Instructional Design Hourly Rates and Salary

Money 2What is your hourly rate as an instructional designer? What do you make if you’re a full-time salaried employee? People frequently ask me these questions, and I always refer people to the same resources. These are all just benchmarks to use as a starting point, so you need to adjust for your experience, education, skills, industry, whether you’re a full-time employee or freelance consultant, etc.

Hourly Rate

Harold Jarche’s “So You Want To Be an ELearning Consultant?” article is several years old, but the rates for different activities aren’t too far off. Click the table at the bottom to expand it and see the details. Design tasks are $50-100 on his chart; development tasks are $30-60. Technological and business analytical tasks can earn you up to $200.

Writing Assistance Inc lists rates from $65-90+, with an average of $80. I believe those rates are what companies pay to them, rather than what the ID actually makes, so assume there’s a fee taken off the top.

Don Clark has collected highlights from several sources on how to estimate instructional design cost and time. He lists the rate for an e-learning designer as $37/hour, based on a salary of $78,000. That’s clearly a full-time employee salary and not a consultant rate.

Salary

The eLearning Guild Salary Calculator is one of the best tools for comparing the variables that affect salary. Enter your location, education, experience, job focus, etc. and get a benchmark salary to compare. The 2014 calculator puts the average salary for instructional designers in the US at $72,854. With 0-4 years of experience, it’s $58,489; 20 or more years of experience brings it up to $92,429.

Other Resources

Jeffrey Rhodes’ presentation on how to price consulting work explains how to determine your hourly rate as a consultant and how to estimate and price services.

Bryan Chapman includes some cost estimates with his benchmarks for how long it takes to create learning. In his survey, one hour of level 2 e-learning cost an average of $18,583. At the 184:1 ratio for that level of learning, that’s about a $100/hour rate, but that includes everyone on the team (IDs, project managers, SMEs, developers, etc.).

Although it isn’t specific to instructional design or e-learning, Flying Solo’s Hourly Rate Calculator is a useful tool to determine your hourly rate as a freelancer based on your expenses.

Image Credit: Money 2 by Daniel Borman

You may be interested in my other posts on instructional design careers.

Need an instructional designer? Visit my Syniad Learning website to hire me.

35 thoughts on “Instructional Design Hourly Rates and Salary

  1. Dear Christy, thanks for your article on rates and salaries. Quite eye opening. We are discussing what are the elements of a great online course and would love to get your input. Please check us out at E-Learning Perspectives. http://www.elpx.org

    • I have a master’s in training & development & have been working as an instructional designer/developer and project manager for about 10 years, but I still struggle with pricing! My rates vary with project scope: design-only; design+development; independent research & content development required vs. SME provides the content; designing “from scratch” or a simple conversion from ILT to eLearning; or doing it all myself vs. working with a developer/graphic designer – as well as whether it’s independent (corp to corp or direct bill) vs. through an agency; and whether it’s fixed rate or time + materials. Lots of variables!

      I was “permanent staff” for 2 training outsourcing companies, and there I learned that very few larger companies want to pay time+materials; they nearly always want fixed rate – which gets even trickier. You really have to make your expectations & scope clear or it can easily get out of hand, so when it comes down to it, the best you can do is make sure you research the project as much as possible and do the best you can before making a bid – and know that you will still make mistakes and under or overbid at times because different clients have different expectations about what “an ID” does and should cost.

      • I only do fixed rate projects if the scope can be clearly defined, including how reviews and revisions will work. I turned down a project earlier this year when I couldn’t get anything in writing about the revision process and how much was expected after 3 or 4 rounds of contract/SOW negotiation. It’s just not worth the risk of having a never-ending project that works out to a lousy hourly rate, especially when I can choose other clients.

        It’s hard to figure out those estimates though. I’m getting better than when I started freelancing, but I’m still way off sometimes, even when I can define the scope myself. With clients who haven’t done much (or any) ID work, I try to explain what I will do at each stage of the process so I can educate them. I probably should do that more with clients who have worked with IDs before too. After all, there’s a pretty wide range of what falls under the ID umbrella, so clients could have a very different idea of the work than what I really do.

  2. The consultant rates listed above are too low for highly experienced consultants. Admittedly, it’s a multidisciplinary undertaking to be a one-stop shop for e-learning, as I and some others are. I am well-read on ID from all the thought leaders in our field, with a particular affinity for Michael Allen, Ruth Clark and Cathy Moore. I do my graphic design in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, and know those tools well. As a former programmer, I am a highly technical developer and a master of rapid tools like Storyline and Captivate. It takes years to get these skills however. My standard rate is in the lower three digits, and it’s been sitting there for about 8 years. And, in all that time, I’ve never had a SINGLE client complain about it. Frankly, I’m thinking about raising my rate too.

    One other thought: I know e-learning shops with a bevy of staff regularly charge $150 an hour. One person consultant shops like me (and maybe you), tend to charge less because we have lower overhead. But if we’re producing work on or at a higher level than many of the larger shops, shouldn’t we paid for it?

    If you’re good at what you do in the e-learning field, then my suggestion is to price accordingly. There is more play in the numbers than the “guidelines” above would suggest.

    • Kevin, thanks so much for commenting. I admit that I have struggled to figure out the right pricing for my own work since becoming a consultant. I used these guidelines as a starting point since it really is hard to determine what going rates are. I’ve already raised my rates once. I was so busy that I was turning down work at least once a month, which I thought was a good sign that I should be charging more. If you’re never even being questioned about your rate, you’re right that it’s probably too low.

      To be honest, I’m still not sure my rate is at the right place. It’s definitely lower than yours, but I’m not doing my own graphic design and I’ve only been consulting for 2 years. Some of my work is in the higher ed realm too, which tends to pay lower.

      I completely agree with you that if we’re producing quality work that we should be paid for it. I do have low overhead, like you, but maybe I shouldn’t be giving so much of a discount for that as I have been.

      Most people do know that they get what they pay for, but sometimes clients just want a bargain. I’ve turned down work that paid too low with no regrets. I used to work with a company that couldn’t understand why they had so much trouble getting and keeping reliable Flash developers. I tried several times to convince them that $20-30/hour was a crappy rate for those programmers. They were in complete denial that their rate might have any bearing on whether their contractors were motivated to turn in projects on time or do quality work.

      Harold Jarche’s article quotes rates up to $200/hour for some tasks. I’m going to edit my post to include the upper end of the range so people know there is more variability.

  3. Thank you for the information. As someone who has been developing/facilitating training programs for small business/teams and for years with little formal training, I have only recently discovered ID as an industry and appreciate the salary breakdown. I am currently pursuing a graduate certificate in this field and look forward to learning more.

    Most of my experience is in the classroom environment and I’m just getting started with e-Learning. In your professional opinion, what is the outlook for classroom vs. e-Learning? Additionally, I’m not a technophobe, but certainly have little experience with instructional technologies. Because technology evolves so rapidly, how important/valuable is it for me to gain skills in this area in terms of being able to create content/develop modules versus having a general knowledge of technical capabilities?

    • Hi Sara, welcome to the field! I used to do a lot of classroom ID and facilitation back in the early days. On the ID side, you’ll see some overlap between classroom and e-learning once you internalize the notion that “tellin’ ain’t training!” (That said, a lot of clients still do insist that we “tell”… LOL.) Anyway, my suggestion would be to focus on instructional design first. If you’re interested in e-learning, Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning, Ruth Clark’s e-Learning and the Science of Instruction and Cathy Moore’s online “books” are all required reading. I also liked Julie Dirksen’s book although I wouldn’t start there if you haven’t already read some of these others (see my review at http://www.suddeninsight.com/book-review-design-people-learn/ if you’re interested).

      You can’t master all the skills overnight, but it has been true for me that clients definitely appreciate the fact that I can deliver a course from beginning to end. So that should be your long-term goal because it has been, and continues to be, a competitive advantage for me. But really the success of a course depends on the ID no matter how “nice” the course looks. I would start there and partner with qualified resources (ahem, cough, cough), who can help you where you’re weak until you can strengthen in that area. :-)

      Wish you good luck!
      Kevin

    • Sara, I agree with everything Kevin said. It’s possible to work in e-learning without knowing any development tools. Cathy Moore, for example, is a rock star designer. Her work is good enough that she can always work with graphic designers and multimedia developers. However, most people find that more skills mean more opportunities. I think you really need at least one rapid development tool like Captivate or Storyline.

      However, not everyone agrees. Check out the comments and discussion on my Technology Skills for Instructional Designers post for arguments from people who say you don’t need any development skills. I delved into this topic further with Do Instructional Designers Really Need Technology Skills? and Two Big Technology Skills. Those posts are several years old, so the specific technology requirements for jobs have changed, but the principles still apply.

      • Kevin & Christy, thank you both for your insights and the resource suggestions. I’m just starting out with self-educating on Storyline, and I’m pretty resourceful and a quick learner so I’m sure I will figure it out in no time based on the research I’ve done. At the end of the day, I agree that ID is the key to a successful course. It just seems like most employers want to have their cake and eat it too!

      • I’m sure you’ll have no problems learning Storyline. That’s one of the advantages of Storyline; it’s fairly easy to pick up even if you’re not super technical. It also has a fair amount of flexibility and power.

        Employers often do want a bit of everything. Sometimes they are completely unreasonable (I remember seeing a job listing for heavy instructional design skills plus Flash programming…for $24/hour). I do sometimes work with teams so I’m only doing the design and others do the development. However, for many projects, what I can do in Storyline or Captivate really is sufficient.

  4. Hi, I found this article to be very informative. I am working on my Master’s in instructional Technology and it is good to see where i could start out. If these numbers are accurate for North Carolina then i like the figures that i see. This post is something that i see myself coming back to often

    • The eLearning Guild’s starting salary of around $60K may be a little high for people just breaking into the field. Keep in mind that W-2 rates are lower than the 1099 rates; you’re not going to earn $75/hour at a job that also includes benefits.

      There’s also a wide range of salaries for different industries. Higher education, for example, is much lower–less than $50K rather than over $60K.

  5. Hi Christy,

    I’ve never commented before (which I should have done) but I have looked at your site several times and found it very useful. I’m hoping to get started as a freelance ID among other work as a tutor in higher ed. I have a potential job converting an existing face-to-face course to an eLearning format in my area of expertise for a pharma company and I need to estimate hours including a breakdown of how the hours would be spent. Do you have or can you recommend a template layout for that type of document? I know it is fairly simple and I’m making a draft version for myself but I want to be sure I don’t miss anything.
    Thanks for sharing your great work.
    Rebekah Brown

    • I have a half-finished draft post explaining in detail how I do time estimates. That doesn’t really help you now though, does it? Ideally, you’d have records from past projects you created to help guide you. I use my Time Tracking Template to record the time as the project progresses. I suggest you do something similar for your project to help you with future estimates. (Update: I posted my process for time estimates.)

      For this project though, you can use Bryan Chapman’s estimates. These benchmarks give you an idea of how long a course should take, including a breakdown for each step. However, note that these figures are for everyone on the team, so remember to take time off these totals for the SME and Project Manager if you’re not filling those roles.

  6. Contract hourly pricing can be tricky, because many larger contracts either initially have vague descriptions or one must wear a lot of hats. So, I’ve learned to give a range for the initial vague descriptions. Then I narrow in on a number once I have a solid description(s). I have also learned that it is more beneficial to ask for specific details on what needs to be completed rather than how many hours each task will take, since oftentimes the person who is interviewing is not sure. I also take into consideration if the contract is remote, flex time, weekly or daily due dates, requires travel, and what doors it will open. I agree with Kevin Mulvihill (posted above) that many experienced IDs can charge more. Companies are well-aware if someone on the contract team starts to bail or not pan out, then you have the skillset to fill in temporarily for that position (and the team will move forward). This has happened to me on numerous occasions and other times I’ve negotiated pay where I am a team of one. Happy creating!

    • Giving a range when the project scope is vague is a good idea. Sometimes I’ve been able to negotiate 10 hours of paid work to analyze the situation and help determine the scope so I can provide a better estimate. Not every client will go for that, but that works once in a while. I only bid on a project basis when the scope is fairly clear. If the scope is unclear and I can’t get enough info, or I suspect the scope is likely to change, I just give an hourly rate. That gives me the flexibility to deal with a project where the client doesn’t know what they need.

  7. Hello Christy,

    Can you please suggest how I get information on the prices of web-based learning programs?

    I am having my http://www.cultureinfluences.com rebranded, but am not sure what my pricing policy should be. Can you help?

    Thanks !

    John Magee in Bonn, Germany

    • Unfortunately, that’s an area where I’m not as sure about the sources myself.

      Try OpenSesame (https://www.opensesame.com/). That’s a marketplace for online courses. That should give you an idea about what others are charging for similar content. There’s a pretty wide range there, from what I’ve seen.

      Udemy (https://www.udemy.com/) is another marketplace, although it has more general personal development topics and is less business-focused.

      WizIQ (http://www.wiziq.com/) is a marketplace for instructor-led online training, which might also be a useful comparison point.

      You might try posting your question in the eLearning Guild’s LinkedIn group or one of the other related groups. Hopefully you’ll get some responses from people who are more familiar with the pricing models for courses.

    • Dear John,
      your page is very impressive. I am German, have lived now in the USA for 4 years and graduated recently in MS EHRD. I am looking for projects/work where I could gain more practical experience and implement what I already know (elearning, instructional design, HRD en general). I do have intercultural background and speak 4 languages. I would be very happy to hear back from you if you find there might be any chance for collaboration.

      Sincerely,
      Elena Mehler

  8. Hi, I was wondering if I could get some advice. I was a successful instructional designer for over 10 years working for top tech firms in the SF Bay Area. Then I quit, raised a family, volunteered a lot during those years and recently got a second Master’s degree (just to keep my brain active :-)) in an unrelated field. Now that I’m ready to work again as an instructional designer, I’m finding it hard to get my foot in the door. (A lot of my contacts have moved on to other things.) My last ID contract was in 2007. I’ve taught myself Captivate and I don’t doubt that I can learn and apply new tools in no time. But how do I convince a prospective employer of that? Any thoughts on what I could do to be more current and employable? I suspect I’d fare better in a full-time position since it usually gives you a little more time to learn on the job, whereas as a contractor, you’d have to hit the ground running, but I also think if I did some contract work, it could lead to a FT position. Catch 22! Ideas from the community would be appreciated! Thanks.

    • How does your online portfolio look? If you’re having trouble getting back into the field, that’s the first place I’d look. If you want some feedback on your portfolio, feel free to post the link here or send it to me privately via email at contact [at] syniadlearning [dot] com.

    • Network, network, network! If you have a local chapter of ATD (formerly ASTD), join it and get involved. If they have SIG’s (special interest groups), particularly on instructional design, eLearning or learning technologies, attend them – or start your own & invite your colleagues to present about relevant topics so you can learn.

      ID has become a more specialized field than it was in 2007, and unless you can really capitalize on your experience as a designer you will need to learn the technology. Do some research around your local area to find out what companies are using what software, buy it & learn it. You can probably teach yourself if you’re reasonably good with technology, but if not, there are plenty of opportunities to learn online.

      As for getting in the door, if I were you, I’d go the contracting route for awhile till you can get some current experience & see what the market is like where you are. Combine passive and active marketing – have a profile up there on the usual job search websites (don’t expect to get much from them – but it never hurts for it to be up there), optimize your profile on LinkedIn, and again NETWORK!

      Good luck!

      • Thanks, Karen. I think you are right on all counts. I don’t have the income now to buy a bunch of s/w, but I have been learning online. Also, I used to be an ISPI member, and I should go there again!

        • Storyline has a 30-day free trial, which should be enough for you to create a short sample for your portfolio. Write your storyboard and watch tutorials before you download the software and you can get quite a bit done during that 30-day period.

          Captivate has a 30-day trial too, so you could update your skills to Captivate 8. However, any samples you create with the trial will expire at the end of 30 days.

          Karen’s suggestion of networking and trying for contract work first to break back in are also excellent. Thanks Karen!

        • ISPI could be a good option if you have an active chapter. I attended the one here in NC a couple times & it was not helpful networking for me, but each group is different.

          I would highly recommend ATD if you have a local chapter. They have been around (as ASTD) for many years and are the premiere professional membership org for ID’s & anyone else involved in T&D. Chapter membership is separate from National (usually much cheaper) & you don’t have to pay for National if you don’t want to join. FYI: Earlier this year they changed their name to “ATD” – Association for Talent Development. I have no idea why & I think it makes them sound like a headhunting agency – but our local chapter has been great networking for me, & the source of a lot of referrals & learning opportunities!

          Agree that getting the trial versions of SL, Captivate, etc. are a good idea so you can learn. Good luck!

        • I agree with Karen about ATD/ASTD. I’m not a member, but I’ve heard great things about my local chapter. If business was slow for me, the first thing I’d do would be join that local chapter and start building more relationships here. Not all chapters are good, but it’s worth investigating. The quality of the local chapter matters a lot. A terrific, active chapter of ISPI would probably do more for you than an inactive chapter of ATD.

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  10. Thanks for the valuable information, Christie. I am a student in Roosevelt University’s Training and Development program. My goal is to contract my elearning. I just found your blog, so I have a lot of reading to do in order to find out more about how to reach my goal.

    Thanks you so much for this blog!

  11. Hi Christy, your site is so awesome. O love it.

    I have a concern and a question. It seems that more companies are adapting to rapid E-Learning. Like I have developed courses for clients that gave ISDs 2days to create the content map, design doc, and the content. It was very stressful.

    Why do you think companies are going this route?
    Also, how will E-learning evolve in the next 2 years?

    Sometimes it can be so frustrating as a designer. I want to stay marketable.

    Tanisha

    • Rapid e-learning does not mean 2 days. That’s completely absurd, as I’m sure you know.

      If a client asked me to do that, I’d ask them what they were really trying to accomplish. What’s the business problem they’re trying to solve with this course? If you can get them talking about the business problem, you can find out why it’s important. What does this problem cost the business? What are the ramifications? Once you’re talking the language of business (not just the language of training), it might be easier to convince them to do real ID work. You could explain, “In two days, I can give you just a content dump. It would probably be easier for learners to just read a PDF than take a course with a bunch of reading. I can build you a PDF in two days, but that won’t change people’s behavior. If you want to change behavior, I’d recommend this approach…”

      That won’t always work. I turned down a client last year who started out talking about a genuine business problem. When he found out how long e-learning usually takes to build, he completely changed his tune. He said they just needed to check a box that says the content is available online, and it doesn’t matter if the training has any effect or not. His ideas for how to get the e-learning built quickly and cheaply would have resulted in crap. I walked away.

      If your clients won’t have a conversation about business problems with you, I recommend walking away if you can. Plenty of clients have actual problems to solve; you don’t need the ones who just want to throw money away on garbage learning. I realize it’s hard to say no to a client, but sometimes it’s the best option.

      You might want to explore more performance consulting as a way to be more marketable. That would overlap nicely with your instructional design skills, and it would help you get away from such crappy clients. I don’t see any single trend making huge shifts in e-learning in the next two years. I see lots of different things happening–gamification, videos, storytelling, mobile, social learning, etc. Performance consulting is one of the areas that I believe will continue to grow.

  12. Hello! I stumbled across this page in my attempt to figure out a burning question… I am completely new to this so PLEASE any help is appreciated!!

    My situation is as follows: I work in the car business as a sales consultant. I brought to my manager’s attention the need for a real training program and outlined my thoughts on a training
    Manual as well as revamped / created guidelines for training that he is 100% on board with. I’ve since put together a very thorough manual including everything from our online resources with screenshots and explanations to following protocol for sales paperwork (with examples), and product information comparisons. I estimate that in total for putting t all together and doing edits for the 70-100 pages was probably about 100-120 hours.

    I’ve never done this type of project before and he’s never encountered this situation so at the moment we are using my training materials (with me as trainer) until we can figure out a fair compensation. I did all of this work off the clock (on my own time at home) as I work purely on commission sales during the week. I would say the level of detail and technicality of it is “medium” as a whole. I have just completed my first year in this field but am one of he most technical sales people in my group of 5 stores (recently won a competition coming in 3rd place of 80ish others in presentation and product demo knowledge) .

    As I said I estimated between 100-120 total hours for everything, and even that may be on the low side….

    We both agreed to put off discussion on compensation until he saw the finishes product (which he did) and until we did some research on the topic.

    The question: what type of rate is fair for that type of scenario? I’m not hourly and don’t do this full time, and it is a unique project. Is it unreasonable to say $100-125 an hour for this project, giving full ownership over to organization? I want to be fair in my asking compensation as well as have reasonable evidence to support my rate.

  13. Also – forgot to mention – prior to showing him the finished product I presented him with a written letter of intent that specifically mentions that this binder and all work within is my intellectual property and attached a no disclosure agreement… I wanted to be sure i protected my rights to the work. I’m not sure if me “selling” or giving the rights to the company makes any difference on that rate. My level of Ed. Is bachelor of science.
    So far I have just the manual itself, but wanted to create some type of PowerPoint down the road.

    • Will, thanks for the details on your situation. $100-125/hour sounds quite high to me.

      It sounds like you are what we call in the training field a Subject Matter Expert or SME. The eLearning Guild Calculator puts the benchmark salary for a “Training/Education/Certification SME” with 0-4 years of experience at $65,671. (You may come up with a different total depending on the variables you use.) That’s about $32/hour. You said you are paid commission only, but I’m assuming you’re a W-2 employee and get benefits, right? If you’re a 1099 contractor, you can probably push that up to $45 or even $50/hour.

      If I call you a “Content Author” in the calculator, the salary is even lower ($48,859). For trainers, it’s $47,122.

      That said, I know sales trainers who make $2000 or $2500/day to deliver training. That day rate doesn’t include any of the time they spend preparing materials in advance, and they often retain ownership of those materials. That rate is also for people with 20+ years of experience delivering highly technical training to engineers.

      You might be better off negotiating a day rate to deliver the training. Maybe $1000 or $1500/day would be realistic. Ignore the time you spent creating the manual and will spend creating the PowerPoint. Since the manual is 70-100 pages long, I’m guessing this is probably a multi-day training, although it’s hard to guess without seeing it. Let’s say it’s a 2-day training. You charge $2500 to deliver it ($1250/day), and you deliver this training 5 times (once to each group of stores). That’s $12,500. You spend 8 hours * 10 days delivering, for 80 hours, plus at least 2 days of prep to train (96 hours). 96 hours plus the 120 hours you already spent is 216 hours, or an effective hourly rate of $57.80.

      The other route you could use to negotiate for price is to ignore your hours entirely and just look at the value to the organization. What is the problem this training solves? How much does that problem cost the organization? If you can fix that problem, how much with the organization save (or how much more money will they make)? If you can figure out the true value of the solution, you can argue that your cost should be a percentage of that value. That requires more negotiation on your part, but you’re in sales–I think you can handle it.

      There are people who sell training materials, and licensing agreements do happen. It could make a difference if you sell the materials. However, in 10+ years of working in this field I have never seen a source that shared anything about how those agreements are structured. If you can find someone selling something similar, maybe you can ask that person for insight. There are no industry benchmarks or standards to follow. In your particular situation, I’m guessing the value of the content itself isn’t actually that high though. If the information is about the cars you sell, it’s outdated every year and has to be updated. You’re better off selling your time training than trying to license the materials.

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