What IS an instructional designer?

29 Jun

Over the years, I’ve been challenged to explain what I can offer my nonprofit and business clients. The official definition of an instructional designer (ID) goes something like… we create a variety of measurably effective learning experiences. We combine principles of adult learning theory with a comprehensive knowledge of which methodologies are best to use, depending on a ton of variables. We are strong partners and collaborators who know how to listen, brainstorm, create structures or frames, write, edit and illustrate complex thoughts. We know how to get projects done on time and under budget. We help our clients transform a chaotic mix of ideas into compelling learning experiences and products that “ship” and “scale.”


This may be accurate… but it’s kind of boring and way too wordy. Let’s share some fun ways to explain what instructional designers can offer.

One great metaphor needs to be credited to my colleague, Beth Klein, who words it like this… We are like donuts. If you go to a bakery and order an assortment of filled donuts… you will get a mix of flavors, jelly, apple, lemon, etc. Fillings can vary, but they all end up inside the same type of baked shell. ID’s are donut shells for carrying learning content (the jelly or Boston Cream or what have you) from subject matter experts (the bakers) to learners (the eaters.) All parties need the information to be served up fresh, in easy-to-digest portions. That’s where us donuts come in.

Do YOU have a metaphor to describe what ID’s do? Please share!


4 Responses to “What IS an instructional designer?”

  1. Nina Coil June 29, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

    Great question Deb! One of the ways I help people understand ID is to say we focus on making sure that people leave an experience with measurable results – we are as much about the end as the means.

  2. melissa June 30, 2012 at 6:42 pm #

    you are a fantastic donut shell, no doubt.

  3. George Grattan July 1, 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    Instructional Designers as are the Gurus of “How”; their clients are the Providers of “What.” Of course, this often means that ID’s, when they’re good, get to push their clients to think more carefully about the “So What?,” the “What For?,” and, most importantly, the “Why.”

  4. Sophie Parker July 1, 2012 at 3:57 pm #

    But Deb, don’t instructional designers make the best combination of shell and filling? Better than, say, the Dunkin’ Donuts brand? Isn’t it just like feeding someone something so good they eat it up and ask for more? To extend the metaphor, I see you more as a great cook, who makes the food (learning content) delicious, engaging all of the customers’ senses, smell, taste, sight, even sound, so the dish appeals to a wide range of people. I know that messes up your image a bit when we get to the baker of your metaphor- the content expert as owner of the restaurant, perhaps? Whatever it is that happens in the learning exchange, the ID makes the experience stick in the brain of the learner, which given the speed and variety of means of communication, is pretty darn critical.

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