Architecture is just about the last thing that some want to hear a 30-minute lecture on, and the facts suggest that UA students may agree. Of the 6,494 degrees awarded by the UA in the 2013-2014 academic year, only 46 were from the College of Architecture, Planning & Landscape Architecture. A podcast called “99% Invisible,” though, makes architecture and design the source of some of the best storytelling online.
One would think that architecture and design is an overly specific topic that would cloister the producers into mundane topics, but “99% Invisible” has a surprising new topic every week. It has produced stories on everything from a university professor building his own spacesuit to how to ethically design prisons.
A new 10- to 30-minute episode is released weekly and usually features a nonfiction story narrated by one of the show’s four producers.
The show was created by Roman Mars, and his soothing voice can often be heard interjecting throughout their stories. Mars is perhaps one of the few podcast hosts that could be described as charming. His childlike fascination with design makes stories more engaging and complicated topics feel digestible.
“99% Invisible” often features architecture or design experts, which is easy for the show because it shares an office with an architecture firm in Oakland, Calif.
One of “99% Invisible’s” recent episodes, titled “Guerilla Public Service,” tells the story of Richard Ankrom, a man so frustrated with the Los Angeles freeway that he decided to do his own maintenance.
Ankrom kept missing the same freeway exit and realized that there were not adequate signs telling drivers to exit.
As an artist, Ankrom found the handbook of standards from the California Department of Transportation and recreated the necessary traffic sign that looked identical to a standard one. He even spray painted the face of the sign with a hazy grey paint so it blended in with the old, dirty signs.
A group of friends filmed Ankrom as he installed the sign himself at sunrise on a Sunday morning. Even with scheduled maintenance happening a few exits away, Ankrom safely installed the sign and escaped unnoticed. The sign stayed up for over eight years, even after the secret had been leaked to the California Department of Transportation and the national media.
“99% Invisible” is one of the few shows you don’t want to skip through the ads for. Mars often has help during his sponsored messages from his two young sons who make the advertisements part of the show.
However, not all of his money comes from advertisements. Since starting “99% Invisible” in his home office, he has become one of the most successful crowdfunded journalists in the U.S. Mars raised over $500,000 for “99% Invisible” with a Kickstarter campaign and used a second campaign to raise over $600,000 for a network of 11 podcasts called Radiotopia.
“99% Invisible” gets its name from a quote from architect Buckminster Fuller, who said, “99 percent of who you are is invisible and untouchable.”
Architecture and design is built upon this same principle. We tend to only notice bad design; if something is designed well, it blends into the background and becomes invisible. “99% Invisible” is dedicated to sharing the stories behind these designs and giving a spotlight on how it affects our choices and behavior.
You can listen to “99% Invisible” by streaming or downloading its episodes for free from its website.
Follow Patrick O’Connor on Twitter.