The Future of the Field is Not Design
Jason K. McDonald
We currently face a problem in the ﬁeld of learning and instructional design and technology (LIDT). We have an
important contribution to offer towards what Beckwith (1988) called “the transformation of learners and . . .
learning” (p. 18). However, in pursuit of this mission, we have become too ﬁxated on being designers and
applying the methods of design thinking. As valuable as design has been for our ﬁeld, it’s ultimately too narrow
an approach to help us have the impact we desire because it overemphasizes the importance of the products
and services we create. To be more inﬂuential, we need approaches that focus our efforts on nurturing people’s
“intrinsic talents and capacities” that are ultimately outside of our ability to manage and control (Thomson, 2005,
p. 158; see also Biesta, 2013). Tying ourselves to design will not accomplish this, so we need to cultivate an
identity of our own—an identity centered on what Dunne (1997) called the character and dispositions of “practical
judgment” (p. 160). It is understandable why LIDT professionals would want to deﬁne themselves as designers.
Design is fashionable. It provides the esteem that our ﬁeld so often seems to desire. But the label design does
not need to be attached to every method of attempting to improve the human condition. Design is also not the
only way to enact the dispositions and character of practical judgment, which is the real core on which our ﬁeld
should focus. We should be in conversation with every ﬁeld that exhibits such virtues, and not only design. It is
true that an expanded vision for LIDT’s purpose and practice will include some design activities. But if we only
design, we will be limited in the types of inﬂuence we have. So, our practices should also include inﬂuences from
other ﬁelds as well, remixed into a unique identity that reﬂects our primary focus on practical judgment and in
service of our distinctive purpose.
We currently face a problem in the ﬁeld of learning and instructional design and technology (LIDT). We have an
important contribution to offer towards what Beckwith (1988) called “the transformation of learners and . . . learning”
(p. 18). However, in pursuit of this mission, we have become too ﬁxated on being designers and applying the methods
of design thinking. As valuable as design has been for our ﬁeld, it’s ultimately too narrow an approach to help us have
the impact we desire because it overemphasizes the importance of the products and services we create. To be more
inﬂuential, we need approaches that focus our efforts on nurturing people’s “intrinsic talents and capacities” that are
ultimately outside of our ability to manage and control (Thomson, 2005, p. 158; see also Biesta, 2013). Tying ourselves
to design will not accomplish this, so we need to cultivate an identity of our own—an identity centered on what Dunne
(1997) called the character and dispositions of “practical judgment” (p. 160).
In this chapter I hope to make these issues clear. I start by describing how design’s focus on creating and making
misleads our understanding and application of important dimensions of our ﬁeld, and so limits our impact. I then
describe how we can cultivate an LIDT identity that is better suited for the aims we are pursuing. An LIDT-speciﬁc
identity may include some methods from design thinking, but it will also encompass additional ways of improving the
human condition, all centered in the character of practical judgment. I end by calling on readers to consider what this
important evolution for our ﬁeld means for their personal practice.
What is Misunderstood When LIDT is Deﬁned as Design
The ﬁeld of LIDT was drawn towards design thinking because it promised to help us create better learning products,
strategies, services, and environments. Historically, the ﬁeld relied on detailed processes for creating instruction that
provided predictable, dependable results (e.g, Merrill et al., 1996). However, towards the close of the 20 century, it
became clear that these processes were too rigid to be useful in many real-world settings (Rowland, 1992; Wedman &
Tessmer, 1993). There were also questions about whether traditional instructional design processes, like Instructional
Systems Design (ISD), even worked at all (Gordon & Zemke, 2000; Zemke & Rossett, 2002). Thus, a number of calls
appeared to abandon the ﬁeld’s formulaic processes, and adopt more ﬂexible approaches such as those found in
design ﬁelds like architecture or industrial design (e.g., Boling & Gray, 2014; Hokanson & Gibbons, 2014; Lachheb &
Abramenka-Lachheb, 2022; McDonald, 2011; Tracey, 2016). The claim was that embracing the way designers worked
would “produce improvements in learning and performance far beyond those we are able to achieve today” (Boling &
Smith, 2012, p. 363).
Design thinking did provide LIDT more ﬂexibility, along with associated beneﬁts such as a renewed emphasis on
addressing the complexities found in every learning environment (Becker, 2007). But what did not change was the ﬁeld’s
near-complete focus on creating learning products or services. This was because design is fundamentally about
creating and making. Indeed, Nelson and Stolterman (2012) deﬁned design as “the ability to imagine that-which-does-
not-yet-exist [and] to make it appear in concrete form as a new, purposeful addition to the real world” (p. 12). And Archer
et al. deﬁned it as, “the conception and realization of new things . . . [through] planning, inventing, making, and doing”
(as quoted in Cross, 2007, p. 16). This is the case even if LIDT professionals claim they have “moved beyond making
artifacts,” such as designing learning strategies, cultures, or relationships (cf. Lee, 2021, p. 497). To do this, they still
tend to create some kind of object or operation (product or process) that is meant to have a discernable, concrete effect
on the people using them (McDonald, 2021).
Design’s emphasis on creation, however, threatens to distort our view of LIDT and its potential impact. To illustrate,
consider what the effects have been of deﬁning the ﬁeld of teaching as also being a type of design (Henriksen &
Richardson, 2017; Norton & Hathaway, 2015; Paniagua & Istance, 2018). Henriksen (2020) went so far as to claim that
an act of design towards a learning purpose,” because teachers create “engaging learning activities,
effective assessment practices, and students’ experience” (p. 294; emphasis added). On the surface, this seems to
make sense. Teaching undeniably includes the activities Henriksen identiﬁed. And design methods often can help
teachers do this kind of work well. However, as Biesta (2013, 2021) persuasively argued, there are many other
dimensions of teaching that go beyond what teachers create. Teachers are role models. They manage the everyday,
spontaneous events that just happen in a classroom. They counsel both students and parents. And they “call” students
to live up to their full potential—not just through what they do but also through their relationships with those students
(Biesta, 2021, p. 47).
These non-design dimensions of teaching are at least as deﬁnitive of teaching as creating materials or setting up
conditions for students to learn. But they are not really
in the same way an object is made. Consider the important
role teachers play in helping students believe in their own potential, especially when facing moments of self-doubt.
Countless students have experienced the motivational effects of such encouragement. And it can sometimes be even
more powerful than how caregivers (like parents) show conﬁdence—given the unique fusing of care, expertise, and
authority inherent in good teaching relationships. This is real teaching, as much as designing a lesson plan, and it can
be life changing (Noddings, 2012). But it seems manipulative for a teacher to design situations where students
experience doubt just so the teacher can show how much they care. Both common sense and research show that such
Machiavellian tactics are damaging (Krause, 2012).
Biesta (2017, 2021) further argued that if teaching is primarily deﬁned in terms of what teachers make, we can easily
lose sight of its other dimensions. Thus, reducing teaching to design, because teachers sometimes make things, can
ignore or dismiss as inconsequential other important teaching practices. At the extreme, this has led to both historical
and contemporary attempts to replace teachers with designed learning products (Casas, 1997; Ovetz, 2021). Why hire a
teacher who is likely a second-rate designer, when you can hire a trained learning designer instead? Or why not buy a
curriculum that just “works” without a teacher at all? Even without going to those lengths, when teaching is deﬁned as
something that can be made, there is a tendency to only recognize, evaluate, and reward what teachers make. And
ultimately, this limits the scope of what is considered legitimate for teachers to do (Biesta, 2010). If the scholars cited
earlier were asked, surely they would agree that the other dimensions of teaching identiﬁed above are important. But
when they claim that teaching is deﬁned by its activities of planning, making, and designing, the ultimate end is to
eventually erase the possibility of doing anything other than plan, make, and design (Dreyfus, 2002; Thomson, 2005;
Like teaching, LIDT is usually deﬁned by the products and services it creates (McDonald, 2021). Of course, LIDT
professionals do create things meant to be a factor in learning situations. My claim is not that this is inappropriate, but,
rather, that design is only one part of what it takes to accomplish our purpose of transforming learners and learning.
They are an important part, to be sure. But, also like teaching, if what we design is viewed as our sole contribution, there
will be dimensions of the ﬁeld that we misunderstand. As one example, when LIDT is considered to be only a type of
design, there is a tendency to consider learning to be the product we create, and students as the output of our design
efforts (Gur & Wiley, 2007; Lee, 2021; McDonald, 2021). This, however, is an overly simplistic view of learning (Yanchar &
Francis, 2022). Additionally, there are important dimensions of learning that are distorted if we attempt to design them,
as much as if a teacher designs situations to manipulate how students feel about them. If we consider LIDT’s purpose
to be the design of learning, our tendency will be to “view learners in a similar manner as other makers view the material
with which they work. Learners become matter to be mastered and shaped, and instructional strategies and techniques
are the tools designers have to produce . . . learning” (McDonald, 2021, p. 47).
Further, just like important teaching practices are ignored when we overemphasize the materials or activities that
teachers create, the scope and types of educational help LIDT can offer is limited when we deﬁne the ﬁeld as a type of
design. But given our historical emphasis on creation and design, we have spent very little effort considering what other
contributions we could make. To understand the possibilities, we need to broaden our views of LIDT to encompass
more than the creation of products and services.
LIDT’s Future: Moving Beyond Design
What alternatives are available to us beyond creating, making, and designing? Designers suggest that whenever people
seek to improve the human condition, by deﬁnition, they are designing (Nelson & Stolterman, 2012; Simon, 1996).
However, a little reﬂection shows that this is not true. For example, doctors and nurses do not design a patient’s health.
They support the body as its own natural functions return itself to health. Similarly, a host of practices exist to improve
ourselves and our world apart from design, including policy making, therapy, law, and—as discussed earlier—teaching.
Proponents for design argue that, at least at times, such professionals are really designers even if they do not know it
(Aakhus et al., 2018; Henriksen et al., 2020; Lachheb & Abramenka-Lachheb, 2022). But, as already discussed, when
designers do this, it is an indication that they do not understand, or are simply dismissing, dimensions of these
professions that do not involve making and creating. Of course, doctors, lawyers, and teachers sometimes make things.
But what they make does not deﬁne them. They do many other things as well—things at least as deﬁnitive of their
professions, if not more, than what they create. If we pay attention to those dimensions, we might learn new
approaches for how LIDT can offer more, and better, contributions towards the transformation of learners and learning
(see Beckwith, 1988).
In particular, we can pay attention to how these ﬁelds cultivate improvements to the human condition without
managing, controlling, creating, or making. For instance, as discussed above, doctors and nurses do not actually make
or create health. Instead, theirs is a
profession. They rely on other forms of inﬂuence than designers rely upon
with their making-oriented aims (Dunne, 1997). Sometimes this is no more than explaining the consequences of
someone’s current lifestyle to persuade him to live more healthily. Or, like teachers, sometimes it is by simply offering “a
thoughtful glance, a soothing word, and other manifestations of caring and concern” (Arndt, 1992, p. 291). Since helping
people learn also includes these kind of persuasive and caring dimensions, it seems that ﬁelds like medicine and
nursing could provide insights for LIDT practice that design cannot. What might LIDT look like if we emphasized its
caring dimensions as much as did doctors and nurses?
But simply importing practices from other ﬁelds (like nursing) is not enough (McDonald & Yanchar, 2020). There is
something more fundamental that all these ﬁelds—including design—share that is important to help LIDT accomplish its
purpose. At their core, all these ﬁelds share an assumption that instead of relying on methods and processes that
attempt to deﬁne their response to every situation, the proper way to engage with the world’s unpredictable and ever-
changing circumstances are what Dunne (1997) called the dispositions of “practical judgment” (p. 160). Although
practical judgment is diﬃcult to deﬁne, Dunne summarized it as being when people are perceptive enough to recognize
the most important characteristics of individual situations, wise enough to know what options they have available to
act, and experienced enough to customize their actions to the particular environments in which they ﬁnd themselves. It
is doing the right thing “to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right aim, and in the right way”
(p. 368). Since one of the original reasons for importing design thinking into LIDT was to correct our overemphasis on
following rigid processes, it seems that we can better accomplish this goal by focusing on practical judgment directly,
instead of tying ourselves to one ﬁeld, design thinking, that attempts to create methods for enacting it.
In fact, as Dunne (1997) further emphasized, practical judgment is not merely an alternative, more ﬂexible kind of
process at all. Instead, it is a kind of character that people develop as they learn to respond to certain types of issues to
which they were previously insensitive. Thus, it is the character of LIDT professionals that should enable them to
respond to opportunities they discern for transforming learners and learning. No set of methods or processes
themselves can accomplish this on their own. What a teacher does to show students they care is less important than
that their actions arise out of their authentically caring disposition. This is not to argue that practices do not matter;
certainly, students will view some actions as more caring than others. But practices must be situated in their proper
place, as an outgrowth of a person’s existing, or at least developing, dispositions and character.
Expanding our view of LIDT should therefore begin by considering what dispositions and character are associated with
practical judgment in the speciﬁc context of transforming learners and learning. Issues like this have received little
attention in our ﬁeld’s literature, although we can ﬁnd a few examples (Belland, 1991; Parrish, 2012). As one example, if
it is true that practical judgment “is mediated through feelings” (Dunne, 1997, p. 358), what emotional sensitivities are
important for LIDT professionals to cultivate? One emotional sensitivity is certainly empathy (Matthews et al., 2017)—a
disposition shared, of course, with other ﬁelds; this includes design. But how would our empathy change if we
understood it in the same way the caring professions did—as the foundation of real relationships—instead of as a
technique for making better products, as sometimes seems to be the case in design ﬁelds (Heylighen & Dong, 2019)?
Beyond this, are there other emotional dimensions of practical judgment, especially ones more distinct to the
transformation of learners and learning? And how do we help LIDT professionals cultivate them? As we come to answer
questions such as these, we can use what we learn as the basis for remixing useful practices into forms that reﬂect
what we are trying to accomplish, while jettisoning those that are found to be counterproductive. Some of those
practices could be derived from design. But others might also originate in science, nursing, teaching, law, or any other
ﬁeld where we ﬁnd people exhibiting practical judgment in attempts to improve the human condition.
LIDT in the World
If this vision of LIDT’s future appeals to you, the most important thing you can do is become the kind of
professional that embodies the character and dispositions of practical judgment. We need a groundswell of
professionals who are not satisﬁed to only create products, processes, or other services, but are also willing to
explore other ways of transforming learners and learning. We also need people who are explorers—who are
curious about what other forms of practice are missing from our repertoire that will help us pursue our mission.
What else should be part of an LIDT identity that we haven’t yet imagined? What do those dimensions contribute
towards the transformation of learners and learning? And how can you become the kind of person who
exempliﬁes these attributes?
Reﬂect upon these questions. Consider formalizing your reﬂection in a journal entry or personal statement of
own background, talents, beliefs, and values, what do you ﬁnd missing in our ﬁeld’s
approach to learners and learning?
Based either on precedent (examples you learn from elsewhere), or brainstorming (your own creativity),
what new ideas could we incorporate into LIDT that address your concerns?
What kind of character (practical judgment) could you exemplify to become the type of person who
authentically pursues the transformation of learners and learning?
How can you begin to develop your practical judgment through your education or practical experiences?
In this chapter, I have argued that design is not the pinnacle of LIDT as a ﬁeld of practice. This does not mean that LIDT
professionals should never design. Rather, it means that design alone is too narrow to help us accomplish our mission
of transforming learners and learning. Instead, we should be a ﬁeld organized around the dispositions and character
associated with practical judgment. It is understandable why LIDT professionals would want to deﬁne themselves as
designers. Design is fashionable. It provides the esteem that our ﬁeld so often seems to desire. But the label
does not need to be attached to every method of attempting to improve the human condition. Design is also not the
only way to enact the dispositions and character of practical judgment, which is the real core on which our ﬁeld should
focus. We should be in conversation with every ﬁeld that exhibits such virtues, and not only design. It is true that an
expanded vision for LIDT’s purpose and practice will include some design activities. But if we only design, we will be
limited in the types of inﬂuence we have. So, our practices should also include inﬂuences from other ﬁelds as well,
remixed into a unique identity that reﬂects our primary focus on practical judgment and in service of our distinctive
purpose. Thus, in conclusion, instead of asking how we design the future of LIDT, we should be asking instead: what
future is possible for us that design does not provide?
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Jason K. McDonald
Brigham Young University
Dr. Jason K. McDonald is a Professor of Instructional Psychology & Technology at Brigham Young University. He
brings over twenty years of experience in industry and academia, with a career spanning a wide-variety of roles
connected to instructional design: face-to-face training; faculty development; corporate eLearning; story
development for instructional ﬁlms; and museum/exhibit design. He gained this experience as a university
instructional designer; an executive for a large, international non-proﬁt; a digital product director for a publishing
company; and as an independent consultant.
Dr. McDonald's research focuses around advancing design practice and design education. He studies design as
an expression of certain types of relationships with others and with the world, how designers experience rich and
authentic ways of being human, the contingent and changeable nature of design, and design as a human
accomplishment (meaning how design is not a natural process but is created by designers and so is open to
continually being recreated by designers).
At BYU, Dr. McDonald has taught courses in instructional design, media and culture change, project management,
learning psychology, and design theory. His work can be found at his website: http://jkmcdonald.com/
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