Imagine a nearly complete jigsaw puzzle. Only one piece is missing, but oddly there are three pieces left to try. The first doesn’t fit. Examining it, you realize it belongs to a different puzzle. Of the two remaining pieces, the first looks like it will fit perfectly, but no luck. Comparing these last two, you find they are nearly identical, except one is a defective copy of the other. You use the non-defective piece to complete the puzzle, leaving only the misfit. This last piece doesn’t fit in its intended spot, or anywhere else. It’s just bad.
A jigsaw puzzle is the ultimate tangible instance of a “solution context”*. The edges of unfilled-in areas provide immediate feedback to the rapid testing of multiple candidate pieces. Different types of misfit are also easy to distinguish. While one might lack an explanation for the defective piece, it’s at least clear that it fails to fit for a different reason than the piece from a different puzzle. It’s also clear that the one of two pieces fits somewhere, while the other does not.
Misfit is easy to detect when it’s as obvious as an ill-fitting puzzle piece, but such obviousness is rare. As the constraints of fit become more complex and abstract, the “edges” of the “gap” in the “puzzle” become increasingly illegible. In many contexts, it can be hard to tell whether misfit has occurred at all, let alone which type.
Consider chairs. To “fit” in a familiar context, a chair must satisfy (at minimum) the following conditions: affordable, easily moved, seat not too high or low off the ground, back support, accommodates human size and weight up to a few standard deviations. Because the solution context of a chair is still pretty concrete, both types of misfit are still fairly obvious. An ornate golden throne fulfills many of the conditions but is not affordable or easily moved. Yet a throne neatly solves the problem of king needing an impressive place to sit and receive subjects — it fits in a different context. A spindly-legged chair made from balsa wood might at first appear to fit, but instead breaks easily, crashing its occupant to the floor. One might argue this chair fits in a comedy context as a breakaway stool for pratfalls, but it’s too obviously flimsy to trick an unsuspecting sitter. It fits nowhere.
Clothing is trickier than chairs. Consider the ironic thrift store t-shirt. Candidate shirts must be broken in but not tattered. They should also fit in the literal sense — baggy can be stylish, but too baggy is bad. More saliently, they should feature text and/or design elements that can be amusingly recontextualized. For example, a shirt commemorating a 1993 insurance company employee picnic, featuring a cartoon hot dog wearing sunglasses and sunning itself. A plain black tee won’t work because it’s devoid of ostentation, yet it’s perfect for bussers and stage crew who need to not stick out — it fits in a different context. But a brand new, oversized shirt with uninteresting colors and patterns, or with bland text that’s impossible to “flip”? These are left on the rack until they finally go wherever thrift store dregs go in the end, unwanted by all.
Finally, a highly abstract problem: the evocation of a subtle (but universal) human experience, specifically the sinking feeling of reality battering against delusional confidence. A good solution should produce a nearly identical experience for every user: cringing relief at not being in the aforementioned position mixed with spontaneous recollection of times when the user was in that position. One famous example is Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy. Any one of Daffy Duck’s numerous instances of punished hubris might seem to fit, but are too painless. However, they fit in their own context like a mild but still flavorful version of spicy dish. An abstract metal sculpture titled “The Sinking Feeling of Reality Battering Against Delusional Confidence” stretches the definition of “evoke”. The abstract nature of the solution context makes failure plausibly deniable. If one stands to gain socially from claiming the sculpture evokes the target feeling, then there is incentive to lie about one’s reaction. This sort of dodge would be a lot harder to get away with if it were as concrete as a flimsy chair.
Solution contexts can be ambiguous. If you’re trying to solve A, a great solution to B may seem worthless. But that doesn’t mean that every bad solution to A is actually a perfect solution to a different problem. Some solutions are just bad.
*Thanks to Sarah Perry for this term.
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