“Design is everywhere in our lives, perhaps most importantly in the places where we’ve just stopped noticing. 99% Invisible is a weekly exploration of the process and power of design and architecture. From award winning producer Roman Mars.”
99% Invisible was and is a foundational podcast for me, and I consider it to be one of the best shows out there in terms of utilizing and leveraging the actual medium of podcasting to create an immersive experience. It’s also one of the most information-rich podcasts I’ve come across, and the fact that they’re able to convey as much as they do about design (a generally visual medium) through audio is a testament to the show’s producers. It’s one of those shows that takes a topic that you’ve either never heard of or that you think you already know enough about, and then blows it wide open, exploring not only the idea itself, but also (perhaps more importantly) the broader implications of that idea.
These topics and ideas are, of course, design-centric, which I understand may not on its surface sound interesting to many people. For example, most people, I daresay, don’t look at a concrete pylon or the median strip of a road or even the layout of airports with much curiosity. They simply accept these as part of their reality without stopping to consider the broader narrative of each and every human-made object or place they interact with every single day. All of these objects, whether poorly or masterfully, were designed by another human being, and they were designed with you in mind. Perhaps the object was designed as a simple and straightforward tool to be used just as you think it ought to be used, like a shovel or a pencil or a door. But perhaps, or rather probably, not.
Many objects and places and things have ulterior motives. They’re designed to modify your behavior in some way shape or form. Did you ever notice the armrests (or even just raised ridges) dividing the seats of benches in public spaces like parks or airports? Have you ever thought about trying to lie down on one of these benches? No? That’s because they’re designed not to allow for lying down. Maybe you’ve personally never had to or wanted to, but there’s a fairly substantial population of people who have--people who don’t have a comfortable place to sleep at night, and are by many a designer considered to be undesirable nuisances. And these benches are designed with that in mind--that is, they’re designed to be unwelcoming toward this group of people over the long term. So, trust me, you’re interested in design. Even if you think you’re not interested, you are. I gave a somewhat extreme example of how spaces can be made to feel unwelcoming toward particular groups of people, but they can also be designed with the opposite purpose in mind, and with every other purpose in between. Every object you interact with, by its very nature, influences your behavior. Do you think you’re just casually sitting here reading this uninfluenced? The chair you’re sitting in right now is very likely subtly designed to encourage good posture (though you’re probably fighting it every step of the way). These are the topics that 99% Invisible explores and, with Roman Mars at the helm, they do a fantastic job.
But 99% Invisible isn’t perfect, and I do have one criticism. Consistency. Because of the show’s very topical nature, not every episode has the same appeal as the last, and occasionally the team strays from the path of simply discussing design and design implications. This is something that’s been happening more and more on the show lately, and I fear it’s due to the fact that the team and the show could be running out of steam. There are only so many topics to cover--the list is not infinite. But I still have faith. That said, the earlier and middle episodes of the show are certainly the best. Those episodes are when the team seemingly had their best conceptions of show ideas.
Close to perfect. This is one of the places the podcast shines the brightest, as the entirety of the production is in service to bolstering the narrative of the given topic.
Hit or miss. The episodes that tend to be the best usually follow the formula of beginning with a specific example of design in the real world (that often goes unnoticed), then giving a sort of behind-the-scenes expose on how the design works to affect our behavior or perceptions, and then applying that toward the broader implications of design in general. The episodes that I tend to find uninteresting (or, at least, less interesting), are those that take a particular topic and simply provide the narrative behind it, failing to explore the consequences. This is something a lot of podcasts do, and it’s no longer all that special. It relies more on the interesting-ness of the given topic and less on the ability of the producers to place that topic in a larger context--to fit all the puzzle pieces together so to speak.
Let’s just get this out of the way: Roman Mars. Best name ever.
Okay. Now that that’s covered. I’m a fan of Roman Mars. He has a soothing manner of speaking. He’s a great explainer who provides wonderful analogies, and he’s incredibly engaging. But occasionally he comes across as a bit of a condescending know-it-all. Still, he’s got my vote as one of the best podcasters out there thus far, and he pumps out good content (mostly) consistently.
When 99% Invisible pulls you in, it does so with no mercy. For many episodes, you may find yourself putting life on pause so as to focus entirely on the content of the podcast. Others, you’ll be halfway through and decide to just skip the rest.
Iffy, but I have faith that the team still has some amazing episodes up their sleeves. They just need to get back to the fundamentals of what made the show so good in the first place.
Overall Score: 8.6/10
This is a show to start with Season 1 and work your way toward the present. But here are some I recommend if you prefer:
- 99% Details
- 99% Symbolic
- 99% Private
- The Biography of 100,000 Square Feet
- Design for Airports
- The Blue Yarn
If you like this podcast, you’ll probably like:
- What’s the Point
- TED Radio Hour
- Note to Self
99% Invisible's Website