What is an Instructional Designer?

If I told you I was a teacher, a lawyer, or a doctor you would have a pretty good idea what my day looks like. Of course, there are follow up questions. "What grade?" "What kind of law?" "I have this bump on my leg...?" But there's a pretty basic understanding of what teachers, lawyers and doctors do

When I tell people I'm an instructional designer, 90% of my follow up questions are some variation of, "What is that?"


...which I completely understand, by the way. It's a new field and I'm here to share! If you want to know the basics of what Instructional Design is--and what we spend our days doing-- you have come to the right place. 

ID stands for Instructional Design or Instructional Designer. You may have heard other terms tossed around too like "instructional technologist," "instructional systems designer" (ISD), "learning designer," "learning experience (LX) designer", "educational technologist," and "curriculum designer." 

Confusing right? Yeah, I think so too. 

Ours is a relatively young industry. Most sources credit World War II as the origin of instructional design. That was when people first started formalizing the principles and strategies associated with human learning (soldier learning, to be more exact) and developing systems and technologies to better assess and create learning. So the field as we know it is really only about eighty years old. 

Can you imagine the growth that’s taken place in 80 years?! 

In that time ID has been analyzed through the lens of the military, psychology, manufacturing, academia and the corporate world. As it has grown, changed, and been applied to different areas. It has taken on many different titles and identities, each with their own nuances. 

So... the myriad of diverse folks who inhabit the positions I listed earlier may use those terms interchangeably with the knowledge that they represent slight variations in focus or philosophy. And you can feel free to do so as well. 

At its core, ID studies the way people learn in order to determine the best strategies to teach them. 

That is the broadest definition I can give you. Here are a few of the many, many capabilities of instructional designers. If any of these pop up in your day-to-day it might be a clue that you're working with an ID (or should be…).

  • Designing instructional materials and courses like workshops, eLearning, handbooks, job aids, textbooks and so much more
  • Analyzing gaps in performance or knowledge through observation, surveys, academic research, focus groups…there are a bunch of ways to perform “gap analysis”
  • Determining the best strategies to bridge those gaps. IDers need to consider the audience, all available resources, timeline, and budget; sometimes it feels like spinning plates, but IDers are great plate-spinners
  • Evaluating existing learning products and programs and designing/executing evaluations of the products and programs they design
  • Integrating cutting-edge technology with finesse to enhance learning, rather than detract from it (which is more difficult than you might think!)
  • Finally, convincing leadership that it isn’t actually training they are looking for. Many performance issues are the result of non-instructional factors (a blog post for another day…) so we’re out to save your organization money and time! 

Immersed in the the world of outbreak response

Bridging the Gap with eLearning