An aspiring instructional designer asked me for an informational interview a few weeks ago. He’s a teacher working on his masters degree and he was wondering about the skill set required to be successful as an instructional designer.
I’ve been fortunate to split my career in two very different design environments. I spent a dozen wonderful years at PLATO Learning, where instructional design practices were formed from both their academic traditions and the reality that for them good instructional design was a market differentiator. At PLATO, I had artists, programmers, writers, and project managers to help me achieve (and exceed) my designs. I could go deep in the discipline of instructional design because of their support and specializations.
My time at McGladrey has been equally rewarding, but very different. Diversity of skills rather than specialization is the order of the day. On a given day, I might be the artist, or the programmer, or the writer, or the project manager.
I advised the aspiring instructional designer to be cognizant of where he would like to be in the context of these extremes: a specialist who is devoted to being the best designer possible, or more of a generalist with a diverse skill set. I feel lucky to have tried both, though I think my transition to a more diverse position was made possible by my interest early in my career in dabbling in as many areas as possible. Sure, I could have been successful as an instructional designer without learning HTML, but learning enough to help me create rapid prototypes helped me communicate my ideas to others, making me a better designer. Same with graphic design, audio processing, video editing, and other skills I’ve tried over the years. I would never sell myself as a programmer, or a graphic artist, project manager, etc., but it helps to have done each of them enough to grasp the basics.
To that extent, I advised him that even if he decides to go deep in instructional design, picking up at least one other complementary skill will help him both from a design perspective and an employability perspective.