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Do You Have What it Takes to Be a Successful Instructional Designer?

Professionals come to instructional design from diverse backgrounds. Whether through intentional or unintentional career transitions and development, the field of instructional design is composed of many former teachers, trainers, developers, writers, business administrators, and people with subject matter expertise in their specific fields. These varied professionals may seem dissimilar at first glance, but they likely hold several traits in common. The following list of top personality traits distinguish leading instructional designers from their peers.


With the tools and technology available today, design options are only limited to designers’ inspiration. Instructional designers are often challenged with the task of transforming dry or technical content into engaging learning experiences, and top instructional designers see this sort of challenge as enjoyable. Creativity comes into play when designers determine how to make content educational while also being engaging. Instructional designers can display their skills and captivate their audiences through the innovative use of the features of their authoring tools and other compatible software, as well as an aesthetically pleasing application of colors, fonts, and templates.

Project Management

Many new instructional designers are surprised to find themselves in the role of project manager, whether or not they hold that title or even have formal training in project management. It’s all too common for instructional designers to be tasked with juggling multiple projects at once, each running on its own timeline, requiring collaboration with different sets of stakeholders, and multitudes of risks to mitigate along the way. We recommend all instructional designers develop or brush up on their project management skills to ensure each project is delivered on time, on budget, and within scope.

Problem Solving

Many instructional designers feel suffocated when their clients or employers expect them to be mere order takers, but top instructional designers rise above this status and provide meaningful work through performance consulting. Whether or not they hold the title of consultant, the utilization of a few consulting practices can help the designer determine learners’ true needs and how to best meet them. Consultant Sardek Love warns, “Failure to invest sufficient time to properly define the problem almost always results in providing a solution to the wrong problem. I don’t have to tell you what that does to your credibility.” As we wrote in a previous article, taking the time to conduct a needs analysis will ensure that your work is in fact a viable solution to the problem you’ve been asked to solve.

Communication Skills

Instructional designers communicate both orally and in writing with their numerous colleagues. Throughout the development process, designers must communicate and collaborate with project stakeholders such as subject matter experts and project sponsors. Project communication must be clear, proactive, and timely, which relates to effective project management.The actual content that designers create must communicate clearly to learners, so learners can master the content and be able to apply it on the job. Written content such as eLearning courses, job aids, and manuals must be clear and concise, and be comprehensible to the intended audience. Writing that displays standard grammar and mechanics of writing, as well as appropriate tone and vocabulary, will be accessible to all learners.  

Interest in Educational Technology and Software

Tools are a necessary component of the instructional design trade. First and foremost, the authoring tool is the canvas where designers create most of their work. This tool can be supplemented with third-party image, video, and audio editing software, and most designers also publish their courses to a Learning Management System (LMS). In-depth knowledge of the features and benefits of these tools allow creativity to flow, enabling designers to create superior content as well as troubleshoot any issues that they or their learners may encounter.  


A thorough needs analysis will identify traits and characteristics of the population of learners, and skillful instructional designers keep this information top of mind as they create their content. Effective content is not just engaging; it must be relevant and meaningful to learners. Top designers often imagine themselves in the learner’s position and create content that they would actually want to complete if it was assigned to them. Compelling content is more effective as it stands a better chance of accomplishing the intended goals or learning objectives for the content.

Understanding of Adult Learning Theories

Whether it’s gained through formal education or informal experiences on the job, knowledge of adult learning theories is essential for instructional designers. Top instructional designers balance the art of creativity with the science of applying theory to create masterful content that achieves learning goals and objectives. Knowledge of theory guides designers throughout the entire creation process, from the initial needs analysis, through development, to assessment and evaluation, and empowers designers to make informed decisions in their work.

Identifying as a Lifelong Learner

Professional development opportunities are abundant for instructional designers, and professionals who complete certificate programs or degrees, attend conferences, and participate in professional development organizations distinguish themselves as thought leaders in the field. The knowledge gained through these activities leads designers to create impressive work and enables them to remain current with industry trends and ever-changing technology. Working and designing from the perspective of having a growth mindset allows designers to find fulfillment in their work and to see all challenges as opportunities, which is of tremendous benefit to their learners and colleagues alike.

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