I’ve been lucky to work with many instructional designers from a variety of backgrounds—each brought a valuable skillset to their work, and some had specific strengths or focus depending on the career path they followed to become an instructional designer.
Let me start by saying that I’m a strong advocate for only hiring qualified instructional designers to design training or learning. As most instructional designers and learning consultants come from many backgrounds, some may be more suited for your project than others. Hiring the right one means knowing how to pick the right person based on the skillset your project needs. Ideally, you might successfully hire someone who has combined experience or background in these fields. You can do this by asking them to describe past projects, asking for work samples, or by following my other tips for finding the right learning consultant.
The following list is based on my observations—there will always be exceptions to these! You’ll likely encounter instructional designers from all walks of life, which will only enrich their work!
1. Graphic Designers
Graphic designers turned instructional designers will have a solid background in colour theory, composition, and visual design. They will excel at projects requiring rebranding eLearning, modernizing job-aids and creating a consistent look and feel for learning assets. Most instructional designers with a graphics design background work collaboratively with content specialists or more experienced instructional designers who can bring solid learning methodology or cognitive science background to a project.
Skilled at writing impactful scripts and quick at editing, audio, music and composition, videographers can easily branch out into learning videos, interactive video, video tutorials, and YouTube or TED talk videos. They’re effective storytellers that can create an emotional impact in a concise format (and emotions are a key part of the neuroscience behind how the brain learns best).
3. Marketers or Communications Professionals
Learning consultants with a background in communication are often the best at tone, voice, narration, and scripting. They’re also well-versed on making large amounts of content consistent, relatable, and on-brand. Many instructional designers are also copy editors.
Some even come with a digital marketing background in website content, digital analytics or graphic design, so they have an innate ability to gather, monitor, and use learning analytics to inform their work and meet the organization’s goals too. They are also skilled at measuring ROI.
These professionals sometimes benefit from partnering with educators or formally trained instructional designers who can confirm learning objectives and evaluate content using educational principles and adult learning methodologies.
IDs with a background in teaching or education tend to have ample experience in designing learning activities, facilitating curriculum, and creating unit and lesson plans for the classroom.
Educators come with a solid academic background in education methodologies, and most have a Bachelor of Education as a minimum if they worked in the public school system.
Educators are excellent at chunking large concepts, engaging learners, and explaining concepts in ways learners respond to best. Although most educators are trained in pedagogy (children and youth focused methods) they may not necessarily have formal training in andragogy (adult education). Many will find their existing qualification and skills highly transferable to adult learning settings and add adult education to their professional development with certificates, courses, and conferences. Read my other post about why teachers make great IDs.
Developers, coders, software students or junior engineers are excellent at configuring learning systems and finding workarounds to common delivery problems.
Learning consultants with backgrounds in Software as a Service (SaaS) or general development backgrounds excel at delivering course authoring builds or customized course functionality. They usually collaborate with instructional designers on the content itself or build eLearning courses storyboarded by Instructional Designers who worked with subject matter experts on the content in a previous project phase.
6. Technical Writers
Instructional designers with a technical writing background know how to translate complex IT processes into user-friendly steps. They are excellent at developing and maintaining knowledge bases, visualizing information, and are usually thorough, systematic and detail-oriented.
7. Business Analysts
Some of my favourite learning colleagues to work with used to be Business Analysts: By definition, all Instructional designers design for behaviour change, and business analysists know a lot about using business intelligence to solve business problems. They’re excellent at conducting audits of your Learning Management System (or learning records in general), evaluating effectiveness or measuring training impact, and providing project management for large learning initiatives or programs.
Both Marketers and Business Analysts have deep and practical knowledge of analytics, qualitative and quantitative data, and using data to drive business decisions and map your return on investment. This means they’ll have your goals in mind at every step of the project.
Remember: We can't expect someone to know all and be all— there are no ‘unicorns’ out there! Finding someone with experience relevant to your project’s goals and deliverables will mean looking for that special skillset. The best way to find this is to contact the consultant directly and ask them to provide examples of a client list and samples of recent work similar to your project. Read my other tips on what to look for in an instructional design consultant, or get in touch with me to see if I've got the right skillset for your next project!
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Leah Chang is a learning consultant with 16+ years of experience designing online and classroom learning. In her spare time she goes on self-propelled travel adventures and tries to grow vegetables.