99% Invisible is 100% remarkable

Photo courtesy of 99pi

99% Invisible focuses on mostly unnoticed human designs.
Photo courtesy of 99pi
Podcast turns the overlooked into the unforgettable

When was the last time the gently sloping sidewalks were appreciated for their design to make the world more accessible for the disabled? Or the design of drawn dinosaurs? Or the thought about just how the city of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma was originally laid out?

If none of these small facets of life have been reflected upon, there’s a surefire way to fix that. 99% Invisible, an independently run podcast, focuses on shining the light of investigative journalism onto aspects of human-made designs that don’t receive the appreciation they deserve. 

Each episode chronicles one of the show’s producers taking a deep dive into the architecture or design of one item. The narrow scope of each episode driven by a singular voice creates an intimate learning experience. 

The name of the show stems from the architect Buckminister Fuller, who once said, “99 percent of who you are is invisible.” Instead of letting that phrase only explain humans, the podcast’s creator, Roman Mars, used this as the guiding logic for the radio show.

“You can see stories in everything,” Mars said in an interview for Fast Company, who named him one of the 100 Most Creative People in 2013.

Mars brought 99% Invisible into existence through one of the most successful crowdfunding campaigns for a podcast in Kickstarter history. Original episodes from the show’s beginning in 2010 focus on subjects like the hulls of tugboats or the clicks of a computer keyboard. 

All episodes surround a human-designed object in the broad sense, then pull back the curtain to reveal the story behind them. Take episode 330, “Raccoon Resistance,” for example. Through diving in to the design of Toronto’s recycling bin containers, listeners learn about both the bin’s construction to deter raccoons from pillaging them and the love Toronto residents have for their raccoons through their hesitancies to completely eliminate their food supply with the raccoon-proof green bins.

There’s no set length of each episode but rather just enough space to explain why this overlooked aspect of the human experience deserves some attention. Some episodes near an hour, some barely reach 20 minutes, but all episodes are impossible to forget.

The limitations of an audio-based media platform isn’t restriction for a show that focuses primarily on visual subjects. This hurdle forces the show to create emotionally led narratives to elicit a response from listeners. 

Instead of feeling like a scripted talk through something moderately interesting, each producer for the show pours weeks to months of research into their stories. Stories are sometimes extremely personal, like episode 337, “Atomic Tattoos,” where producer Liza Yeager explains why her grandmother was tattooed with her blood type on her arm by her high school in the 1950s in the case of a nuclear war. (The curious reader must find out by listening… no spoilers.) Every story, however, surprises the listener with backstory that’s both previously unknown and inevitably fascinating.

Yes, the common theme of 99% Invisible is design, but the common thread is humanity. Humans have made things that have failed, things that have succeeded; they have made things that have ruined lives and things that have changed them.

Regardless of the level of interest in the subject of design, every single person can unite under the banner of 99% Invisible and walk away with an arsenal of quirky conversation topics for the next awkward social gathering. 

Photo courtesy of 99pi

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