Design Feature #14

Uncovering The Sound of Hidden Design


Written by RMM
Photos by ©99%Invisible

Good design, as design writer and researcher Jared Spool once said, becomes invisible when it’s done well.

We only notice design when it’s poorly done. Bad design is 1999 Geocities webpages, or having two urinals perpendicular to each other. Good design is a sleek modern building (often Tadao Ando), or a timeless piece of furniture (usually by Charles Eames).


But good design is more than that. It is those notches on your toothbrush, elevator buttons, street signs, and slot machines.

It is about “the things that we don’t think about or notice, because they probably had the most thought put into it” (Roman Mars).

Named after a quote by R. Buckminster Fuller, 99% Invisible is a short online radio show that celebrates design we overlook in our everyday lives.

In short: the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world. It explores, picks apart, obsesses, and exposes simple observations about our built world, and turns these observations into beautiful audio stories that would delight even the most hardnosed design cynic.

Roman Mars

Each episode is carefully constructed by Roman Mars and his small team in his tiny home studio, and every episode is a labour of love – a ten minute ode to design and equally important, radio. It’s no surprise, since Roman lives and breathes radio. After a stint at a research lab (he majored in plant population genetics), and listening to hours of public radio programmes, Roman dove headfirst into the world of radio. He cut his teeth at KALW (a local public radio station from San Francisco), hosting a show on zines and independent press. His success led him to Chicago and back to KALW, where 99% Invisible took shape.

99% Invisible doesn’t follow a traditional story ‘trajectory’ where there’s a protagonist and a storyline. But Roman has a knack for creating compelling narratives out of the most banal things (think revolving doors). Coupled with his soothing voice, listeners are lulled into a world where no design stone is left unturned.

Revolving Doors

And perhaps that’s why it has exploded with popularity over the years, culminating in a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign in 2012 where this tiny radio show raised over US$42,000 in one day. 99% Invisible made it okay for everyday people to comment on architecture and design. It is a conscious effort to collect people’s experiences and feelings about what is often thought of as a highbrow topic. Roman’s enthusiasm for translating an otherwise visual medium into audio documentaries is nothing short of amazing, and his listeners realise that.

Kickstarter Rewards

What comes out of this cult favourite is a new way to look at the world. 99% Invisible lets us know that design awareness isn’t just there to make things beautiful – it’s there to make complexity understandable.

Official Website:

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