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You Don't Have to Be a Designer to Solve Problems Visually

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
August 11, 2017

MURAL is not just for designers. Anyone can work through problems visually, regardless of your role or type of work.

"But I’m not a visual thinker.”

We hear that a lot, and we get it. Some people feel uncomfortable drawing or they lack confidence to work visually. But have no fear: solving problems visually has nothing to do with artistic talent. And MURAL makes visualization easy for anyone.

For instance, Kelly Cooper, a Digital Strategist with EY, uses MURAL to create large, interactive displays for workshop facilitation. She says, “MURAL lets me work like a designer without having to be one.”

All you need are a few basic shapes and colors to get started, and you too can be an expert visual problem solver.


Basic Building Blocks

The reason MURAL facilitates visual thinking is because it’s an open canvas. You can add your thoughts in different ways. Start with the basics, and layer information as it comes to you.

1. Get your thoughts out in text

The basic building blocks in MURAL are words. Use sticky notes to get the concepts out of your mind and onto the canvas. Use language to capture the different aspects of the situation. The image below shows how a team might get started brainstorming around a given topic.  


2. Enhance with images, icons and color

Take advantage of the digital medium. Add photos and images to your problem mapping and show related thoughts with color coding. Use MURAL's integrated image search or upload your own photos.

The brainstorming shown in the image below gets richer as the team adds images, elements and color to it.


3. Show relationships with areas, arrows and shapes

Help tell the story with lines and shapes. Visualize flows, results and highlight important points. You can start to make better sense of the brainstorming once you group and relate ideas, as shown below.


4. Supplement ideas with links and documents

Connect your thoughts to others with links and documents. Tie in other sources of information, and provide a call to action right in the mural. You can see how the team linked to helpful resources in the image below.


MURAL isn’t just a place to get your thoughts out, but also gather information from a range of sources and bring it all together.

That’s it. It actually can be that easy. With these basic elements, you can represent any problem visually, individually or as a team. Once you see it all in one place, you can begin making sense of the information in new ways.

Keep in mind that spatial arrangement also matters, so where information is placed means something. Arranging the elements of your story left to right suggests a chronology in time. Placing content from the top down might show hierarchy.

Try different arrangements in MURAL to capture different perspectives.

Advantages Of Visual Problem Solving

One design principle we follow at MURAL is helping our customers “free up brain space”, as visualizing your work literally helps your brain function better.

For instance, here’s what world-renowned neuroscientist Anjan Chatterjee told us in an interview:

“We have a limited working memory; we can only hold a few bits of information in mind at any one time. Externalizing them offloads working memory demands, and allows us to see relationships and combinations of relationships. An external spatial display compensates for an internal capacity limitation.”

Our brains are hardwired to think visually. MURAL helps you get there quicker, no matter where you team is.

Specifically, visualizing your thoughts helps in three primary ways:

1. Demonstrating knowledge on a topic

If you can visualize a problem or topic, chances are you understand it really well. In fact, the process of working something out visually can deepen your comprehension of that subject matter.

2. Finding hidden solutions

Placing ideas next to each other shows new relationships between them. Literally connect the dots by drawing lines between elements.

3. Collaborating better as a team

Everyone on your team has a different interpretation of your goals and mission. Getting your thoughts out of your head and into a mural lets you and your team build a common understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish. Avoid churn and friction with your colleagues by getting on the same page, visually.

MURAL is great for brainstorming and practicing design thinking. But there’s a whole lot more you can do with it.

Here are just some of visual uses we’ve seen our customers using MURAL for:

1. Agile and Development

Product managers and engineers at one software producer regularly use MURAL to plan development cycles. They map out epics and do user story mapping before they dig into their Agile sprints. Read more about how HMH use MURAL for User Story Mapping here.


2. Strategy and business design

A partner at a large bank uses MURAL regularly to creatively map and generate strategies and new business opportunities, e.g., with integrated tools like the business model canvas. Or use the integrated Strategy Blueprint to run collaborative session on strategy creation, as shown in the image below.


3. Event Planning

Ruud Janssen developed the Event Model Canvas and uses it in MURAL to plan large-scale events for organizations around the world. You can find the Event Model Canvas in the frameworks section of MURAL, or try our own lightweight event planning template.


4. Instruction and workshops

Michael Dain at Northwestern University uses MURAL to teach his online college course. Instead of creating a presentation deck for each class session, he creates a mural where students can then comment and contribute to the dialog online.


HR specialists in a large consulting firm use MURAL to show org charts and relate internal subject matter expertise to trends in technology. Finance managers use MURAL to map out spending strategies and gather data for financial reporting.

We’ve even found customers using MURAL for personal use, like planning weddings, moves and vacations, or even mapping out family trees.

We’d love to hear how you use MURAL to solve your problems visually! Contact us at


  • Dan Roam, “Back of the Napkin”
  • Jeff Patton, “User Story Mapping”

About the author

About the authors

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim Kalbach is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in customer experience, experience design, digital transformation, and strategy.