Instructional Design

What Does an Instructional Designer Do?

If you landed on this page, you’re either considering a career in the eLearning industry, are going to school for a master’s degree in instructional design, or you’re already working as an instructional designer (ID) and want to grow in your career. Wherever you’re at on the spectrum, this blog will give you the information and resources you need to position yourself on the cutting edge of learning and design.

What is an Instructional Designer (ID)?

Instructional designers create engaging learning experiences by analyzing training needs, designing educational content, and evaluating program effectiveness. They work closely with subject matter experts and use instructional design models, multimedia technologies, and assessment tools to create high-quality training programs. Their ultimate goal is to align learning programs with specific learning objectives and ensure continuous learning and development.

At ELM, we prefer the term learning experience designer or (LxD). This is because we look at learning through a broader scope and view it as a full and comprehensive experience. 

A learning experience designer expands the traditional ID model into EdTech and user experience (UX); taking a Neurolearning™ approach into consideration. It’s a combination of learning science, educational technology, and user experience.

What Does an Instructional Designer Do?

An instructional designer takes existing learning materials or raw, unstructured documents about the course’s topic and goes from there. They chunk those input materials, dig into the details, and identify key information for learners to absorb. Then, they define the best structure and method to deliver that information according to adult learning models.

On the other hand, an LXD follows design thinking principles, which include failing fast. This means embracing failure as an inevitable part of designing a learning experience. And that’s why LXDs create prototypes and test them to get early feedback. The goal is to make corrections or improvements with the least impact on the project’s budget and schedule.

As IDEO founder David Kelley once said, “fail faster to succeed sooner.” In other words, the earlier an LXD gets feedback, the quicker they’ll deliver a successful online course. LXDs constantly expand ideas, narrow them down, put a prototype together, gather feedback, and make changes…quickly!

“Fail early to succeed sooner.”- Tim Brown

Also, when designing a learning experience with a design thinking approach, the focus is the learner. However, the LXD cares about the customer’s goal too.

Therefore, every project is a game of pushing and pulling between the customer’s goal and learners’ needs. An LXD combines the two elegantly by figuring out the learning outcomes required to

  • Meet the customer’s expectations from a business perspective
  • Solve the learners’ job or career challenges — that the customer might not even know about

On the other hand, an instructional designer develops the learning solution from the customer’s goals.

Instead, the LXD asks learners questions like

  • What’s your workday like?
  • What challenges do you face?
  • What do you feel you need to learn, and what are the obstacles to building those skills and knowledge?

By involving the learners in the design process, an LXD benefits both the company’s business goals and the workforce’s needs. Additionally, the staff will buy in the learning experience because it’s meaningful to them. 

And that’s how LXDs set up elearning projects for success. In the words of Braun’s industrial designer Dieter Rams, “Good design is making something intelligible and memorable. Great design is making something memorable and meaningful.”

The Learner-Centered Design Process

Every instructional design project involves a push and pull between the goal of the stakeholder and the learner’s needs. The trick is combining the two elegantly so that form meets function. The customer knows what their learning objectives are from a business or management perspective, but learners come to the table with an entirely different set of problems and challenges that management might not even be aware of. 

Instructional design usually starts with the customer’s goals and builds out from there. On the other hand, the LxD needs access to the learners, asking questions like: What is your workday like? What challenges do you face? What do you feel you need to learn, and what are the obstacles to that knowledge?

The aim is to remove barriers to their learning experience at work by co-creating with them, integrating their needs into the company’s overall goals. This sets the project up for success because it’s meaningful to the learners (they buy in).

“Good design is making something intelligible and memorable. Great design is making something memorable and meaningful” – Dieter Rams

What Skills Do You Need To Be an Instructional Designer?

There are certain qualities necessary to become an exceptional learning experience designer. Let’s examine each of them.

Great learning experience designers:

  • Know how to actively listen to the problems of their learners 
  • Are open-minded and highly empathetic
  • Can pull out key points and learning moments during the course of an interview
  • Share a love of education
  • Have deep belief that knowledge changes the world for the better
  • Are curious and love research
  • Like organization on a deeper level— and have an obsessive need to simplify

On top of the soft skills we just mentioned, LXDs must develop job-specific skills. Keep reading for more information on the technical skills you should learn to become an instructional designer — or LXD.

“The goal of a designer is to listen, observe, understand, sympathize, synthesize, and glean insights” – Hillman Curtis

How to Become an Instructional Designer

Some skills are intrinsic to an LXD or developed through personal relationships, but others require training. And you have two options:

  • Get a master’s degree in learning experience design
  • Get a master’s degree in instructional design and broaden your skills and knowledge of learning experience design with continuing education

At ELM, we seek out what we call “t-shaped people,” people who are expert instructional designers but also have expertise in project management, UX, and visual design, and are also versed in different learning management system platforms. 

Thus, we recommend that any design student, particularly ID students, find a design research course or UX class. Even if it’s not directly applied to your degree, it’s an effective way to get some awareness around design thinking and make yourself stand out from the crowd. 

Top Resources for Instructional Designers

Interaction Design Foundation

Interaction Design Foundation — the world’s largest online UX design school, founded in 2002 — offers

  • Beginner-to-advanced self-paced courses — which open for enrollment every few weeks and grant you a certificate trusted by top employers
  • Part-time bootcamps — which give you one-on-one mentoring, an industry-recognized certificate, and a connection with a recruiter
  • Masterclasses — which open for registration frequently

Companies such as HP or Philips train their teams in UX design with Interaction Design Foundation’s courses. Plus, they hire this school’s graduates.

For $16 a month — $11 for students — you’ll get member discounts on masterclass registrations and on a wide range of UX tools. And if you pay $200 per month, you’ll get access to a personal coach. Courses are free for members; so, you can take as many as you wish.‘s free, hands-on, seven-week introductory course on human-centered design opens for enrollment every month.

It’ll teach you a creative approach to problem-solving. Not only you’ll learn design thinking, but you’ll also learn user interviewing, brainstorming, storyboarding, and prototyping techniques.


IDEO U is IDEO’s online school. IDEO is a well-known human-centered design and innovation company with 40 years of experience.

They teach you how to read your customers’ needs, do rapid prototyping, and generate creative ideas for solving problems. And they offer three ways to build or perfect your design thinking skills.

  • “Hello Design Thinking” — an introductory online self-paced course on the fundamental concepts and tools of design thinking. It should take you 2–5 hours to complete the course, and you can start whenever you want. The instructor is David Kelley — IDEO founder — and the price is $199 for 90-day access. It includes a workbook with reflection questions, activities, and supplemental resources.
  • “Foundations in Design Thinking” — a 2–3 months, four hours a week certificate program. It contains two online cohort courses on core design thinking, costing $999.
  • “Advanced Design Thinking” — 5+ months, four hours a week certificate program. It contains five online cohort courses that’ll give you the context to practice the design thinking process extensively. The price is $2,396.


Stanford‘s design programs target professionals and students from beyond Stanford. They focus on methods and tools for creative thinking to solve complex and ambiguous problems. Their approach to innovation is human-centered and prototype-driven.

One of those programs is an immersive Design Thinking Bootcamp for executives. Stanford offers the program in March, July, and September each year. The price is $13,000.

It’s a four-day intensive, hands-on online program — three days of virtual instructor-led lessons and small-group work followed by half a day applying the techniques and tools you learned to a design project at your organization. In the week after the program, one of Stanford’s coaches will further support you with the project for three days.

FAQs About the Instructional Designer Job

What are the best states to work in as an instructional designer?

According to Zippia, these are the top three states to work in (and live) as an instructional designer:

  • California — with an average annual salary of $75,734
  • Massachusetts — with an average annual salary of $71,934
  • Washington — with an average annual salary of $68,243

The classification above is based on income and the location quotients determined by the US Bureau of Labor Statists. This measure indicates how concentrated an industry is in a state compared to the whole country.

What are the best cities to work in as an instructional designer?

Zippia reports that these are the top three highest-paying cities for working as an instructional designer:

  • San Francisco, CA — with an average annual salary of $81,234
  • Boston, MA — with an average annual salary of $71,855
  • Seattle, WA — with an average annual salary of $69,416

PayScale lists a partially different set of cities with the highest instructional designer salaries:

  • Washington, District of Columbia — with an average of 12.4% more than the national average
  • New York, NY — with 12.0% more
  • Seattle, WA — with 9.8% more

How much money do instructional designers make?

According to SalaryExpert, the salary of an instructional designer ranges from $52,846 to $90,722. The average base salary is $73,579 per year.

What are the best books to learn instructional design?

Summing Up 

Apart from all the above-mentioned things, you can also take additional steps to improve your instructional design skills and thrive in your career.

Read some good case studies

Reading and solving case studies will enhance your decision-making and analytical skills. Case studies also enable you to put your theoretical concepts into action. In this way, you will better understand how the eLearning industry works in reality.

Download and read eBooks 

eBooks are an excellent source of knowledge for modern-day instructional designers. They not only provide you with high-quality knowledge, but they also enable you to read on the go. So if you want to sharpen your skills and enhance your knowledge about instructional design, make sure to download and read several good eBooks.

Join discussion forums 

Getting in touch and communicating with like-minded people can do wonders for your instructional design career. That’s why joining a discussion forum is a must. There are several wonderful discussion forums that instructional designers can join to talk about their ideas, share their thoughts, and discuss their problems.

Reach out to ELM

ELM is a learning agency that specializes in creative learning experiences. We can provide you with great learning resources like blogs, eBooks, and case studies to enhance your knowledge and stay updated with the latest industry trends. Contact us today! 

In this article, we covered the most important skills that instructional designers need to have and how you can become one. We hope it has given you a good start in the newly emerging field of learning experience designer. 

Make sure to check back for updates on this rapidly evolving industry!