Learning Series

May 06 2016 // 6:00 AM

Reviewing: 99% Invisible Podcast Series

Written by Alex Smith | @PAEVENalex

There are few things in life that can benefit you both professionally and personally. In my search for those few things I stumbled across a podcast that seems to not only help me at work but seems to inspire me each time I listen. The podcast series is called 99% Invisible. Taken from a Buckminister Fuller quote: "Ninety-nine percent of who you are is invisible and untouchable,” this podcast attempts to look at just that, the part of design that goes unnoticed, the work and the details that go into the final product we see every day. 

The podcast is the brainchild of creator and host Roman Mars, who is supported by an incredible team of producers, editors and researchers centered in San Francisco, and work out of the office of a local architecture firm. Geared towards architects, designers, artists and those who are curious, this podcast is captivating because it takes a look at simple and unusual topics, and dives right into the tiniest details a designer would truly appreciate.  Episode topics are all over the map, and range from the obsession people have with the Portland airport carpet, to the history of the revolving door. They dig deeper into a topic than you thought was possible, revealing extraordinary perspectives on the simplest objects, ideas, and occurrences. Above all, the show is a wonderful example of captivating and informational journalism that proves that storytelling can enhance any subject matter.

If you’re looking for new perspectives on a variety of categories related to human-made environments and cultural oddities, look no further.  The show’s use of storytelling is much more valuable than any guide or how-to book, in this scenario. I encourage this type of content consumption because the typical boundaries of the everyday are expanded, and this allows us to challenge the daily habits of the way we understand our world. The show is littered with random topics, but that’s what I love about it. You never know when a word or sentence is going to spark a transformation in your thinking. I may be over selling the podcast, and while I don’t claim it will change your life, I always find it worth a listen. 

One of the most thought-provoking episodes I found was titled Vexillonaire. This episode explained the field of flag design.  What does the design of a national, state, or city flag have to do with anything? Just knowing that flag associations exist and people who study flags are called vexillologists is enough information to create a flurry of collateral questions. This may then lead you to take a closer look at your city’s flag, and according to Mars, if you can’t immediately picture what your city’s flag looks like, chances are it’s not so great. Flags represent the image of the locality they serve. Flags represent the nations, states and cities they fly over. Flags represent the society and the built environment they symbolize. Doesn’t real estate development and architectural design have the same goals and responsibilities in forming the outward presentation of our values and aspirations to a global audience? After listening, I asked myself, what can I learn from the design of flags in our own industry? 

This question spurred a whole series of other questions that got me wondering if I am being strategic in all aspects of my business with regard to presentation and symbology. The question alone left me questioning my actions, and while I don’t have these answers, I enjoyed the questions this episode provoked. So in my experience with the 99% Invisible podcast, after listening to an episode, I find I have learned a few facts, but I always leave with more questions than I had in the first place.

What I also respect about the series is that they are funded by the listeners through Kickstarter, donations, and promotions. I call them promotions instead of advertisements because I actually find the promotions for sponsors at the end of each episode worth listening to. Additionally, from what I can tell, the program only supports those services which they actually believe in. This I feel is a lesson all ad driven services can learn from. Beyond that they are products and services I’m actually interested in using, which only adds to the genuineness of the show.

The group publishes an episode about once a week. Episodes are anywhere from 5 - 20 minutes long and they never take themselves too seriously. I have to admit that I haven’t listened to all of the 202 episodes as of today, but here is a list of my favorite episodes right now that have me hooked and keep me coming back:

  • Episode 152: Guerrilla Public Service
  • Episode 166: Viva La Arquitectura
  • Episode 161: Show of Force
  • Episode 140: Vexillonaire

If you have some free time right now, follow the link to get hooked:

Have you found a favorite episode yet? Let me know in the comments below.

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