Wednesday, May 4, 2011

You Should Listen to 99% Invisible

Thanks to my office Christmas present of an ipod nano (I know, right?) I've become even more addicted to NPR podcasts. The good folks at NPR keep me company on the plane, when I'm walking to pick up Peanut-Butter Snickers from CVS, and while I complete menial tasks around the house.  I'm super grateful to have rational, intelligent, reasonable minds keeping me company and offering new perspectives.  So assuming you like that too (why wouldn't you), let me share with you one of my most recent favorite things (besides Peanut-Butter Snickers).  Most everyone's heard about This American Life, All Things Considered, Car Talk and Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me, but if you haven't already added 99% Invisible to your podcast playlist you should. I love it. describes the show as: "a tiny radio show that explores the 99% invisible activity that shapes the design of our world." And they're not kidding about tiny- most episodes are about 4.5 minutes long, but there have been 23 episodes- plus podcast listeners tend to get extra content- so there's plenty for you to listen to if you start from the beginning. 

The show, produced by Roman Mars, is far-reaching in its scope.  If you read "design" and thought it must only mean architecture- or perhaps some reference to Intelligent Design- you'd be wide off the mark.  What the show does highlight, in an endearingly whimsical yet still intelligent way, are multitudes of tiny, calculated efforts made by well-informed specialists to make our world better- more efficient, more meaningful, more useful.  Past episodes have covered such wide-ranging topics as the periodic table, augmented reality music, optimal toothbrushes, the principles of good flag design, a one-way mission to Mars, and Esperanto, just to name a few. 

The very first episode, for example, focuses on the successes, failures, and issues in the world of "sound design".  It references the efforts of sound designer Dennis Paoletti to correct a flaw in architectural design that led the main info desk of a library to be positioned at the exact crux of the echoes and reverberations of the entire lobby.  His solution- move the desk- which led to another problem: the design of crowd movement across the floor of the lobby.  And then the episode moves on to the Epic of Gilgamesh.  And it finishes with a discussion of whether or not a city can have unique "environmental sound" that adds to its character rather than annoys.  If this doesn't sound fascinating, it's because I'm not Roman Mars, but seriously, you should let his mesmerizing story-telling take you away.

I'll close with two of my favorite sentences from past episodes:

"I'm sorry, but if you don't love maps, I don't think we can be friends any more."
(Episode 13-Maps, they don’t love you like I love you)

and, said jovially:

"If you don't approve of that sentence, I don't want to live in your dark and joyless little world."
(Episode 16- A Designed Language)

Now, who wants to join me in a Peanut-Butter Snickers?


  1. This is such a lovely review. You've totally made my day. Thanks!