This essay originally was published on March 16, 2023, with the email subject line "CT No.159: Visual concepting tools for content strategists."

by Vicky Gu

ChatGPT and its generative friends may look shiny, but don't forget about the jewels we already have. We've barely scratched the surface of existing content tools designed to enhance our capabilities as content professionals. Want to articulate your audience's needs in new words? Stretch your vision in new ways? Make millions? Algorithms alone won't hit these goals. But there is a suite of tools designed to coax out creativity in the collaborative process, enabling you to be more efficient on the way.

Visual concepting tools like Miro, Figma/Figjam, Mural, and Apple’s Freeform have started to branch into the strategy, brand, and content disciplines over the past decade—and are projected to be a $6B+ market by 2030. They present rich canvases to materialize and communicate vision, a far cry from algorithms that fill content templates with uninspiring words to edit.

While these tools have traditionally saturated the “builder” disciplines like design, web development, and product management, there's much opportunity for "thinker” disciplines—like strategy, marketing, and content—to tap in. These are not only design or collaboration tools, but tools for thinking.

Content requires nonlinear thinking. This takes both strategy and imagination. It pulls from diverse, unrelated concepts and synthesizes them into ideas that bring unique business value. Thus, linear Google Docs won’t cut it when you need to develop content strategy for a website in design conception phase, or show a designer how text should lay on a complex visual. Content strategists need tools that enable us to explore and synthesize nonlinear inputs quickly. We need digital sandboxes where we can get messy with our hands.

As a writer who designs and a designer who writes—for organizations from the Fortune 500 to Michelin restaurant teams, ranging from bootstrapped to venture-backed—I find visual concepting tools indispensable. As these tools have evolved, both in capability and positioning,  their learning curves for mastery have come down, enabling non-designers to add them to their toolkits.

A brief timeline of visual concepting tools:

  • 2006: Google Docs launches
  • 2011: RealtimeBoard and Mural launch
  • 2015: Figma launches — "as in, figment of your imagination made real"
  • 2019: RealtimeBoard rebrands as Miro — "Derived from Joan Miró, the Spanish painter and sculptor who painted bright, bold murals of surreal amoebic forms. His vibrant, energetic work was a perfect metaphor for bringing ideas to life."
  • 2020: Covid-19 launches, eliminating scenarios where teams gather around real-life whiteboards with real-life stickies
  • 2021: Figma launches Figjam, an online collaborative whiteboard on top of their existing interface design tool
  • 2022: Mural rebrands as a collaborative intelligence company and acquires LUMA Institute to offer training in design thinking and collaborative problem solving
  • 2022: Apple launches visual collaboration app FreeForm with its most recent OS, and our only choice is to accept
Joan Miró, The Tilled Field, (1923–1924), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the inspiration for the Miro tool's name.
Joan Miró, The Tilled Field, (1923–1924), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the inspiration for the Miro tool's name.

Both Miro's concept of "bringing ideas to life" and Mural's initiative toward "collaborative intelligence" speak to more than facilitating design and visual communication. These visual whiteboarding companies are signaling they're in the business of strategy. And strategy-plus-design is a much bigger market than just design.

Because "what vision does is find concepts,” says Mary Potter, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences. “That’s what the brain is doing all day long—trying to understand what we’re looking at.” Given how quickly executives need to digest information to make business-critical decisions, communication methods must evolve to keep up. We’re no longer tied to wordy memos or linear slide decks. We now have more fluid tools that can depict the flow of nonlinear strategy, instantly.

Not every campaign needs a brainstorm of digital Post-It notes, but can you think of at least one this quarter? How might you use the possibilities of the tool to concept more interesting projects? Tell more compelling stories to validate your creative pitches? If all your ideas are straightforward enough that they never outgrow the form they're seeded in (like a doc), then maybe that's a sign to try something new.

Today you’ll learn how to use visual concepting tools across five different strategic use cases:

  • Copy and design collaboration
  • Strategy and design collaboration
  • User research and data analysis
  • Creative brainstorming
  • Anything low stakes that you can test!

Or at least you'll try, and maybe fail, but at least you’ll learn how they work best for your needs — whether you're in-house or independently consulting, for B2B or B2C.

1. Copy and design collaboration

Copywriters typically work in docs and designers work in design software. But what of the crossover? How might visually inclined copywriters or copy-inclined designers take the extra step to help each other out?

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