Agathonic things

2019-08-21 ☼ DesignThingsAgathonic

Though mediocrity is ubiquitous, among all the dross there are objects which improve with use—so-called agathonic things. Michael Helms and Larry Leifer proposed the idea of agathonic design in 2009. This non-exhaustive list of modes of agathonicity adds to their classification and extends the sense of an agathonic object” to both objects and systems.

The object changes by losing information such that what remains is better suited to the use. Examples include scissors as their blades wear down through a single barber’s use, a fountain pen as the nib wears microscopically through a single writer’s use, and hiking shoes that have been broken in by a single wearer.

The object remains unchanged, but the user learns its idiosyncrasies and features and is able to use it better. Examples include pianos and other complex musical instruments (the triangle is plausibly excluded), smartphones and other complex consumer electronics, Photoshop and any other complex software, complex programming languages, and large bureaucracies and other complex organizations.

The object remains unchanged, but use changes the use-context so the object is more adapted to it. Examples include telephones, mycorrhizal additions to agricultural soil, the VHS video format, the idea of bond pricing, the concept of the corporation. This is related to network externalities, performativity and actor-network theory.

The object remains unchanged, but use changes the user to be a better user of the object. Examples include weights, training regimens, public transit schedules and calendar applications, and theories of action in general (including philosophy and religion).

The object changes by accumulating information such that what it becomes is better suited to the use. Examples include libraries, cast-iron cookware which gradually acquires a patina, Wikipedia, a good social club or circle of friends.

The object changes by selectively losing irrelevant information and gaining relevant information, thus becoming better suited to the use. Examples include your portfolio of belongings after you have Mari Kondo-ed them, code after it has been refactored or re-implemented code, teams when their membership changes through negotiated joining.

The object remains unchanged, but use and user action changes how it is perceived by users. Examples include stone mills, low-intervention wines, Modernism, Impressionism, and other schools of art practice after they become popular, representative democracy, and chemical agriculture.

Each of these modes is an ideal type—agathonic things in real life are likely to be multi-modally agathonic.