How creative is instructional design as a career?
June 18, 2012 9:16 PM   Subscribe

How creative is instructional design?

I'm finishing up a degree in visual communication design, but I have a keen interested in adult education. I am considering doing a masters in adult education and/or instructional design but I really don't know if the field of instructional design is for me. That being said, I looking at getting a job as an instructional assistant to see how it fits. I'd still like some feedback though.

I am quite creative and I enjoy visual communications/graphic design but I find myself craving a more analytic type of career. I have done some special projects in instructional design but I mainly focused on creating interesting visual aids and visual instruction. I understand that there is a major focus on creating objectives and outcomes alongside evaluating instruction, but I am wondering, how creative and/or visual is an instructional design career? Is it more of a "science" than an "art"? I do think I would enjoy the "science" behind instructional design, but I know that I am more passionate about the "art" side.
posted by jpritcha to Work & Money (7 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I've been in eLearning for over a decade and absolutely love the mixture of art and analysis called for in this field. ID can definitely be creative, but, of course, some clients will be more conventional than others. In addition, you have to watch out for making things pretty and dynamic just for the sake of aesthetic impact, as this can actually detract from learning.

One source I often recommend is e-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Clark and Mayer. On the one hand, the book provides research that will ground you a little. On the other hand, I have found that some of my favourite designs were accepted by conservative clients because I could point to something from this book to support my choices.
posted by maudlin at 9:30 PM on June 18, 2012

I'd highly recommend the job as instructional assistant. I worked at a fairly large instructional design office for a short period and found it much more analytical and schedule-driven than I first thought. The creatives I worked with all had something way more interesting going on on the side. It was a great place to meet and network with other creatives who were trying to figure out their own careers.

However, even one level up from this, there was quite a bit of creativity required to help create a vision, get feedback and buy-in, and follow up to ensure it got done the right way.

My impression was that it's extremely important to be a team player who can nurture a creative environment. This takes a lot of effort. I didn't see how higher-ups could really feel like designers, let alone artists, but they seemed excited about the broader strokes.

Even before you go for the job, you might do some informational interviewing with one of the directors/managers. They'll have worked with enough creatives to give you advice, encouragement, and warnings where they think necessary.
posted by circular at 9:52 PM on June 18, 2012

Good instructional design is very much a science (in that it's informed by theory and tested empirically), but it's more on the engineering end of science. For a quick overview of how instructional design works as a science, try Cobb, Confrey, diSessa, Lehrer, and Schauble. It's a classic.
posted by yeolcoatl at 9:55 PM on June 18, 2012

While visuals are important to good instructional design, they're not the be-all, end-all. It's really about understanding underlying learning theories/pedagogies. Instructional design is all about figuring out what resources/assets and what activity frameworks you create will help people construct knowledge and understanding. Being able to teach people things is the absolutely most important thing. You will write far more lesson plans than do anything graphically. Being an instructional assistant for a bit is a great way to see if it's for you.

With that said, if you find yourself interested in pedagogy, a lot of educational materials are *horribly* designed, either because they were created by aesthetically-challenged educators or educationally-challenged designers. If you could bridge both worlds, you'd do quite well (for education, which generally doesn't pay much, even with the big publishers).

Reading Vygotsky is a must, and hitting up other cognitive psychologists (Piaget, etc.) is important. If you're interested in online learning, I highly recommend Randy Garrison's e-Learning in the 21st Century (kindle version is relatively cheap and it was one of the best texts I read all year in my ed masters program). Teaching for Understanding is also very good (the website is horrible, I know, but the pedagogy is solid). Also consider checking out the Universal Design for Learning framework. Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences is pretty much canon now in ed schools (although not without debate).

You will need to explore many, many learning theories (transmission, behaviorism, constructivism, et al) and work with a lot of different students (and teachers, ideally) in order to build a pedagogy that works for both your instructional style and your students (or at least get a bead on what works in practice and what looks nice on paper, which is the problem with 99% of written curricula--people who either never practiced/practiced in extremely privileged settings/practiced 10+ years ago).

Feel free to hit me up via MeMail if you have any other questions.

/instructional designer of both on- & off-line curricula; have taught adults and teenagers
posted by smirkette at 10:22 PM on June 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

Objectified is a documentary on industrial design. It explains some of the mindset and type of work that goes into industrial design pretty well, if you're interested. It's also on Netflix
posted by Geppp at 5:12 AM on June 19, 2012

I'm one of 10 Instructional Designers at a state university. All of us are highly creative and none of us had degrees in ID prior to working here. We all come from very diverse backgrounds. Our daily tasks are as creative as we make them.

That being said, I think it's highly dependent on the culture of the department or program you're working for. I have a fantastic boss who encourages (demands, actually) that we engage in some kind of professional development activity of our choosing. We're also given large swaths of time for exploration and innovation. So, in the end, I love my job and find it highly creative. I'm nearly as happy as I was working as a full-time studio artist. And that's saying a lot.

However, I do know some IDs from other campuses who are miserable. They're forced to put faculty content into clunky Learning Management Systems all day. They have little autonomy and their workloads are so big that they never have time for exploration or professional development.

My recommendation is to, above all else, do your homework on the institution or company you want to work for. Ask lots of questions about professional development, innovation, and how the management team values creativity. And I mean HOW they value it, not IF they value it. It's easy to say "We value creativity and innovation" but it's another thing to say "We encourage creativity and innovation by giving our designers time to play and think, providing them with new technology and software, and by encouraging professional development activities."

I highly recommend the field if you are equally left and right-brained. I LOVE my job.
posted by madred at 10:42 AM on June 19, 2012

Seconding madred in that the actual responsibilities and workplace culture will matter far more than the job title. I've had clients that gave me complete creative freedom over the training solution, while others limited me to authoring course plans or handed over storyboards that they expected me to turn into a finished course. I love what I do, but I've had to be careful to select opportunities that would give me at least some ownership over the visual design and delivery of the training.

The ASTD Career Navigator is a nifty tool for exploring the various career roles as identified in their competency model, and the eLearning Guild has lots of great resources if you have an interest in online learning. Before or instead of throwing yourself into a graduate degree, I'd recommend checking out the professional education programs provided by ASTD. In addition to all the great recommendations above, the Learning System developed to support candidates studying for the CPLP certification is a fantastic resource.
posted by evoque at 1:39 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

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