The impact of visual collaboration on the future of teamwork

Visual collaboration tools are re-shaping the way teams work.
Browse Canva’s visual collaboration tools
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Say you were at a virtual leadership workshop. Which are you more likely to pay attention to? A presentation in which someone is speaking at you the whole time with their camera off, sharing boring slides with too many words? Or would you prefer one with illustrations, polls, and other interesting diagrams?

Scientific research(opens in a new tab or window) says the one with visuals would be more engaging. Visual aids are one of the best tools to ensure your message is engaging and memorable.

For example, this TechCrunch article(opens in a new tab or window) is more engaging to those reading it when it is presented in a slide format(opens in a new tab or window) on Linkedin. This style of visual communication(opens in a new tab or window) can be emulated in your external and internal communications.

The first page of the slideshow which has the beginning of the article: title of the article, author and publication date, an image of two dollar bills shaking hands, and the first paragraph of the article.

Rather than linking off to the article itself, this Linkedin post allows the viewer to stay engaged within the platform via a 7 page slideshow that breaks up and highlights points from the TechCrunch article.

As more of us move into remote work, team collaboration needs a boost. Not only do we have fewer face-to-face interactions to keep us engaged, but we also have fewer serendipitous collaborative opportunities.

That means we have to revamp our remote meetings, presentations, and workshops with visual collaboration. Visual collaboration tools(opens in a new tab or window) can help you increase team productivity, innovation, and efficiency.

For this article, we asked team leaders across various industries to share their insights on how they successfully leveraged visual design tools to streamline collaboration and reach their business goals.

Defining visual collaboration

The term visual collaboration has become a buzzword without a clear definition. Vendors with vastly differing capabilities use the term to describe their services. This can be incredibly confusing for those who are looking for a tool to improve their teamwork.

At Canva, we define visual collaboration as the use of visuals (like diagrams, maps, timelines, or other designs) to convey complex concepts and tackle challenges together. Visual collaboration tools should improve your workflows such that team members can align on ideas and discover innovative solutions to their problems.

The benefits of visual collaboration

Visual collaboration is a method of organizing teamwork through scalable, interactive canvases. These canvases include virtual whiteboards(opens in a new tab or window), presentation slides(opens in a new tab or window), or other types of collaborative docs(opens in a new tab or window). Their function is to promote team agility and creativity for various workflows and team needs.

Using visuals to collaborate allows team members to easily communicate complex concepts, process information quickly, and stay aligned. Unlike solely verbal communication or pages of written paragraphs, visual collaboration tends to be non-linear.

Even something as simple as a timeline can be more effective when presented in a unique visual way rather than just discussing dates. Whether you’re visualizing systems using a UML diagram(opens in a new tab or window), using mind maps(opens in a new tab or window) in a brainstorm, adding sticky-note ideas(opens in a new tab or window) to a whiteboard, or putting all ideas on affinity diagrams(opens in a new tab or window), the ideas conveyed are spread out across your canvas.

A Canva planning timeline to create frameworks organized by years.

In the market of docs, the collaboration process typically occurs in a linear space that only accommodates text. This could lead you to falsely believe your solutions should present themselves by the time you reach the end of the page. On the other hand, an online whiteboard or Canva doc(opens in a new tab or window) allows for a variety of layouts and is an inherently more dimensional digital workspace. It allows you to easily make text more visually appealing, which can make your team more curious, asking questions and thinking differently than they otherwise would.

For example, in Canva docs you can easily add images or charts and embed other Canva designs like presentations.

Visuals are also better equipped to handle data evaluation, ideation, and project planning. With a visual collaboration platform, teams can take an ambiguous challenge and make it more concrete while leaving space for curiosity and room to explore. For example, if your ambiguous challenge is to increase customer engagement, your team might focus on ways to educate about your product.

Overall, the benefits of visual collaboration include the following:

  • Promotes clearer communication and enhances memory
  • Keeps team members more engaged and motivated
  • Increases efficiency and acts as a single source of truth to refer to (especially for asynchronous, remote teams)
  • Provides a better overview at a glance for all stakeholders and team members
  • Helps your team stay aligned
  • Speeds up innovation and problem-solving

Collaborating effectively with other (creative) teams

Our team set down with professionals across a wide range of industries and backgrounds, to discuss how their teams are effectively using collaboration during the design process:

Examples of visual collaboration at work

Visual collaboration(opens in a new tab or window) can be applied to almost any workplace activity. But there are a few use cases that really thrive when visual collaboration techniques are implemented. These are workshops, brainstorms, presentations, and virtual meetings. For each of these collaborative activities, whiteboards(opens in a new tab or window), diagramming(opens in a new tab or window), and/or presentation slides(opens in a new tab or window) tend to be the most effective tools.

Workshops

If you plan to run a remote workshop, the first step is to set up the visual tool you’ll be using to collaborate. Ideally, this is a virtual whiteboard(opens in a new tab or window) that everyone has access to.

Tip: Use Canva for brainstorming(opens in a new tab or window) to discover innovative ideas with your team.

Taylor Coil, product strategist at New Haircut(opens in a new tab or window), uses a digital whiteboard to run workshops with her clients. These workshops are intended to help clients discover new ideas or strategies that propel their business forward. Each workshop is slightly different to meet the needs of the client, but the general activities and conversation starters are often the same.

The activities are separated into various sections on the whiteboard, with sticky notes below each one for the participants to fill in. As Taylor explains the way the workshop will run, she adds examples under each section.

One section might be a “Six Thinking Hats exercise(opens in a new tab or window),” while another focuses on the strengths and weaknesses of past projects.

Six columns, each with a different color hat at the top; the columns are labeled with a topic, and sticky notes with relevant ideas are added to each column.

Once everyone has added their ideas, Taylor leads the group through a discussion and voting process. During the discussion, Taylor regroups the sticky notes according to themes or patterns. Visualizing the patterns makes it easier for the group to identify interesting trends and to build off of existing ideas that will work for their needs.

Brainstorms

When it comes to visually collaborating, brainstorming is a process that’s similar to workshops. Brainstorms often begin with a prompt, followed by the use of whiteboards(opens in a new tab or window) to build out a mind map(opens in a new tab or window), diagram(opens in a new tab or window), or table(opens in a new tab or window).

Sarah Edelman, senior director of marketing at Homie, uses a whiteboard to brainstorm for marketing campaigns. They typically start by typing the prompt or problem at the top of the whiteboard.

A Canva whiteboard titled “Launch Ideas” has a prompt at the top that reads: “How are we going to get 10,000 new users by Q4?” The whiteboard is covered in sticky notes, images, and other designs.

Next, they do a 10-minute “quiet session” in which each team member “brain dumps” their ideas onto sticky notes. Without any specific order or constraints, the team members are free to be as random and wild as they would like. In fact, Sarah encourages it!

After the 10-minute session is up, everyone reads through each other’s ideas, sparking excitement as collaborative opportunities arise. Similar ideas are grouped together until a few popular patterns emerge. Visual collaboration during this brainstorming exercise helps prevent groupthink. It lays out all the possible ideas next to each other and allows the team to efficiently find similarities and pairings that lead to an innovative combination of ideas. Then the team can chip away at what's realistic and within budget.

Once they have narrowed down to one idea, they add a new page to the whiteboard to begin the brainstorming process for executing the idea. The team suggests project steps, owners, timelines, and other to-do’s. This whiteboard now becomes a living document for the team to update as they work through the project. If any new team members or stakeholders join the project, it’s easy to share the whiteboard design(opens in a new tab or window) to get them up to speed.

Presentations

Whether you’re creating a presentation for an internal team meeting, a pitch deck for stakeholders, or a strategic plan for a customer, visual collaboration can also be leveraged in presentations.

To present and collaborate on campaign strategies with clients, Lindsay Sayre, director of strategy at Reel Axis(opens in a new tab or window), sets up a campaign hub using a virtual whiteboard tool. Lindsay and her team create a campaign blueprint, or a visual representation of the campaign, to present a strategy and project plan to a customer. The hub also consists of all assets and information related to the customer’s campaign.

Rather than setting up a meeting, Reel Axis often sends its initial plan to the customer as a recorded presentation(opens in a new tab or window). Not only does this asynchronous collaboration save them a lot of time, but the visual representation also gives customers a chance to familiarize themselves with the recommended strategy in an easily digestible way.

A screenshot of Canva’s Presentations YouTube playlist including videos on how to collaborate, create a talking presentation, maximize audience interaction, and more.

Learn everything you need to know about using Canva for presentations

Once the customer has reviewed the strategy, they can leave feedback directly on the images, diagrams, or other visuals within the presentation. This keeps all feedback in one place and allows other team members and stakeholders to stay informed on new changes.

Virtual meetings

Implementing visual collaboration into your virtual meetings can increase engagement and participation. Visuals also get people up to speed efficiently. Even if someone joins a meeting partway through, a clear visual summary can quickly communicate what they’ve missed.

Questions to consider when planning the purpose of visual collaboration in your virtual meeting:

  • Is it for generating ideas and designs from previous notes or sketches?
  • Is it to mature a moderately developed idea into a more complete and coherent version?
  • Is the idea mostly done but could use improvement or refinement from an audience of peers?
  • Will you add ideas and designs in real time with your team? Or will you present a finished product that you adjust as your discussion progresses?

If you plan to make adjustments in real time, keep it simple and use basic drawings or design elements to convey your ideas. This helps maintain clarity and is much more efficient than trying to produce a more complex or polished version of your idea.

Simple visual collaboration techniques are useful to move a project along, even when building incredibly complex systems. During a virtual meeting, Vladimir Arutyunov, a robotics engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory(opens in a new tab or window), doesn’t expect to fully capture the complexity of everything at once on the screen. Instead, he breaks down the design of a complex system into diagrams that represent isolated moving parts and functional relationships.

In general, Vladimir prepares his materials, usually presentation slides, ahead of meetings. These materials include anything, from outlining how a system works to sketches of a design concept or a Gantt Chart(opens in a new tab or window) to convey task and schedule plans.

Examples of Canva’s Gantt chart templates that have different font styles, colors, and design elements.

These visual elements ensure everybody can see and understand where the discussion is heading, keeping everyone on the same page and able to contribute effectively. During meetings, Vladimir’s slides or charts are iterated on and revised in real-time collaboration as the team discovers new ideas or strategies.

Visual collaboration best practices from team leads

Effective visual collaboration occurs when your team builds the right habits into their workflow. It may take some trial and error before this type of collaboration becomes second nature. Whether you are doing project management work, creating a roadmap(opens in a new tab or window) for a project, developing a new system for ideation, or strategizing your product promotion using a business model canvas(opens in a new tab or window), keep the following tips in mind.

Be consistent

Whenever possible, use visual collaboration tools in your work. Over time, you will get used to the feel and functionality of these tools and come to rely on them to do your best work.

Moreover, use these tools to maintain consistency in your visual communication(opens in a new tab or window). Develop a visual language or glossary that is easy to follow and replicate.

For example, Taylor uses the same “ingredients” (activities, prompts, games, or conversation starters) to build out a “recipe” (or structure) for each workshop she facilitates.

Keep it organized

You should always have a single source of truth for team members and stakeholders to reference.

To maintain version control, do not allow duplicate copies of your design to be made. A library of information is especially important for asynchronous teams, so keep all assets easily accessible in organized folders(opens in a new tab or window).

In Canva, properly managing and organizing content in shared folders will make all the difference in your team’s collaborative work:

For Lindsay and her team, it is essential to have one master working document where they collect all feedback in one place. In this way, they don’t have to make sure they’re looking at the latest version of the project or hunt for feedback in other places, like email or Slack.

Maintain equal participation

A moderator or facilitator must ensure that everyone conveys their thoughts and opinions. In larger groups, some team members may feel less comfortable contributing, but it is crucial to encourage participation in order to reap the benefits of team collaboration.

Keep in mind that different people like to work differently. For some, they may feel less pressure if they can populate the whiteboard with ideas on their own time and without the influence of their teammates. For others, thinking of ideas on the spot or in collaboration with coworkers is much more energizing.

Pay attention to group size

Bigger groups tend to collaborate better synchronously than asynchronously. If you have a very large group, break them up into smaller ones. Many video conferencing tools like Zoom make it easy to put participants into “break-out rooms” for a designated time period.

According to the book The Art of Gathering(opens in a new tab or window) by Priya Parker, the magic number for groups is about 12. For smaller groups, it is best to have a minimum of four people collaborating.

Emphasize quantity over quality

It’s important for your team to be open-minded and flexible. Encourage differing opinions and set expectations that there will be many iterations of each idea. A great rule of thumb from Sarah and her team at Homie is: “no idea is too wild.” This encourages people not to self-edit and to contribute as many ideas as possible. Quantity over quality is important during a brainstorming session.

Adopt a “yes, and” mentality

Even if an idea does not feel executable or within budget, you should still keep it on the board. Saying “no” too quickly can stifle innovation and prevent you from building on each other’s ideas. Instead, do what Homie does and use a “yes, and” approach.

“You can always find ways to pare down great ideas to make them more realistic and executable, but it's essential to be as open-minded as possible when starting out,” says Sarah.

For example, the first idea might be: “I think we should deliver teal-colored cookies to every single customer's home to thank them for using Homie.” Building on that, the second idea might be: “Yes, AND we should partner with the Girl Scouts to have them deliver them to save costs in exchange for them raising awareness around cookie sales."

Templatize your visual collaboration layouts for next time

After a successful experience with visual collaboration, save your whiteboards, presentations, meeting minutes(opens in a new tab or window), or other documents as templates for the next time you work on a similar project. This will save you the time and effort it takes to create something you already know works well for your team.

When you use Canva to create your visual collaboration designs, you can easily turn your designs into templates. Then save it to a visual collaboration templates folder. Next time your team needs to start working, they know where to look and how to get started. Pretty soon, visual collaboration will be the default mode of operation to solve your biggest challenges and reach your team goals!

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