The How, What, and Why of Instructional Design

03 February

Share This Post

The How, What, and Why of Instructional Design


  1. What is an Instructional Designer?

  2. What are the main goals of an instructional designer?

  3. What is the role of an instructional designer?

  4. What are the major components of instructional design?

  5. What is digital learning vs instructional design?

  6. What is effective instructional design?

  7. What skills does an instructional designer need?

  8. What tools do instructional designers use?

  9. How to become an instructional designer

  10. What are the top models for instructional designers?

  11. Instructional design and the Digital Learning Institute

What is an Instructional Designer?

If you’ve ever taken an online course or completed professional training, there’s a good chance there was an instructional designer behind the creation of it. 

As instructional designers are responsible for systematically designing and developing materials for learning, they play a key role in a wide range of industries and organisations.

While instructional design dates back to the 1940s, the practice has become more widely used within the past two decades due largely to technological advancements. The rate at which technology is evolving has led to a shift in the function of corporate development teams. And while once perceived as a competitive advantage or employee perk, continuously developing employees is now a strategic business objective. 

But although instructional design has skyrocketed in importance over the past few decades, some common questions that prevail are: what is an instructional designer and what does an instructional designer do? And simply put, an instructional designer is responsible for designing, developing, implementing, evaluating and managing learning materials, courses and training.

Since instructional designers work in various industries and with all types of learners, each individual instructional designer role will have some variances. Therefore, there will be different answers to the question of what does an instructional designer do

However, some common tasks that the role of instructional designer encompasses include 

  • working with subject matter experts, 

  • creating learning materials based on instructional design methods and theories, 

  • and using technology to develop courses. 

By using their design skills and knowledge of learning theories to create learning experiences that align with the organisation’s learning objectives, instructional designers are vital to the success of any organisation.

Find out how a Professional Diploma in Digital Learning Design can boost your career

Learn More

What are the main goals of an instructional designer?

The aim of instructional design is to create specially designed instruction that enables learners to achieve a set of desired learning outcomes in a cost-effective, engaging and efficient manner. 

Although learning outcomes are specific to each learning experience and vary based on the needs of the learners and the subject area, there are some general goals to aim for when developing all learning experiences.

One of the main goals of instructional design is to create learning experiences that are tailored to the needs of your learners. This means that instructional designers scope their learners in advance to gain a better understanding of their prior subject knowledge and motivations for taking the course or training. Considering the needs of your learners also involves designing learning experiences that are accessible for learners with disabilities or learning difficulties. 

A further goal of instructional design that will help your learners achieve the desired learning outcomes is to create specially designed instruction that is engaging and stimulating. Using methods, such as social learning and gamification, will help create more effective learning experiences that lead to higher retention of the material. 

A third goal of instructional design is to achieve measurable results. Since instructional design is a systematic process, learning programmes should have clearly established metrics that are outlined at the start and define what success looks like. These metrics can then inform instructional designers of where they should optimise as well as provide evidence of learning success.

What is the role of an instructional designer?

If you’re new to the field of instructional design, you may be asking yourself: what is an instructional designer? And generally speaking, an instructional designer is responsible for designing, developing and managing learning experiences. 

Instructional designers work in diverse organisations, in both the public and private sectors. They are employed by schools, higher education institutes, non-profit organisations and corporations. Due to the increased demand for agile and highly-skilled workers, instructional designers are currently highly sought after in corporate learning and development teams.

Some tasks that are typically included in the job description of an instructional designer include designing courses or modules, creating supplementary learning materials, establishing metrics, determining learning outcomes and managing learning platforms. Instructional designers also frequently collaborate with subject matter experts when designing and developing learning experiences.

When creating learning materials and programmes, instructional designers rely on a number of learning theories and instructional design models that underpin their work. Therefore, instructional designers typically have some training under their belt in how to apply these foundational theories and models to their projects.

Since the role of an instructional designer is so varied and interdisciplinary, the field attracts professionals with diverse backgrounds. While some instructional designers have a related academic degree, many have transitioned from teaching or other fields after completing a professional development course.

What are the major components of instructional design?

Instructional designers work with various theories and approaches when creating learning experiences. However, there are generally four main components involved in instructional design: 

  1. analysis 

  2. design

  3. development 

  4. assessment 

Each of these components requires instructional designers to have a working knowledge of learning theories, principles of instructional design and technology. 

One of the primary components of instructional design is analysis, which can take place at any stage in the process. When starting out with the creation of a course or learning experience, instructional designers frequently perform ‘scoping’, which involves analysing the learners’ needs and profiles. Throughout the course and following completion, instructional designers should continuously analyse the effectiveness and optimise accordingly. 

Another key component of instructional design is in the name of the practice: design. In order to create effective, engaging, accessible and attractive learning materials and experiences, instructional design requires the application of design principles, such as Universal Design of Instruction (UDI).

A further component of instructional design involves developing learning materials – which is in most cases facilitated through the use of technology. Some examples of tools that instructional designers use to develop materials include programmes for authoring, graphic design and video editing. During development, instructional designers will have to apply both principles of instructional design and technology to create effective learning experiences.

What is digital learning vs instructional design?

A common question that many prospective or novice instructional designers ask themselves is what is the difference between digital learning design vs instructional design? And it is important to keep in mind that while these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they do have some key differences.

Although both digital learning design and instructional design both refer to the systematic process of designing and developing learning experiences and materials, the focus of digital learning design is more on eLearning or digital experiences. This means that digital learning designers will make use of virtual classrooms, virtual reality and digital gamification. 

However, digital learning design does not mean that the delivery of instruction takes place  solely online it could also include blended learning models as well. Since technology-enhanced learning has become so ubiquitous, instructional design frequently also includes digital elements. 

Therefore, when considering digital learning design vs instructional design, it’s important to take into account that digital learning design encompasses instructional design. And while digital learning design is more targeted towards online learning, digital learning designers still apply instructional design principles to their learning experiences. 

When considering whether to pursue a career, there will be extensive overlap and the differences aren’t always cut and dry. Therefore, as opposed to determining a job or professional development course based on the title, dig deeper into the content of the role or course. This way, you can determine if it aligns with your professional goals and interests.

What is effective instructional design?

Effective instructional design involves adhering to design best practices and applying instructional design theories and principles. Although instructional design involves an element of creativity, instructional designers do not have to reinvent the wheel and they do apply a range of tried and trusted methods to achieve desired learning outcomes.

Some best practices of instructional design include 

  1. defining goals 

  2. being learner-centric 

  3. continuously optimising 

  4. incorporating microlearning and social learning methods 

It’s also important to use best design and accessibility best practices well. This involves avoiding large blocks of text, using accessible fonts and considering colour contrast.

Applying foundational theories and principles is another important component of effective instructional design. While there are myriad instructional design theories, some of the most commonly used are social learning theory, behaviourist learning theory, classical conditioning, operant conditioning and cognitivism. 

By applying best practices, and underpinning learning projects with instructional design theories and principles, instructional designers can create more effective, impactful and accessible learning experiences. 

However, it’s important to keep in mind that while applying theories and principles to your instructional design can improve your chances of learner success, it doesn’t always guarantee it. And in order to determine and improve the effectiveness of learning content or programmes, instructional design relies on using assessment and metrics. 

Learn more about how Instructional Design can help your career!

What skills does an instructional designer need?

Instructional design is a dynamic career that involves applying design theory, leveraging learning technology and collaborating with various stakeholders to create learning experiences. Therefore, in order to be successful, instructional designers will need to have a diverse set of soft skills and technical skills.

Interpersonal skills

Because a large part of the role involves collaborating with stakeholders, such as subject matter experts (SMEs), multimedia designers, clients or course facilitators, interpersonal skills are vital for instructional designers. Some key interpersonal skills that are required for the role include communication, listening skills and collaboration.

Project management skills

Since instructional designers typically do project-based work, they should also have a high level of project management skills. Examples of project management skills that instructional designers should have are time management, organisation, critical thinking and -solving. 

Technical skills

In terms of technical skills, instructional designers will ideally have knowledge of learning theory, design skills and experience using learning technology. Since basic competency in these technical skills is usually required to enter the profession, many prospective instructional designers choose to fast-track their development by taking an instructional design certificate programme

One of the main benefits of taking an instructional design certificate programme is that it can provide prospective or current instructional designers with the technical skills and theoretical knowledge required to advance quickly in the field.

What tools do instructional designers use?

Instructional designers work with a range of tools that enable them to design and deliver learning experiences. Although there are a plethora of instructional design tools out there, some of the basic types include authoring tools, graphic design and video editing tools, and learning platforms.

The most fundamental type of instructional design tool are authoring tools, which enable the creation of online courses and digital learning content. Some of the most common authoring tools include Articulate 360, Adobe Captivate and iSpring.

While authoring tools typically include design and multimedia features, instructional designers may want to supplement these capabilities with additional design and video software. Some common types of design software that are applicable for instructional design include Canva, Adobe Illustrator and PowToon. 

A further essential tool type that instructional designers use is a learning platform, such as a learning experience platform (LXP) or a learning management system (LMS). These tools include learner interfaces that facilitate the delivery of learning content and experiences. Examples of learning platforms that are commonly used are 360Learning, Brightspace, TalentLMS, and LearnUpon.

There are various factors, such as industry, learner type, desired learning outcomes and experience of the instructional designer that will determine which types of instructional design tools are best to employ for a particular learning project. However, some additional types of tools that instructional designers may also keep in their arsenal include project management software, survey tools, mind mapping tools and podcast recording software.

How to become an instructional designer

Although there are various pathways to becoming an instructional designer, one of the most common routes is to first complete training in instructional design theory and practice, and then gain work experience through an entry-level instructional design job or internship. 

While it is common for instructional designers to have transitioned from other fields, such as teaching or graphic design in which they have transferable skills, instructional designers will still often have to complete training that is specific to instructional design. Through this training, they will learn about theories, methods and technology that is specific to the field.

Even though it is possible to complete training through academic bachelor or master programmes, many instructional designers choose to take a professional diploma or instructional designer certification – which tends to be more flexible, shorter and more affordable. For example, the Professional Diploma in Digital Learning Design is a fully online course that can be completed with a cohort or self-paced, which makes it ideal for working professionals. 

After gaining the foundational instructional design skills and knowledge of learning theory, most instructional designers gain on-the-job experience through obtaining an entry-level instructional design job or internship. However, some professionals are also able to gain experience through job crafting in which they come up with ways to incorporate more instructional design tasks into their current role. For example, a teacher may be able to incorporate digital learning design into their current role before transitioning into a mid-level corporate learning and development role.

Careers in Instructional Design & Digital Learning

What are the top models for instructional designers?

Instructional designers use an array of instructional design models to guide the development of learning experiences. These models can help ensure they are designing courses efficiently and in a manner that correlates with how people tend to learn best.

Some of the most common instructional design models include ADDIE, Bloom’s Taxonomy, Gagnes’s Nine Events of Instruction, SAM, Kemp. and Merrill’s Instructional Design Principles. As each model serves a different purpose, instructional designers will typically use a mixture of various models when creating learning experiences.

In terms of development models of instructional design, SAM and ADDIE tend to be the most commonly used. As an acronym for analysis, design, development, implementation and evaluation, the ADDIE model provides an effective and straightforward instructional design framework. Although SAM, which stands for Successive Approximation Model, also focuses on development, it differs from ADDIE in that it is primarily for rapid development.

In addition to instructional design models that can help guide development, there are also models that can be used to ensure the design leads to the best learning outcomes. Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction is one such widely applied model that is based on learning theory. Having been in use for over 80 years, this model provides a nine-step framework to increase learning efficacy.

Learn more about the core models

Instructional design and the Digital Learning Institute

Although the field of instructional design has been around for nearly a century, it is currently experiencing a heyday. With advancements in learning technology and organisations struggling to keep their workforce’s skills relevant in a rapidly changing world, instructional design is more in-demand than ever.

If you’re a lifelong learner with a knack for technology, instructional design may make a suitable career choice. As a creative, versatile, collaborative and in-demand field with a bright career outlook, it is also a profession that is accessible to both career starters and career changers. Many professionals transitioning into instructional design even find that they already have many skills required, such as project management, collaboration, organisation, or even teaching or design.

However, in order to give yourself the best chance of success as an instructional designer, it is vital to learn the theories and methods that underpin effective instructional design. This way, you can create impactful learning experiences in an efficient manner that achieves the desired learning outcomes.

After completing the Professional Certificate in Instructional Design with the Digital Learning Institute, you’ll have the foundational knowledge required to start or accelerate your career as an instructional designer – and experience all the benefits that this fulfilling career has to offer.

Hopefully, this article has answered the question “What is an Instructional Designer?”