‘99% Invisible’ investigates the unnoticed design elements of everyday items

Arts November 19, 2021
Listen to ‘99% Invisible’

The essential is invisible, and producer/host Roman Mars wanted to investigate the power of what goes unnoticed in our world’s design and architecture. “99% Invisible” is a narrative podcast exploring how design is all around us, yet consumers see things differently than the architects, designers, inventors, and engineers behind the things we use, ideas we engage with, and structures we frequent.

What started as Roman’s 4-minute spot on California’s KALW Public Radio, flourished into a podcast with 460 episodes and counting. If you want to broaden your mind and learn more about the world around you, add “99% Invisible” to your listening queue!

Episodes unpack ideas, designs, and invention stories behind the objects, ideas, structures, and more we use or see but might not think about. The podcast takes its title from architect Buckminster Fuller’s quote: “Ninety-nine percent of who you are is invisible and untouchable.” And Roman wants to bring attention to this notion through specific examples in the episodes.

“99% Invisible” episodes fall into several categories: architecture, cities, sounds, objects, infrastructure, technology, history, and visuals. Feel free to listen in any order, since the episodes stand alone. Hear about stuff the British stole, the science of color, mail order homes, bunkers, and lost cities. Listeners will learn about the ubiquitous graphic peace symbol’s design, the link between Instagram and architecture, and megaplex cinemas, just to name a few interesting topics.

Some episodes center on one figure, such as the pioneering story of Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan. While Julia was the first woman architect licensed in California and had a prolific career, she was not recognized by the American Institute of Architects, until receiving the AIA Gold Medal in 2014. This episode interviews historians, family, and women about what it was like to be an architect in the 20th century. Another powerful episode explored Florence Nightingale’s legacy and contributions to data visualization.

Food-related topics are also part of design, so we hear about a Soviet Union cookbook, how margarine reinvents itself, water, and stores’ no-brand branding techniques. There are episodes about lifting weights, the history of linoleum floor designs from the ’70s, the worst video game, high tech prosthetics, carved stamp Hanko seals used in Japan, and designer knockoffs.

A recent episode discussed the English language, why plenty of words rhyme, and how it is “uniquely chaotic” in comparison to European languages. Authors and law professors Jim Salzman and Michael Heller joined the show to discuss “poor ownership design” and summarized their book, Mine! How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives. They also shared news of fights erupting on airplanes.

If you’re interested in the podcast, you might want to check out Roman’s book, The 99% Invisible City. New episodes of “99% Invisible” are posted weekly.

Listen to ‘99% Invisible’
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