Creativity and Instructional Design

Creativity and Instructional Design by Connie Malamed

an instructional analysis and ideating a creative treatment.

Creativity is Under Discussed in our Industry
Creativity is often thought of as a mysterious phenomenon, arising out of those ‘struck by lightning’ moments. Although it is an important aspect of the instructional design process, it seems to be missing from the standard systems-based instructional design models. In addition, creative thinking is rarely discussed in industry conversations.

With all the complaints about unimaginative instruction, the time is ripe to investigate, examine and analyze creative thinking. In fact, the more we decompose and try to understand creativity, the greater are the chances for nurturing it.

Creativity Defined
It’s important to understand what theorists and researchers mean by creativity. A commonly agreed upon definition goes like this: ‘Creativity is the generation of novel and useful ideas.’ This implies several things:

  1. A solution or idea can rest on the shoulders of other ideas. It can be a unique mash-up of existing approaches and doesn’t need to be entirely original.
  2. Creativity is dependent on the culture one inhabits. Not only do new ideas emerge from the cultural stream, but they must be useful to that culture.

Are Instructional Design Models Creative?
 Dick and Carey model, It seemed too systematic and overly prescribed. But it didn’t take long to discover that in practice, I could layer creative solutions onto any project or assignment that used this model.

Conceptualizing Creativity in the Instructional Design Process

To this effect, I found an inspiring approach in a journal article titled Design/Creativity Loops (DCL) model by Clinton and Hokanson (2011). The authors present a convincing argument for integrating creative thinking into conceptual models of instructional design.

They predict that this will enhance the practitioner’s “anticipation of creative possibilities” and in turn, foster innovative thinking. It is also essential for preparing new instructional designers to become competent and creative practitioners. Furthermore, Clinton and Hokanson note that creativity becomes devalued by not including it in the models. When creative thinking is not valued or developed, results are usually generic and unimaginative, they say.

The authors present a descriptive model for thinking about creativity in instructional design. It is based on an accepted theory that creative thinking occurs in stages of a cycle. In their model, these stages are revisited in an ongoing and iterative process they refer to as loops. Innovative ideas may emerge during any phase of the cycle.

In practice, the boundaries of each phase of the process may not be clearly delineated. The purpose of the model is not prescriptive, but more an effort to influence the instructional design paradigm. See the figure below.

Design/Creativity Loop, Clinton and Hokanson (2011)

The brackets indicate that the cycle does not lead to illumination in every case.

A Creative-friendly Instructional Design Model
In their paper, Clinton and Hokanson overlap a creativity envelope over the ADDIE model, stressing that the specific model does not matter. Below I have used their suggestions and expanded this approach, integrating creative tasks within every step of an updated model.

What is most important is approaching every phase of any model with an openness to novel idea generation. The point is that every task can be regarded as an opportunity for creative expression.

Research and Analysis
During research and analysis we gather data, organize information, and look for patterns in order to define the problem. During this process, we become aware of the scope and constraints of a project. Overlaying a creative model, we can:

  • Know that constraints and limitations have been found to inspire creative thinking. In a universe of unlimited options, there is nothing to push against.
  • Make the effort to frame the problem space in a new way. By looking at it from another perspective, you may generate new ideas.
  • Think of analysis as research. Find new ways to connect with them and discover the world from their perspective.
  • Use techniques from User Experience Design, such as lengthy interviews, focus groups, card sorting and user storytelling. For more techniques, see Crash Course in UX Design Research.

Design and Prototyping
During design and prototyping, we generate ideas for creative solutions and approaches. We select the best ideas and implement them in prototypes in a cycle of feedback and validation. With creative thinking integrated into this phase we can:

  • Look at a problem and consider potential solutions that do not involve training.
  • Generate ideas for unique and long-term solutions that are context driven.
  • Explore diverse strategies that will continue to fulfill each stage of the learning process over time.
  • Learn to incorporate Design Thinking techniques to produce novel products.(see post)
  • Apply interface design patterns used in mobile and web design.
  • Design the evaluation strategy early on.
  • Reiterate prototypes as needed.

In this model, development involves presenting the design of instructional materials and performance support in the most appropriate way possible. It could include: storyboards, scripts, screen design, key interaction sketches, wireframes, flowcharts, etc. Using a creative thinking overlay we can:

  • Generate ideas through rough sketches (even if you can’t draw).
  • Bring eLearning content to life through scenarios, games, and meaningful interactions.
  • Incorporate an original storyline (see How to Write Compelling Stories). see below
  • Pursue an imaginative approach to visuals.
  • See where social interaction can support instruction.
  • Continue with Design Thinking protocols to involve the audience. Reiterate as needed.

During production we select and produce all the multimedia assets, create running lessons, implement a web portal, produce a job aid or mobile app, etc. We must solve problems that arise from bumping into production constraints. There are still opportunities for creative expression during this phase. We can:

  • Remain open to better ideas as opportunities present themselves during production.
  • Experiment with new tools that might better serve your purpose.
  • Find innovative solutions to problems that arise from real world constraints.
  • Continue to think in terms of a long-term vision.
  • Continue with Design Thinking protocols to involve and test with the audience. Reiterate as needed.

Evaluation involves collecting feedback data on our product(s) and planning how to better meet the needs of the audience. Overlaying a creative model, we can:

  • Creatively assess the impact of the solution in terms of retention and performance improvement.
  • Consider course evaluations as an opportunity to creatively pivot.
  • Find new ways to do evaluations that provide accurate data (see How to Do Course Evaluations the Right Way).
  • Evaluate in a continuous cycle to see the long-term effectiveness of our products.


  1. Chen, C., Kasof, J., Himsel, A., Dmitrieva, J., Dong, Q., & Xue, G. Effects of explicit instruction to ‘‘be creative’’ across domains and cultures. Journal of Creative Behavior, 39(2), 89–110, 2005.
  2. Clinton, G. & Hokanson, B. Creativity in the training and practice of instructional designers: the Design/Creativity Loops model. Educational Technology Research and Development, 60:111–130, 2011.

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Lisa Cron, author of Wired For Story, is passionate about the power and value of stories. In this conversation, Lisa will convince you that it is through stories that humans survive and it is through stories that people learn. If you are looking for ways to write irresistible stories and scenarios, listen in for advice from a pro who understands how stories bring meaning to our world.

Is Design Thinking Missing From ADDIE? by Connie Malamed

But we also need an approach to help us synthesize, innovate and create. The practice of design thinking seems to be sorely missing from instructional design university programs, professional training and workplace practices.

A Design Thinking Process
As you would expect, there are many variations to the design thinking model. Generally, there are between three and six steps.

RESEARCH Research helps you define the problem and get to know the target population. Research creates a more open mindset than Analysis, where the focus is on breaking things down and finding answers. In design thinking, research is practiced through empathizing with the target population.
Some ways to research a problem include:

  • Field Research:
  • Interviews:
  • Attitude Research: run focus groups to find out what motivates the audience and what demotivates them.
  • Feedback:
  • What’s Out There: research existing solutions to similar problems
  • Mind Maps: Mind maps, which are radiant drawings showing connected ideas, are good for exploring many aspects to a problem.

Without correctly defining a problem, it’s nearly impossible to generate a corresponding solution.

IDEATE The practice of conceiving ideas, or ideation, is a critical step of design thinkingSome ways to generate possible solutions include:

  • Brainstorming:
  • Sketching: For many people, sketching short-circuits the judgement side of the brain and helps them tap into a flow of ideas. Sketching is visual brainstorming. Using stick figures and geometric shapes is completely acceptable and gets the job done. Sketching is exploration.
  • Manipulative Verbs: From the creator of brainstorming, Alex Osborn, comes an exercise using a list of action verbs that are applied to various ideas or problems.

PROTOTYPE A prototype is a preliminary model of an approach. Prototyping involves hands-on exploration. It provides a way to rapidly try out ideas without a large investment of time and money. In learning experience design, a prototype could involve storyboarding an interaction. Some ways to prototype or to create form include:

  • Sketching: Using pencil and paper or a digital drawing tool, prototype sketches are more involved than in the previous phase. They might include storyboarding a scenario or visualizing all possible responses to an interaction.
  • Mock-ups: A mock-up is a simulated version of an idea, that replicates how it will look and behave. These can range from a Styrofoam model to a working user interface.
  • Small Implementation:

 TEST Testing is all about seeing what works in the real world, getting feedback and refining (or ditching) prototypes. You can see how design thinking is an iterative process that involves lots of testing and modification.

Closing Words
Design thinking isn’t a silver bullet, but it’s one model for dealing with the “be creative on demand” requirements in our line of work. And it might provide important solutions for the learning problems of the 21st Century.