The Art of Design?



My job is amazing.

I get to stay home and write stuff all day.

People pay me for this.


Now, I know that to some people, this sounds like the absolute worst thing that could happen to them. I’ve spoken with a few of them. Put them out into the field, put them in front of people, or put a tool in their hands, and they are happy. Sit them alone in a room with a blank page…well, the responses can range from boredom to discomfort to panic.

To me, a blank page is a treasure. It holds a nearly unlimited potential for creation.

I should pause for a moment to clarify my position: Those few of you who follow my work know that I have spent a large portion of my adult life as an English teacher. The ability of the written word to edify, even to elevate the human experience, has always been something in which I have found delight. In my private life, I have done my best to contribute my few grains of sand to the mountains of writing our species has built. Perhaps it’s hubris, but I do consider myself a proper Writer (even though this blog is, I confess, my first actual public exposure—my past efforts have primarily been for the benefit of close friends and family).

There is a certain mentality that comes with identifying as a Writer. Though it is a precise craft, one that engages the technical part of the mind, the techniques wrap around a much more nebulous core. When done right, writing extends out of inspiration. When done right, a writer finds words appearing on the page before they have appeared in the mind.

It’s a highly emotional process. This is what makes it art.

Here’s the problem: I am not writing oration, literature, poetry. I write about payroll departments; I write about the notation of construction schematics; I write about SEC regulations. These are not topics that stir the soul.

The question I have asked myself: Is instructional design art?

It’s a question that, I venture, most people in my position have to confront sooner or later. Anais Nin said that “anything I cannot turn into something marvelous, I let go.” Well, good for her, but some of us work for a living. And so I must explore whether my work extends from my artistic sensibilities or simply as a side-effect of knowing how to put pen to paper.

Pretty heady stuff, true, dealing with concepts that better minds than mine have attempted to explain. So what is it doing in a blog about designing training curricula? More to the point, why am I asking you to read my blowharding about it?

This, I suggest, is a more important, more practical question than it may at first appear. I give two reasons for this:

First, there is the question of how this design work is actually done. Having sifted through hundreds of inexpertly designed training modules, I can aver that it is not just a matter of listing the necessary facts in some simulacrum of organization. There are ways to do this that are just plain wrong.

Now, this begs the question of how to do it right. In my previous blog post, I explored some of the specific techniques and different models of ID theory, but as I concluded there, they only take you so far. Just as writing a story or novel is inspiration wrapped in technique, so instructional design is technique wrapped around a more basic understanding of the craft.

It is the definition of that understanding that the question of art seeks to address.

Second, and more bluntly, if you’ve signed up with Magic then you’re dealing with me, and for good or ill you now have a tortured artist creating your training programs for you.

(I feel like I must retract that last statement. I am quite comfortable in my position. But it did make me laugh, so it stays in.)

Now, as a self-identified Writer, I have a bias towards saying yes; of course, everything I write is art. Perhaps I’m just making myself feel better—rationalization can be a wonderful thing. But let’s examine this more objectively.

This is what I do:

I am presented with mounds of information. I study them, internalize them, and then present them in ways that engage the intellect and the interest of the audience. It is an act of transformation from raw fact into accessible knowledge. If it isn’t, then I am not doing my job right.

Designing lessons like this requires empathy. I need to have a clear concept of how people, in general, will react to what they hear and see when they sit through one of my modules. I need to conceptualize where the interest will flag, where repetition is required and where it should be avoided, where a phrase can be turned more engagingly.

(If I were a more pretentious person, I would steal a concept from Zen philosophy and say that I am at once the educator and the educated—but I think that’s starting to take it too far into the flowery.)

Writing done right, as I said, extends from an intuitive place. You use your skills to guide the words, but you use your instinct to create them. It’s the inner voice telling you what to say.

I draw a very thick line in permanent marker between that kind of intuition and the practice of empathy within my designs. Though there will always be modules devoid of anything but the most mechanical information, this does not mean that the general practice of instructional design is a strictly mechanical one.

So from this perspective, I conclude that what I do is certainly a form of art.

Now I am begging another question: So what? I’ve just made myself feel good about my work. Why should this have any bearing on…well, on anything else?

My answer:

I work as a communicator. Throughout human history, one of the foundational pillars of communication has been storytelling. Stories, whether real or fictional, help us make sense of the world. The great teachers and orators have told stories. It’s part of our language: when we understand a particular perspective and hold to its values, we are said to “have a narrative.”

By having the narrative of instructional design defined as an art, one approaches the work with the understanding that one is telling a story to the learner. This structures the foundations of the process; it requires the lessons to make a certain narrative sense as well as an informative one.

I cannot design my modules in the same way that I write stories. That would be impossible. However, the narrative of ID-as-art says that there can be overlap. It keeps my work in the human realm.

Admittedly, this is nowhere near being the freest, most expressive form of art; Bob Ross I am not. But I do take some joy in my work, and perhaps, if I do things right, someone somewhere will at the very least be vaguely happy that I have designed the training they just took.

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