Written by:

Holly Macdonald


November 16, 2015

In the first post of this series, I wrote about my observations of blurring the lines between web design and elearning, as well as the obsession with beauty over useful. In this post, I’ll explore what the differences between the web design and instructional/e-learning design. They are different, but closely associated, design approaches.

So, the closing question at the end of the previous post was “does instructional design matter”? I’m going to declare my bias right up front. I am an instructional designer. I think instructional design matters.  A lot. Some would argue that instructional design doesn’t matter and is “old style”. I think a good instructional designer is going to know HOW to best support learning and when a good instructional designer thinks an e-learning course is a good fit, they know it’s different than a website.

What IS instructional design?

In short, instructional design is the systematic process by which instructional materials are designed, developed, and delivered. (See more at: https://www.instructionaldesigncentral.com/htm/IDC_instructionaldesigndefinitions.htm#sthash.LUqc4b3I.dpuf)

To me instructional design is primarily to provide access to learning activities, sometimes through a guided sequence of content. The overall design intent is engagement, learning and behaviour change.

How is it different than web design?

“A Web designer is someone who prepares content for the Web. This role is mainly related to the styling and layout of pages with content, including text and images.” (https://www.techopedia.com/definition/23888/web-designer)

To me web design is primarily to organize and structure information so it can be located easily and to style content. The overall design intent is efficiency and succinct communication.

Why does it matter?

A web designer cares about CONTENT first. What is the body of information that we have to work with? How can we categorize it logically in areas that make sense? How do we structure this content to meet the goals? The website owner (“the client”) decides what content is in there, and the web designer determines how to organize it. In looking at the competencies for a web designer (or user experience designer), there’s no mention of behaviour change.

An instructional designer cares about ACTIVITY first and content second. What are they going to do with that content? Should this content be included? What format should it be in? What order should it appear in to ensure that it sequences in a way that supports behaviour change? The instructional designer advises (or should) the online course owner (“the client”) what content should be included and in what format. More of a content advisor. These competencies are different than those of web design.

I could be wrong, but the biggest differences to me are:

  1. Design intent – what is the reason for this site/course to exist?
  2. Role of the designer – web designers offer expertise on how to treat content; instructional designers offer expertise on whether or not the content is the right content and what activity is necessary to meet the instructional goal. Perhaps it’s too simplistic, but I think that web designers focus more on the output (they work with what they are given) and instructional designers focus first on the input and then on the output.
  3. Audience – web designers are building for a broad audience; instructional designers are (attempting) to build for a focused audience
  4. Who benefits – a website benefits the client who commissioned it, whereas an online course benefits the individual who is taking the course

What about graphic design?

Both instructional designers and web designers care about the visual aspects of the project. How we use visuals and what the purpose of it, differs, but it’s pretty nuanced. I think (and I could be wrong), that visuals can stand alone more in web design, whereas in instructional design, visuals are used to support the instructional goal. Pretty is not enough. It has to look good, but not detract from the instructional purpose. I have seen online courses that are so meticulously visually designed, but it’s almost distracting and you’d remember the theme or the style, but not actually learn anything. I think it’s a really hard balance, but I’d hope that an instructional designer would direct the graphic designer to ensure that the end result is a perfect balance of form and function.

So, who cares what it’s called?

I do.

Design is a word that gets tossed around pretty frequently these days. But, it’s not a homogenous profession. I worry that not differentiating instructional design from web design or graphic design diminishes the field of instructional design. I worry that it’s seen as an unnecessary or so easy that any related field (or smart enough person) can just “make training”.  Why pay someone to do instructional design at all?  I worry that there’s an overemphasis on style instead of substance. Dazzle them with beauty and no one will realize that the course itself is hollow. I worry that instructional designers are not educating people about the importance of instructional design.

So, how to channel that worry into something more productive?

  1. Do a better job defining the value of instructional design so clients can feel good about investing in it.
  2. Work on comparison samples to show the differences – perhaps take a website and create an online course out of it.
  3. Continue to pursue e-learning design that’s begins with substance and is enhanced with style.

Whatever design you are referring to, one principle that should weave through all types of design is to make something useful. So, if your users need to learn something, you should engage the services of an instructional designer.