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Instructional Designer Career Guide

What is an instructional designer?

An instructional designer is a professional who uses learning theories and instructional design models to create teaching and learning experiences. These experiences are designed to help individuals and groups improve their skills and knowledge. Their goal is to make learning more effective, efficient, and appealing. They often work in educational institutions, corporations, or government agencies. Their work is instrumental in making complex information easier for others to understand and apply, enhancing performance in specific areas or general competencies.

Duties and responsibilities

The primary responsibility of an instructional designer is to create engaging learning activities and compelling course content that enhances knowledge retention and transfer. They conduct research and analysis on learners and contexts and apply tested instructional design theories, practices, and methods. An integral part of their job involves determining the learner’s current state and needs, defining the instruction’s end goal, and creating content to bridge the gap. They often collaborate with subject matter experts to identify the target audience’s learning needs and then utilize multimedia technology to help shape the aesthetics of the content.

Work environment

An instructional designer typically works in an office environment, but the specifics entirely depend on the industry and the individual designer’s role. In an educational institution, for example, the designer might work closely with teachers, administrators, or curriculum developers. In a corporate setting, they will likely collaborate with team leaders, product managers, or human resources professionals. The nature of the work, which is often project-based, allows for some flexibility, with opportunities for remote work or consulting roles.

Typical work hours

An instructional designer typically works standard office hours, Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. However, hours will vary based on looming deadlines, project needs, or client demands. They might have to occasionally work evenings and weekends to meet project deadlines if the workload is high or if they’re aiming for fast turnaround times. Some roles, especially those in freelance or consultancy, may offer greater flexibility in working hours, depending on the project requirements and agreed timescales.

How to become an instructional designer

This career guide section outlines the process of becoming an instructional designer. This path involves combining your creative and technical skills with the required education and relevant professional experience.

Step 1: Obtain a bachelor’s degree

Most employers require at least a bachelor’s degree. Degrees in education, instructional technology, or graphic design can provide a good foundation for this career since these programs often cover topics such as learning theories, curriculum development, and multimedia production.

Step 2: Gain relevant experience

Experience in teaching, training, or educational program management can be highly beneficial. You can acquire it through internships, part-time jobs, or volunteer experiences. Hands-on experience helps hone the skills needed for designing compelling instructional materials.

Step 3: Master necessary technical skills

In the digital age, designers are usually required to be proficient in commonly used software applications. These may include software for desktop publishing, imaging editing, and learning management systems. Additionally, proficiency in e-learning software like Articulate, Captivate, or Moodle could give applicants an edge in the job market.

Step 4: Obtain a master’s degree (optional)

Some employers prefer a master’s degree. Many universities offer master’s programs in instructional design or related fields. These programs provide advanced training in curriculum development, learning theory, and instructional technology, preparing students for high-level instructional design roles.

Step 5: Get certified

While not always required, professional certification can demonstrate a commitment to the profession and proficiency in critical skills. Certifications like the Certified Professional in Learning and Performance (CPLP) from the Association for Talent Development can help boost your credentials in the eyes of potential employers.

Step 6: Build a portfolio

A portfolio showcasing your best work is the most effective way to demonstrate your design skills and competencies to potential employers. Include examples of different types of instructional materials you’ve created, such as e-learning modules, instructor guides, job aids, and learning games.

Step 8: Application and interview process

Once you’ve built up your educational background, experience, skills, and portfolio, you can apply for instructional design jobs. Tailor your resume and cover letter to highlight relevant experiences and skills, and prepare for interviews by studying potential interview questions and reviewing your portfolio.

How much do instructional designers make?

Instructional designer salaries will vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Being proficient in certain design software, having experience in e-learning, and having a strong portfolio may also add value and increase income potential.

Highest paying industries

  • Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services – $78,750
  • Management of Companies and Enterprises – $77,030
  • Publishing Industries – $76,460
  • Information – $75,680
  • Finance and Insurance – $75,250

Highest paying states

  • California – $90,090
  • New Jersey – $89,680
  • Massachusetts – $89,270
  • New York – $87,990
  • Connecticut – $85,700

Browse instructional designer salary data by market

Types of instructional designers

Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for instructional designers. This section will assist you in identifying opportunities that align with your interests and goals.

Corporate instructional designer

Working in a corporate environment, these professionals are responsible for creating training materials and programs tailored to the methods and practices of a specific business. They develop efficient, engaging, and effective learning experiences that enable employees to cultivate their skills, promoting personal and company growth.

Academic instructional designer

Specializing in an academic context, they contribute greatly to universities, colleges, and K-12 educational institutions. They design and develop learning experiences in collaboration with faculty and teachers, enhancing teaching methods and students’ learning. Their focal point is to apply instructional theory in creating engaging, effective learning materials aimed at real-world application.

E-learning developer

These professionals are focused on designing learning experiences for online or digital platforms. They use various programming codes, software, and multimedia elements to build interactive, engaging courses accessed through electronic devices. E-learning developers hold the potential to reach a variety of learners regardless of geographic location, breaking boundaries with the power of technology.

Instructional coordinator

This role goes beyond just designing instructional materials – it involves supervising teaching standards, coordinating with teachers and administrators, and ensuring the implementation of instructional goals. They often also train teachers and recommend changes to enhance the curriculum. As coordinators, their comprehensive overview of the instructional framework allows for significant improvements in teaching and learning.

Instructional technology specialist

Focused on the tools used in teaching and learning, these professionals are skilled in incorporating new technologies to enhance educational methods. They can work in a corporate or an academic setting, often training other staff to use various technology tools effectively.

Top skills for instructional designers

This career guide section outlines the skills and abilities that will help you find success as an instructional designer. Regardless of their specific focus, top performers in this field all have a common set of core skills they deploy in their work.

Understanding of learning theories and instructional design models

A foundational understanding of learning theories and instructional design models is a key part of the job. Successful designers can apply these theories and models to develop effective and engaging learning experiences for a wide range of audiences.

Curriculum planning and development skills

With strong skills in curriculum planning and development, individuals can create comprehensive instructional programs. These skills include identifying learning objectives, creating relevant content, and designing assessment strategies to measure learner progress.

Proficiency in technology and digital tools

Today’s learning environments, more than ever, rely heavily on digital tools. As such, proficiency in using various technologies often used in online learning, such as learning management systems (LMS), can greatly boost their effectiveness.

Excellent communication skills

Instructional designers must have excellent communication skills as they often coordinate with subject matter experts, trainers, and learners. They also need to be able to present learning materials clearly and effectively.

Project management abilities

Often, designers are tasked with managing multiple projects at once. Thus, project management abilities are important for meeting deadlines, adhering to budgets, and achieving objectives.

Creative problem-solving skills

Designing learning experiences often involves tackling unexpected challenges and obstacles. Creative problem-solving skills can help them develop innovative solutions and optimize the learning experience for all involved.

Instructional designer career path options

An instructional designer’s career progression can often follow several paths based on their interests and skills. Looking forward, more senior roles within the field may become attainable

In the field of instructional design, experience and expertise can lead to a position as a senior instructional designer. This role involves overseeing a team of designers, managing projects from conception to completion, and contributing industry-specific knowledge. With years of effective design and leadership, a senior designer could advance to a learning and development manager. In this position, you’d be responsible for strategic planning, program development, and personnel management within your company’s learning and development initiatives.

Alternatively, professionals in this field can branch out to related but distinct occupations. Jobs like e-learning developer or an LMS administrator are positions that can leverage the skills and knowledge you have gathered. E-learning developers emphasize the creative and technical side of educational platform production, while an LMS admin would require a stronger focus on system management and technological troubleshooting. Both options represent a change of pace that takes advantage of your current skill set.

Stepping into the academic world is another viable path. With sufficient educational credentials, one can aspire to be a university professor, teaching the upcoming generation of instructional designers. This path often requires a commitment to higher learning, typically a doctorate, and potential hands-on experience in education. While it may be a significant shift in career perspective, it offers a novel set of challenges and rewards.

Emerging trends for this profession highlight a shifting focus toward learner engagement and the application of digital technology. Leading businesses have recognized the importance of continuous employee training and learning, fueling demand for experts in this field. The rise of remote work has also increased the need for well-crafted online learning programs, creating more job opportunities for instructional designers.

As technology continues to evolve, potential employers will seek designers who are comfortable implementing new tools that enhance the learning experience. For example, virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) are becoming increasingly popular tools for immersive learning. Additionally, incorporating elements of gamification to make learning more engaging is an emerging trend. Professionals who are adaptable and up-to-date with these tech advancements will likely have an edge in the job market.

Employment projections

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the projected employment for instructional designers is expected to grow 7 percent through 2031. Job growth is primarily driven by the increasing adoption of technology in education and the need for training and development in corporate environments.

Instructional designer career tips

Understand your audience

You’re creating educational materials for a specific group of people. Understanding this audience – their needs, previous knowledge, and how they learn best, will make your lessons more effective. Carry out needs assessments and design training that satisfies these needs. Remember that the material you create will only be as effective as your understanding of the people using it.

Mastery of technology

Technology is at the heart of instructional design. To deliver your material, you must be proficient in the latest learning management systems, e-learning development tools, and multimedia software. You’ll need to understand mobile learning technologies and social learning tools. Familiarize yourself with different tools and keep updated with emerging trends in educational technology.

Build a professional network

Networking is beneficial in any profession, including instructional design. By joining and participating in professional organizations, you get the opportunity to learn from others in your field. You can share ideas and experiences, stay informed about the latest trends and best practices, and even find new job opportunities. Below are some organizations you can consider joining:

  • The eLearning Guild
  • The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE)
  • The Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT)
  • Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (POD)

Commit to continuous learning

The field of instructional design is continually evolving as new technologies and learning theories emerge. It’s important to commit to lifelong learning to stay up-to-date, which comes from attending workshops, webinars, and conferences, reading industry publications, or taking advanced classes. Here are some ideas for continuous learning:

  • Take classes on eLearning development tools such as Storyline or Captivate
  • Attend industry conferences like DevLearn or Learning Solutions
  • Read industry publications like eLearning Industry or Learning Solutions Magazine

Pursue relevant certifications

Certifications can prove your competence and commitment to the profession to potential employers. Plenty of certifications are available for instructional designers, such as CPLP. Another popular certification is Certified Instructional Designer/Developer from Langevin Learning Services.

Where the instructional designer jobs are

Top employers

  • Amazon
  • Apple
  • Facebook
  • Google
  • Microsoft

Top states

  • California
  • New York
  • Texas
  • Florida
  • Washington

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • Behance
  • Upwork


What skills and qualifications do I need to become an instructional designer?

To pursue a career in instructional design, you should have a strong understanding of adult learning theories and instructional design models. In addition, you should be competent in using eLearning development tools and learning management systems. Generally, a bachelor’s degree in instructional design, educational technology, or a related field is required. Experience in teaching or professional training can be helpful as well.

What does a typical day look like for an instructional designer?

Your daily tasks can vary depending on your workplace and the specific projects you’re working on. However, you may find yourself facilitating meetings to discuss learning objectives, designing eLearning modules, reviewing content, conducting needs assessments, and testing the functionality of the educational platforms.

What type of work environment can I expect as an instructional designer?

Your work environment will depend on your employer. You might work in an office, remotely from home, or a combination of both. There could be opportunities to collaborate closely with teams or work independently, depending on the project and organizational culture.

How can I improve my skills as an instructional designer?

Besides gaining more practical experience, it would help to stay updated with the latest trends and tools in eLearning and instructional design. Attending professional seminars, workshops, and courses or earning an advanced degree can also boost your knowledge and expertise in the field. Joining professional associations and networking with fellow designers can open up avenues for collaboration and learning as well.

Do I need a degree to be an instructional designer?

Some employers may seek candidates with advanced degrees, but others might prioritize experience and practical skills over formal education. Nonetheless, a bachelor’s degree in educational technology, instructional design, or a related field can give you a head start. A master’s degree in related areas can further increase your opportunities and earned income.

What software skills are important for an instructional designer?

You should be familiar with several software tools used in creating eLearning modules and courses. These include LMS like Moodle or Blackboard and eLearning development tools like Articulate Storyline, Adobe Captivate, and TechSmith Camtasia. Knowledge of graphic design software like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator is a plus. Basic coding knowledge can also be beneficial for customizing courses.

How does the role of an instructional designer differ from a teacher?

While both roles aim to foster learning, they carry out different tasks. A teacher focuses on delivering lessons, grading assignments, building relationships with students, and adapting to their educational needs. On the other hand, an instructional designer creates the curricula and educational materials teachers use in their classrooms. They analyze learning needs, design instructional content, and develop assessment tools.

What are the challenges I might face as an instructional designer?

Instructional design can sometimes be a complex process, requiring careful analysis, creativity, planning, and negotiation skills. You may face challenges such as keeping up with technological advancements, adapting to different learning styles, managing time effectively to meet project deadlines, or aligning instructional strategies with the changing needs of learners and organizations.

What is the role of technology in instructional design?

Technology plays a critical role. It is a key tool for creating and delivering interactive, engaging, and accessible learning materials. Through eLearning development software and learning management systems, instructional designers can create multimedia content, interactive simulations, quizzes, and more. It also enables distance learning, personalized learning experiences, and real-time tracking of learners’ progress.