i4: The International Institute for Innovative Instruction

5 Characteristics of Excellent Instructional Designers


For an instructional designer to be truly effective, he or she must develop the characteristics of an excellent designer. However, these subtle characteristics are often clouded by the more visible tools, processes, theories, and technologies of our work. Yet, if we peel away the visible elements of design, we find the instructional designer at the core of everything.


What are the characteristics of excellent instructional designers? I believe there are five interrelated characteristics. These certainly aren’t all of them, but these are the ones that I have observed:

  • Belief in Self-will. Excellent designers operate within the foundational belief that people have free agency, self-will, or the power to choose their own actions. To be effective, a designer must believe in their own power to act. Without this belief, the designer allows their perceived constraints to control their work and limit their design.
  • Proactive. Excellent instructional designers are proactive – they take responsibility and ownership for their situations and work. Proactive designers approach design tasks by taking full responsibility for what they do and therefore, work toward the ideal. This does not mean that the ideal is achieved, but that they move from the current state toward the ideal state of instruction and learning. Without this approach, designers are controlled by their environment and can tend to shift the “blame” to others when things do not go according to plan.
  • A Positive Attitude. Instructional designers must have a positive attitude in their work. Excellent instructional designers must believe that improvement is possible and that they can facilitate that improvement. I have personally seen good instructional designers deteriorate into ineffective box-checkers as a result of their own negativity, and I have found that maintaining a positive attitude is a key element of creativity.
  • Awareness of Locus of Control. Creative instructional designers must know what they can influence or change and what they cannot so that they can focus their energy. I have interacted with some designers who spend a lot of time and energy complaining or obsessing about things they cannot control instead of working effectively with the tools and resources they have. Excellent designers do what they can with the resources available to them.
  • Emotional Intelligence. Excellent designers work effectively with people. They are self-aware, including awareness of their own emotions. They are also keenly aware of the disposition and emotions of those they work with. But if a designer does not develop this ability, that individual will not be able to work effectively with others. I have personally watched talented, bright designers fall short of their potential because of a deficiency of “people skills.”

I conclude this post with some reflective questions:

  • How would you rate yourself in each of these characteristics?
  • Which characteristics do you need to develop further?
  • How might you become a more excellent instructional designer by adapting some of these characteristics?
  • What other characteristics might you add to this list?

Author: Joel Gardner

Hello, I’m Dr. Joel Gardner. I am a scholar and educator in the field of instructional technology and design. I have worked in a variety of roles, including Instructional Designer, Instructional Design Faculty Member, Program Chair, and Department Chair. As a scholar, I have published several peer-reviewed articles on the effective use of instructional strategies and educational technology in a variety of educational settings. As an award-winning instructor, I have taught both online and face-to-face at the graduate level at several institutions of higher education.

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