The Feasible Coefficient

Assigning words to undefined design ideas


I keep coming back to Somewhere in the Middle and trying to refine my own vocabulary. What I was getting at then and what I’m trying to get at now is similar but I feel like the stone is getting slowly smoother over time; good.

So I want to talk about viability and feasibility of design.

This might be semantically splitting hairs since they are technically listed as synonyms of each other, but I’m going to split that hair for a second.

Viable design

is something that can technically work and satisfy the at least most of the needs and priorities of whatever the design is trying to solve, whereas

Feasible design

is something where those needs are either more truly solved, or more practically solved such that it’s more convenient and easy for the user.


A few examples:

  • Living in a van as a nomad is viable, in that you can technically do it and remain alive. It is shelter, it’s protecting you from bad weather and thieves and bears. It’s privacy and space to store your belongings, it’s mobile so that you can drive to various stores and get food and supplies and whatnot to carry on living as necessary. This is all viable in a way that, say, living on a park bench homeless would be less so. Perhaps some people would consider van life as homelessness, but for the sake of architecture and design distinction I’d describe it as performing house functionality.
  • The feasible design is actual housing, in whatever status quo-ish format you like: renting, owning, houses, apartments, alone, roommates, etc. — people choose this life because it’s convenient if expensive, you’re paying for land and some constructed building and utilities and all of that stuff buuut it mostly just works: you don’t have to go out of your way to make sure the water runs and the electricity flows. It’s easily feasible to live.

and

  • Going car free is viable in the sense that technically you can ride a bike everywhere and get groceries with panniers or a trailer (or a whole separate cargo bike) and commute to work and tough out the weather (which, I’ve done it in -35° dark Canadian winters, it’s warmer and easier than you’d think) and all of that stuff, but people own cars and drive because it’s more feasible. Certainly, I do. I have an appointment across town today which is 48.5 km away from my house. Yes, I could probably survive that, and perhaps I’d be much healthier for it, but the fact is we’re lazy and riding 2.5 hours each way for a 40 minute event is a whole day affair. That’s six total hours.
  • You can build a cheap computer for like, $150 and it’ll run but it won’t be ideal. You can buy a $9.99 coffee table made of cardboard and prayers from IKEA and it’ll be fine but not great. Etc etc. “You get what you pay for” is a quote as old as commerce, but we don’t have a good name for the spectrum itself, which is what I’m exploring here.

Outliers

Relating it back to money.

Okay, so, that viable-feasible spectrum also intersects the other currencies. You’re often trading feasibility for some other resource — usually money because the viable method often prioritizes saving money and spending time.

But there’s pockets of value.

Good value isn’t the cheapest possible thing. Good value is the thing that solves the problem the best per resource.

We see value usually expressed in bulk buying goods: 1 unit of toilet paper is $1 but 20 units is $15, and assuming you actually need 20 units in the first place, you’re saving money. This is a better value.

Except, you could also buy 50000 units of toilet paper for a much much better price and it would be bad value again because you’d have to pay in either money or convenience to store that much TP in your house somewhere.

So value is usually a pocket, a little bump in the graphs of resources related to any given thing within the bigger context of itself and everything around it.

Coming full circle means that there are pockets of viable value.

  • Going car free might be a pain, but a value pocket might be where a 1km ride is roughly the same time as a car stuck in traffic (in my neighborhood the road for cars goes around a huge chunk of houses, but the bike paths get immense shortcuts) and you’re saving gas money, wear and tear, getting your daily 30 minutes of cardio, ease traffic stress, etc. This is valuable and turns viable into feasible.
  • Maybe that cheap IKEA table does actually perform well enough for your needs, maybe you don’t need something heirloom quality to survive for decades. These come back to personal design priorities and needs.
  • I’m convinced, though we haven’t solved it yet, that there’s a version of this for housing. I don’t know what it looks like, but tiny homes and van living and stacked microapartments are only the first steps at addressing the symptoms of bigger market problems. I suspect there’s much to be done here and there’s much more effective solutions somewhere, somehow. We’re choosing viable because feasible has outclassed a lot of us, but it’s not a solution that deeply fits most of the people who need it most.

The viable-feasible spectrum is different for every person.

Some people super love biking. Some people super love living in a van. I would personally love a 400sqft tiny house because I’m a single dude with no kids — I don’t need to make those spatial design priorities. We can’t make sweeping design judgements about these arrangements. They aren’t inherently better or worse based on our own context in the spectrum.

We all have different needs and goals and ability to achieve them.

What we DO need to worry about, is the people who would prefer to be somewhere else on the spectrum and cannot. This is where we can use design to enable that sort of upward lifestyle mobility. Sometimes this is in re-prioritizing and re-designing products, sometimes this is in more structural, institutional changes for availability or outright subsidy, but those are the zones of effective change that we’re looking for to have the impact.

What Does All This Mean

Really, in the end, it’s this: efficiency can be found in making better design decisions based on priorities. We suffer when all products’ priorities are the same. It is more efficient to manufacture identical things, and to have monopolies on market spaces, but it’s actually less efficient for solving individual needs and filling in problem areas.

It’s only efficient from the supply side, not the demand side.

What we need more of, is better matching to niches of needs.

What we need more of, is feasibility brought to every level.

What we need more of is allowing people to make the lifestyle decisions that are truly in line with what they want and need, rather than choosing the least terrible option for their circumstance. Solving these big problems isn’t as easy as inventing and applying wholesale solutions at bulk efficiencies. And it won’t be easy, but that’s why it’s good useful hard work.

We need more stuff, but we need better stuff.

We need valuable stuff.

We need stuff that solves problems that actual humans have.


A lot of things are viable, and crappy. Let’s make feasible, available. Or let’s make what’s available more feasible.

Go. Fight. Win.

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