Design of Visual Sensemaking Tools for Informal Economy: Literature Review

Since I have long been exposed to the concept of sensemaking from the perspective of the synthesis phase of human centered design research, and design/innovation planning & concept development, I hadn’t thought to review the literature last year when building customized sensemaking tools for market women and vegetable vendors sourcing and supplying fresh vegetables in Nairobi’s slums.

This was already a key element of my professional practice: When faced with complex and systemic challenges, the first task is to make sense of it in easily visualized; understood; and communicable fashion that can inspire insights and catalyze collaboration.

Now, however, the exigencies of my doctoral study required I frame and contextualize elements from decades of professional practice within the bounds of theoretical legacies, and I began looking for literature on sensemaking that made the most sense for my application area. As previously noted, I’d found it useful to go back to early literature or pioneering theorists in the field to ground my attempts to extrapolate knowledge emerging from or traditionally applied in highly industrialized organizational contexts to the informal economic ecosystems that characterize the operating environment for a vast majority in the global South.

The theory of sensemaking in the organization context (i.e. work related practices since I’ve framed the last mile of informal fresh produce supply as a socio-technical system (STS) in context of applying the Scandinavian tradition of participatory design methodology) is considered to have been developed by Karl E. Weick, and papers between 1979 to 2001 are cited to support this assertion in literature that surfaces from a variety of disciplines that take the perspective of sensemaking for studying processes, particularly those related to organizational change, design and innovation, and systems and complexity.

It is, however, Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld’s 2005 paper that captured my attention. The reason for this can be traced in the literature to Kolko’s comparative analysis as visualized below. It is rapidly emerging to me that I’m inherently a visual thinker when it comes to making sense out of complexity. But that musing is for another day and post.

Kolko, J. (2010a). Sensemaking and framing: A theoretical reflection on perspective in design synthesis.

Here, now, we can see it is Weick’s line of thought that is best suited to the nature of the Remote Resilience project‘s goals – how effectively and rapidly can a group such as an informal cooperative of 4 or 5 women operating out of Nairobi’s vast wholesale market for fresh produce who pool their resources to source a truckload of tomatoes from regional farms every 2 or 3 days make sense of the impacts of the whole systems shock suddenly experienced as a result of last year’s pandemic? Curfews, lockdowns, and other containment measures had disrupted supplies and reduced incomes. How do they collectively visualize the plethora of issues across their regional web of suppliers, transporters, service providers, and customers?

From the very first sentence of their abstract, Weick et al (2005) choose their preferred description for the organizational activity of sensemaking and quote Taylor and Van Every (2000, p. 40):

Sensemaking involves turning circumstances into a situation that is comprehended explicitly in words and that serves as a springboard into action.

This mostly fits my needs, given that one can consider the informal wholesaler group as an organization that requires cooperation, collaboration, and coordination in order to collectively generate revenues and maintain operations. The fact that in jurisdictional or regulatory terms it might not reflect the same legal structures as the type of organizations Weick’s body of work has long focused on does not mean that human beings are not involved in organizing themselves for economic gain and market facing activity with customers, suppliers, and other service providers. As Czarniawska (2005) says, Weick’s work has been characterised by a sense of ambiguity in the midst of the complexity, as much as it has by a certain facility with words and language. Weick et al (2005) go on to say:

“The seemingly transient nature of sensemaking belies its central role in the determination of human behavior. Sense-making is central because it is the primary site where meanings materialize that inform and constrain identity and action (Mills 2003, p. 35). When we say that meanings materialize, we mean that sensemaking is, importantly, an issue of language, talk, and communication. Situations, organizations, and environments are talked into existence.”

Two points immediately jump out for me – the first is that of sensemaking being related to ‘talking something into existence’ – more or less the same thing I’ve been saying since 2005 about the moment of eureka in the innovation/design sphere, when the brainstorming activity and a team’s conversations around a concept sketch or a prototype ‘talk the novel or the design’ into existence – now, I can relate the eureka moment  as emerging directly from the sensemaking activity itself, as framed by Weick. But that is a paper for another day.

It is the second point that I have have issue with, not only relating to creative contexts such as design, but also the operating environment for which my sensemaking tools were designed. It is indeed difficult to disagree with their meaning of sensemaking as an issue of “language, talk, and communication” since that is how humans communicate with each other for the most part in organizational settings. However, Weick et al’s preference for comprehension ‘explicitly in words’ means that their framework is insufficient to capture the very nature of design methods and tools for sensemaking that make them so powerful for immediate comprehension and collective impact – the visualization (Liedtka, 2015) of complexity as part of the need to make sense out of chaos.

Kolko (2010b) explicitly describes the designer’s process for synthesizing vast amounts of multi-media data that accrues for even a small project, utilizing the ever popular whiteboard, post-it notes, and reams of paper and markers. That reasonably well captured the process by which the tool was shared with the intended tool users, in a participatory way. To be noted is his correlation of the design process’ synthesis phase with sensemaking, as tabulated (Kolko, 2010a) above.

However, this approach does not capture the challenge of designing a sensemaking tool that must work effectively across the barriers of language and jargon, culture and conditions, not to mention wide variance in participant’s educational backgrounds and literacy, since Kolko’s position is that the designer or the design team who are faced with sensemaking the complexity and chaos during the design process (Kolko, 2010a; 2010b) rather than as the end user of the outcomes of their design process.

In fact, it has been said that design itself is the process of sensemaking (Verganti, 2009; Krippendorff, 1989) and those that build tools for sensemaking tend to rely on information technologies of varying degrees of sophistication. (For example, see Van der Merwe, Biggs, Preiser, Cunningham, Snowden, O’Brien, Jenal, Vosloo, Blignaut, and Goh, 2019). The operating environments where informal trade networks proliferate rarely match those implicitly assumed in the literature however. I have learnt to make this difference in operating conditions explicit since it shapes the entire design process, even influencing the shift in mindset and methodology as I’ve noted earlier.

On the other hand, although Weick’s body of work has focused on language and words used to make and shape meaning (van der Heijden & Cramer, 2017; Czarniawska, 2005), elements of its theoretical articulation capture the essence of my goals with the custom designed tools for the ladies who trade under the hot sun. From Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld (2005):

The language of sensemaking captures the realities of agency, flow, equivocality, transience, reaccomplishment, unfolding, and emergence, realities that are often obscured by the language of variables, nouns, quantities, and structures. Students of sensemaking understand that the order in organizational life comes just as much from the subtle, the small, the relational, the oral, the particular, and the momentary as it does from the conspicuous, the large, the substantive, the written, the general, and the sustained. To work with the idea of sensemaking is to appreciate that smallness does not equate with insignificance. Small structures and short moments can have large consequences.

As someone who designs with words myself, I cannot disagree with this precis nor its theoretical legacy. How better to introduce the micro-entrepreneur, the informal trader, the women who might only have a bunch of spinach and some tomatoes to sell? Did that mean they did not have a need to come together and try and make sense of the chaos resulting from the sudden shock of the global pandemic and the reduction in incomes; insecurity and unemployment; and increased volatility of supplies and incomes? Their very significance lay in their sourcing and supply of fresh vegetables throughout the lockdown period and within the curtailed hours imposed by curfews without any formal support structures or even cold chain infrastructure in place. Fresh produce supplies flowing into Nairobi’s many informal settlements never faltered, unlike the fragility on display by just in time formal food systems in more industrialized locations.

Active agent of her own recovery planning & resilience building. Photo Credit: Tazama Media, Nairobi, Kenya August 2020

In fact, a reference in the paper reminded me of Prahalad’s ‘tyranny of dominant logic‘ (2009; 1995), and how it not only shapes the narrative of what vegetable vendors need in times of acute systemic shock brought about by a socioeconomic crisis of global proportions such as the pandemic, but the lenses by which they tend to be perceived eg. marginalized, vulnerable, helpless, in need of charity and aid – passive beneficiaries in other words rather than empowered and proactive agents of their future. My decisions and choices made in theoretical framing and the methodology for design and research influenced the sensemaking required as part of the design process.

This in turn drove the design of the tools offered, the content of the sequential workshops, the selection of tools and methods to adapt and build on, and my hand’s off approach to implementation that devolved agency to the facilitators, without which they would not have had the experience to devolve agency to the participants. I introduced them to horizon scanning and scenario planning exercises – intermediated through the remote upskilling of community knowledge workers in design thinking and innovation facilitation – in addition sensemaking and problem framing. Why should they lack the means to look ahead as they navigated the extremes of volatility and uncertainty that already characterized their daily life? Sophisticated tools for sensemaking need not just be for the highly industrialized or formal economies.


Bettis, R. A., C. K. Prahalad. 1995. The dominant logic: Retrospective and extension.Strategic Management J.165–14

Czarniawska, B. (2005). Karl Weick: Concepts, style and reflection. The Sociological Review, 53(1_suppl), 267-278

Krippendorf, K. (1989). On the essential contexts of artifacts or on the proposition that‘design is making sense (of things)’.Design Issues, 5(2), 9-39.

Kolko, J. (2010a) Sensemaking and Framing: A Theoretical Reflection on Perspective in Design Synthesis, in Durling, D., Bousbaci, R., Chen, L, Gauthier, P., Poldma, T., Roworth-Stokes, S. and Stolterman, E (eds.), Design and Complexity – DRS International Conference 2010, 7-9 July, Montreal, Canada.

Kolko, J. (2010b). Abductive thinking and sensemaking: The drivers of design synthesis. Design issues, 26(1), 15-28.

Liedtka, J. (2015). Perspective: Linking design thinking with innovation outcomes through cognitive bias reduction. Journal of product innovation management, 32(6), 925-938.

van der Heijden, A., & Cramer, J. M. (2017). Change agents and sustainable supply chain collaboration: A longitudinal study in the Dutch pig farming sector from a sensemaking perspective. Journal of cleaner production, 166, 967-987

Van der Merwe, S E., Biggs, R., Preiser, R., Cunningham, C., Snowden, DJ.,  O’Brien, K., Jenal, M., Vosloo, M., Blignaut, S., & Goh, Z. (2019) Making sense of complexity: Using sensemaker as a research tool. Systems 7, no. 2: 25.

Verganti, R. (2009).Design-Driven Innovation: Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating What Things Mean.Boston: Harvard Business Press

Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., & Obstfeld, D. (2005). Organizing and the process of sensemaking. Organization science, 16(4), 409-421.

Weick, K.E., (2001). Making Sense of the Organization. Blackwell Publishing, Malden, CA.

Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations (Vol. 3). Sage.

Weick, K.E., (1979). The Social Psychology of Organizing. Random House, New York

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