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Life Is a Design Challenge

Apply design thinking skills to your life situation, no matter what it is.

Photo: The author’s tiny trailer. 11 foot by 7 foot (77 square feet) of wheel-estate.

I recently moved into a tiny trailer.

Yep. Just a step above, #vanlife and “living in a van down by the river” my little trailer in which I live is 77 square feet of wheel-estate.

There are a lot of reasons I chose to do this, but the main ones are that:

  • I need to be mobile in order to help out my aging parents who live in Tucson while I live in Colorado.
  • I need to pay off student loans.
  • And the rents are just too damn high.

I am also fed up with feeding landlords while starving myself and want to enjoy the precious life I have now and not at some point in retirement later, which will never happen since my 401K and all my retirement savings went “poof” during the dot-com crash of 2001.

I am a designer with a fairly long career in the field. So instead of feeling angry or depressed about the situation I find myself in, I have chosen to look at this situation as a design challenge.

Downsizing from living in a minimalist apartment (which wasn’t that big) to a little 1975 Prowler is taking minimalism to its extreme for sure.

But, as a designer, I love a challenge.

77 square feet? Bring it on!

As with most design projects, I am a believer in “design thinking” principles: Empathizing, defining the problem, developing a hypothesis about the problem, testing my assumptions, creating options, revising my ideas, re-testing and so on.

First, Let’s Empathize.

Mobile van-dwellers and RV-ers in midlife and beyond generally refer to themselves as “nomads.” Similar to “digital nomads” they have taken their lives and work on the road to visit new places or to work where the work is.

Unlike the dream ( or fantasy?) life of the FIRE/digital nomads, these nomads do not usually jet around the world or live-stream their #vanlife destinations on social media. Mostly, they choose to live in vans or RVs and travel periodically or seasonally around the country. Some even choose to live in cars or minivans. Their financial situations often could never afford the jet-set Instagram lifestyle, and most would never want to live that kind of life anyway.

These are not the homeless though — these are the house-free. The difference is that they choose this lifestyle, they aren’t forced into it.

They are simply looking for a simple life of freedom promised by our founding-fathers, which is quickly vanishing from America by the day.

Many of these older nomads must still work and are not retired. Some are former-retirees who have needed to return to work. They generally keep their costs very low so they can travel around the country as “workampers” who do everything from work in Amazon warehouses during peak seasons, hosting in National Parks, or selling fireworks and Christmas trees. You actually encounter them everywhere and are often invisible; you ever know that they live in a vehicle.

My situation is not too dissimilar. I am a graphic and web designer in an industry which has seen dramatic commoditization and price-erosion due to global competition. I have a Bachelors degree from a top-tier design school, one seminary Masters degree and another Masters in Fine Art in process. What I used to earn, not too long ago, which once provided a steady livable income is now providing much less. This is also due to the erosion of my finances through inflation and the ageism the pervades the design industry. Therefore, I also augment my income through teaching online at a couple of community colleges.

So I work 12+ hours a day, 6 days a week, and still can’t afford the damn rent in my area.

I know I am not alone in this, either.

Doing a little research, I encountered a lot of stories like mine and like those made popular through the book Nomadland and movie. I discovered that there are an estimated 1 Million and growing number of older Americans living full-time in their vehicles. Some might consider them homeless (as most governments do), but many of these nomads prefer to be “houseless” or “house-free” (my preferred term), and have chosen this lifestyle because it is frankly the only lifestyle that makes sense to them at this time.

I also consider myself a “conscientious objector” to the rent-seeking rat-race.

Therefore, I certainly do not find it too difficult to empathize with this group. As a fairly affluent American (we are the top 1% of the world in wealth, even counting those in poverty), you might, but I would encourage doing your own research and try to walk in the nomads’ shoes for a bit.

For a designer, empathy is a mandate.

Second, Let’s Look at Some Options

Cars/Vans: Many cities (like mine), have basically criminalized homelessness and outright ban sleeping in a car or van. In Silicon Valley, there are many tech-workers who cannot afford to live there and have also chosen to live in a vehicle while working “high paying” tech jobs at companies like Google and Facebook/Meta.

So, many such vehicle dwellers choose to live in stealth-mode. This is simpler in a van or car, but certainly has drawbacks — not the least of which is the stress of having to move regularly and avoid being detected and fined or jailed.

Tiny Homes: These are very appealing, especially to younger generations, but the problem still arises in many cities as with vehicle-dwellers. Cities enforce zoning laws that are designed to collect as much property tax as possible from property owners, and consider tiny homes to be detrimental to that. So, unless you can buy some land outside a city in an unincorporated area, you usually cannot set up a tiny home. If they are on wheels, rather than a concrete pad, they are also considered a vehicle or RV, and therefore banned in many places.

Even though the tiny-home movement is a reasonable answer to providing affordable housing, the governments (again) have set it up to make sure that freedom-seeking people must enslave themselves to paying rent or a ridiculous mortgage payment.

Another aspect of tiny homes that is a problem for many like myself is that even though they are affordable compared to the typical house, they are still quite expensive unless one builds it themselves with upcycled materials or something, and own the land they are allowed to build on (outside a city).

RVs: There are RVs and there are RVs. Newer RVs, no matter the size, are pretty expensive and require most people to get a loan to purchase them. The larger ones, or even the decked-out Sprinter vans, cost upwards of $100,000. This means the newer RVs are not an option for me, since one of my goals is to pay off debt.

RVs are considered “recreational vehicles”, but the larger ones are often much nicer than traditional stick-and-brick homes.

The option I chose is to purchase a small older camper to renovate and turn it into a nicer “tiny home” of a sort, while still being practical as an RV.

This is not without problems of its own though.

Parking in a city is still an issue, and I can’t really be “stealth” with it. RV parks charge as much as an apartment for lot-rent and utilities, and do not accept RVs that are older than 15 years. This means that I will probably have to find a kind soul to pay some rent for a space on his/her land or driveway, or to live in some of the state parks for a couple weeks at a time. The latter appeals to me and living in a state park is actually cheaper than living in an RV park as long as the RV is easily mobile without having to debark from port like the Queen Mary every time.

Third, Testing and Revising the Options

This is the stage of my little design problem I am at now.

I need to see if this is do-able and practical. At all. I also need to see if this is safe, since we sometimes have below-zero temps in the Winter here in Colorado.

The camper I purchased for $2,000, is a 1975 Fleetwood Prowler. It is in great condition for the price, and the owners had done a nice job upgrading it with some nicer features like an air conditioner and refrigerator. I am frankly amazed that they would sell it for what they did, because most trailers like this I found in similar condition go for thousands more.

So, it’s a nice platform to begin with.

However, I am not at the stage where I have drawn conclusions as to whether or not this is a good choice for me long-term. It does seem to be a good one and the only choice for me right now though.

But, I am only a week into this.

There are a number of experiments I need to test and then to revise and test again before I can draw any conclusions. Some interesting observations have come up in my experiment with mobile-living so far:

  1. Everything I do takes a little longer.
  2. Storage, storage, storage.
  3. What my Dad says, like, all the time — “a place for everything and everything in it’s place” — really surfaces to a new level in 77 square feet.
  4. Little details are not so little.
  5. Comfort and discomfort is relative and are flexible concepts.
  6. My daily routine is often centered around the need for a shower and a bathroom.
  7. I have to make decisions about the tiniest things that I took for granted in my prior life.
  8. Reliable energy for heat, clean water and dealing with sewage are first-world privileges.
  9. Drinkable water is harder to find than you think if you don’t buy it from a store.
  10. Libraries and 24-hour gyms are secret goldmines and most people don’t realize how awesome they really are.

There are probably more if I wanted to ramble on, but these 10 are pretty interesting ones to me in the first week of this experiment.

These also highlight some things which need a practical design solution, like storage, energy and heat. I am looking forward to trying-out some interesting solutions. Especially with the onset of Winter!

What Next?

Design thinking would indicate that this process of empathizing, defining and experimenting is a loop. Once I work on a solution to one issue, another issue will probably pop up like a game of whack-a-mole. Therefore I need to find joy in the process and not get hung up on some final result.

Eventually, if this all works out, it will be a rewarding experience for me, no matter the outcome long-term. I will have learned a ton about life and myself.

A Sidenote

It is also one of my roles as a designer in our society to raise important issues and draw awareness to them. In our rich and creative society, it is a travesty that we are not only criminalizing the homeless who have no choice, but also those who do have the choice to live nomadically in order to live free. At what point did the American ideal of freedom require that everyone live in a permanent box made of sticks in a fixed location — just to wind up working our tails off with three or more jobs to a household in order to pay for it; not being able to enjoy the stuff we pack into it?

What About the Rest of Life As a Design Problem?

I am pretty sure that if you apply design thinking methods to most every problem, you will come up with interesting and rewarding solutions.

If you are faced with a similar housing issue, or a relationship issue, or a business issue (or __________ issue), I am convinced that thinking like a designer with design thinking methods will help you immensely. At the very least, it should help you reframe difficult challenges in your life to positive ones.

What problems in your life would be improved by a little design thinking?