FAQ: How to Be a Freelance Instructional Designer
Updated: Aug 17
I've had a bunch of emails lately from hopefuls wanting to start freelancing as Instructional Designers and asking for advice on how to get started. So I'm writing this post since I'm sure these lovely folks are not alone.
How do you get work as a freelance Instructional Designer?
As a freelancer, you're your own sales and marketing team. Truthfully, all of my early jobs came from people I had worked for/worked with in other positions. They saw I was available for contract work and scooped me up. After that, I had to rely on word of mouth, the quality of my work, and my ability to connect with others.
Regardless of how you set off, you'll need to network and tell your brand story often. If you claim to be a great instructional designer, especially one adept at designing computer-based and online training, then you better have a web presence-- get on LinkedIn, create a website, and a have an online portfolio.
Admittedly, for me, showcasing my portfolio online has been a challenge, as much of my work is protected through NDAs. Instead, I use my website as a piece that shows that I can design visually, write copy, and create little demo learning experiences has been enough for me to be able to showcase my skills. It also gives a glimpse into my design and teaching philosophies. My blog also helps to do this.
Talk to people outside of your field. Who is going to hire you? People who don't have learning design experts on hand and don't know any to hire quickly. You need to be the person who makes them feel taken care of and heard.
For those just starting out, Upwork and similar freelancing platforms are great jump-off points. I'll tell you that the pay is usually subpar for the work, and you may have to apply for 30 jobs to get one or two, but you'll be building a portfolio, gathering recommendations, and potentially networking for larger opportunities. Upwork will take between 10-20% of your earnings (and charge the client a percentage as well), but you will get paid on time every time. That's not always the case when you're managing your own projects.
What kinds of work are you hired to do?
All different types. This will depend on your skill set and how you market your value to clients. Most frequently, I design curricula, write content (scripts, web copy, quiz questions, handbooks, etc.), provide editing expertise, and manage learning projects. I also frequently develop courses in Storyline, Rise, and Captivate, and I help clients select learning technologies, design learning programs from the ground up, and do training program audits.
Other people in the field are experts in multimedia creation and web development. While I think it's essential to know the basics of all of these things, you won't be a specialist in every area of instructional design. For example, I can do some basic work in Illustrator, which is great when I work on eLearning and handbooks, but if someone wanted a truly illustrated infographic, I'd suggest we collaborate with a graphics designer. And that's ok!
Not every client will be the right fit, and you won't be the right fit for every client. Whatever you do, don't force it. There's a difference between taking on a stretch task and accepting a job for something you are not qualified to do. There will be plenty of work to be done, even if this opportunity is not the right opportunity.
Also, it's great to network with people who can help with those areas of expertise when needed. I have a list of people I can call if my client needs motion graphics, live action video, additional writing support, etc., and that makes me seem like a connected, experienced professional.
One last thing to keep in mind: I do not supplement my income with freelance consulting. This is how I earn all of my income. If you're just doing this as a side gig, it will impact the types of jobs you take on. Most instructional design projects take a minimum of 10 hours a week, some more than 40. I've only had one job that I could complete from start to finish in a week. That was an assignment by a client who wanted to do a trial run for a Lead Instructional Designer position. Later, I was hired for more work, all of which took more than a week to complete, eventually turning into a small equity partnership. They wouldn't have picked me for the short job if I didn't have time for the long job, though.
If you're just looking for quick-to-complete work to do in your spare time, I'd suggest looking into copywriting rather than instructional design. Freelance instructional design may demand more commitment than you're willing to give at this time (also ok!).
Do you actually like working from home?
I thought I'd hate it, but most days, I quite like it. In an office environment, I'm a pretty social person. I like to bounce ideas off people. I've managed teams. Being a designer, though, a lot of my work is brainstorming and revising, so it's nice to have quiet and a lot of space to work through ideas.
For the first year, I was entirely alone--with my dog, that is. The second year, my other half moved in. We shared a one bedroom apartment, and we both worked from home out of the living room. That felt sort of like having a co-worker sharing the office again.
What I will say is that, if you're bad at setting your own deadlines and managing priorities, don't become a freelancer. You will be unhappy and so will your clients.
Do you have any advice for someone just starting out?
So much! But I'll just give you just a few things to consider.
1. You are a one-(wo)man band. When you become a freelancer, you are a self-employed contractor. Self-employed means that if you get in a sticky situation, there is no one to handle it but you. Self-employed also means that you are your own sales team, your own marketing team, your own bookkeeper and accounts receivable, your own legal department, and your own PR rep. It's a lot of work. Be ready for it.
2. Never leave your books for the last minute! My accountant sister recommended Wave. It's a free app/site, and it is so simple to use. You can even take pictures of receipts and have them uploaded to your account. The better records you keep, the better you can plan for the future and select accurate write-offs for taxes later.
And with that said.. take out taxes from every paycheck (I usually put aside 30%). You'll be paying regular federal and states taxes, plus the taxes an employer would normally pay for you.
3. Plan during abundance to avoid scarcity. When you're first starting out, you will experience highs and lows. Even after that, sometimes, you will have projects that pay every two weeks like clock-work. Sometimes, you'll be waiting a while for payment. Sometimes, you'll be working 70 hours a week. Sometimes, you'll be working 5. Sometimes, you'll be healthy and capable of doing it all. Sometimes, you'll need to take a vacation or a sick day.
It's really important that you're always planning ahead and that, if freelancing is your primary mode of income, you don't spend everything you make when you make it.
Also, don't wait until you have no work to look for work. Keep networking, keep marketing, and keep your resume/portfolio/website up to date. You never know when a great opportunity will come around.
4. Don't let yourself fall behind. Freelancing is great because it gives you the opportunity to work on different kinds of projects, which can help you keep your skills sharp. But, again, you are self-employed, so there is no one interested in building your career or helping you develop your skills, just you. You need to invest time and money into continuing your education, whether formally or informally. You might have to buy expensive programs, attend conferences with high fees and travel expenses, take courses that you have to pay for, or pay dues for professional associations-- things a full-time staff role might have covered for you. The other challenge is that as a freelancer, you don't get paid while you're training or attending conferences.
It's important that you earn enough and make time to do these things, or you will eventually stop being an expert. At that point, you will no longer be able to make an income freelancing.
Are there any books or resources you'd recommend?
Here's just a few. I think you can never learn enough :)
eLearning Freelancer Bootcamp
I've teamed up with two of the best out there -- Dr. Robin Sargent of IDOL Courses and Christy Tucker of Syniad Learning-- to deliver this 8-week bootcamp that will take you through every step of the process to grow a successful freelance business.
Check it out here.
The Accidental Instructional Designer by Cammy Bean -- for newbies
Invisible Influences: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior by Jonah Berger -- this is a pop psych book, not specifically about ID work, but the theories are interesting to consider when developing learning experiences
Slideology by Nancy Duarte -- a great reference for visual design
Telling Ain't Training by Harold D. Stolovitch & Erica J. Keeps
7 Steps to High-Income Freelancing by Lori De Milto -- haven't read this one, but have heard great things
Twitter (Start a PLN -- learn more in this blog post)
Jim Kwik's Kwik Learning
Instructional Designers in Offices Drinking Coffee
Instruction by Design
The eLearning Coach