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Seriously Though, The Answer is “Make Stuff”

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I lurk pretty often on the Instructional Design subreddit, which if you haven’t checked it out, I would highly recommend. I love that it’s a space where a lot of newbie instructional designers have felt comfortable enough to ask questions. There have been a lot of conversations around changing careers to ID and trying to get a job in ID out of school. Thing is, every time I see a variation of “how do I build a portfolio?” or “how do you gain experience?” I want to shout,

“Make stuff!”

Not out of frustration, mind you, but because it’s such a revelation once you start. It’s probably the greatest professional lesson I’ve learned so far in my life.

Make things, make them consistently. Judge them. Grow. Do better and better. But most importantly, start.

But I Don’t Have the Software!

I’m not gonna lie: there are a lot of organizations that mention specific software skills in their job ads. If you’re in school and/or can save the money, I definitely recommend investing in one of the big three authoring tools: Lectora, Adobe Captivate, or Articulate Storyline.

BUT, don’t let lack of authoring tool be the thing that forms your excuse. For a start, presentation software like PowerPoint or Keynote can get you a long way. For example, I recently spoke with folks at an organization that said that, to fit their business, their ID consisted mostly of making short videos using PowerPoint slides and Camtasia. Start there! Here’s an example of a video I did using those two tools.

Secondly, there are free and open source (and outside the box) tools that you can use. If you’re willing to host a WordPress blog, you might experiment with something like CoursePress Pro to show how you might structure an online course. If you have a little patience, you might also self-host something like Kineo’s Adapt framework and experiment with a responsive design or Moodle and show that you know how to run an LMS.

Now again, there is a lot of value to learning one of the big three authoring tools, but just because you can’t afford one right now is no excuse not to make stuff.

But What Do I Make?

Here’s where I get a little off script with other folks who also recommend making for experience in instructional design. Don’t just slap things together to show that you can use a tool. And don’t (or don’t just) create silly things, because you think they’re fun or cute. If you’re serious about getting experience and building a portfolio the secret sauce that will set you apart (come closer…) is to make stuff that does two things:

  • First, is indicative of the type of stuff you actually want to be doing when you are employed.
  • Second, illustrates to your target audience that you know how to solve their pain points (thanks Liz Ryan!).

Let me break it down even further.

To misquote someone much more important than me,

Do the work you want to do in the world.

Chances are, even if you haven’t articulated it to yourself yet, there’s a type of work that gets you excited. It may be something as broad as development work or storyboarding, or it may be a specific industry. So when you make stuff, you should make the stuff that fires you up. If you love science education, make science learning objects in as many modalities as you can (video, mobile projects, elearning, etc). If you love development work, make work that shows all the different things you can develop. Importantly, be able to explain your process, even if you’re still developing your process. Be ready to talk about why you did what you did, how you might want to improve, and how this has contributed to your knowledge base.

Second, make work that appeals to your audience. When I tried revamping my challenges to Go Design Something, something I found helpful was to peruse job descriptions. Look for what business are asking for. Consider why they might be hiring an instructional designer. What problem are they trying to solve. Make work that shows how you can help solve those problems. For example, a sales-heavy organization might want training that familiarizes their sales people with the product but also need to make that training such that it doesn’t keep them from actually selling. Another organization might be focused on quickly and easily onboarding new employees. Consider these problems. Make (and show) the work that illustrates how you would approach these challenges.

To new and old, to myself and to other IDs, I cannot shout loudly enough about how essential making is. If someone had only drilled this into my head as a high schooler or college student, it would have made all the difference in the world. Be a pal: make stuff, encourage your ID (and non-ID) buddies to make stuff, critique each other, critique yourselves, be thoughtful about what you do, show your work.

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