The Best Little Tiny Radio Show About Design

A chat with '99% Invisible' host Roman Mars

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San Francisco public radio show 99% Invisible is described by its creator, Roman Mars, as “a short, highly produced, story-driven audio exploration into some cool, but quite possibly, outwardly mundane piece of human ingenuity.” Mars took the name from an R. Buckminster Fuller quote about the “99 percent invisible” activity that shapes the world, and explains that through this wide lens, he can cover just about anything.

When I first heard the program, I had one of those can’t-leave-the-car-until-it’s-over moments, usually reserved for segments of This American Life. Indeed, Mars may be on his way to becoming the Ira Glass of design. After he and I recently finished taping a segment on the design of airports, I turned the tape recorder around to ask him a few questions about his “tiny radio show about design.”

You recently interviewed an engineer from ARUP about what contemporary structures can learn from the ancient pyramids. You explain the obscure yet embedded in pop culture Plimsoll line, and showcase the “unsung icons of Soviet Design.” How do you choose from a seemingly infinite number of subjects?

I have dozens of ideas in mind and I’ll just think of a funny line I want to say, or a piece of tape I want to use, or I’ll stumble on a song that I think will make really good bed music ... anything that provides a toehold to get going, and that’ll be next episode. It’s not very planned out.

I don’t tend to cover anything that’s currently in the news and I don’t often gush about consumer objects or designers and architects. That doesn’t interest me. I’m only interested in the story of objects and all the thought that goes into things that most people don’t bother thinking about. [Since I began doing the show] I view every difficulty or confusion as a place where design can be improved and try to deduce why a thing is the way it is.

Though you've covered cul de sacs most of your subjects feel more urban. Does design assume a different level of importance in cities vs. suburbs?

I’m not sure if design is necessarily more important in cities, but there do tend to be more interlocking systems that require good problem solving. When I live in a city I get a greater sense that I’m part of a bigger organism that has a will of its own, that can trump my individual desires. When those systems are well designed, I’m happy to acquiesce. When they aren’t, it creates a tension. The episode I did with [producer] Katie Mingle about cul de sacs highlighted all the bad suburban planning that’s represented by the cul de sac, but I wanted to make sure we gave voice to the point of view that good design somewhat depends on your priorities. In the piece, Matt Lassiter [a professor and author of The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South] says that cul de sacs are great for little kids, but we shouldn’t be designing developments “organized around the needs of 5-year-olds.” However, as someone with twin 5-year-olds, I feel like I design my life around their needs constantly, and I don’t always make the best choice for the world at large. So my take is that design (good and bad) is everywhere, it just manifests itself in different ways depending on where you are.

What are some of the more intriguing urban topics you've covered?

My first episode discussed the acoustic design of the San Francisco Public Library and all the other various ways sound and noise are considered in urban environments. Sound design is often overlooked and exploring it can make for fun radio, so I’ve also had episodes that covered sound design of electrical devices and all the clever ways acoustics can be brought into the architectural equation.

I like to examine buildings and how they succeed and fail. The Transamerica Pyramid was opposed by the AIA [American Institute of Architects] SF when it was planned and first built, but over time it has become loved by the same AIA chapter president who once argued against it. Harry Weese’s jailhouse skyscraper in downtown Chicago, known as the MCC, which looks like an old computer punch card, also has a storied history of opposition and acceptance.

People ask me about my favorite style of architecture and I can honestly say that I really don’t have a preference. My bias is a story bias. If a building tells a good story, I love it.

99% Invisible airs weekly on 91.7 KALW in San Francisco, or online at publicradioremix.org

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