I’ve Joined MURAL! And Here’s Why…

Photo of an assortment of MURAL branded swag, including the materials needed to make yerba mate tea.
MURAL new hire welcome kit. Photo by Justin McCullough

I have strong beliefs, you might even say convictions, about how certain ways of working can make the world a better place. Consider this passage, from the final paragraph of the final chapter of my book Figure It Out: Getting From Information to Understanding.

“From confusing parking signs to dynamic, systemic issues, such as our present climate crisis, there is much to be learned, discovered, and understood. And understood not just by individuals or organizations, but by all of us, working together — connecting — in diverse and unpredictable ways. Imagine a world where understanding keeps pace with new information, where we all work and learn and play together.”

It’s an aspirational ending for an epic book about how we work with information as a raw material. Think of pictures, stories, metaphors, how we interact with information, and so on. Rather than give in to the “too much information” narrative, Karl (my co-author) and I discuss the various ways that we—as human creatures—can work with information to create understanding. Needless to say, visual thinking plays a big part in our narrative. And by the time you reach the end of our book, we’re essentially backing into facilitation, or ways to create just enough structure so that many people can work together to, well, figure it out!

That’s the book.

And if you’ve followed what I'm trying to do with The Mighty Minds Club, you see a natural continuation of this arc: Let’s take all of these ideas written about in the book and explore how they show up in the world as ‘things to think with’, which includes canvases, cards decks, simulations, questions for reflection, and so on. I've seen firsthand the profound power of these tools to bring people into dialogue around difficult topics. Consider:

That’s Mighty Minds.

Logo for the Mighty Minds Club
Logo for the Mighty Minds Club

Let’s go back in time…

If we dig through my older presentations, you can see me talking about ‘playful, visual, interactions.’

Slide from a presentation, with words such as visual imagery, metaphors, playful interactions, and delight.
Slide from a presentation, with words such as visual imagery, metaphors, playful interactions, and delight.
From my 2013 presentation “Ideas You Can Play With

And if we roll the clock back to my earliest days as a high school teacher (we're talking waaaay back!), even then I tried to be more ‘guide on the side’ than ‘sage on the stage’, creating fun, playful challenges that let students figure things out for themselves. And I placed an emphasis on visual communications. 😉

Oh, and I almost left out my personal mission statement:

To make learning the hard stuff fun, by making things to think with and spaces for generative play.

See the pattern?

In all of this is a constant theme: Learning and discovery through playful, visual collaboration. I want to make the world a better place, by up-leveling our collective abilities to wrestle with and make sense of complex information, to help us all get from information to understanding (and realize the positive outcomes that follow from a place of deeper understanding).

That’s my perspective.

I share all this as context for some exciting professional news: I’ve found a place that shares these views on better ways of working, in fact, that’s part of their mission; the visual thinking, the playfulness, collaboration, facilitating structures — all of it!

Animated gif of dancing baby Groot, from the movie Guardians of the Galaxy
Animated gif of dancing baby Groot, from the movie Guardians of the Galaxy

Where, you might ask? (If you didn’t read the title! 😉)

I’m excited to announce that I’ve joined MURAL, the “digital workspace for visual collaboration.”

Screenshot of MURAL being used in a prioritization exercise
Screenshot of MURAL being used in a prioritization exercise
People using MURAL in prioritization exercise.

Yep! This MURAL:

MURAL logo
MURAL logo

Everyone I’ve met so far is amazing — the kinds of people you’re excited to work with. The product team is one of the healthiest I’ve been privileged to work with. The company values, processes, transparent knowledge sharing — I’m feeling great about all the things. And on a personal note, I’m excited to learn more about Argentinian culture; while we’re very much a global company, the company founders are all from or live in Buenos Aires (hence, the yerba mate tea in the cover picture!).

More on this move and what it means in a moment; first more personal ramblings! Let me catch you up on the last two years…

The last few years…

In Nov 2019, I parted ways with my then employer and went to strike out on my own again. Through some fortuitous connections, I was able to lead more workshops (focused on self-awareness) and consult with an L&D team to help plan and structure their training rollout. And then… COVID. 👀

In the Summer of 2020, I launched The Mighty Minds Club, with the goal of bringing people together to share simple tools for complex topics. While there were some longer term financial aspirations, I really just wanted to see if there were other people interested in these same topics.

In all this, I’ve felt free, and alive. Working for yourself brings a kind of agency that’s hard to come by when you are employed by someone else. And throughout 2020, for all the struggles (and there were many!), I felt blessed at having the chance to explore a number of topics and projects that I found personally interesting. This shift to training (online and off) also helped me to avoid a difficult career decision: Did I want to continue as a designer, or move (formally) into some other job role? And what might that role even be?

Let me unpack this tension…

For a few years now, I’ve struggled to fit into traditional design roles—or most roles for that matter. No surprise—I’m a bit of a misfit! Candidly, I’ve wondered whether I would stay ‘in’ design, or not. If you look at my career, through writings and talks, I've always tried to look ahead, at what's next. I've also looked outward, at what design is really all about—and what it’s always been about. This perspective can start to alienate you from ‘typical’ concerns.

In recent years, this perspective has left also me thinking a whole lot more about things like culture, workforce learning, company values, individual drives and desires; all this is more of a concern to me than say… pixels and typography (which, to be clear, I still care about, just not like I used to!). That, and it feels like the big debates within design circles are all things I’ve seen before...

Gif from the TV show Sherlock, that says “Hm. Not interested. Moving on.”

Add to this the observation that many of my design colleagues have moved into adjacent spaces: Product management, executive coaching, academia; I was feeling a similar pull, away from design.

And yet...

There's still so much that design could—and should—be doing. In recent years, I've mentioned the work of Bret Victor and Nicky Case numerous times, and for good reason: They embody a lot of what excites me about design: Creating playful, visual interactions through which people learn.

Screenshot from “Parable of the Polygons: A Playable Post on the Shape of Society”
Screenshot from “Parable of the Polygons: A Playable Post on the Shape of Society”
Screenshot from Nicky Case’s “Parable of the Polygons

If you made it to the final chapters of Figure It Out, I write about these themes: Visual thinking. Exploratory play. Collaboration. Discovery… For me, these things are design. And if this seems a bit out of sync with your understanding of design, I encourage you to check out the essay I wrote last year unpacking why it is I think facilitation is the future of design.

All of this to say, I’m at that point in my career where I was starting to feel unemployable. Yes, because I don’t fit into traditional roles. Also, I’m highly mission-oriented, which removes most for-profit businesses from consideration. But more to the point, I really just wanted to work with people who value the same things.

With that context, let’s return to MURAL.

Joining MURAL

Fast forward to the end of 2020. I initially reached out about a mildly interesting position, which led to a conversation about other possibilities (and I discovered I was already on MURAL’s radar!). My first call with Kit, the new VP of Design, felt like a conversation between old friends. To get a different perspective, I reached out to my friend Jim Kalbach, as he’s been with MURAL almost since the beginning. Then, an introduction to the founders, the head of R&D, and so on. Throughout the interview process, every subsequent call and meeting I had got me more excited about this company. One thing led to another, and… I’ll skip over the details of how the conversation flowed and jump to this:

Every now and then, a rare opportunity comes along that feel so right that you can’t imagine yourself anywhere else. This, this is how I’m feeling about MURAL, at this moment.

Everything I love thinking, writing, and talking about — all of it — falls within the sphere of concern for my new employer. The themes I listed above? Every one of them came up during my interview process. Not by me, but from the various folks I spoke with. I even casually mentioned a recent, niche interest in interactive fiction and learning simulations, and rather than being met with a blank stare, I got an “Oh, let me show you something…” We have so many shared values and visions of what visual collaboration might look and feel like in the future.

If we take a more formal inventory of my personal interests — the things I’m most curious about — this list includes: Visual Thinking, Facilitation & Dialogue, Group Cognition + Complexity, Fostering Innovation, Games, Play, and Learning. And you know what’s cool? Here’s the Venn diagram overlap between my interests and MURALs:

😜 It feels like I’ve found my professional home.

I have a just few weeks under my belt, having joined just before the holiday break, and you know what? I’m loving it. This is a team of people who think and work together in visual ways; we practice what we preach! That ‘certain way of working’ that is visual and collaborative? That’s how we work every day. We spend much of our day working (or playing?!) together inside of various canvases, for everything from note-taking to retros to getting feedback on ambiguous job roles.

And all of this makes sense, if you think about. You may know of MURAL as the digital visual white-boarding tool:

But, there’s so much more going on with this company. Fundamentally, MURAL is in the business of… wait for it…

Visual Collaboration

Yes, there’s the product. But also, the skills and training and mindset… This is all core to the business. MURAL wants to help teams get better at visual thinking, facilitation, and collaboration. MURAL is about promoting a better way of working together. Why? To solve important problems. Which, kind of brings us back round to the opening paragraphs of this post: “I have strong beliefs, you might even say convictions, about how certain ways of working can make the world a better place.”

Crazy Growth Stage

There’s also another exciting part to all this that I’ve skipped over: MURAL is growing like crazy! Most of the startups I’ve worked for/with were at the early seed-funding stages, just having launched and trying to stay aloft. MURAL is much farther along in terms of company growth. 2020 brought in a $118 million series B that is being used to accelerate and respond to some already crazy growth, accelerated by the sudden shift to remote working. Oh, and along with all this growth are many more open positions. And yes, before you ask, we’re still growing and hiring like crazy. Design positions. Engineering positions. Marketing. Product. I may even be hiring for my team in a few weeks. 👀

Exciting times. 😃

Speaker, educator, and design leader. On a mission to make learning the hard stuff fun, by creating ‘things to think with’ and ‘spaces’ for generative play.