By Aatish Nath
Roman Mars’ voice manages to be both soothing and slightly robotic at the same time. How he does it, we’ll never know, but its besides the point. The point of 99% invisible is to talk about architecture and design — good design, that which is unnoticed and almost invisible (hence its name), and how it has an impact on your everyday lives.
Granted, a lot of the stories have an American bias, but they’re universal in their desire to celebrate the hidden aspects of design. So there’s stories like ‘The Fresno Drop’ which tells the story of how Bank of America piloted the first credit cards in history in the small California town of Fresno. The ubiquity of credit cards today is a testament to how the experiment went. Other episodes (each of which is about 20 mins, at the most) tell the stories of how bootleg records in the Soviet Union used to be made on exposed X-Rays, or about why neon gave way to LED’s and other lights (its because each neon tube has to be hand-bent by skilled artisans, an expensive proposition in today’s day and age).
The episodes find an entry into everyday life — the best stories revolve around infrastructure and cites — but they can also delve into history, and architecture among other topics. With the help of a producer, Mars delves deep and comes up with the interesting story behind some truly amazing things. Did you know that fresh ice used to be shipped from the lakes of Boston to the shores of India (before refrigerators) or that much like Lodha Developers has rechristened Wadala and named it New Cuffe Parade, in America — there’s a spate of developers renaming neighbourhoods in the hopes of higher property prices.
Whether that helps, or hurts, and its impact on long-term residents are all analysed in the story.
The reason that 99% Invisible works, is it spotlights topics that are part of the everyday, but that are often overlooked. These (often well-designed) aspects of life are those that aren’t given a second thought, till Mars and his team come along and force you to think about the consideration that goes into making a pleasant experience — especially one that stands the test of time.
Mars’ natural fascination shines through, and it is this earnestness that propels each episode forward. He’s also done a TED talk, in the form of an episode that both shows the creativity that goes into creating each episode, as well as being an interesting deep dive into the world of cities and their flags.
For those who like to understand how the invisible impacts the everyday, this is a podcast that’s not to be missed. And if all else fails, there’s always that incredibly soothing voice.
Aatish tweets at @aatishn