storytelling skills.
The best way to engage learners is by creating engaging, scenario-based training materials that mimic real-world experiences.
Not only does this type of learning content grab learners’ attention, but they’re much more likely to retain key information too.
All of this means that instructional designers must hone their creativity and skills to turn dry information into a story learners want to hear.
Whether it’s a roleplay scenario for a corporate training course or a game for K-12 learners, storytelling is one of the best engagement tools you’ve got in your bag of tricks.
Visual design skills
Visually appealing learning materials engage learners, grasp concepts, and break information down into readable sections.
And while you aren’t expected to be a fully-fledged graphic designer, instructional designers need to understand the basics of visual design.
Here are the basic design skills you’ll need to develop:
- Choosing the right font size, color, and typeface
- Picking colors that complement the tone of the content, branding, and your audience
- Creating visual elements, like infographics, images, and banners
- Developing animations to make learning content more engaging and personalized
- Ensuring there’s adequate contrast in the size, color, font weight, and text size to ensure content is readable
- Understanding how much negative (white) space to leave to avoid your content looking cluttered
- Learning how to align elements on the page
- Creating a consistent look and feel throughout the learning materials
Project management skills
Meeting deadlines, allocating resources, managing budgets, collaborating with stakeholders, conducting quality control, and developing feedback loops…
There are many moving parts when building learning experiences, no matter the setting.
As such, instructional designers need to develop robust project management skills. These skills will ensure the elearning project runs smoothly and that the learners (or clients) are happy.
In particular, you should hone the following skills:
- Project planning
- scope management
- Resource allocation
- Evaluation procedures
- Systematic reviews
Creativity enables instructional designers to present learning content in fresh, new ways. For instance, by coming up with interactive scenarios to practice points, visually appealing graphics, or gamification tactics to boost motivation.
Thinking creatively will give you a huge professional advantage and help you transform dull instructional content into something engaging and effective.
A word of warning, though. Sometimes the most creative approach is the simplest. In other words, don’t overdo it with the bells and whistles. Instead, find simple hacks to make training content stick.
How to become an instructional designer
As the saying goes, there’s more than one way to cook an egg. The same goes for becoming an instructional designer.
Follow our step-by-step guide to becoming an instructional design professional:
Step 1: Study the fundamental instructional design theories, models, and best practices. Ensure that you have a clear understanding of how to apply them in a practical setting.
Step 2: Research the most popular elearning tools and develop your proficiency with them. For instance, you could request free trials to get familiar with them.
Step 3: Hone essential skills, such as visual design and composition, storytelling, and writing. This will show employers you’re a well-rounded candidate with initiative.
Step 4: Build a strong instructional design portfolio with a range of artifacts that showcase your abilities. Make sure you properly explain the context behind each piece, including the goal and the results.
Step 5: Network with other instructional designers by attending workshops and events. You can also use social media and LinkedIn to connect with other industry professionals or join online conversations in the sector.
Step 6: Write up an instructional design resume that demonstrates both your technical and soft skills, as well as any qualifications or certifications. Be sure to look at job descriptions for instructional design roles to see what skills employers want.
Step 7: Prepare for the instructional design interview by fine-tuning your portfolio, reviewing the fundamentals, and coming up with clear examples to illustrate your skill set.
What qualifications do I need to become an instructional designer?
While it’s possible to forge a career as an instructional designer with no formal qualifications, a degree is generally considered the minimum level of education for this role.
Interestingly, a survey of 853 ID professionals revealed that 87% had a master’s degree, and another report by the Learning Guild indicated that 68% hold either a master’s degree or a doctorate . This could well be worth the money, with each level of degree resulting in around $3,000 more in annual salary .
Don’t get disheartened if you don’t have a degree in instructional design, though. Fortunately, there are plenty of other ways to carve out a successful career.
Nothing beats practical, hands-on experience. So, building a strong elearning portfolio is the ideal way to showcase your skills.
What’s more, there is an ever-growing number of professional courses and free resources that can help you develop your skills without a degree.
Earning certifications in popular elearning software (LMSs, course authoring tools, etc.) is another excellent way to demonstrate your abilities without a formal qualification.
What is the average salary of an instructional designer?
According to Indeed, the national average salary for an instructional designer in the US is $70,730 per year . That said, several factors can affect your earnings. These include location, experience, industry, and the employer.
The more experience you have under your belt, the higher you can expect your salary to be. Moreover, you will likely earn more money as a freelance instructional designer than in a contract role.
But you will also forgo employee benefits like health insurance, paid time off, and retirement savings accounts. Therefore, it’s important to weigh these factors up before taking on a job role.
We hope our guide to what an instructional designer is gives you food for thought if you’re considering pursuing a career in the field. As digital learning continues to soar in popularity, there’s more demand than ever for instructional design professionals in both corporate and educational settings.
Explore the blog for more in-depth trends and insights about all things instructional design.
By Nicola Wylie
Nicola Wylie is a learning industry expert who loves sharing in-depth insights into the latest trends, challenges, and technologies.