What it Takes to be an Instructional Designer (by Nancy Curtis)

Fri, January 07, 2022 4:29 AM | Kenneth Rhee

I’ve been an instructional designer for over 30 years.  When I started as an ID, I didn’t know it was called that, my company didn’t call it that, and I’m not sure the general public even knew there was such a thing.  But ID it apparently was then, and ID it is now.  

My least favorite term for what we do is “building content.”  My team and I don’t think of ourselves as “building” anything, and we’re not spewing out “content.”  We don’t even really think of ourselves as writing.  We’re trying to craft an experience, to be brought to life by our unseen partners, the instructors and the learners.

Over the years my responsibilities have morphed from creation to supervision. Part of my job now is to identify, hire, and develop other instructional designers.  

I look for three main qualities in a prospective ID: 

  • Writing ability. Of the three, this is the easiest to demonstrate, yet the least important. Yes, it’s important to write well, and yes, an ID must be able to organize and capture information in written form. But beyond that basic competence, brilliant writing skills are not crucial. Comprehensibility will suffice; as long as we know what you’re trying to get at, we can support the nuts and bolts of flowing prose, consistent style, grammar, punctuation, and spelling. God made copy editors for a reason. 

  • Technical aptitude. We specialize in curriculum for technology in the workplace, so some level of technological interest is a must, along with the curiosity to acquire new skills quickly without a lot of scaffolding or structure. You don’t have to be a subject matter expert when you start out (although many of my folks become SMEs in the process), but you sure have to speak their language with credibility and conviction. 

  • Instructional instincts, or what I call “the didactic urge.” A burning need to explain things to other people, even if you don’t know much about them yourself is the indispensable force behind great instructional designers.

If I see a candidate with the above three qualities, who’s also a learning-motivated learner and a bit of a loner, with perhaps a dash of obsessive-compulsiveness thrown in, I see the potential to flourish and succeed in an instructional design career.  It’s a career that I personally have found intellectually satisfying and personally rewarding for decades. My mission is to improve people’s lives through technical training, and it’s a joy and privilege to have that opportunity. 

By Nancy Curtis

ATD Rochester

PO BOX 23714

Rochester, NY 14692


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