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The 17 Best Books on Instructional Design: Classics and Hidden Gems

12 minutes
Instructional design books
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Books may have lost the leading role in education, but they remain an invaluable source of unique and fundamental knowledge. We have collected the best instructional design books and some other books that don’t guide through the practice of instructional design directly but can be and are used to create eLearning experiences much more effectively. Let’s begin.

The Classics

We don’t hesitate to call these books classics because they are most often mentioned by experienced course developers, company leaders, and eLearning pioneers – people who know both sides of instructional design: theory and practice. If you’ve just started in ID or want to deepen your knowledge, these books are exactly what you need.

1. Design for How People Learn (Voices That Matter), by Julie Dirksen

Perhaps all of us have had some useless learning experiences. A boring book, an endless article, or too much entertainment with too little information. Julie Dirksen wrote a book that helps to create online courses that both hook learners and educate them. Reading it, you’ll be able to find the golden mean between giving knowledge and provoking interest. And you’ll learn how to make people remember new information long after they’ve completed a course.

 Design for How People Learn

2. The Accidental Instructional Designer: Learning Design for the Digital Age, by Cammy Bean

This is one of the greatest books for people who have decided to change their profession and become instructional designers quickly. It will guide you through nearly every aspect of the online learning design process and share some insights from the author’s personal experience. You’ll learn best practices, read case studies, and find out the most common mistakes to avoid when designing an eLearning program. And, yes, by the end of the book, you’ll know everything you need to know to transition from an accidental instructional designer to an intentional one.

The Accidental Instructional Designer

3. Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning: Building Interactive, Fun, and Effective Learning Programs for Any Company

As Chandler Bing would say: “Could it BE more classical?” Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning is a must-read for every instructional designer. This book is a collection of invaluable insights from one of the most important people in the eLearning industry. Here, you will learn about Mr. Allen’s three pillars of online learning, the importance of applying them to your projects, and the results you’ll get if you do. Michael will take you through history, show you common pitfalls, give some tips, and take you to the path that led him and his company to success.

Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning

4. Leaving ADDIE for SAM: An Agile Model for Developing the Best Learning Experiences, by Michael Allen and Richard Sites

Unlike the previous books, this one is intended more for advanced instructional designers rather than beginners. Here, Mr. Allen and Mr. Sites introduce SAM – the Successive Approximation Model. While the title is fairly provocative, Michael himself reassures us that SAM is only an alternative model and if ADDIE works for you, “by all means, use it!” Still, if you’re looking for a new approach to make work more effective, you might want to take a look at SAM. In this case, this book would be just what you need. You’ll learn every detail of the working process in SAM, conceptions it offers, etc. – anything you might be interested in. And when you finish the book, you’ll face the main question: “Will you leave ADDIE for SAM?”

Leaving ADDIE for SAM

5. Map It: The hands-on guide to strategic training design, by Cathy Moore

Cathy Moore’s Map it is considered to be one of the best instructional design books. It deals with a big issue many instructional designers and developers face sooner or later – online training that doesn’t help people improve their working skills. Moore gives her own solution – action mapping, an approach that allows you to shift the focus to something really important. After reading her book, you’ll learn the soft and hard skills you need to use this approach. You’ll be able to distinguish between cases that need training and those that need something different. And this will make the eLearning content you design more engaging and effective.

Map It

6. e-Learning by Design, by William Horton

William Horton doesn’t just guide you through the process of creating eLearning content, he also offers you a range of learning activities that can be included. If you’re a beginner, this might be one of the best books to start with. Here, everything you need to know is explained and presented right from the start. Explanations are simple but not over-simplified. After reading this book you will have quite a comprehensive understanding of the eLearning industry, what it consists of, and what you can do with it.

e-Learning by Design

7. e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning, by Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer

Why do we do things the way we do? Why do we make particular design decisions? These are the main questions that this book answers. Many instructional design resources often come out with their statements on what makes eLearning good and effective but don’t provide solid evidence. All the statements, claims, and conclusions in this book are based on scientific research. It is essential both for beginners and professionals to read this book and to have certainty on how and why eLearning can be productive.

e-Learning and the Science of Instruction

8. The Essentials of Instructional Design: Connecting Fundamental Principles with Process and Practice, by Abbie H. Brown and Timothy D. Green

When you start a new profession, you want to know everything: what you should do, how you should do it, what you do it for, what the basic principles of your industry are, etc. Fortunately, Abbie H. Brown and Timothy D. Green wrote a book that fulfills this need. The information in their book is truly essential. It covers all the aspects of instructional design from the very basic ones, like learner analysis, to more complex ones like learner evaluation. Besides, unlike many other ID books, it has assignments at the end of each chapter, which is a useful option when you’re studying on your own.

9. The Non-Designer’s Design Book: Design and Typographic Principles for the Visual Novice, by Robin Williams

There are instructional designers who tend to ignore the importance of visual design. Some of them really don’t find it so crucial, yet others just don’t think they are capable of creating it. Well, this is a skill. And as with any other skill, it can be learned. Robin Williams’ book is all about this. It is a great introduction to the visual side of ID. Once you grasp it, you’ll see how much more effective your courses have become.

The Non-Designer’s Design Book

10. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel

Although Make It Stick was written for teachers, professors and psychologists, it also became popular among instructional designers. Designers try their best to make the learning process more effective. And, according to common belief, this is achieved by making everything as simple as possible. The authors of Make It Stick claim the opposite: sometimes it is “desirable difficulties” that can increase effectiveness. And they prove their point by providing the results of discoveries in cognitive psychology. The book offers a completely different approach to ID and concrete techniques you can try so as to decide for yourself if your eLearning will or won’t stick.

Make It Stick

11. The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education, by Karl M. Kapp

This is one of the most famous books on eLearning gamification. Summarizing research and game theory, Karl M. Kapp shares his opinion that gamification can and should be much more than just badges, levels, and points. It is about fundamentally rethinking learning design. After reading this book you may reevaluate the role and the aim of gamification in the eLearning process, which can lead you to some great new ideas on how to make online training even more engaging and effective.

The Gamification of Learning and Instruction

Hidden Gems

If you’ve already read all the classics or wish to learn something less popular but extremely useful, check out these hidden gems.

12. The Mom Test: How to talk to customers and learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you, by Rob Fitzpatrick

It’s useless to ask your mom’s opinion about how to succeed in your job. She loves you. You will always be her best. This lack of real evaluation is true not only for your relatives and friends but also for those you work with. Here, you will learn how to get a person talking, what questions to ask, and how to avoid one-word responses. Although this book is mostly about the work performed with clients, the rules of interview it provides can be applied to working with subject matter experts.

The Mom Test

13. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, by Simon Sinek

Why do I need online training? Why should I spend my time on courses? Learners need to have answers to such questions in order to be motivated and engaged. This book provides real cases of successful companies that managed to answer “why” questions and became innovative, profitable, and influential. Sinek claims that all great leaders are similar in a way and gives a framework upon which you can build anything you need – such as a learning community or an eLearning company. After reading this book, you’ll know what learning goals and objectives you should set to inspire your learners.

Start with Why

14. The Art of Explanation: Making your Ideas, Products, and Services Easier to Understand, by Lee LeFever

Some issues you face in instructional design are not connected with the essential “why” and “what” issues. Sometimes everything is great. Your idea is brilliant. You know the project will be extremely productive but… you can’t explain that to others. Lee LeFever’s book is all about this. Apart from learning how to explain brilliant ideas, you will also get to know how to present some formal, pretty boring material in a fascinating way. In this situation, neither you nor your learners will regret the time and effort you invest, and student engagement will increase overall.

The Art of Explanation

15. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup

This one should have been listed in the classics, because if anything is classical here, this is it. Somehow this book remains poorly known among instructional designers despite the great importance of its subject. Language and style are the first thing employers and learners pay attention to. If you lose them there, there’s little you can do. Unlike a great many other books on writing, Messrs. Williams and Bizup’s Style is based on research in the psychology of reading and linguistics. It is regularly being updated in accordance with the changing norms of the language. All of this makes this book an up-to-date must-read for everyone.

Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace

16. Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences, by Nancy Duarte

Storytelling is a skill every instructional designer must have. Nancy Duarte’s book will teach you how to establish a good structure for your story, where to find inspiration, what kind of storytelling to choose, and how to write an engaging story that will resonate with your audience. Every piece of advice and tip Ms. Duarte gives is accompanied by an example from the real lives of such great orators as Steve Jobs, Ronald Reagan, and Martin Luther King.

Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences

17. Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All, by Tom and David Kelley

Instructional design requires a good amount of creativity. But what should you do if you don’t have that? There’s a widespread misconception that creativity belongs only to “creative types.” Tom and David Kelley prove this wrong. They claim that everyone is creative. After reading this book, you’ll know some principles and strategies that will allow you to use your creative potential. With it, you’ll be able to develop innovative approaches for solving issues and create unique content.

Creative Confidence


Well, now you know the best instructional design books. We hope you found at least a few of them that you can’t wait to read. Good luck!

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