Developing a Learning Culture

Guide: What Does an Instructional Designer Do?

How To Become An Instructional Designer

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)?

A traditional instructional designer builds their course learning upon a solid foundation of adult learning theory. They chunk the material, dig into the details, tease it apart and identify key information that a learner would need to know. Then, they align that material with a course delivery based on these learning models.

At ELM, we prefer the term Learning Experience Designer, (LxD) because we look at learning through abroader scope, viewing it as a full experience. You can learn more in the above post, but to summarize, the learning experience designer expands the traditional ID model into EdTech and user experience (UX); taking what we call our Neurolearning Approach.


Learn more about our Instructional Design Process, Contact Us Today!

What Does a Learning Experience Designer Do?

An LxD applies a design thinking model to their job. In comparison to business thinking, this is a much leaner and agile approach. Even though the LxD adds extra steps by making low fidelity prototypes and testing them, design thinking is about failing fast and small with minimal investment. It’s constantly moving by expanding ideas, narrowing them down, setting up prototypes to get feedback and making changes quickly. While many Fortune 500 companies, such as IBM and GE, are employing design thinking to their business practices, it’s still not widely applied in the learning space.

Fail early to succeed sooner- Tim Brown

The Learner-centered Design Process

Every 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 management might not even be aware of. An ID usually starts with the customer’s goals and builds out from there. The LxD instead asks for access to the learners, asking questions like: What is your workday like? What challenges do you face? What do you feel like 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 them (they buy in).

Good designs is making something intelligible and memorable. Greats designs is making something memorable and meaningful - Dieter Rams

What Kind of People Make Great Learning Experience Designers?

Great Learning Experience Designers:

  • Know how to actively listen
  • 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—an obsessive need to simplify

The goal of a designer is to listen, observe, understand, sympathize, synthesize, and glean insights...-Hillman Curtis

How to Become a Learning Experience Designer

You can’t get a specific graduate degree in Learning Experience Design, as the field is too new. But, once you have a master’s in Instructional Design, you can piece together your own continuing education. At ELM, we seek out what we call T-shaped People, in other words, people who specialize in instructional design, but also have breadth in project management, UX, visual design and are versed in different learning management system platforms.

We recommend for any design student, and particularly for ID students, that they find a design research course or UX class. Even if it’s not directly applied to the degree, it’s an effective way to get some awareness around design thinking. We often use the following resources:

Interaction Design Foundation

This organization offers online learning with courses in Beginning UX, Gamification, Augmented Reality and Design Thinking. Enrollment is ongoing, so you can jump in whenever one begins. Classes are free for members, which is a subscription-based model and ranges from $8 a month for a student to $150 for IDF Design League members, who also get access to a personal coach.

This project-based, free class, called Introduction to Human-Centered Design and sponsored by design firm IDEO, runs intermittently, starting again on May 8, 2018. Students learn not only design thinking but also practice interviewing, researching and prototyping.


The aforementioned design firm, IDEO, offers a Design Thinking Certificate through their online university, IDEO U. All classes are five weeks long, with only the intro class offered on demand and taught by founder David Kelley. They cost $400 per class and are divided into three categories: Design Thinking, Creativity at Work and Creative Leadership. This certificate is an excellent addition to your master’s degree in Instructional Design.


The Stanford University is open to current students, educators, executives, and mid-level designers and is at forefront of design thinking and business, as it has integrated both into a powerful program. Executives are given the chance to attend the Design Thinking Bootcamp, a four-day intensive done in a small group, working on a real-world business challenge. Cost is $12,600 and includes everything but lodging. Classes are offered in March, July, and September each year. Check to see if your organization will cover all or part of the cost.

Where to Find Learning Experience Designer Jobs

The Best Cities: San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, New York, San Diego

The Best industries: Tech, medical, biotech, pharma, any of the fortune 500 companies.

Freelance/Contract: Learning Experience Designers, with their enhanced skills, engage in more partnerships with internal IDs, because large companies prefer to outsource digital learning pieces. ELM LxDs are often hired to work with internal IDs or consult, for companies looking for a new approach.

H2: Instructional Designer Salaries

They range from entry level $60K-85K

Resources to stay current in the Instructional Design/Learning Experience Design Field

101 Design Methods by Vijay Kumar

The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design by

This is Service Design Doing by Stickdorn & Hormess et. al

Creative Confidence by Tom & David Kelley

The Convivial Tool Box by Sanders & Stappers

We hope that gives you a good start into a newly emerging field of the Learning Experience Designer. Check back for updates, as we will add new information when it arises since the industry is evolving quickly. Also, we are always looking for talent, so please click to send your resume to ELM!