As host of the weekly radio show and podcast 99% Invisible, Roman Mars takes a democratic interest in the stories behind all kinds of design. With typically “tiny” 4- to 10-minute segments (a project of KALW in San Francisco), Mars has explored the past and future of the Purple Hotel outside of Chicago, designed by John Macsai, the sound of the World Trade Center towers “breathing,” and depression induced by airport design, among many other topics. With richly layered music and sound effects and clever editing, Mars’s style is entirely his own but owes something to This American Life and Radiolab, two wildly popular radio shows that use storytelling to find meaning in the mundane and idiosyncratic. This summer, Mars launched a $42,000 Kickstarter campaign to fund the third season of 99% Invisible. He blew past his goal in less than 24 hours and went on to raise over $170,000. The third season started on September 19.
Your background is in science, specifically plant genetics. I can see a link between that kind of study and the way your show dissects the DNA of the designed world. How do you connect these interests?
The main thing is that a good education, regardless of the subject, teaches you to think critically. My time spent working on my PhD, even though I never got it, is not wasted. At least that’s what I tell myself. It makes you disciplined in a way of thinking. It also gives you a desire to study and read things, and to wade through things that are hard. Since I’m not trained in architecture, I have to get through the stuff that is really new to me.
Why did you decide to create 99% Invisible?
AIA San Francisco had a relationship with KALW, the public radio station. I had worked with KALW for years and years—it’s where I started in radio. They had an idea for an “architecture minute” in Morning Edition and I was asked to help them conceptualize it. (A lot of my job is to help radio shows get started.) I got really intrigued by it as a project I would actually do, rather than as a project I would pass off. I thought, “I think I can make something someone really loves if I could have 4.5 minutes.” I became really interested when I thought I could focus pretty broadly on design. AIA San Francisco has been hands-off and supportive.
There is something unexpectedly powerful in hearing about a particular building or object with a corresponding soundtrack. Were you surprised by the response the show has received?
I thought it would be good from the beginning. It wasn’t until I was into it a bit that people would say, “I thought you were insane for doing it. I thought that would be the worst show ever!” But—from Apple products to Gary Hustwit’s documentary Helvetica—people are more aware of design. I sensed that the approach I was planning to take, this radiophonic way, would hit people nicely if you did it right. I like that people say, “I don’t care about design, but I love the show.”
How did you come up with the name 99% Invisible?
AIA San Francisco gathered a bunch of people for the first pitch meeting, including John Edson from the design firm Lunar, who was the first funder of the show, and Gary Strang, the landscape architect. Strang brought Bruce Mau’s book Massive Change. There’s a quote from Buckminster Fuller about the 99% invisible forces that shape the world. I just thought it worked, because it captured the spirit of what I wanted. I didn’t want to call it "design" or "architecture". I wanted it to be about the story behind objects, not about glorifying objects. It’s not so much that the objects are not notable, it’s that the best part is the thought that goes into them. When he said that, I ran home and registered the domain. That’s when I was sold on the show.
Why did you decide to try to raise money for the third season on Kickstarter?
I needed to do it, and I don’t want to discount anyone who funded it before, but it was not a proper amount of pay for the work. It was getting more popular and I was getting requests for more. I still can’t really turn it into a full time job. I was looking for different sponsorships, but they were never at a self-sustaining level. Since I’d built up a pretty sizeable audience, I thought Kickstarter would work. I was completely unaware that the Kickstarter story itself would be intriguing. I’ve done pledge drives my entire life in radio and it seemed like an extension of that. Once we raised the money in 24 hours, I got the idea to do the backer goal. Debbie Millman [host of the Design Observer podcast Design Matters] put up the challenge grant for $10,000. She’s always been super supportive and kind. She has this greater mission about what design should mean to the public.
What does the money you raised allow you to do?
We’ll do at least 40 shows. We’ll do a video episode. I hired producer Sam Greenspan four days a week to work on other sustainability things, like applying for grants, which I was never able to get done. There isn’t going to be a Kickstarter for season four. It’s about coming up with new ways to sustain the show. It secures the future. We’ve been given every opportunity now, so if we succeed or fail, it’s on us.
Can you give us any spoilers about this season’s topics?
We’re doing a story on the Alvord Lake Bridge, one of the oldest reinforced concrete bridges in Golden Gate Park. I’m obsessed with it. It’s really significant … Stuff about old Warsaw, when it was destroyed by the war and recreated by the Soviets. We’re going to have a follow up on the idea of the architecture of the Internet and net neutrality. We’re working with Andrea Seabrook, who used to be at NPR and now hosts the podcast DecodeDC, on something about the design of sets for political rallies. I want to do something about the Citicorp building in New York City and its near-disastrous engineering error, which was discovered by an architecture student. It’s a famous story, but it’s never mentioned who the student was. They always refer to the student as a man, and it’s not!