Visual collaboration: What it is & how to get started

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
July 24, 2023
A banner of text that reads: Work better together. Anywhere. Everywhere.
Visual collaboration: What it is & how to get started
Written by 
Jim Kalbach
July 24, 2023

Can you imagine playing chess without the chess board? In a scene from the hit mini-series The Queen’s Gambit, the leading characters engage in a game by calling out moves verbally. Very few people can actually play chess in their heads — the board helps players to offload cognitive processing of possible moves by visualizing patterns. It’s a critical part of the problem solving process.

Visual collaboration works in the same way. By offloading cognitive processing with visual patterns, teams are able to work more efficiently, get aligned more quickly, and overcome the challenges that traditional collaboration fails to solve. 

This is the power of visual collaboration. Our brains are hardwired to process visual information differently. It literally helps you think better and faster. 

Just imagine the productivity boost of your whole team is solving problems together visually.

What is visual collaboration, anyway?

​​Visual collaboration harnesses the collective intelligence and creativity of a team through the use of visual elements. It uses visual techniques, tools, and platforms to facilitate collaboration, idea generation, problem-solving, and decision-making. It helps teams ‌break free from the limitations of traditional text-based communication and tap into the visual nature of human thinking to unlock new levels of engagement, understanding, and productivity.

Don’t worry — visual collaboration isn’t about artistic ability. You don’t have to be able to draw to visualize your imagination and collaborate. Simply encoding information on two differently-colored sticky notes is an act of visualization. So when we say “visual collaboration,” we mean that to apply to everyone, without exception — including you.

If you’ve ever written on a whiteboard in the office or used shapes in PowerPoint or colored information on sticky notes, you were leveraging visual thinking. Teams naturally collaborate visually with project plan overviews, Kanban board, flow charts, Venn diagrams, and more. 

Why? Because we can work better together when we share our thoughts in pictures and shapes, and “see what I mean” goes from a metaphor to reality.

Common challenges of traditional collaboration

  • Participation imbalances: In many team settings, a few individuals tend to dominate the conversation, leaving others with limited opportunities to contribute their ideas and perspectives.
  • Organizational silos: Silos can emerge within organizations, hindering collaboration across departments or teams. This siloed mindset can impede the flow of information and limit cross-functional collaboration.
  • Disconnection: Geographically dispersed teams or remote work setups can create a sense of disconnection and make it difficult for team members to establish strong relationships and foster a sense of camaraderie.
  • Skills gap: Not all team members possess the same level of expertise or skills in areas such as brainstorming, problem-solving, or using frameworks to facilitate visual thinking. This skill gap can impact collaboration and hinder the team's ability to work together effectively.
  • Collaboration overload: With the increasing number of tools and channels available for communication, collaboration can become overwhelming, leading to information overload, inefficiency, and reduced productivity.

How visual collaboration solves the problems of traditional collaboration

While the benefits of visual collaboration are far-reaching, here are some key characteristics and benefits:

  • Empower team members: The ability to express thoughts visually isn’t just fast and efficient, it also subverts hierarchy: all collaborators are on equal footing, from the newbie intern right up to the CEO. The ability to visualize is empowering. Giving everyone the power of a pen, evens out the voices in the conversation.
  • Align your team more quickly: A shared understanding of the topic at head increases when thoughts are visualized, moving from “listen to what I’m saying” to “see what I mean” in an instant. 
  • Invite participation: Diverse perspectives emerge from visual collaboration because everyone can join in. People that are often reticent in meetings and workshops are suddenly the “loudest” in the visual conversation, contributing valuable thoughts. Getting people to mobilize their thoughts and contribute is key in building a culture of imagination. 
  • Switch contexts rapidly: It turns out that the human visual system is the most developed of our senses. We can find patterns and make sense of visual information very quickly. This also means we can re-find our place faster after being distracted when working visually.
  • Connect and have fun together: When you’re a part of a team, you feel it. That sense of camaraderie, mutual trust and accountability, and the strength of being a part of something greater — that’s connection. Working visually draws people together with a playful, fun style of interaction that removes fear and builds trust at the same time.

Why is visual collaboration so effective?

Teams and organizations are often confronted with complex business challenges that we try to talk through or document as bullet points in a PowerPoint deck. Why? Why not get the pieces out on the table to solve the challenges, just as we would playing chess? 

Visualizing thoughts makes them tangible — a type of prototype for your imagination. That makes it a whole lot easier for teams to share mindspace and build on each others’ ideas. 

In this sense, visual tools are like “idea colliders.” In physics, innovation happens when you smash  particles together. With imagination, we need the right technology and techniques to combine and re-combine ideas in unique ways. 

Visual collaboration is ultimately about sense-making — understanding the world around us, understanding business opportunities, and understanding each other's thoughts and ideas. The whole is indeed more than the sum of its parts.

How to foster a culture of visual collaboration with your team

Integrating visual thinking into your team's daily practice requires a step-by-step approach. By starting with your own foundation, familiarizing your team, incorporating visuals into rituals, collaborating in real-time, and tailoring the approach, you'll create a strong visual collaboration culture that enhances creativity, communication, and collaboration within your team.

1. Create your own foundation of visual thinking

Start incorporating visual thinking into your personal workflow. Build out tasks in a dynamic to-do list, plan a project, or collect feedback from team members. The more you practice, the more comfortable and proficient you'll become in using visuals to communicate and solve problems effectively.

Mural templates to help you get started

2. Familiarize your team with visual thinking

Introduce your team to the concept of visual collaboration and its potential benefits in a regular team meeting. Introduce a component that includes visual collaboration. Anything from a brainstorming session, a collaborative mind map, or even just taking meeting notes would work. This helps to showcase real-life examples of its effectiveness, and outlining how it can enhance team collaboration and productivity.

Templates to introduce visual thinking to your team

3. Bring visual collaboration into weekly team rituals

Begin making visual collaboration a regular part of work within the team. Conduct regular icebreakers and warmups, conduct team standups, align on current priorities, or review recent projects with a sailboat retrospective. This visual approach will help team members see patterns and connections that might not have been as obvious otherwise.

Templates for regular visual collaboration

4. Start collaborating visually with your team in real-time

Introduce real-time visual collaboration sessions with your team. Schedule dedicated sessions where team members can come together virtually or in person to work on projects visually. During these sessions, encourage team members to actively participate, share ideas, and contribute to visual artifacts.

Templates for real-time visual collaboration

5. Tailor visual collaboration to you and your team’s needs

Now that your team is familiar with visual collaboration in your workflows and meetings, look for methods and processes that could be standardized with a template. For example, you can create templates for repeated workflows across strategy and planning, brainstorming and ideation, discovery and analysis, project management, team meetings and engagements, and so much more.

Learn how to create a template in Mural

Visual collaboration examples: See it in action

Zapier turns insight into action with visualization

At Zapier, everyone works toward the same objectives, but it’s up to each team how they execute on those objectives. Senior product manager Richard Enlow and his team turned to user research to chart their path forward.

When his teams conduct user research, they bring raw user feedback from a variety of sources into a mural, making it easier to identify patterns, form groupings, and share reactions. It’s this visual work that transforms the raw data into critical insights — and with the insights alongside the original research quotes, everything is ready to share with the downstream stakeholders on the marketing and product teams.

Enlow also leverages user journey mapping and service blueprinting to determine opportunities for improving customer experience and planning new features. By visualizing data in these frameworks, his whole team can determine gaps in the product or experience that need to be tackled.

Working visually is key to getting alignment. As Richard told us, “We can ensure that the decisions that we’re making are the right decisions,  for both our company and our users.”

How SAP uses visual collaboration for client engagements

The North America pre-sales discovery team at SAP visualizes their conversations with prospective clients in real time. They shared their notes in real time with customers as they were being taken within a set of predetermined, color-coded categories. 

Sometimes that’s all it takes: A few columns of color-coding sticky notes leads to many benefits. In this case, SAP’s customers feel more involved in the conversation and “listened to,” strengthening their relationship to SAP. But also, sales teams can better understand customer needs and have fewer corrections later.

Related: Create your own service blueprint with the service blueprint template from Mural

Bring visual collaboration to your teams and organization

Integrating visual collaboration into your team or organization’s workflows requires patience, experimentation, and continuous improvement. Following these steps can make the process more gradual and natural:

  1. Create your own foundation of visual thinking
  2. Introduce your team to visual thinking
  3. Bring visual collaboration to weekly team rituals
  4. Start collaborating visually with your team
  5. Tailor visual collaboration to you and your team’s needs

By gradually incorporating visual practices and adapting them to the specific needs of your team and work environment, you can unlock the full potential of visual collaboration in remote and hybrid settings.

Unlock visual collaboration in your team with Mural

Mural is the visual work platform that allows all kinds of teams to do better work together — from anywhere. Team members get aligned faster with templates, prompts, and proven methods that guide them to quickly solve any problem. They can gather their ideas and feedback in one spot, allowing them to see the big picture of any project and act decisively. 

That’s what happens when you change not just where, but how you work.

Get started with the free, forever plan with Mural to start collaborating with your team.

About the authors

About the authors

Jim Kalbach

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in innovation, design, and the future of work. He is currently Chief Evangelist at Mural, the leading visual work platform.