• Foundations of Learning and Instructional Design Technology
  • I. Definitions and History
  • II. Learning and Instruction
  • III. Design
  • IV. Technology and Media
  • V. Becoming an LIDT Professional
  • VI. Preparing for an LIDT Career
  • Final Reading Assignment
  • Index of Topics
  • 998. Interviews with Design-Based Researchers (Videos)
  • K-12 Blended Teaching Competencies
  • Preface and About This Book
  • Appendix B: Research
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  • 24

    What and how do designers design?

    A Theory of Design Structure and Layers

    Editor’s Note

    The following was originally published in Techtrends, and is published here by permission.

    Gibbons, A. S. (2003). What and how do designers design? TechTrends, 47(5), 22-25.

    A question I always ask my Instructional Technology students at Utah State University is, “What do instructional designers design?” We have had interesting discussions on this question, and I try to revisit the question at several points throughout all of my classes. I find that the students’ perceptions of what instructional designers design changes over time. This is no doubt a product of the faculty’s teaching, but it also represents a personal commitment that the student makes. What the student commits to is what I would like to talk about. My thesis will be that it is a commitment to a particular layer of the evolving instructional design. I will talk about the layering of instructional designs and the implications for both teaching and practicing instructional design.

    The Centrisms

    Here are some of the phases I see students evolving through as they mature in their theoretic and practical knowledge:

    Media-centrism. Media-centric designs place great emphasis on the constructs related to the instructional medium. The technology itself holds great attraction for new designers. They often construct their designs in the vocabulary of the medium rather than seeing the medium as a plastic and preferably invisible channel for learning interaction (See Norman, 1988; 1999). We are currently experiencing a wave of new media-centric designers due to the accessibility of powerful multimedia tools and large numbers of designers “assigned into” computer-based and Web-based training design. Most of these designers speak in terms of the medium’s constructs (the “page,” the “hyperlink,”, the “site,” etc.) as the major design building blocks. Many struggle as they attempt to apply inadequate thought tools to complex design problems.

    Message-centrism. Realizing that media design building blocks do not automatically lead to effective designs, most designers begin to concentrate on “telling the message better” in order to “get the idea across” or “make it stick.” This is a phase I call message-centrism. Message-centric design places primary importance on message-related constructs—main idea, explanation, line of argument, dramatization, etc.— and employs media constructs secondarily, according to the demands of the message. The media constructs are used, but they are used to serve the needs of better messaging. Better message telling means different things to different designers: providing better illustrations, using animations, wording the message differently, using analogies, or focusing learner attention using attention-focusing questions, emphasis marks, repetition, or increased interactivity.

    Strategy-centrism. Message-centrism is normally followed by a recognition of underlying structural similarities within messages and interactions that cross subject-matter boundaries and that have important instructional implications. This leads to a new viewpoint I call strategy-centric design thinking. Strategy-centrism considers the structured plan of messaging and interaction as a main source of instructional effectiveness. Therefore, the designer’s first attention is to strategic constructs that are appropriate to instruction in categorized varieties of learning. Strategy-centric design can be viewed as the use of rules to governing the delivery of compartmentalized information and interaction elements (Gagne, 1985; Merrill, 1994). This can be a very useful conception for both the designer and the learner, and structured strategy is an important key to logic templating and design automation.

    Model-centrism. Whereas strategy centrism permits the use of instructional experts (Zhang, Gibbons, & Merrill, 1997), it does not lead the designer to design interactive micro-worlds in which instruction can take place through problem solving. This realization leads to model-centered design thinking. Model centering encourages the designer to think first in terms of the system and model constructs that lie at the base of subject-matter knowledge. The designer therefore gives first consideration to identifying, capturing, and representing in interactive form the substance of these constructs. Then to this base of design is added strategy, message, and media constructs. Model-centrism is the common thread running through virtually all new-paradigm instructional approaches (for a review, see Gibbons & Fairweather, 2000). Many current researchers consider learning to be a problem-solving activity (Anderson, 1993; Brown & Palincsar, 1989; Schank, 1994; VanLehn, 1993). If this view is correct, then the designer must also give first preference to decisions about the problems the learner will be asked to solve. A model-centered view prescribes instructional augmentations that support problem solving in the form of coaching and feedback systems, representation systems, control systems, scope dynamics, and embedded didactics (see Gibbons, Fairweather, Anderson, & Merrill, 1997).

    These phases in the maturation of design thinking tend to be encountered by new designers in the same order, and one could make the argument that these phases describe the history of research interests in the field of instructional technology as a whole. A good place to see this trend in cross-section is the articles in the Annual Review of Psychology beginning with the review by Lumsdaine and May (1965) and progressing through subsequent chapters by Anderson (1967); Gagne & Rohwer (1969); Glaser & Resnick (1972); McKeachie (1974); Wittrock & Lumsdaine (1977); Resnick (1981); Gagne & Dick (1983); Pintrich, Cross, Kozma & McKeachie (1986); Snow & Swanson (1992); Voss, Wiley & Carretero (1995); Sandoval (1995); VanLehn (1996); Carroll (1997); Palincsar (1998); and Medin, Lynch & Solomon (2000).

    I am interested in this paper in exploring the roots of this progression. Important clues can be found in design areas outside of instructional design. A provocative statement on design structure is given by Brand (1994) in a description of how buildings are seen by architects and structural engineers. Brand begins by stating that architects see a building as a system of layers rather than as a unitary designed entity. He names six general layers, illustrated in Figure 1 and described below in his own words:

    Figure 1. Layers of building design.
    Figure 1. Layers of building design.

    Brand points out some important implications of the layered view of design:

    1. That layers of a design age at different rates,
    2. That layers must be replaced or modified on different time schedules,
    3. That the layers must be articulated with each other somehow, and
    4. That designs should provide for articulation in such a way that change to one layer entails minimum disruption to the others.

    In work for the Center for Human-Systems Simulation, my colleagues Jon Nelson and Bob Richards and I have applied Brand’s ideas to instructional design (Gibbons, Nelson & Richards, 2000). We have found that instructional designs can indeed be conceived of as multiple layers of decision making with respect to different sets of design constructs, and we find a rough correspondence between the layers and the phases of designer thinking already described. Gibbons, Lawless, Anderson and Duffin (2001) show how layers of a design are compressed at a “convergence zone” with tool constructs that give them real existence and embody them in a product.

    Tables 1 through 7 following this article, summarize what we think are the important layers of an instructional design: model/content, strategy, control, message, representation, media-logic, and management. Each layer is characterized in the tables by the following sets:

    In addition, a layer often corresponds with a set of specialized design skills with its own lore, design heuristics, technical data, measurements, algorithms, and practical considerations. The boundaries of these skills over time tend to harden into lines of labor division, especially as technical sophistication of tools and techniques increases.

    More detailed principles of design layering are outlined in Gibbons, Nelson, and Richards (2000). The purpose of the present paper is to show how design layering influences the designer’s thinking and allows it to change over time into entirely new ways of approaching the design task. The media, message, strategy, and model-centric phases designers experience can be explained as the necessary focus of the designer first and foremost on a particular layer of the design. That is, the designer enters the design at the layer most important to the design or with which the designer is most familiar and comfortable.

    Media-centric designers do not ignore decisions related to other layers, but because they may not yet be fully acquainted with the principles of design at other layers, they naturally think in terms of the structures they do know or can acquire most rapidly—media structures. As designers become aware of principles at other layers through experience and the evaluation of their own designs, focus can shift to the constructs of the different layers: message structurings, strategy structurings, and model and content structurings. Each step of the progression in turn gives the designer a new set of constructs and structuring principles to which to give the most attention, with other layers of the design being determined secondarily, but not ignored.

    Is there a “right” layer priority in designs? Should designers always be counseled to enter the design task with a particular layer in mind? It is not possible to say, because design tasks most often come with constraints attached, and one of those constraints may predetermine a primary focus on a layer. An assignment to create a set of videotapes will lead the designer to pay first and last attention to the media-logic and representation layers, and other layers are forced to comply with the constraint within the limits of the designer’s ingenuity.


    The design layering concept has many implications. In this paper I have explored one of them that explains the maturation in designer thinking over time. In order to move to a new perspective of design it is not necessary to leave older views behind. The new principles added as the designer becomes knowledgeable about each new layer adds to the designer’s range and to the sophistication of the designs that are possible. Further consideration of the layering concept will expand our ability to communicate designs in richer detail, achieve more sophisticated designs, and add to our understanding of the design process itself.

    Table 1. Model/Content Layer Description

    Layer Design Goals
    Common Layer Design Constructs
    To define the units of content segmentation


    To define the method of content capture

    To gather content elements

    To articulate content structures:

    With the Strategy layer

    With the Control layer

    With the Message layer

    With the Representation layer

    With the Logic layer

    With the Management layer


    (Incomplete sample list)




    Production rule

    Working Memory Element







    Task grouping



    Main idea

    Semantic relationship



    Design Processes: Task Analysis, Cognitive Task Analysis, Rule Analysis, Content Analysis, Concept Mapping
    Design/Production Tools: Data base software, Analysis software

    Table 2. Strategy/Event Layer Description

    Layer Design Goals
    Common Layer Design Constructs
    To define event structures (time structures)


    To define event hierarchies

    To define rules for event generation

    To articulate strategy structures:

    With the Content layer

    With the Control layer

    With the Message layer

    With the Representation layer

    With the Logic layer

    With the Management layer


    (Incomplete sample list)



    Information event

    Interaction event


    Instructional period

    Discovery challenge



    Strategy component


    Argument support


    Design Processes: Strategy planning, Problem planning, Challenge formation, Activity planning, Exercise design
    Design/Production Tools: Data base software

    Table 3. Control Layer Description

    Layer Design Goals
    Common Layer Design Constructs
    To define the set of possible user actions


    To define the rules of control availability

    To define the rules for control action

    To define the rules/processes for response

    recognition, parsing, and judging

    To articulate control structures:

    With the Content layer

    With the Strategy layer

    With the Message layer

    With the Representation layer

    With the Logic layer

    With the Management layer


    (Incomplete sample list)


    Menu item

    Administrative control

    Strategy control

    Message control

    Representation control

    Logic control

    Content control

    Forward, Back

    Play, FF, FR, Stop, Pause

    Exit, Quit


    Design Processes: Flow planning, Control walk-through, Diagramming
    Design/Production Tools: Flowcharting, GUI-logic construction authoring systems

    Table 4. Message Layer Description

    Layer Design Goals
    Common Layer Design Constructs
    To define message types


    To define message composition by type

    To define rules for message generation

    To articulate message structures:

    With the Content layer

    With the Strategy layer

    With the Control layer

    With the Representation layer

    With the Logic layer

    With the Management layer


    (Incomplete sample list)


    Main idea



    Discussion block


    Advance organizer

    Primitive message element

    Spatial relationship

    Temporal relationship

    Causal relationship

    Hierarchical relationship




    Response request

    Transition message

    Goal statement



    Database entry

    Coaching message

    Feedback message



    Design Processes: Message design, Strongly related to Strategy design
    Design/Production Tools: Timeline-building tools, Flow diagrams

    Table 5. Representation Layer Description

    Layer Design Goals
    Common Layer Design Constructs
    To select media


    To define media channels

    To define channel synchronizations

    To define representation structures by type

    To select representation production tools

    To match production tool structures

    To define rules display structure

    To define rules for display generation

    To define rules for structure generation

    To define rules for display management

    To articulate representation structures:

    With the Content layer

    With the Strategy layer

    With the Control layer

    With the message layer

    With the Logic layer

    With the Management layer


    (Incomplete sample list)



    Resource file (audio, video)

    Resource file (BMP, JPG, GIF, MPG)

    Headline, Body


    3-D object



    Tag parameter


    Control icon

    Layer (e.g., Photoshop, Dreamweaver)


    Design Processes: Display design, Formatting, Display event sequencing, Media channel synchronization, Media channel assignment
    Design/Production Tools: All content/resource production tools for all media, All layout or formatting tools for all media, Display managers

    Table 6. Logic Layer Description

    Layer Design Goals
    Common Layer Design Constructs
    To define media-logic structures by type


    To define rules to apply logic structures

    To select logic construction tools

    To define segmentation/packaging plan

    To define logic distribution plan (time)

    To articulate logic structures:

    With the Content layer

    With the Strategy layer

    With the Control layer

    With the Message layer

    With the Representation layer

    With the Management layer


    (Incomplete sample list)







    Program object



    Book, object

    Movie, stage, actor

    Object, Method, Data

    Site, Page


    Design Processes: Program design, Program construction
    Design/Production Tools: All logic production tools, Modeling languages (e.g., UML)

    Table 7. Management Layer Description

    Layer Design Goals
    Common Layer Design Constructs
    To define session control rules/procedures


    To define the rules for initiative sharing

    To define transition between events

    To define record keeping and recording

    To define variable-keeping and use

    To define outside communications:

    Host, Peer, Net, Libraries, Databases

    To define data reporting:

    Learner, Instructor, System

    To plan security/privacy policy/provisions

    To plan evaluation activities

    To plan implementation activities

    To plan management activities

    To articulate management structures:

    With the Content layer

    With the Strategy layer

    With the Control layer

    With the Message layer

    With the Representation layer

    With the Logic layer


    (Incomplete sample list)





    Database entry



    Design Processes: Management planning, Implementation planning, Evaluation planning
    Design/Production Tools: Data base software

    Application Exercises

    • Select one centrism and describe its strengths and weaknesses.
    • Examine an online course that you have taken in the past. Identify the elements included in each design layer.


    Anderson, J. R. (1993). Rules of the Mind. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

    Anderson, R. C. (1967). Educational Psychology. Annual Review of Psychology, 18:103-64.

    Brand, S. (1994). How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built. New York: Penguin.

    Brown, A. L. & Palincsar, A. S. (1989). Guided, Cooperative Learning and Individual Knowledge Acquisition. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, Learning, and Instruction: Essays In Honor of Robert Glaser. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

    Carroll, J. M. (1997). Human-Computer Interaction: Psychology as a Science of Design. Annual Review of Psychology,48: 61-83.

    Gagne, R. M. (1985). The Conditions of Learning (4th ed.). New York: Holt Rinehart & Winston.

    Gagne, R. M. & Dick, W. (1983). Instructional Psychology. Annual Review of Psychology, 34:261-295.

    Gagne, R. M. & Rohwer, W. D. (1969). Instructional Psychology. Annual Review of Psychology, 21:381-418.

    Gibbons, A. S. & Fairweather, P. G. (2000). Computer-Based Instruction. In S. Tobias and J. D. Fletcher (Eds.), Training and Retraining: A Handbook for Business, Industry, Government, and the Military. New York: Macmillan Reference USA.

    Gibbons, A. S., Lawless, K., Anderson, T. A. & Duffin, J. (2001). The Web and Model-Centered Instruction. In B. Khan (Ed.), Web-Based Training. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

    Gibbons, A. S., Fairweather, P. G., Anderson, T. A. & Merrill, M. D. (1997). Simulation and Computer-Based Instruction: A Future View. In C. R. Dills and A. J. Romiszowski (Eds.), Instructional Development Paradigms.Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

    Gibbons, A. S., Nelson, J. & Richards, R. (2000). The Architecture of Instructional Simulation: A Design for Tool Construction. Center for Human-System Simulation Technical Report, Idaho Falls, ID: Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

    Glaser, R. & Resnick, L. B. (1972). Instructional Psychology. Annual Review of Psychology, 24:207-276.

    Lumsdaine, A. A.& May, M. A. (1965). Mass Communication and Educational Media. Annual Review of Psychology,17:475-534.

    McKeachie, W. J. (1974). Instructional Psychology. Annual Review of Psychology, 26:161-193.

    Medin, D. L., Lynch, E. B., & Solomon, K. O. (2000). Are There Kinds of Concepts? Annual Review of Psychology,47:513-539.

    Merrill, M. D. (1994). Instructional Design Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

    Norman, D. A. (1988). The Psychology of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books.

    Norman, D. A. (1999). The Invisible Computer. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Palincsar, A. S. (1998). Social Constructivist Perspectives on Teaching and Learning. Annual Review of Psychology,49:345-375.

    Pintrich, P. R., Cross, D. R., Kozma, R. B. & McKeachie, W. J. (1986). Instructional Psychology. Annual Review of Psychology, 37:611-651.

    Resnick, L. B. (1981). Instructional Psychology. Annual Review of Psychology, 32:659-704.

    Sandoval, J. (1995). Teaching in Subject Matter Areas: Science. Annual Review of Psychology, 46:355-374.

    Schank, R. C. (1994). Inside Case-Based Explanation. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

    Snow, R. E. & Swanson, J. (1992). Instructional Psychology: Aptitude, Adaptation, and Assessment. Annual Review of Psychology, 43:583-626.

    VanLehn, K. (1993). Problem Solving and Cognitive Skill Acquisition. In M. I. Posner (Ed.), Foundations of Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    VanLehn, K. (1996). Cognitive Skill Acquisition. Annual Review of Psychology, 47: 513-539.

    Voss, J. F., Wiley, J. & Carretero, M. (1995). Acquiring Intellectual Skills. Annual Review of Psychology, 46:155-181.

    Wittrock, M. C. & Lumsdaine, A. A. (1977). Instructional Psychology. Annual Review of Psychology, 28:417-459.

    Zhang, J., Gibbons, A. S. & Merrill, M. D. (1997). Automating the Design of Adaptive and Self-Improving Instruction. In C. R. Dills and A. J. Romiszowski (Eds.), Instructional Development Paradigms. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

    Further Resources

    For more information on Andrew Gibbons’ theory of design layers, see the following resources:

    • Gibbons, A. S. & Rogers, P. C. (2009). The architecture of instructional theory. In C. M. Reigeluth & A. Carr-Chellman (Eds.), Instructional-design theories and models, Volume III: Building a common knowledge base. New York: Routledge.
    • Gibbons, A. S., & Langton, M. B. (2016). The application of layer theory to design: the control layer. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 28(2), 97-135.
    • Gibbons, A. S. (2013). An architectural approach to instructional design. Routledge.
    Architectural Approach to Instructional Design
    question mark Please complete this short survey to provide feedback on this chapter: http://bit.ly/DesignLayers
    Andrew Gibbons

    Brigham Young University

    Dr. Andrew Gibbons is a former Brigham Young University (BYU) department chair of Instructional Psychology and Technology. Dr Gibbons has contributed to dozens of books and research articles in the field of instructional technology and is the author of the book An Architectural Approach to Instructional Design. His contributions to his field also include his development of the theory of model-centered instruction. Prior to his position at BYU, he taught and researched instructional technology at Utah State University from 1993-2003. Dr Gibbons received his PhD from BYU in Instructional Psychology.

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