The Art of Design

Curated Resources

What does it mean to “design”?


It is said that instructional design is an art. As we have moved beyond designing instruction and into designing other kinds of learning experiences and resources, the art of design in the L&D context becomes even more complicated.

Art itself is a slippery concept. It’s easy to pick up brushes to paint, but making a masterpiece is a real gift. Many people know how to play a musical instrument, but not all of them are able to move us with the music they make. Building a serviceable house can be done with basic tools and a little know-how, but some homes turn out to be architectural marvels.

Similarly, some of those who put together learning and development programs are highly skilled and amazingly effective, able to produce engaging and impactful programs that generate transformations large and small. These individuals have mastered the art of design. Like all artistic achievements, we know quality when we see it, but we are often hard pressed to explain how it was accomplished.

What is the art that transforms the mundane to the exceptional?

Few writers in the learning and development field even attempt to describe the art of design. “Design” is just a step in the overall production process, and it is often collapsed into “design-and-development” as if the actions of design and development are inseparable.

Over many years of practicing instructional design and teaching ID courses and workshops, I have come to describe design as a set of decisions that shape the very nature of your approach to teaching and supporting learning.

The art of design as a set of decisions

The artist chooses medium, color, brush, and technique of application. The musician makes decisions around the key of the instrument, the arrangement of notes, the pace, and the volume of play. The architect determines style, purpose and flow of rooms, materials to be used, and more. Instructional design, too, can be broken down into a set of decisions.

Anticipated learners: Who are the people whose learning needs you are trying to meet – the people who will most benefit from the support you are providing?

Goals and objectives: What are your goals and objectives? What do you want people to learn, and what you want people to be able to do or achieve with what they learned?

Key messages and content: What is the specific nature of the knowledge base, skills, procedures, processes, and/or frameworks that is the topic and substance of the learning effort?

Delivery format: How will people attend the learning event or access the learning materials (e.g. classroom, e-learning, online learning, video, podcast, resource center, blended, etc.)?

Instructional / learning activities: How will people engage with the material, the instructor, and each other in order to learn and apply what they are learning?

Evaluation strategy: How will you know if people are “getting it”? How can you gauge whether goals and objectives have been met?

Sequence and timing: How will activities flow from one to another? How long will specific activities take, and how long do you expect it might take for people to complete the entire sequence? In addition, what materials may be available on demand?

Visual and interface design: How will you visually illustrate key points? What templates and wireframes will give structure and consistency to the program? How will you apply visual design principles?

To be a skilled designer, you need to deeply understand the options within each of these decisions and be able to imagine the consequences of these decisions.

In making the decisions, you’ll be influenced by a number of other factors: adult learning theories; the specific skills of your designers, developers, and facilitators; the preferences of learners and stakeholders; availability of people and resources; amount of time you have to launch and to deliver; technical capabilites and limitaitons, logistical considerations; cost and budget considerations, and more.

The decisions can’t be made independently of one another. Looking at the list, you can imagine how a specific decision in one arena constrains or impacts the decisions that can be made in another. If you’ve already selected e-learning as the delivery mode, your techniques and activities are limited to those that can be embedded in e-learning. If participants are expected to invest a given amount of time, you can only accomplish so much in terms of learning objectives, and you have to be very selective allocating and managing time needed for potential activities. Knowing the nature of your content and the objectives you want to reach influences the techniques you put in play.

The art of design involves mentally experimenting with various decisions in each area until you find a blend that works – much like an artist might mix paints of different colors until the right shade is achieved.

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”  – Steve Jobs

Influencing Factors

Like all decisions of consequence, many factors are taken into consideration along the way. The balance among these six decisions is one set of factors. But a fairly substantial list of other influences need to be deliberated as well. These include: adult learning principles; preferences and skills of the designers, facilitators, and developers; the capabilities of your technical infrastructure; stakeholder preferences and requirements; logistical considerations; the amount of time you have before you have to launch; your budgetary constraints, legal considerations, and more.

The table outlines some of the questions you might consider around these factors. The questions come from many angles, and the answers often produce contradictory implications. Your careful judgment is required to work through the options and rank the sensitivities.

You can quickly see just how complex it might be to produce an aesthetic blend of the eight design decisions with all these influences in play. Often, the grand answer lies in making small changes – a little gold here, a little blue there – until the picture that emerges looks great. No wonder L&D design is considered an art!

“Design depends largely on constraints.”  – Charles Eames

The Aesthetics of the Art of Design

When you switch from the role of artist making these decisions into the role of critic in order to assess the quality and potential impact of designs, you need a set of criteria or principles against which to compare the work. You can judge the aesthetics of L&D solutions by the degree to which they are: performance based, theoretically grounded, engaging, memorable, absorbing, and well-organized.

Performance-based and relevant
Adults generally need to understand why they are learning something and how individual activities or resources are personally relevant. They are most interested in learning that they can relate to – learning that can be immediately applied in some way. From the individual learner’s perspective, applicability is easiest to see when your program’s examples, activities, and exercises contain recognizable elements from real life situations. The most performance-based and relevant activities are those that realistically practice a skill or simulate work activities.

Theoretically grounded and well-supported
A good design leads people to achieve the learning and performance outcomes that were intended. To do that, high quality design aligns with key principles about how people learn and what is required for performance. It draws from proven models and frameworks, and elements of the design are often tested or evaluated to ensure that they work in context.

Engaging and intellectually challenging
We want to capture our learners’ imaginations and hold their interest, so we need to get them actively involved in the learning – talking, doing, and reflecting. But don’t settle for activity for activity’s sake! Focus on creating learning moments that require deep thinking. Have your learners wrestle with real challenges, solve demanding problems, discuss hard questions, perform difficult tasks, and question long-held assumptions. Learning can be birthed from failure so let your learners experience the consequences of getting “it” wrong and figuring out why and how to recover or restart. Research shows that this kind of effortful learning is better retained.

Memorable and meaningful
What is it that makes some things so memorable, and others so forgettable? One element is the degree to which that “thing” captures our emotions. Something that is moving and meaningful stays with us far more than the everyday. Stories and personalities resonate. But not all content has that extra oomph to help make it stick. For more typical content, it’s helpful to provide visual models and graphics that can call to mind the details, to use metaphors that aid in developing understanding, to make up mnemonics or catch phrases that can be repeated and memorized, and to supply job aids to support implementation.

Absorbing and enjoyable
We sometimes talk about being in a state of “flow” – so engrossed in what we are doing that time seems to pass unnoticed. Designed well, learning can actually produce that “flow” feeling. If we can create intense activities that result in deep learning, we won’t need to worry about the distractions of personal electronic devices or mental wanderings. Create interesting activities that require sustained attention, and give your programs a bit of humor and surprise to keep learners focused.

Well-organized and easy to follow
Learners can lose track of where they are and where they are going, and when that happens, learning can be compromised. Nothing interrupts that flow of learning more than hitting a glitch where something doesn’t make sense or doesn’t work right. Craft your program to eliminate choppiness and smooth out transitions between learning tasks. Provide introductions, summaries, and transitions between elements. If possible, give options so that facilitators are able to maintain the pace even during those times when things don’t go quite as expected.

“To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit: it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse. To design is to transform prose into poetry.”  – Paul Rand

If you would like a customized workshop or development program on instructional design, please contact me to explore the possibilities.

Curated Resources

// Design Quality Checklists

The art of design is not only tricky to explain, it is also difficult to assess. Still, a number of people and organizations have provided guidance on instructional design quality. Here’s a short list of some of those tools and recommendations.

  • L4LP Design Quality Guide. By Catherine Lombardozzi, Learning 4 Learning Professionals (Version 3, 2019)
    This is the document I use to check myself in my own design work, and I apply it to assist clients in raising the quality of their designs.
  • Art of Design Critique Guide. By Catherine Lombardozzi, Learning 4 Learning Professionals (2023)
    This analysis guide was put together for my graduate students in instructional design to help them to critique design decisions.
  • Checklist for Strong Learning Design. By Cathy Moore (2011)
    Cathy Moore is the inventor of action mapping, a design process that focuses on what learners must be able to do. Her checklist helps designers to assess the degree to which they are using action-oriented materials vs. tending toward information dump.
  • Teaching and Learning Design Principles Rubrics. By Pearson
    These standards are based on Pearson’s compilation of research on how people learn. This set of rubrics is more than exhaustive, and research-based.
  • Serious eLearning Manifesto. By Michael Allen, Julie Dirksen, Clark Quinn and Will Thalheimer (2014) Compiled as a response to ongoing concerns about the quality of elearning design, this list lays out a challenge for ensuring that elearning reaches a higher bar.
  • Principles of Learning for Instructional Design. National Research Council of the National Academies (2012)
    This is a chapter of a report compiled to guide people who do literacy training, but the principles apply much more widely.

// Book Resources

  • Deeper Learning Series. By Patti Shank Patti has done the hard work of culling through research to identify recommended practices that support learning in a variety of formats.
  • Design for How People Learn. By Julie Dirksen (New Riders, 2nd Edition, 2016) A very readable guide that describes key research-based practices for creating effective training programs.
  • Developing Technical Training. By Ruth Colvin Clark (Pfeiffer, 3rd edition, 2008) A classic text that describes how to teach different types of content (facts, concepts, processes, procedures, and principles).

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Last updated: June 25, 2019 by Catherine Lombardozzi
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