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10 Invaluable Books for Instructional Design


By , senior instructional strategist | @LearnerAdvocate
Angel Green senior instructional strategist

Sure, we all know the classics that line the shelves of many instructional designers. There are The Principles of Instructional Design by Gagne, The Systematic Design of Instruction by Dick & Carey, and of course, Evaluating Training Programs: The Four Levels by Kirkpatrick. Most of these are likely required reading in a Master’s Degree program on instructional systems design.

But, when you’re ready to move beyond the basics, below is a list of the 10 books I believe to be invaluable resources for instructional designers. And, because being an effective instructional designer means you understand more than just the content you are delivering, I have included a number of books in my list that have nothing to do with designing courseware or adult learning theories.


1. Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning, Michael Allen

This book is not first on my list simply because I work for Allen Interactions! In fact, I often joke that when I was offered my position at Allen, it was as if the mother ship had called me home. Long before I came to work for Dr. Allen, this book truly was one of my favorites. I was inspired by the Seven Magic Keys, MMM and CCAF. Everything in the book made great sense to me. I knew that great e-learning involved more than just the electronic delivery of content, and Guide to e-Learning gave me the proof I needed to push my project teams to design better.

2. Design for How People Learn, Julie Dirksen

In an industry like ours, which is so prone to theory-based, research-driven topics, Julie’s no-nonsense writing style is so wonderfully refreshing. She isn’t afraid to tackle some big issues, like whether or not there is validity in learning styles, yet she remains so approachable and down to earth. Julie Dirksen is like the instructional designer friend you meet with to talk shop over a pizza and a pitcher of beer. Both experienced and new instructional designers should find Design for How People Learn relatable, with plenty of analogies, metaphors and real-world examples.

3. The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, Karl Kapp

Even if your organization fears the word “gamification” or is leery of learning games, you’ll find value in this book. In it, Dr. Kapp balances academic research with real techniques and elements you can incorporate into your learning product design, regardless of whether you are calling it a learning game or gamification of learning. The conversational writing style and real-world examples creates an easy-to-read, useful reference guide. I often find myself returning to The Gamification of Learning and Instruction for clarity, reference and inspiration. In fact, I recently purchased the accompanying Field Guide, which I highly recommend after reading the book.

4. Leaving ADDIE for SAM, Michael Allen with Richard Sites

There is good reason this book was an ASTD bestseller and is causing such a wave in the industry – it really can help instructional designers and learning leaders create a higher quality product in a timelier manner. Understandably, a recommendation for this book from me seems a bit biased – after all, I co-authored the accompanying Field Guide with Richard Sites (which you really should purchase as a set, in my opinion). Therefore, I’ll let Molly Murnane (@MollyMurnaneID), Learning Consultant at Humana share her thoughts:

"Before Leaving ADDIE for SAM, I was stuck in an instructional design rut. I was creating training that was more about delivering content than creating learning. What I found in SAM is a commonsense, measurable way to create training that delivers results. Not only that, but SAM generates conversations that get colleagues excited to work together. Anytime you can deliver results and get people excited about training, it’s a huge WIN!"


Out of my list of 10, only the first four books target the industry of instructional design. As instructional designers, it is our job to motivate our teams, come up with creative ideas, sell those ideas to stakeholders, write effectively, and at our core, we must understand why people are motivated enough to change their behavior. In addition to the aforementioned instructional design books, I believe these books are also invaluable to instructional designers.


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

An interesting thing about being an instructional designer is that you must be very detail-oriented and logical, but yet creative too! Well, at least if you want to create engaging, non-page turner, or lecture-based learning, then you need to be creative in your design. But, if, like many people, you feel you aren’t the “creative type,” I encourage you to read Creative Confidence. Brothers Tom and David Kelley describe, and provide real examples for, how we are all equipped with the power to be creative; it just may be dormant, untapped, or underutilized. And, because the authors are designers, a large portion of the book focuses on human-centered design and an iterative process. Here is one of my favorite passages from the book: “We aim to understand why people do what they currently do, with the goal of understanding what they might do in the future….An empathetic approach fuels our process by ensuring we never forget we’re designing for real people.”

6. Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers, Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, James Macanufo

For those of you familiar with SAM, you know that the pivotal moment in the process is the Savvy Start. The Savvy Start is a two-day brainstorming and prototyping session. And, if you’ve ever been witness to overly planned and heavily orchestrated brainstorming, it often goes terribly wrong. Tons of funny YouTube videos and Dilbert cartoons poke fun at brainstorming, innovation, and “thinking outside the box.” To ensure your Savvy Start doesn’t flop and wind up modeling one of those videos or cartoons, get this book! Gamestorming is filled with wonderfully detailed activities you can do with your Savvy Start participants to get the creative energy and ideas flowing in the room!

7. Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design, Bill Buxton

Before I came to Allen Interactions, my “design” consisted of many, many words. Needs analysis, design documents, even storyboards, filled with words used to gain approval. I thought (wrongly) that my extensive knowledge of the English language meant that I could find the words to describe what I was thinking. Today, my design process philosophy is, the fewer the words, the better. When trying to explain something, specifically in terms of an e-learning interaction, there had better be a way for you to see what I’m saying! Frequently, I am on the phone with a client and simultaneously snapping a picture of a sketch to email immediately just to ensure we are all on the same page. Sketching User Experiences was the start of my journey away from design documentation and into real design. Originally recommended to me by Dr. Allen, this fantastic book has literally changed the way I approach design.

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

I purchased this book after a participant in a workshop told me about Sinek’s TED talk, which I immediately watched. The participant had been promoted to lead the training department in his organization, yet had never been involved in any type of training design or development (sound familiar?). He came to the workshop to broaden his knowledge of the industry. In it, he identified a wonderful similarity in the world of instructional design, specifically motivation (in MMM), to Sinek’s “Golden Circle.” The Golden Circle is Sinke’s representation of how, biologically, the human decision-making process works, and why people do what they do. While this book may be targeted to leaders, it only takes a tiny leap to shift from how to get consumers or employees to act to how to get learners to act. I added this book to my list because I believe recognizing the importance of the “why” helps you better design courses that get learners to act.

9. Bringing out the Best in People, Aubrey Daniels

Fifteen years ago, this book was required reading in my master’s degree program and has stayed by my side since. As an instructional designer who follows the model of Context, Challenge, Activity, and Feedback (CCAF), I find so many wonderful gems in this book. For example, Daniels writes, “Can we introduce and arrange consequences in such a way that tasks that are now difficult, dull, or boring, become exciting, challenging and rewarding? Is that possible? It most definitely is.” Daniels’ ABC model of Behavior Change (Antecedent, Behavior, Consequences) is a wonderful way to think of designing scenarios in training events. Provide the Antecedent, allow your learner to choose the Behavior, then demonstrate the Consequence (which can be positive or negative, immediate or future, and certain or uncertain) as the feedback based on the learner’s choice. Viola! CCAF and training that focuses on behavioral change!

10. Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler

I’m a highlighter and a note-taker when reading a book, and perhaps only the Guide to e-Learning and The No-Cry Sleep Solution (this working mother needed babies that slept!) have as many highlights as Influencer! I even color-coded the highlights in my e-book. Green highlights related to instructional design and learners (i.e., “When leaders and training designers combine too much motivation with too few opportunities to improve ability, they rarely produce change. Instead, they create resentment and depression.”) Pink highlights were beneficial for influencing the team with which I work, both internal Allen employees and my clients. Yellow highlights were statements I believed could help me positively influence change in the larger instructional design world. (How might I help other instructional designers adopt learner-focused design using an iterative process?) Whether you’re looking to influence behavioral change at home with your spouse or children, in your team at work, or in the larger arena of the world itself, Influencer offers you the inspiration, hope, and techniques to help even “little ‘ole you” make an impact! 

Narrowing this list to 10 was really difficult, I must admit. I have plenty more books I adore, find extremely valuable, and frequently refer to, but I needed to keep this blog from becoming a book of its own! 

So, that’s my list…what are your favorite books? Comment here or use the hashtag #IDBooks to share yours!

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About Author

Angel Green
Angel Green

Angel Green is a senior instructional strategist for Allen Interactions’ Tampa studio, where she is responsible for providing consultation and instructional design expertise to clients, partnering to build engaging, interactive learning experiences. With nearly 15 years of experience, Angel has worked for organizations such as IBM, MetLife, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, and holds both MS and BS degrees from Florida State University. An accomplished speaker, Angel has held positions as an adjunct instructor of public speaking and is past president of a Toastmasters International chapter. She also frequently blogs on Allen Interactions’ e-Learning Leadership Blog. Angel is the co-author of the Leaving ADDIE For SAM Field Guide. Find Angel on Google+.

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