Instructional Design Portfolios: How to Showcase Work that Matters

A question that comes up a lot for new and aspiring instructional designers (IDs) is “how do I know what to put in my portfolio?” Perhaps you have never created any learning projects or you’re afraid that what you developed for classroom use won’t translate into the corporate world. Maybe you worked as part of a team or you don’t have the rights or access to share things you have created for previous organizations or clients. And let’s face it – there’s HEAPS of bad portfolio advice out there from people who have never hired an ID for an organization. This article will share some ideas on content you could create to use in your instructional design portfolio that will show potential hiring managers or clients that you have the skills to do the job.

A Note on Portfolios

When I write about portfolios throughout this article, I’m referring to wherever you store your work samples so that they can be shared with hiring managers, potential clients, and others. I want to address two common misconceptions out there being spread by folks who don’t work in corporate learning and development.  

Common Misconception #1 - You Need a WHOLE Website

One common misconception is that you need to build an entire website to house these samples, or future employers/clients won’t take you seriously. That is a scare tactic that fake influencers use to get you to spend money on their programs that teach you to make websites but lack lessons on instructional design skills and fundamentals. 

There are multiple ways you can share your work samples with prospective employers and clients. Here are just a few of the methods I’ve used to get hired and methods used by people I’ve hired to work on my team:

  • Work samples combined into one explainer video that walks you through each work sample, including its learning outcome, intended audience, design tools and methodology used, and how success would be measured
  • A Google Drive folder containing all the relevant samples with a “START HERE” document that tells you how to navigate the folder and explains the projects in it (Pro Tip: a Google Drive folder can also be password protected, so you can share certain projects from previous employers at your discretion)
  • A PowerPoint deck that has a slide for each project, explaining it and linking out to where it lives on the internet
  • Work samples explained in the body of an email where the samples are either attached or linked in the text of the email

The takeaway here is that it doesn’t need to be fancy. The content of what is in those work samples is far more critical to hiring managers or potential clients than any website you could build. That’s the important part and where you should spend the bulk of your time. For more information on what hiring managers are actually looking for from your portfolio, check out Episode 74 of the BLOC (Building Learning and Organizational Culture) Podcast I hosted with my friend, Tim Slade.

Common Misconception #2 - You Need a Flagship Project

Another misconception is that you need one big project (sometimes called a flagship project) that tells a story or uses a scenario and is created in an authoring tool. My advice to aspiring IDs is the exact opposite. 

First, you don’t need one big project at all. Hiring managers have very limited time, especially when they are trying to hire someone because it means their current team is down a person, about to be down a person, or so desperately needs an additional person that they are swimming in work. In my experience, I was usually helping to fill in for that person, sometimes doing the instructional design work myself. The last thing we have time for is to carefully navigate through a large, flagship project multiple times for different job candidates.

For that reason, I always suggest that you create 3-4 solid work samples that showcase a variety of opportunities/outcomes, showing your versatility in subject matter. You should also aim to showcase a variety of tools. Can you use video editing tools? Insert stock photos, film, and music? Will you create a video using a graphic from a graphic design tool? The goal should be to show that no matter the problem or opportunity, you can create something and meet that need. And they don’t need to be long - just a SNIPPET of what you would normally create is enough.  

Another thing I’ve noticed is that when new or aspiring IDs focus on a story or scenario for their project, they DON’T focus on the outcomes or objectives, which are the most important parts. The problem you’re trying to solve or the opportunity you’re trying to realize should determine the direction your project takes and how it is created, not the other way around. The people who choose the intervention and tool first are destined to create ineffective, useless learning. It would be like a doctor coming in for his shift at an Urgent Care and saying, “today, we’re going to treat everyone like they have strep throat” and then prescribing antibiotics for someone who pretty clearly needs stitches. Good IDs make sure they start with the problem or opportunity first and get all the information they need before making ANY other decisions. 

Start with a Need

If you’re creating a work sample from scratch, the first thing you should do is think of a hypothetical problem or opportunity. I often hear people give advice to pick a topic that interests you or something based on a hobby and just create a how-to eLearning or a scenario using an authoring tool. This is poor advice because you want to treat your portfolio project as much like a real learning project as you can so that your future manager or client can view it in that context too. That starts with a problem to solve or opportunity to realize and making sure it’s a training issue before you create a whole project around it.

But how do you find a problem or opportunity in a hypothetical situation?

  1. Think about something at which you’re an expert. What is a knowledge gap that most people new to that topic would experience? What was a pain point you dealt with as a beginner? This might be a good place to focus. 
  2. Think about the industry where you want to work. If you want to work in healthcare, tech, or finance, look up the common skill gaps for those industries and see if that sparks any ideas. For example, if you search for skill gaps in healthcare, you can find that there is a shortage of nurses due to burnout, among other reasons. Perhaps you could do some research and create a learning project on showing managers how to look for signs of burnout in employees or methods employees might use themselves to avoid burnout. 
  3. Think about skill gaps that might be present for a wide variety of companies– this could help you create something that is meaningful to multiple hiring managers and potential clients:
  • Interpersonal/communication skills
  • Having a difficult conversation
  • Writing a professional email
  • Technical writing
  • Communication with remote teams
  • Project management
  • How to lead a project
  • Motivating others
  • Problem solving
  • Time management
  • Self-awareness
  • Building empathy
  • Leveraging diversity
  • Responding positively to feedback
  • How to use mistakes as learning opportunities
  • Embracing challenges
  • Avoiding distractions during meetings
  • Data analysis
  • Data visualization
  • Presenting and reporting data
  • Workplace safety
  • Budgeting/financial reporting
  • Product knowledge
  • Building rapport
  • Strategic thinking
  • Change management

Once you’ve determined the problem or opportunity you want to cover, create an outcome for your learning project, or the change that your learning project will create in the business that will drive results. 

For example, if you’ve determined that you want create a learning project for new managers on how to have more productive feedback conversations with employees, you might identify a learning outcome that says, “Because new managers often have a hard time giving constructive, actionable feedback to employees, I created this training to improve how managers deliver feedback so that employees can act on it in their daily work.” 

Think about the specific learning objectives you’ll cover as part of the learning project (they don’t need to be set in stone yet) and how you would measure the project’s success if you were completing it for a real organization. Record these things as you’ll need them throughout your project. 

Selecting the Solution and Developing the Project

Once you’ve figured out the learning outcome, think about the best way to present the material. Please don’t default to using an authoring tool until you’ve really thought through the situation. The problem or opportunity and the outcome should guide you toward which tool to use, not the other way around.

I’ve seen a LOT of bad eLearning examples from job applicants and aspiring IDs, and they aren’t bad because of the aesthetic. They’re bad because they’re the wrong intervention, the wrong learning solution. For example, when I have a hyper young puppy, I’m not going to stop what I’m doing and take a whole eLearning just to teach him to sit. In fact, I can confidently say that I have NEVER taken an eLearning to learn something in my personal life at all. This is the issue with the advice that says “oh, just take something you like and turn it into an eLearning.” Doing that is a way to highlight your inexperience rather than to show what skills you do have. But then, what are the options for someone new? 

Here is a list of possible learning interventions you might use that don’t require an authoring tool:

  • Knowledge base article, web page, or blog for the company intranet
  • Email (follow-up or scheduled emails are optional)
  • Short videos created using video creation and editing tools
  • Audio files or podcast episodes
  • On-the-job training
  • Job aids, infographics, or other performance support tools
  • Instructor-led or virtual training
  • Social learning or a cohort-based experience
  • Mentoring or coaching programs
  • Creating a game or simulation using a game engine
  • Process change or improvement
  • Appreciative inquiry, surveys, or other data collection methods

This list is just to spark some ideas because the possibilities are endless. If you can’t see how the intervention would fit your idea, it’s probably not the right one. Think about yourself as the learner and ask “would this be useful?” or “what would be the best way to get this information and be able to use it confidently?” The hypothetical need, outcome, and objectives you created should help guide you to the best intervention. And remember, learning happens everywhere. Learning is NOT synonymous with eLearning. 

Telling Your Story

It's not enough just to have your work in your portfolio. You also need to tell hiring managers the story of how it came to be.

Describe the following for each item:

  • How you analyzed the learning problem or opportunity to create this - even if it's hypothetical, you can still say something like, "I created this with new managers in mind so that it could help them build communication skills." Share those outcomes and objectives you came up with and the metrics you would measure in a real situation.
  • Some details about your design process - keep it brief but natural. Did you start with an outline? A sketch? Who gave you feedback on how to improve, and what changes did you make?
  • What tool or tools, specifically, that you used to develop it (there might be a main tool, but you should list everything you used)
  • Where (generally) would it be implemented - explain here how it would ideally be implemented and what types of audiences it should be deployed to
  • The outcome/results - evaluation: How was it received, what feedback did you get, what performance gap did it close? Again, if it was just created for your portfolio, find some SMEs in the subject matter area to provide their feedback so you have something to report out on. The goal here is to answer how you would measure success. 

If you can’t answer all of these questions - I recommend you don’t use that project for your portfolio. It’s a really tough market out there with stiff competition, and hiring managers are looking not just for your use of the tool but also your ability to show your understanding of instructional design skills and processes.

Showing What You Know

The goal of your work samples/portfolio is twofold: to show a potential hiring manager or client that you have the skills needed to do the job every day and to make sure your aesthetic and skills are aligned with the others in the team and throughout the organization. But the most important thing is being able to show your work – not just the end product but the process you took to get there. I hope this helps those of you who are embarking on your quest to create the perfect portfolio!!

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