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How to Create an Instructional Design Portfolio

Portfolios are a necessary evil in a designer’s job search. Here are some tips from our members on how to create one that stands out.

The topic of portfolios has come up a lot in recent Starling community conversations. A significant number of our members are instructional designers and, unfortunately, due to the current economic environment, a good number of them are currently searching for work. Portfolios are a necessary evil in a designer’s job search, and it can be challenging to put one together. But our members have been sharing some great advice on what tools to use, what details to include, and ways to generate work samples, so we thought we’d share some of the highlights with you here.


Instructional Design Portfolio Tools

What tools should I use to build my instructional design portfolio?

Across the community, we’ve road tested quite a few different tools for building an online instructional design portfolio—from website builders to generative AI. Here are some our shared notes:

  • Wix: Wix is a fan favorite. It’s intuitive and easy to use, even if you’re not a web designer. The free version works well for a simple portfolio and the paid version can enable a very professional looking product (the Starling website is built with a Wix premium plan). Just be careful with themes—they aren’t always automatically optimized for mobile viewing, so you may need to spend some time making some tweaks.

  • WordPress: We all want to like WordPress, but many of us have found it more challenging to use. That’s not to say don’t consider it, but we found Wix easier.

  • Google Sites: There’s something nice about the simplicity of Google Sites. The limited (but easy) options for customizing elements like fonts and layout can help keep everything standardized and looking neat.

  • Notion: Lots of people are using Notion these days. It’s flexible and highly customizable and comes with a bunch of great portfolio templates.

  • LinkTree: Just need to compile a bunch of work in a hurry and don’t need to add a lot of context? Try putting together a quick LinkTree—the free version offers unlimited links but no customization.

  • Canva: Canva makes it so easy to create great looking website header images and other graphics. The free version is fully functional and offers access to a decent number of templates. Or, pay $12.99 for a month to unlock hundreds of additional designs.

  • Brandmark.io: Need a custom logo, brand colors, and cohesive font suggestions to make your portfolio look extra profesh? For a one-time fee of $65 you can get a whole suite of assets and brand guidelines from Brandmark.io (that’s what we did for Starling).

  • ChatGPT: We’d be remiss not to mention ChatGPT in this list. You’ll see it mentioned many times throughout this article. It can be a portfolio builder’s best friend, acting as an idea generator, an editor, a thought partner and more.

  • Hotpot.ai: Want a professional headshot without the cost or wardrobe changes? Feed in a few photos of yourself and for $10 you can get a range of AI generated headshots to choose from on Hotpot.

Instructional Design Portfolio Content

What should I include in my instructional design portfolio?

Your content is the star of your portfolio. What you include and how you organize it can make the difference between keeping your audience engaged or losing it.


Structure

Google search “instructional design portfolio examples” or check out the list Devlin Peck has curated here and you’ll see that there are many different ways to organize your portfolio. If in doubt, keep it simple. At very least, make sure you have the following pages or sections:

  1. About: a page with your bio, a downloadable resume, and links to your social media accounts

  2. Portfolio: a section with your work organized into categories as needed

  3. Contact: a page with info on how to get in touch with you

Within the portfolio section, don’t feel the need to list your work chronologically, as you would do on a resume. Consider more meaningful ways to organize and cluster your work. For example, you might organize your work by the tool used to create it (e.g., Adobe Illustrator or Articulate Rise, etc.) or by the type of work it is (e.g., analysis, design, development, evaluation, etc.). Consider your audience—what might they like to see? Ask ChatGPT for recommendations on how to categorize your work or thoughts on what your target audience might find compelling.


One final note: It may not be appropriate for all portfolios, but you might also consider organizing your work into conceptual buckets. For example, you might cluster examples that represent each of your values as a designer. It’s actually a great exercise in and of itself to think through how you might organize your work conceptually, just know that it might not be as helpful a navigational structure for a hiring manager.


Details

Avoid just slapping your work on a page without any additional context. Your work and your value isn’t just the final product, it’s everything that went into it. So, in addition to including representative visuals or downloadables and links to the work itself, be sure to describe:

  • The client. Who were you working with? Include brief details about function, industry, or company size to help give context to company names that your audience might not recognize.

  • The problem. What was the problem you were asked to solve? What was your assignment? Describe it in plain language and in a way that makes it easy for others to understand. Avoid jargon and acronyms.

  • The solution. What was the solution you came up with? What was the deliverable? Don’t bury this at the end, bring it right up to the top.

  • The process. How did you get to the solution? Don’t go overboard. You likely did a ton of work, but simplify and pull out notable highlights.

  • The tools. What tools did you use? Just list ‘em.

It can be really hard to convey the full breadth and depth of the work you do concisely and compellingly on a two-dimensional portfolio website. Ask ChatGPT to help you refine and edit for clarity, consistency, and concision. Or, consider using a navigation or display format on your portfolio pages that first presents a short summary and then allows your audience to click through for more information, if interested.


Instructional Design Portfolio Pieces

What work should I include in my portfolio?

It should go without saying, but include work that you are proud of!! That said, in some cases you may not have access to past work or permission to show it. Or, you may still be building your portfolio. So what can you do?


Recreate and Re-envision

If you (like so many others) were locked out of your work computer during a lay-off, don’t hesitate to recreate your work from memory, to the best of your ability. Don’t feel like you need to recreate it in exactly the same format and detail.


Some of the best instructional design work isn’t the most visually appealing (think: a super detailed-but-intimidating design plan spreadsheet or a multi-page narrative needs analysis). It’s OK to re-envision it—think up a new, more compelling way to represent the work that you did. Consider a simple diagram, flow chart, or short video. Consider focusing on a single example or detail from the larger whole (like a representative learning sequence). Ask ChatGPT for suggestions on how to visualize your work. Try asking Dall-E to create the visuals for you.


Recreate and Anonymize

Just because you can’t share a client’s name or the exact work that you did doesn’t mean you can’t include it in your portfolio. Change names and any identifying details that don’t change the nature of the work itself. Swap out logos and brand colors with fictional alternatives. Just be sure to mention in your portfolio that the work has been anonymized due to contractual obligations (for example).


Make New Examples

Who says your portfolio can only contain work you were paid to make? Go out and proactively make new examples of work. Many learning management systems have free versions that you can build your own courses in (check out Canvas, Thinkific, TalentLMS, and more). Many tools offer free trials or discounts (like Canva, Adobe Creative Cloud, Articulate Rise, H5P, and more). This is a great way to build your skills as you create work (see eLearning Industry’s list of top ten skills for instructional designers). Need some ideas?

  • Go watch a tutorial on YouTube or elsewhere (like this one) and recreate the result with your own flavor.

  • Create instructional content about a topic you know well (even if it’s something like crocheting, cooking, or making a spreadsheet).

  • Find a random how-to video or website online (for any topic) and create new instructional content for that, whether it be a course module, infographic, or something else.

  • Ask ChatGPT for suggestions and to workshop ideas.

  • Take part in Tim Slade’s monthly design challenges on eLearning Designers Academy— or dig through the archives and do an old one.

  • Ask ChatGPT for a new design challenge using Tim Slade’s as an example—give it additional details if you want to focus on a specific field or topic.

Volunteer or Barter Your Services

Many companies and entrepreneurs need help with instructional design projects, but don’t have the money to pay for it. Go find them and offer your services. Ask friends and family, post an offer on LinkedIn, ask local small businesses and shops, or ask a starting-up online community…


At Starling, we’re in the process of building out our educational content and courses for members, and we’ll take all the help we can get. In exchange for a variety of design and development work, we’d happily trade an annual membership. You can even call yourself a “Starling Creator” on your resume and on LinkedIn. If Starling’s not your jam, there are many other communities out there with different missions and audiences—go pitch this to them!


Use Interview Skills Test Materials

When you interview for instructional design jobs, you’ll often be asked to complete a skills test—meaning you’ll be asked to create and present a work product based on a particular prompt or case study. You worked hard on them, so Include them in your portfolio. As above, if you need to anonymize names, details, and branding—do it.


Summary

If you’re trying to land an instructional design job, chances are, you’re going to need a portfolio. While the task can feel daunting, at first, a slick-looking portfolio doesn’t need to be fancy or complex, and it doesn’t need to take forever to build. Be sure to include the details that matter most, be thoughtful about the structure, go the extra mile with flourishes like a branded logo, and allow yourself to think expansively about what examples to showcase.


Oh, and if you want to be part of a community having conversations like this on the reg—with people who are always willing to provide thought-partnership and feedback on your work—sign up for Starling today.

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