Compare: should you hire an instructional design agency versus freelance or offshore?

Cydnie Smith
Smiling woman with long dark hair in a black shirt.
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After hours of research and way too many meetings with your leadership team, you’ve all agreed that instructional design is the best way to increase the effectiveness of your corporate training program. 

So what’s the next step in the process? 

Hire an instructional designer!

You think: “Okay, that’s simple enough.”

That is until you complete a quick Google search and discover…

There are way more options than you initially expected! Sure, you anticipated sifting through a hefty list of instructional designers. You even blocked out a few hours of “focus time” in your Outlook calendar to dedicate to your interview process.

But who knew there would be so much variety?

Freelance instructional designers, offshore design teams, dedicated partner agencies – how on earth do you decide which to choose?

Well, that’s where I come in! In this article, we will cover some of the burning questions you may have about hiring an instructional designer, including:

And, of course: Why an instructional design agency may be the best choice for your organization.

So, grab another cup of coffee, and let’s get started! 

What is an instructional designer?

At its core, instructional design is about creating effective learning experiences. An instructional designer is the person responsible for making that happen. They use a combination of instructional theory, learning psychology, and design principles to develop educational materials that meet specific learning objectives.

But what does that actually look like in practice? Well, it can vary depending on the project, but here are some common tasks an instructional designer might undertake:

  • Analyzing the learning needs of a particular audience
  • Developing learning objectives and outcomes
  • Creating instructional materials (videos, interactive activities, or written content)
  • Conducting formative and summative evaluations to measure the effectiveness of the learning experience
  • Collaborating with subject matter experts and other stakeholders to ensure accuracy and relevance
  • Staying up-to-date on the latest trends and best practices in instructional design

Basically, instructional designers are the ones who ensure that your employees’ learning experience is engaging, effective, and meets their needs.

But wait…won’t your C-Suite team say that’s your job?

Is hiring an instructional designer really necessary?

As a manager or L&D director, you understand all of the nuances of your team, including their knowledge and performance gaps. So, as you navigate this process, it’s perfectly fair for your leadership team to wonder, “do we really need to hire an external person or team to do something we can take care of in-house?”

I mean, it makes sense. Why use valuable resources to hire an external person or team if you don’t have to?

So, to help determine whether or not hiring an instructional designer is necessary, let’s play a quick game of “True or False!”

As you move through the following statements, make a note of your answers (you’ll need the results at the end). Ready? Let’s do this!

A list of true/false questions about, "Is hiring an instructional designer necessary for my organization?" Each question has a box at the end with space to put a check or an "X" for true or false. From top-to-bottom: "I have the skills and knowledge to develop effective learning materials."; "I have time to design and develop the learning materials myself."; "y learners prefer a long-form training session with an exam at the end."; "My learners do not require additional reinforcement of training materials."; "I  do not mind if my learning materials aren’t engaging/effective." Below this is a sentence which reads: "If you answered false to any questions: You likely require assistance from an instructional designer."
  • True or False: Do I have the necessary skills and knowledge to design and develop effective learning materials?
  • True or False: Do I have time to design and develop the learning materials myself?
  • True or False: Do my learners prefer a long-form training session with an exam at the end that informs them if they pass or fail?
  • True or False: Do my learners require additional reinforcement of training materials through adaptive microlearning, knowledge retention strategies, or using gamification elements?
  • True or False: Do I mind if my learning materials or performance supports aren’t engaging or effective?

Okay – it’s time to tally the results! How many times did you answer “True,” and how many times did you choose “False?”

If you answered “False” to any of these questions, then it’s likely that you require the assistance of an instructional designer. When it comes to creating an effective learning experience that meets your needs, an instructional designer has the knowledge to help your organization..

But, with so many options, how do you decide which instructional designer you should hire?

Instructional design freelancer

An freelance instructional design professional (or contract instructional designer) works independently, often on a project-by-project basis. They may have expertise in a particular industry or subject matter and use their knowledge to create custom learning experiences for their clients. A freelance instructional designer may also use offshore instructional designers or other instructional design companies to help them complete larger projects.

Offshore instructional design team

An offshore design team is a group of designers who work remotely from a different country than the client. The offshore team's location typically has a lower cost of living, so they may offer cheaper rates than you may find in North America.

Dedicated partnership with an instructional design agency

An instructional design agency is a company that specializes in instructional design and eLearning development. Within the company, they typically have a team of learning visual designers, eLearning developers, and project managers who work together to create custom learning experiences for clients.

Each option has its pros and cons, and many of the options blur the lines. Narrowing down your options can feel overwhelming. But have no fear! We will break down each type of instructional design hiring option to help you determine which option is best for your organization.

Should you hire a freelance instructional designer?

Freelancers can be a great option for your organization if you’re working on a single training course or a smaller eLearning program that requires a quick turnaround.

Some of the top benefits of working with a contract instructional designer include:

  • Cost-effectiveness: Hiring a freelance or contract instructional designer can be less expensive than filling a permanent position, as you only pay for the specific services you require
  • Flexibility: You can hire freelance or contract instructional designers on a project-by-project basis, giving your organization greater flexibility regarding the amount of work you need to complete and the timeline for completion
  • Specialized expertise: Freelance or contract instructional designers may bring specialized knowledge to your organization, such as experience with a specific technology or instructional design method

Sounds great, right? You don’t have to pay a salary to a freelancer, as you’ll typically agree on the cost of an eLearning development project before they start. Yet, you’ll still benefit from all the help a learning and development professional can bring to your organization. (Now that’s an option you can really sell to your C-Suite team.) 

But before you head to Upwork to hire a freelancer instructional designer for your project, remember it's essential to consider potential limitations and risks, like:

  • Limited availability: Freelancers may have other clients and projects, so they may not be available when you need them
  • Less control: Because freelancers work independently, they may have their own methods and approaches to instructional design that differ from your organization's standards or preferences
  • Communication challenges: Freelancers may not be physically present in your office, making communication more challenging
  • Risk of unreliable work: Without an established track record or references, you may not be able to assess the quality of a freelancer's work
  • Lack of understanding of your organization: Every time you work with a different freelancer, you’ll need to start from scratch, informing them of your organizational training needs and performance goals.
Two characters, one on either side of a pros and cons chart titled, "Should you hire a freelance instructional designer?" Pros: Cost-effective, flexible, specialized expertise. Cons: Limitied availability, communication challenges, unfamiliar with organization.

Ultimately, our general rule of thumb is: If you're looking to develop a limited amount of eLearning courses, then a freelance instructional designer can be worth considering. Of course, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. 

When might you want to hire an instructional design company instead?

There may be instances when your organization would benefit from hiring an instructional design company.

I mean – think about your organizational needs. No two employees have the same abilities or knowledge levels. That means they each have unique needs when it comes to learning.

In this case, hiring an instructional design company may be the most effective solution. They bring expertise and experience with different instructional design methods, technologies, and learning platforms, which can lead to a more comprehensive and well-rounded eLearning experience for your employees. 

Instructional design teams can handle various tasks such as graphic design, video production, and gamification elements which can be especially beneficial if you don't have the internal resources to manage a complex eLearning project. They can also help you with project management, quality assurance, and technical support. 

As we mentioned, there are a few options to choose from when it comes to instructional design teams, such as offshore teams or dedicated partnership agencies.

And during your search for the instructional design team you want to work with, you may come across an ad like this:

A mock-ad for a fake offshore instructional design agency. It reads, "Faster. Cheaper. Better. Why pay more? Take your L&D needs offshore! Hire us today!" It is placed in a fabricated UI of a webpage, placed into the right sidebar, as an acutal might be placed.

Is it better to hire an offshore instructional design team?

Full disclosure, I had way too much fun playing around in Canva and made that ad solely for this article. (It’s catchy, though, right?)

But in all seriousness, while you may not come across that exact ad, you may hear whispers that hiring an offshore instructional designer or design team can be up to 40% cheaper than their onshore counterparts.

And who wouldn’t want those financial savings? Theoretically, less cost means a potentially higher increase in training ROI, making instructional design a much easier sell to your leadership team. It’s tempting, I know. However, though the savings may be high, the cost of hiring offshore to your organization could be higher. 

While many offshore instructional design companies offer cost-effective solutions, several potential drawbacks exist:

  • Time zone differences: Offshore instructional design teams may operate in a different time zone, leading to communication and collaboration challenges, delayed project timelines, and increased coordination efforts
  • Language and cultural barriers: Communication barriers can arise when working with an offshore instructional design company, resulting in significant misunderstandings, costly errors, and time-consuming delays
  • Quality concerns: Offshore instructional design teams may not have the same level of quality control and oversight as onshore teams, which can lead to instructional materials that are poorly designed or ineffective
"A lot of people say, 'Hey, I can just ship these modules over, and they will come back done,’ and they will come back done. But they won't come back great."

– Elliot Masie
Head of MASIE Learning Foundation, Saratoga Springs, NY 

In the situation of instructional design, cheaper doesn’t always mean better.

While there are many financial benefits to choosing an offshore instructional design team, choosing a team with the necessary expertise and experience to meet your organization's eLearning development needs is most important.

Why hire an instructional design agency?

Freelance instructional designers offer the no-strings-attached flexibility you want, and offshore instructional design teams provide the price point your leadership will appreciate. 

However, a dedicated partnership with an instructional design agency will help your organization create the learning culture your learners deserve. Instead of simply creating training courses, an instructional design company offers their clients ongoing support and program maintenance to ensure that courses remain updated, effective, and relevant to changing industry needs, technology advancements, and learner preferences.

When you choose a dedicated partnership agency, you get an instructional design team specializing in creating custom eLearning experiences – which can result in numerous eLearning advantages compared to other contract or offshore candidates.

So what are some of these advantages? Let’s take a closer look.

Expertise and experience

Instructional design agencies typically have a team of experts with a deeper understanding of instructional design principles, adult learning theories, and the latest eLearning trends. This expertise allows them to create engaging and effective eLearning courses that meet the needs of learners and achieve learning objectives. 

In a practical sense, your partnership agency will typically have experience working with popular e-learning authoring tools (like Articulate Storyline, Articulate Captivate, iSpring, and PowerPoint) – so they can help you choose the right tool for your project and develop e-learning modules that meet your specific needs. Onshore agencies can also create software demos and immersive learning environments that simulate real-world scenarios to provide learners with hands-on experience and help them develop practical skills. 

Quality and consistency

Unlike many offshore teams, communication or cultural barriers aren’t a concern when you choose a dedicated partnership agency. A group of onshore designers typically have a structured process and quality control mechanisms to ensure that the eLearning courses they create are of high quality and consistent in terms of design, content, and delivery. Their quality assurance process ensures that the learning experience is seamless across different courses and modules, which enhances the learner's experience.

Time and cost efficiency

On the surface, offshore teams or freelance instructional designers may seem like cheaper options. But when you factor in the errors or delays that can arise due to communication or scheduling issues, hiring a dedicated agency may be a more cost-effective solution in the long run.

Not only do these instructional design teams have the necessary infrastructure, tools, and resources to complete projects in a timely and efficient manner, they work with you to ensure you achieve your training goals. Your partnership agency will likely have dedicated project managers who oversee the entire instructional design process and ensure the project is delivered on time and within budget.

They also have a rigorous quality assurance process to ensure the final product's quality. Ultimately, working with a partner agency ensures clear lines of communication and more client accessibility, reducing the time and money required to produce a successful eLearning program. 

Flexibility and scalability

Freelance designers may seem more flexible at first glance. But what happens when you need your designer but they’re committed to another client? Onshore instructional design agencies work as your partner to offer flexible solutions that meet your needs when you need them. 

Time-zone limitations or previous commitments don’t encumber partnership agencies. Instead, they can handle projects of varying sizes and complexities and scale their resources per the project requirements. 

After implementing your training program, your dedicated design team can also work with you to customize and alter your courses to meet the unique needs of different learners. 

In addition to these benefits, a dedicated partnership with an instructional design agency can provide more intuitive services, including:

  • Training analysis and assessments: Instructional design agencies can thoroughly analyze your existing training programs, identify gaps, and recommend improvements. They can also conduct assessments to evaluate the effectiveness of your eLearning program and make necessary adjustments.
  • eLearning consulting and guidance: Your instructional design agency can provide expert guidance on best practices, emerging trends, and the latest technologies in the eLearning industry. They can help you make informed decisions about your eLearning program and provide advice and support when needed.
  • Strategic planning for your organization’s learning and development: Besides consulting services, onshore instructional design agencies can help you create a strategic plan that aligns your eLearning program with your overall business objectives. Your dedicated agency can work with you to develop a comprehensive strategy that includes an analysis of your audience, learning objectives, and evaluation criteria to ensure that your training programs are effective and efficient.
  • Business intelligence and learning analytics: Onshore instructional design agencies will likely better understand the client's business and industry. They can collect and analyze data on your learners' performance, engagement, and satisfaction – then leverage those learning analytics to help you identify areas for improvement and optimize your eLearning program to meet the needs of your learners.
  • More personalized eLearning experiences: Dedicated instructional design agencies have a pool of instructional designers who can create custom learning experiences tailored to your organization's unique needs. 
An infographic about, "Why hire an instructional design agency?" Text below this reads, "ID agencies can offer: expertise & experience, time & cost efficiency, quality & consistency, flexibility & scalability." This is followed by another secondary title: "Plus, a dedicated partnership with an instructional design agency can provide more intuitive services, including..." Below is a 3x3 grid. Top row, left-to-right: Training analysis & assessments; a block with an icon of a building connecting to all items in the grid; eLearning consulting & guidance. Bottom row, left-to-right: Strategic planning for L&D efforts; Business intelligence & learning analytics; More personalized eLearning experiences.
Click image to zoom in.

The key to a successful learning program lies in the accessibility of courses. Let’s say you have a group of visual learners or a team of users that aren’t so tech-savvy. While a freelancer, for instance, has to rely on their abilities (and limitations), an onshore agency provides graphic designers, UX/UI designers, narrators, animators, video producers, and multimedia specialists who can create visually appealing and user-friendly digital content that enhance the learning experience.

Ultimately, freelancers or offshore design teams may offer major cost savings. But an instructional design agency can provide expertise, quality, consistency, efficiency, flexibility, and a long-term partnership that can make a significant difference in the success of your eLearning initiatives.

Make your instructional design hire – freelance, offshore, or agency – with confidence!

Whether you're building your eLearning program from scratch or looking to revamp your existing training content, instructional designers can bring a wealth of expertise and experience to your eLearning initiatives, helping you achieve your goals and desired training outcomes. 

All you have to do is leap into the process! 

If you’d like to hire a freelancer or offshore instructional designer/ team, head to websites like UpWork or Fiverr to review potential candidates. 

If you’d prefer to hire a dedicated partnership agency, I’d highly recommend contacting design teams like Flare Learning to start shortlisting possible options.

And, of course, as you begin this journey, I’ve compiled a few handy tips to help make navigating this process even easier!

  • Look for examples of the candidate's previous work (eLearning modules, training manuals, or instructional videos) to understand their design style and whether it aligns with your needs.
  • Check for relevant experience designing instructional materials for your industry or subject matter to ensure that they understand the nuances of your field and can create content that resonates with your audience.
  • Consider scheduling a brief call or video chat to review their communication style and how well you work together.
  • Make sure the candidate has the availability to work on your project within your timeline. Discuss project timelines and deadlines upfront to ensure they can meet your needs.
  • Check their reviews or references. Whether you’re checking Upwork’s performance rating system or contacting past clients, narrowing down candidates with positive feedback is essential to ensure they have a track record of delivering quality work.

I know the whole process of interviewing and hiring a potential candidate can feel overwhelming (I mean, they have an entire sector of HR dedicated to this process!) 

But the good news is: You don't have to do this alone. Our eLearning advisors are happy to answer any questions you have about hiring an instructional design candidate or team and provide recommendations for what you can do next. 

Or, if you’d rather continue exploring the wonderful world of custom eLearning development, you can always head back to our Learning Hub.

Smiling woman with long dark hair in a black shirt.
Cydnie Smith

Cydnie is an experienced writer, editor, and blogger who believes that accessibility plus a dash of creative storytelling is essential to cultivating a memorable learning experience.

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