What Is an Instructional Designer?

By Brian Soika

Instructional designers help train professionals such as this medical student who’s watching a high-quality training video

A medical student trains for surgery via video (image via USC Rossier magazine)

The demand for instructional designers is growing as more organizations engage their employees in continued learning. Many organizations, for example, invest in technology to train staff or engage students. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, job growth in the instructional design/instructional coordination industry is expected to increase by six percent by 2028*.

So what exactly do instructional designers do? Helena Seli, PhD is an Associate Professor of Clinical Education and oversees USC Rossier’s Learning Design and Technology (LDT) program. Here’s her expert take on questions about the role of the instructional designer.

(Curious about our LDT master’s program? Contact us.)

What Does an Instructional Designer Do?

Instructional designers help organizations create innovative learning solutions that can be used to empower their workforce, or in the case of schools, faculty and students.

For example, if a hospital wants to train incoming residents to perform a particular type of surgery, they may consult with instructional designers to create an explicit sequence of activities to develop the necessary knowledge and skills, and identify effective media or other training tools.

When approached with a project, here’s how a designer’s process may work:

1. Consult with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

Typically this includes interviews and information gathering.

2. Create an instructional blueprint

Outline strategic learning activities designed to achieve intended outcomes.

3. Determine how to measure the effectiveness of training

Establish key performance indicators.

4. Figure out the best media for training

Based on desired outcomes and activities, determine what type of delivery is appropriate, whether in-person training or online, using technology.

Which Industries Hire Instructional Designers?

In short, everyone hires instructional designers. The range of industries using instructional technology include K-12 schools, higher education, government, military, medical and more. Online schools and universities in particular rely on instructional designers to create the interface of their digital classrooms.

Why Is an Instructional Designer Necessary?

Instructional designers can bridge the gap between experts and learners. The former may have in-depth knowledge on a subject, but might lack the skills to communicate it in an educational way. This is what Seli describes as the “expert blindspot.”

“It’s almost the same as asking an expert basketball player to be a coach,” she explains. “They’ve long forgotten the steps to [perfect] the three-point shot and may not be able to coach others effectively.”

Instructional designers translate complex knowledge into an accessible and effective learning experience.

Learn About the Learning Design and Technology Program

What Backgrounds Do Instructional Designers Have?

A common background for instructional designers is professional experience in education and training. Preschool teachers, museum educators, corporate trainers or K-12 credentialed instructors are examples of professionals who transition into the field.

Psychology and social work are also typical backgrounds. Professionals interested in the human mind and knowledge of learning processes may find instructional design rewarding, as might people with experience in training development for individuals.

What’s an Instructional Designer’s Salary?

An instructional designer’s salary depends on a variety of factors like industry, years of experience, location, and seniority. Having a master’s degree can also positively impact how much you make.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics* estimates that the average salary is $64,450, while Payscale.com lists the salary range for Instructional Designers based in Los Angeles (where USC Rossier is located) as $54,000 – $89,000.

Why Is Instructional Design a Growing Field?

Constant technological change is creating demand for more instructional designers. Industries implement technology, such as new medical record systems, and instructional designers are needed to train a workforce to implement the new systems.

Plus, as technology becomes more dynamic as an instructional tool, more organizations are likely to use it to improve efficiency. It may be able to reduce time spent by trainers and improve overall workforce productivity.

What Training Do you Need to Be an Instructional Designer?

If you’re an aspiring instructional designer or want to advance in the field, a Learning Design and Technology master’s program may be a smart move. A graduate program takes a foundational approach to the subject. As a student, you investigate how the human mind functions in terms of learning and memory, and use research to form instructional strategies to enhance learning as well as motivation.

An LDT master’s program gives you a comprehensive understanding of how to design assessment and evaluation.

Seli adds that “using a specific type of technology should never be the goal.” While a master’s program trains you to understand and use technology in learning, it should be used as a tool to achieve an outcome.

How Does a Master’s in Learning Design and Technology Prepare you for Your Career?

As an instructional designer, a master’s degree provides you with in-depth knowledge and advanced skills. Unlike a certificate program that may train you in specific instructional technology, a graduate program goes much further. It roots you in a psychological background, trains you to interpret important research, and offers you a chance for practical application in the form of a capstone project. It’s a “comprehensive [experience] where all the pieces fit together,” says Seli.

Plus, if you enroll in an online master’s program, you get to experience instructional technology as you learn about it.

What’s it Like to Be an Instructional Designer in Higher Ed?

Wondering what an instructional designer does in higher education?

As a school that aims to improve learning outcomes through technology, USC Rossier relies on three experienced instructional designers.

Lisa Evans, Tara Harding and Hue Wang (aka, the Instructional Design and Technology group or IDT) help faculty leverage technology and adopt innovative learning solutions to enhance instruction in the classroom.

The Instructional Design Process

Typically, the IDT group consults with USC Rossier faculty when the latter wants to incorporate technology into an existing course, or they’re about to teach something new.

Using best practices, IDT recommends technology-supported course elements that align with the instructor’s learning objectives. A common example is flipped learning, a process that reorients the traditional classroom experience. Students can watch asynchronous lectures online on their own in order to free up time in class for clarification, or for other important and interactive activities.

Other suggested media tools might include instructor profile videos, module videos, presentation tools and more.

Once recommendations are accepted and media assets are created, IDT instructs faculty on implementation.

How Instructional Designers Work Together

While Evans, Harding and Wang work towards shared goals, the instructional designers all have different skill sets. They combine their backgrounds in computer information systems, user experience, learning theories, and education technology—with a strong dose of project management—to achieve success.

The Most Rewarding Part of Instructional Design

For IDT, collaboration with faculty is the most rewarding part of their jobs. They enjoy solving problems for instructors who want to incorporate technology and instructionally sound design elements in a meaningful way. Perhaps the best scenario is when faculty receive positive feedback from students, and want to incorporate even more instructional technology in the classroom.


USC Rossier Resources

Curious about our Learning Design and Technology program? Check out our Application and Requirements and Tuition and Scholarships pages.

Find out how a master’s degree in Learning Design and Technology can elevate your career as an instructional designer.

Contact us

*BLS predicts job growth for Instructional Coordinators, which appears to be an overlapping field of Instructional Design.