Kia ora! I'm Blair. I design fun, educational tools that help people take action.

Tools of the instructional design trade

Blair wrote this on 17 Mar

In my last post I commented on what to do if you don’t have the budget to do the work that all the ‘cool kids’ are doing.

In this post I’m going to share some thoughts on why people see some amazing work and ask: “What tool did you use to build it?””

When it comes to doing creative work there are so many tools you can choose from. A computer is one of the main tools we use today. Steve Jobs (yes I seem to quote from him a lot these days) described a computer as:

“A bicycle for your mind.”

First of all, what does a bicycle do for your body?

It helps you move it from A to B more efficiently than if you were to say walk or maybe run. You still have to tell the bike where to go, make it start, stop, change gears and ring it’s bell (if you’ve got that kind of bike). I guess Steve was using a bicycle as an analogy for how a computer helps us to think and create. You still have to tell it what app to run, enter input (text, photos, videos, your voice), use the mouse, keyboard or your fingers to manipulate that input into something and then tell the computer to print, play, run, publish or share your output.

In other words, the tool is only an extension of your brain and body. Which might be where we get the saying:

“A poor craftsman (craftsperson?) blames his tools.”

Imagine you met a race car driver who was really good at driving a car. Would you do the following?

  • Ask them what make and model of car they drive.
  • Go and buy the same car.
  • Expect to be able to drive like the race car driver.

Probably not. Yet, this is kind of what we’re implying when we ask a designer who has showcased some good work what tool they used to build it (and sometimes if the tool is free).

In case it’s not obvious, it is the many hours, days, weeks and years of driving that allowed the race car driver to produce such a good performance. It was his brain and his hands (and feet I guess) manipulating the car (whatever make and model that happened to be on race day) that were the key.

So what should you do instead of asking about tools?

Idea #1: Ask what they were thinking

Brains and hands (and feet, and now our voices, “Hey Siri …”) are what humans use to manipulate tools to produce output. Start by asking people who do good work how they produced their outputs.


  • What process did they follow?
  • Where did they draw inspiration from?
  • What decisions did they make and why?
  • What did they learn along the way?
  • What was the hardest part?

Idea #2: Download their thinking, not their tool

Downloading a new authoring tool won’t make you do better work. It’s the brain and ‘body parts’ that manipulate the tools that you need to sprinkle on your next project. Consider paying (using whatever form of payment you agree on) the person for their time and expertise to come and teach your team to apply their thinking to your business challenge. They might even give you some tips about how to use the tools they used, but again it’s their thinking that you can’t download, so that’s what you need to tap into.


Yes of course it’s okay to use the same tool that someone else has used, especially if they used it to do work you admire. Just avoid believing that it is the tool (not the craftsman) that makes the magic. The reality is that the tool was probably the one the craftsman had ‘lying around’ anyway.

So …

If you see something cool, seek to understand the thinking behind it first, then worry about the tool. We’ve all seen good drivers and bad drivers and have almost never blamed the car they were driving in either case. Believe that you can learn to think like a pro with commitment and lots of practice and then get your tools and do creative work.


Reply on Twitter or LinkedIn

Older / Newer