Roman Mars’s 99% Invisible bills itself as “a tiny radio show about design, architecture and the 99-per-cent invisible activity that shapes our world,” but it’s hardly so little any more. Midway through its fourth season, it is consistently one of the most popular podcasts on iTunes. It boasted nearly two million downloads in May alone.
In 2012, a Kickstarter campaign launched to help keep the show alive earned more than $170,000 (U.S.), making it the most funded journalism project in the crowdfunding site’s history. The success of the show, which features everything from examinations of culs-de-sac to high-heel shoes that run anywhere from a few minutes to more than 20, speaks to the widespread interest in design and how it shapes our lives. The Globe reached Mars by phone in San Francisco to discuss the power of design and the pressure of popularity.
There are so many design-oriented websites and podcasts out there, but yours draws a huge audience. What is the secret?
I think people like the format. The least generous way to put this is, they like This American Life and RadioLab and so they’re just looking for some other fix. In terms of design audience, when I was conceiving of the show I did a sort of survey of how people were covering design. There was some good, thoughtful stuff [including] long-form interviews. But often it was focused on the new shiny building, the new type of designer. It felt like I could add something where that thirst for explanatory journalism that was out there in the world, that thirst for the story behind things, could be applied with a design lens.
Where did the idea for the show come from?
I was doing a lot of work at KALW, which is a radio station here in San Francisco that I started at. They had some friends in common with the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects. They were just sort of talking one day about, “There should be a little, minute-long story about a building in San Francisco and wouldn’t that be cool.” My vision of it was, if it was about design in a broad sense it would be better, it would appeal to me, and I wanted it to be longer.
The show looks at how objects and the built environment influence our lives, whether it’s why electronic devices make certain sounds or how culs-de-sac promote isolation. Have you always looked at the world this way?
A little bit, but not really. The show made me into the person I wanted to be. I want to be the person who notices things and pays attention and is thoughtful and curious.
Can people put too much stock in the power of design?
Kind of like right-wingers who believe that the market will solve everything, there’s a lot of designers who think that design can solve everything. I think there’s a pathology in the love of design that can be dangerous, but I think that for the most part it makes me optimistic.
Your show has a huge audience, and it is on a weekly schedule this season for the first time, which means you have to come up with more subjects. Is there a pressure to the growing popularity?
Right now it’s in a sweet spot, I think. You get more criticism, but that’s expected because there’s more listeners.
You’ve said that you enjoyed being mistaken for an architect in the past. Does that still happen?
All the time. I still love that one. That’s my favourite compliment. When I got to architecture conferences, [people will ask], “How did you transition from architecture to this?” I’ll think, thank God. Because I feel that sometimes, especially some of my assertions or opinions about things, I feel like such a rube sometimes. But I’m fooling enough people.
Design can often be such a rarefied world of various specialties and expertise. Do you ever feel intimidated?
I think I know enough about it by now to know that most of design is about logic. So if you just have a good head on your shoulders you can keep up. That’s the first step. The second step is, the heart of the show is the exploration, it’s the not knowing.
Your Kickstarter in 2012 made headlines for its success. Would the show have survived without that money?
Probably not. I was really nervous.
What do you think of Ira Glass leaving his long-time distributor, Public Radio International, and taking his show, This American Life, independent? He’s partnered with the same people I’m now partnered with, PRX [Public Radio Exchange]. He has such a big show, such a big operation, and so much he was doing himself already, and so competently, that I didn’t know why he was paying PRI to do anything. It didn’t make any sense to me at all.