99% Invisible

99% Invisible is a tiny radio show about design and architecture.

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March 13, 2018

All around the country, there stands a figure so much a part of historical architecture and urban landscapes that she is rarely noticed. She has gone by many names, from Star Maiden to Priestess of Culture, Spirit of Life to Mourning Victory. Now nearly forgotten, Audrey Munson was once the most famous artist’s model in the United States.

In and beyond her time, she has represented many things, including truth, memory, seasons, the stars, and even the universe itself. Immortalized in iron, marble and gold, Audrey remains perched on high, quietly watching over cities from coast to coast.

Miss Manhattan

March 6, 2018

In the late 1920s, the Ford Motor Company bought up millions of acres of land in Brazil. They loaded boats with machinery and supplies, and shipped them deep into the Amazon rainforest. Workers cut down trees and cleared the land and then they built a rubber plantation in the middle of one of the wildest places on earth. But Henry Ford wanted this community — called “Fordlândia” — to be more than just a huge plantation. He envisioned an industrial utopia. He paid his Brazilian workers good wages, at least for the region. And he tried to build them the kind of place he would’ve loved to live, which is to say: a small Midwestern town…but in the middle of the jungle.


In the second segment, we discuss Roman’s other show What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law

February 27, 2018

The Bijlmermeer (or Bijlmer, for short) was built just outside of Amsterdam in the 1960s. It was designed by modernist architects to be a “city of the future” with its functions separated into distinct zones. To Modernists, it represented a vision of the city as a well-oiled machine Upon completion, it was a massive expanse of 31 concrete towers. There were 13,000 apartments, many of them unoccupied. Just sitting there, totally empty.

Listen to Part 1 of this story here.

In Part 2, we look at how the migration of tens of thousands of Surinamese Dutch began to give the empty place life where it wasn’t before and how a tragic accident kickstarted a redesign that managed to do what the Modernists neglected to do: listen to the people who live there.

Blood, Sweat and Tears (City of the Future, Part 2)

February 20, 2018

After World War 2, city planners in Amsterdam wanted to design the perfect “City of the Future.” They decided to build a new neighborhood, close to Amsterdam, that would be a perfect encapsulation of Modernist principles. It was called the Bijlmermeer, and it tested the lofty ideas of the International Congress of Modern Architecture on a grand scale. When it was over, no one would ever try it again.

Bijlmer (City of the Future, Part 1)

February 13, 2018

The Chase logo was introduced in 1961, when the Chase National Bank and the Bank of the Manhattan Company merged to form the Chase Manhattan Bank. At the time, few American corporations used abstract symbols for their identification. Seen as radical in that context, the Chase symbol has survived a number of subsequent mergers and has become one of the world’s most recognizable trademarks. Its graphic designer, Tom Geismar, has been a driving force in the field of design and graphic identity for over 60 years. The influence of the firm he co-founded can be felt in logos you see every day.

Making a Mark: Visual Identity with Tom Geismar

February 6, 2018

When current President Donald Trump took office, he promised to build an “an impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall.” The first part of this episode by Radio Diaries tells two stories of what happens when, instead of people crossing the border, the border crosses the people. Then, in part two of the show, Avery Trufelman takes a closer look at eight current designs that have been turned into prototypes near the border in California.

Border Wall

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January 30, 2018

In the 1970s it looked like the beloved, 200-year-old Cape Hatteras lighthouse was in danger. The sea was getting closer and threatening to swallow it up. And people were torn over what to do about it – they could move the lighthouse, or leave it in place and try to defend it against the forces of nature. For the next 30 years, the locals fought an intense political battle over this decision. It’s the kind of battle we can expect to see a lot more of as sea levels rise and threaten coastal communities around the world.

Managed Retreat

January 23, 2018

Cartoonist and theorist Scott McCloud has been making and thinking about comics for decades. He is the author of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. This classic volume explores formal aspects of comics, the historical development of the medium, its fundamental vocabulary, and various ways in which these elements have been used.

Scott McCloud breaks down some of the universals in comics and guides us through some of the comic books that pushed the art form forward. Then we use that lens to look at graphic communication in the world at large.

Speech Bubbles: Understanding Comics with Scott McCloud

January 16, 2018

When air conditioning was invented in 1902, it was designed to take out the humidity in the air so printers could run four color magazines, without the colors becoming offset due to the paper warping from moisture. A young engineer named Willis Carrier developed a system that pumps air over metal coils cooled with ammonia to pull moisture from the air, but it had a side effect — it also made the air cooler. Very quickly Carrier began to think about how it could be used beyond printing. Ultimately, air conditioning would dramatically change where people in the United States lived and the design of homes and other buildings.

Thermal Delight

January 9, 2018

This part two of the 2017/2018 mini-stories episodes, where Roman interviews the staff and our collaborators about their favorite little design stories that don’t quite fill out an entire episode for whatever reason, but are cool 99pi stories, nonetheless.

We have underground tunnels, alarms, mysterious filing cabinets, and gold, tiny, tiny amounts of gold. Prepare to be very interesting at your next party.

Mini-Stories: Volume 4

January 2, 2018

Japan’s Shinkansen doesn’t look like your typical train. With its long and pointed nose, it can reach top speeds up to 150–200 miles per hour. It didn’t always look like this. Earlier models were rounder and louder, often suffering from the phenomenon of “tunnel boom,” where deafening compressed air would rush out of a tunnel after a train rushed in. But a moment of inspiration from engineer and birdwatcher Eiji Nakatsu led the system to be redesigned based on the aerodynamics of three species of birds. Nakatsu’s case is a fascinating example of biomimicry, the design movement pioneered by biologist and writer Janine Benyus.

This is one of a series of design videos we’re launching in partnership with Vox.


Subscribe to Vox’s YouTube channel here: http://goo.gl/0bsAjO

December 19, 2017

It’s the end of the year and time for our annual Mini-stories episodes. Mini-stories are quick hit stories that were maybe pitched to us from someone in the audience, or something interesting we saw on twitter, or just a cool tidbit that we found in our research that stuck in our heads, but didn’t warrant a full episode for whatever reason. We’ll have stories of mysterious ice boats, green ruins, sack dresses, steampunk violins, and a little update from a couple of the notable city flags that have been redesigned around the country.

Mini-Stories: Volume 3

December 12, 2017

In the early morning of August 5, 2001, artist Richard Ankrom and a group of friends assembled on the 4th Street bridge over the 110 freeway in Los Angeles. They had gathered to commit a crime. Years before, when Ankrom was driving through downtown Los Angeles, he was going to merge onto the I-5 North. But he missed the exit and got lost. The I-5 exit wasn’t indicated on the green overhead sign. It was clear to Ankrom that the California Department of Transportation had made a mistake. And for some reason, this stuck with him. Ankrom, an artist and sign painter, decided to make the Interstate 5 North shield himself. He also decided that he would take it upon himself to install it above the 110 freeway.

He would call it an act of “guerrilla public service.”

December 5, 2017

In the past fifty years, the car crash death rate has dropped by nearly 80 percent in the United States. And one of the reasons for that drop has to do with the “accident report forms” that police officers fill out when they respond to a wreck. Officers use these forms to document the weather conditions, to draw a diagram of the accident, and to identify the collision’s “primary cause.” All that information gathered on the side of the road goes from the accident report form into a federal database: the Fatality Analysis Reporting System.

Car companies, safety advocates, and regulators comb through this data constantly, looking for patterns that help them understand how and why people die in car wrecks. In turn, this information helps designers and engineers create safer vehicles and roadways. The data informs all kinds of design decisions around car safety — everything from speed limits to mandatory seat belts.

But this culture of heavily regulated, data-driven, auto-safety engineering did not always exist. In fact, for decades, automakers tried to keep data about car wrecks to themselves. They not only resisted making cars safer, they argued the very idea of a “safe car” was impossible.

The Nut Behind the Wheel

November 28, 2017

While the 1960s shift in print and TV advertising has been heavily documented and mythologized by Mad Men, Madison Avenue’s radiophonic collision with the counterculture is less well known. A radio advertising producer, writer, and composer, Clive Desmond takes listeners on a highly subjective journey through one narrow, eccentric, corridor of radio advertising. Here, he has rescued beautiful forgotten nuggets of radio history and delicately arranged them into a glittering associative chain—a constellation of jingles and spots that somehow all add up to more. A version of episode was originally featured on The Organist, a bi-weekly experimental arts-and-culture program from McSweeney’s and KCRW.

A 700-Foot Mountain of Whipped Cream

November 21, 2017

For a long time, anti-counterfeiting laws made it illegal to show US currency in movies. Now you can show real money, but fake money is often preferred. Creating fake money that doesn’t break the law, but looks real enough for film, is a tough design challenge.

Money Makers

November 14, 2017

When a new movie comes out, most of the praise goes to the director and the lead actors, but there are so many other people involved in a film, and a lot of them are designers. There are costume designers and set designers, but also graphic designers working behind the scenes on every single graphic object that you might need in a film. It’s Annie Atkins’s job to design them.

Hero Props

November 7, 2017

Back in the 1950s, St. Louis was segregated and The Ville was one of the only African-American neighborhoods in the city. The community was prosperous. Black-owned businesses thrived and the neighborhood was filled with the lovely, ornate brick homes the city has become famous for.

But driving around The Ville today, the neighborhood looks very different. Some buildings are simply rundown or abandoned, but others are missing large chunks entirely. Walls have disappeared. The bricks are gone. “We call them dollhouses,” says local Alderman Samuel Moore, “because you can look inside of them.”

People have been stealing the bricks.

Dollhouses of St. Louis

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October 31, 2017

New York was built at the mouth of the Hudson River, and that fertile estuary environment was filled with all kinds of marine life. But one creature in particular shaped the landscape: the oyster. It is estimated that trillions of oysters once surrounded New York City, filtering bacteria and acting as a natural buffer against storm surges.

Over time, pollution and other environmental changes killed off that oyster population. But a group of landscape architects are designing artificial oyster reefs to help protect the city and foster a better relationship between the natural and built environment along this coastal edge.


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October 24, 2017

There are a lot of Gothic churches in Spain, but this one is different. It doesn’t look like a Gothic cathedral. It looks organic, like it was built out of bones or sand. But there’s another thing that sets it apart from your average old Gothic cathedral: it isn’t actually old.

Gaudí wasn’t able to build very much of his famous church before he died in 1926. Most of it has been built in the last 40 years, and it still isn’t finished. Which means that architects have had to figure out, and still are figuring out, how Gaudí wanted the church to be built

La Sagrada Familia

October 18, 2017

The United States is one of just a handful of countries that that isn’t officially metric. Instead, Americans measure things our own way, in units that are basically inscrutable to non-Americans, nearly all of whom have been brought up in an all-metric environment. Most of the world uses meters, liters, and kilograms, not yards, gallons, and pounds. With so many industries and people crossing borders with so much fluidity, why has the U.S. not fully committed to the system the rest of the world uses? The answer is complicated.

Half Measures

October 10, 2017

It’s hard to overstate the vastness of the Skid Row neighborhood in Los Angeles. It spans roughly 50 blocks, which is about a fifth of the entire downtown area of Los Angeles. It’s very clear when you’ve entered Skid Row. The sidewalks are mostly occupied by makeshift homes. A dizzying array of tarps and tents stretch out for blocks, improvised living structures sitting side by side.
The edge of Skid Row is clearly defined and it wasn’t drawn by accident.  It’s the result of a very specific plan to keep homeless people on one side and development on the other. And, perhaps surprisingly to outsiders: it’s a plan that Skid Row residents and their allies actually designed and fought for.

The Containment Plan

October 3, 2017

Among the most important advances in sports technology, few can compete with the invention of the sports bra. Following the passage of Title IX in 1972, women’s interest in athletics surged. But their breasts presented an obstacle.
Bouncing breasts hurt, as women getting in on the jogging craze found out. Then some friends in Vermont had an idea to stitch a couple jock straps together to build a contraption to keep things in place.
This featured story was produced by Phoebe Flanigan and edited by Peter Frick-Wright, with music by Robbie Carver and Dennis Funk. XX Factor: How the Sports Bra Changed History was originally aired on the Outside podcast, a production of Outside Magazine and PRX.

The Athletic Brassiere

September 26, 2017

Ponte City Tower, the brutalist cylindrical high-rise that towers over Johannesburg, has gone from a symbol of white opulence to something far more complicated. It’s gone through very hard times, but also it’s hopeful. It’s a microcosm of the South Africa’s history, but it’s also a place that moves on. And to this day, this strange concrete tube at the center of Johannesburg’s skyline continues to play the same role for newcomers that it has for decades: serving as the diverse entry point to the city.

Ponte City Tower

September 19, 2017

Around the world, there is a lot of buzz around the idea of universal basic income (also known as “unconditional basic income” or UBI). It can take different forms or vary in the details, but in essence: UBI is the idea a government would pay all citizens, employed or not, a flat monthly sum to cover basic needs. This funding would come with no strings attached or special conditions, which would remove any potential stigma associated with receiving it. In short: it would be free money.

There’s been a lot of recent excitement around the idea, especially after an experiment launched by the Finnish government started in early 2017. It has the public and the media wondering: how will recipients react to getting this unconditional source of income.

The Finnish Experiment

September 12, 2017

Coal miner stickers started out as little advertisements that the manufacturers of mining equipment handed out. Even before the late 1960s, when mining safety laws started requiring reflective materials underground, miners used those stickers to stay visible to each other in the dark mines.
As time passed, the stickers evolved. They became more personal and started to tell miners’ stories. And the mine companies themselves started printing stickers for their workers. Stickers went from simple ads to signifying an identity. And as their role changed, stickers also came to serve as a kind of currency among miners.

Coal Hogs Work Safe

September 5, 2017

Computer algorithms now shape our world in profound and mostly invisible ways. They predict if we’ll be valuable customers and whether we’re likely to repay a loan. They filter what we see on social media, sort through resumes, and evaluate job performance. They inform prison sentences and monitor our health. Most of these algorithms have been created with good intentions. The goal is to replace subjective judgments with objective measurements. But it doesn’t always work out like that.
“I don’t think mathematical models are inherently evil — I think it’s the way they’re used that are evil,” says mathematician Cathy O’Neil, author of the book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. She has studied number theory, worked as a data scientist at start-ups, and built predictive algorithms for various private enterprises. Through her work, she’s become critical about the influence of poorly-designed algorithms.

The Age of the Algorithm

August 29, 2017

Monuments don’t just appear in the wake of someone’s death — they are erected for reasons specific to a time and place. In 1905, one such memorial was put up in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, to commemorate Nathan Bedford Forrest, who had died in 1877.
This week, we feature the story of an imagined plaque that could accompany this statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Nate DiMeo originally produced this story for his show The Memory Palace under the title: Notes on an Imagined Plaque to be Added to the Statue of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, Upon Hearing that the Memphis City Council has Voted to Move it and the Exhumed Remains of General Forrest and his Wife, Mary Ann Montgomery Forrest, from their Current Location in a Park Downtown, to the Nearby Elmwood Cemetery.

Notes on an Imagined Plaque

August 22, 2017

Tech analysts estimate that over six billion emojis are sent each day. Emojis, which started off as a collection of low-resolution pixelated images from Japan, have become a well-established and graphically sophisticated part of everyday global communication.

But who decides what emojis are available to users, and who makes the actual designs? Independent radio and film producer Mark Bramhill (Welcome to Macintosh) took it upon himself to find out and, in the process, ended up developing and pitching his own idea for a new emoji.

Person in Lotus Position

August 15, 2017

On the border of Virginia and North Carolina stretches a great, dismal swamp. The Great Dismal Swamp, actually — that’s the name British colonists gave it centuries ago. The swamp covers about 190 square miles today, but at its peak, before parts of it were drained and developed, it was around ten times bigger, spanning roughly 2,000 square miles of Virginia and North Carolina.
And it’s understandable why people called the swamp “dismal.” Temperatures can reach over 100 degrees. It’s humid and soggy, filled with thorns and thickets, teeming with all sorts of dangerous and unpleasant wildlife. The panthers that used to live there are now gone, but even today there are black bears, poisonous snakes, and swarms of yellow flies and mosquitoes.
Hundreds of years ago, before the Civil War, the dangers of the swamp and its seeming impenetrability actually attracted people to it. The land was so untamed that horses and boats couldn’t enter, and the colonists who were filing into the region detested it. William Byrd II, a Virginia planter, called it “a miserable morass where nothing can inhabit.” But people did inhabit the swamp, including thousands of enslaved Africans and African Americans who escaped their captors and formed communities in the swamp. This “dismal” landscape was the site of one of the most remarkable and least told stories of resistance to slavery in American history.

The Great Dismal Swamp

August 8, 2017

Imagine for a moment the year 1800. A doctor is meeting with a patient – most likely in the patient’s home. The patient is complaining about shortness of breath. A cough, a fever. The doctor might check the patient’s pulse or feel their belly, but unlike today, what’s happening inside of the patient’s body is basically unknowable. There’s no MRI. No X-rays. The living body is like a black box that can’t be opened.
The only way for a doctor to figure out what was wrong with a patient was to ask them, and as a result patients’ accounts of their symptoms were seen as diseases in themselves. While today a fever is seen as a symptom of some underlying disease like the flu, back then the fever was essentially regarded as the disease itself.
But in the early 1800s, an invention came along that changed everything. Suddenly the doctor could clearly hear what was happening inside the body. The heart, the lungs, the breath. This revolutionary device was the stethoscope.


August 1, 2017

When the tape started rolling in old analog recording studios, there was a feeling that musicians were about to capture a particular moment. On tape, there was no “undo.” They could try again, if they had the time and money, but they couldn’t move backwards. What’s done is done, for better and worse. Digital machines entered the mix in the 1980s, changing the way music was made — machines with a different sense of time. And the digital era has not just altered our tools for working with sound but also our relationship to time itself.
Part of the new Radiotopia Showcase, Ways of Hearing is a six-episode series hosted by musician Damon Krukowski (Galaxie 500, Damon & Naomi), exploring the nature of listening in our digital world. Each episode looks at a different way that the switch from analog to digital audio is influencing our perceptions, changing our ideas of Time, Space, Love, Money, Power and Noise. In the digital age, our voices carry further than they ever did before, but how are they being heard?
Plus, we have a little bonus, classic episode of 99pi, featuring Sound Opinions.

Ways of Hearing

July 25, 2017

In Spain, they do the lottery differently. First of all, it’s a country-wide obsession — about 75% of Spaniards buy a ticket. There’s more than one lottery in Spain, but the one that Spaniards are the most passionate about is “La Lotería de Navidad” (“The Christmas Lottery”). This lottery has taken place every year since 1812.
For better or worse, lotteries have long been considered by governments as useful ways to raise funds for public programs. But lotteries were, and still are, thought to be regressive taxes on the poor. Karl Marx called them a sinister instrument of the state, designed to dupe the poor into believing there was an easy way out of poverty. The church found lottery play to be blasphemous and superstitious.
In 1862, Spain responded to the criticisms as well: by re-designing their national lottery so that it wouldn’t take as much money from the poor. The government thought if the they set the price of tickets high, only rich people would buy them. But that’s not what happened. People began “syndicate” playing, or playing in groups. The lottery became more popular than ever.

El Gordo

Adobe XD
Sun Basket

July 18, 2017

This is the story of an ad campaign produced for the 1992 Olympic games in Barcelona. Perennial runner-up in the sports shoe category, Reebok, was trying to make its mark and take down Nike. They chose two athletes, plucked them out of obscurity, gave them Reeboks to wear, and turned them into household names, spending $25 million dollars in the process. That was more than Reebok’s entire marketing budget the previous year. This ad campaign is pretty much remembered as a disaster for Reebok, but it created an epic drama that pitted two world class decathletes against each other and ended up resulting in so many strange twists and turns. All because someone thought this was a clever way to sell shoes. This is the first episode of 30 for 30 podcasts, which are original audio documentaries from ESPN – stories about sports, that delves into their impact on culture, politics, and more. Hosted here by Jody Avirgan.

The Trials of Dan and Dave

Adobe XD
Zip Recruiter

July 11, 2017

Most people are familiar with at least one version of the birth control pill’s packaging — a round plastic disc which opens like a shell and looks like a makeup compact. But the pill wasn’t always packaged this way. The first birth control pill to hit the market came in a simple glass bottle of loose tablets, like any other prescription pill.
How the pill traveled from these nondescript bottles into some of the most heavily designed and recognizable pill packages in history, tells a story about the medical and cultural anxieties of the time.

Repackaging the Pill

Sonos (use code “invisible10”)

July 4, 2017

This is the story of a curvy, kidney-shaped swimming pool born in Northern Europe that had a huge ripple effect on popular culture in Southern California and landscape architecture in Northern California, and then the world. A documentary in three parts by Avery Trufelman.

The Pool and the Stream


June 27, 2017

The 1968 Olympics took place in Mexico City, Mexico. It was the first games ever hosted in a Latin American country. And for Mexico City, the event was an opportunity to show the world that they were a metropolis as worthy as London, Berlin, Rome or Tokyo to host this huge international affair.
Among other ground-breaking aspects of the Mexico 68 games, the graphic design campaign (including the logo, posters and other graphics) would become one of the most famous in Olympic history. It would go on to set a whole new standard for future Games.
And these government-commissioned designs would also be co-opted by local activists, who wanted to reveal the darker political reality in Mexico — a reality that they felt was being covered up behind the beautiful glossy imagery of the 1968 Games.

Mexico 68

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Adobe XD

June 20, 2017

“You should do a story…” is the first line to a lot of the conversations you have when you work at 99pi. This week we look into a bunch of those stories suggested by our listeners and present them to you: trademarks, desire paths, electricity standards, electric clocks, and a bevy of regional design solutions.

You Should Do a Story


June 13, 2017

In the 1992, the Baltimore Orioles opened their baseball season at a brand new stadium called Oriole Park at Camden Yards, right along the downtown harbor. The stadium was small and intimate, built with brick and iron trusses—a throwback to the classic ballparks from the early 20th century. It was popular right from the start. No one knew it at the time, but Oriole Park at Camden Yards would change the design of ballparks all around the country. Its success set off a building boom in baseball, as city after city built new stadiums based on the architectural principles laid down in Baltimore. That design revolution would fundamentally change the experience of going to the ballpark and the relationship between baseball and cities.

In the Same Ballpark

June 8, 2017

Special introductory episode to a new podcast produced by Roman Mars and Elizabeth Joh.

Professor Elizabeth Joh teaches Intro to Constitutional Law and most of the time this is a pretty straight forward job. But with Trump in office, everything has changed. Five minutes before class Professor Joh checks Twitter to find out what the 45th President has said and how it jibes with 200 years of the judicial branch interpreting and ruling on the Constitution. Hosted by acclaimed podcaster Roman Mars (99% Invisible, co-founder Radiotopia), this show is a weekly, fun, casual Con Law 101 class that uses the tweets and executive actions of President Trump to teach us all about the US Constitution. Music by Doomtree Records.

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What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law

May 30, 2017

In 1987, three years after moving to New York City, Maggie Wrigley found herself on the edge of homelessness. She was trying to figure out where to stay, when she heard about an abandoned tenement building on the Lower East Side. It was owned by the city, but it had been left empty and unmaintained. The building was full of rubble. Some of the walls were rotten and falling down. There was no running water. But it was a place to live, rent-free. Wrigley moved in.
It wasn’t just the building that was falling down. The whole Lower East Side — a neighborhood that today is filled with expensive boutiques and high-end condos — was struggling in the 1980s. There were trash-strewn lots and empty buildings everywhere. By the late 1980s, squatters like Wrigley would come to occupy more than a dozen old tenements on the Lower East Side.

Squatters of the Lower East Side

May 23, 2017

The Brazilian soccer shirt is iconic. Its bright canary yellow with green trim, worn with blue shorts, is known worldwide. The uniform is joyful and bold and seems to capture something essential about Brazil.
But it was not always this way. Brazil used to play in plain, unremarkable white shirts. The story of how the uniform changed goes back to the World Cup of 1950, held that year in Brazil for the first time.
Joe Sykes has the story of the new jersey, the man who designed it, and the secret he has kept for decades.

New Jersey

May 16, 2017

This episode was recorded live as part of the Radiotopia West Coast Tour.
It was the middle of the night on March 27, 1964. Earlier that evening, the second-biggest earthquake ever measured at the time had hit Anchorage, Alaska. 115 people died. Some houses had been turned completely upside down while others had skidded into the sea.
There was no light or power city — and for a long time, virtually no communication with the outside world. But there was one signal making it out of the devastated area.
Running on backup generators and a cracked transmitter, a radio station in Anchorage continued to broadcast. Then a station in Fairbanks picked up that signal and repeated it. A man in Juneau picked up that Fairbanks station, called a radio station in Seattle and let the broadcast play over his phone.
The president of that Anchorage radio station happened to be on a goodwill tour of Japan. And when he turned on a radio in Tokyo, he couldn’t believe what he was hearing — it was the voice of his own “newsgirl” back home, a woman by the name of Genie Chance.
Jon Mooallem produced this spoken story of reporter Genie Chance and the Great Alaska Earthquake — original music was created for the piece by the Frank Brink Community Players (featuring members of Black Prairie and The Decemberists).

This Is Chance: Anchorwoman of the Great Alaska Earthquake

May 9, 2017

In the town of Colma, California, the dead outnumber the living by a thousand to one. Located just ten miles south of San Francisco, Colma is filled with rolling green hills, manicured hedges, and 17 full size cemeteries (18 if you include the pet cemetery). 73% of Colma is taken up by graveyards. The motto of the town? “It’s great to be alive in Colma.”
Mount Auburn Cemetery, outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the first place to be specifically called a “cemetery,” taken from a Greek word for sleeping chamber. Its carefully landscaped design, modeled on English garden traditions, signified a pivot in how people viewed and interacted with places for the dead. Cemeteries used to be humble plots right in the middle of the city, but Mount Auburn was designed to look like a garden paradise- lightyears apart from everyday life.
Mount Auburn was significant at time when many cities lacked public parks and would go on to influence the design of public spaces more broadly. Colma also grew out of this precedent, and was designed in the Mount Auburn style. Avery Trufelman reports.

The Modern Necropolis

May 2, 2017

For most people, electricity only flows one way (into the home), but there are exceptions — people who use solar panels, for instance. In those cases, excess electricity created by the solar cells travels back out into the grid to be distributed elsewhere. And in some states, people can be paid for this excess electricity. The practice is called “net metering” (referring to the total or “net” amount of energy used). It all started in the 1970s when an engineer named Steven Strong hooked his solar panels up to the electric grid and fed electricity up the line without asking the permission of the power company. For a while it was a relatively non-controversial practice, but there are now big political battles being fought over it. We adapted this doc from the NHPR program Outside/In.

Reversing the Grid

April 18, 2017

In most wildlife films, the sounds you hear were not recorded while the cameras were rolling. Most filmmakers use long telephoto lenses to film animals, but there’s no sonic equivalent of a zoom lens. Good audio requires a microphone close to the source of the sound, which can be difficult and dangerous. And so many of the subtle movement sounds — a chimpanzee rustling through leaves, or a hippo squelching in the muck, or a lizard fleeing snakes — don’t come from animals at all. They’re made by Foley artists. Sound recordists and Foley artists go to great lengths to give us accurate and satisfying sounds. But both know that nature documentaries are not reality. As much as people want to believe it’s all real, nature documentaries are still movies, and they need a little movie magic just like any other film. Emmett FitzGerald reports.

Sounds Natural

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April 10, 2017

Los Angeles is rich with architectural diversity. On the same block, you could find a retro-futuristic Googie diner next to a Spanish-style mansion, sitting comfortably alongside a Dutch Colonial dwelling, all in close proximity to a Deconstructivist concert hall.
In the golden era of Hollywood, in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, the new movie industry titans who flocked to L.A. had an opportunity to construct whatever style houses they wanted. After all, Los Angeles had a lot of open space to develop, and no unifying architectural style. And there was one particular architect who could make any kind of building and make it well: Paul Revere Williams. Avery Trufelman reports.

The Architect of Hollywood

Live in LA with Helen Zaltzman 4/14, use code “savethearts” for special $20 tickets

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Don’t forget: Radiotopia Live, May 8- 12!

April 4, 2017

We’re based in beautiful downtown Oakland, CA which is a port city in the San Francisco Bay. Massive container ships travel across the Pacific and end up here. From miles away you can see the enormous white cranes that pull giant, uniformly-sized metal boxes off the ships. People say the cranes are the inspiration for the AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back, but that’s not true; it’s just a good story to tell as you pass by on the bridge. The port was the driving economic force in Oakland for many decades. Not so much anymore. Those big containers have something to do with it. When people started shipping things in standardized containers all kinds of inefficiencies in global shipping that had existed for hundreds of years were eliminated and the world changed forever. This the backdrop for the story that Alexis Madrigal is telling in his new eight-part documentary podcast series on “global capitalism, trade, and big-ass ships.” It’s called “Containers.” We’re featuring episode #3 in the series.

Live shows!

Los Angeles with Helen Zaltzman April 14, Arts for LA

West Coast Tour May 8-12 Radiotopia Live

March 28, 2017

When Warren Furutani was growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s, he sometimes heard his parents refer to a place where they once spent time — a place they called “camp.” To him “camp” meant summer camp or a YMCA camp, but this was something different. During World War II the US government incarcerated Warren Furutani’s parents, along with over 110,000 other Japanese Americans, in ten different detention centers throughout the United States. When they talked about “camp” that’s what they meant.
In 1969, Warren Furutani and his friend, Victor Shibata, went looking for the closest camp to Los Angeles, a place called Manzanar.

Live shows!

Los Angeles with Helen Zaltzman April 14, Arts for LA

West Coast Tour May 8-12 Radiotopia Live

March 21, 2017

On the night of December 8, 2013, a huge crowd gathered on a tree-lined boulevard in downtown Kiev, Ukraine. The crowd was there to watch as a statue in the boulevard was pulled down by a crane. The toppled statue was of Vladimir Lenin – the communist leader who started the revolution that created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Ukraine was once a part of the Soviet Union.
The same protests that brought down that Lenin statue eventually brought about a new government in Ukraine, which sought to eliminate all physical reminders of communism and Russia. But it hasn’t been easy, logistically or politically, because removing these things erases history that is still important to some Ukrainians. Furthermore, communist symbols are very pervasive in the built environment – they can be found on buildings, bridges and other infrastructure.
Ukraine’s current government, led by Petro Poroshenko, decided to make the removal of Lenin statues into state policy. Ukraine’s parliament passed a package of bills called “decommunization laws.” Local authorities had a year to get rid of their Lenin statues. If their town or streets had communist names, those had to be changed, too.

The Falling of the Lenins

Live shows!

Los Angeles with Helen Zaltzman April 14, Arts for LA

West Coast Tour May 8-12 Radiotopia Live

March 14, 2017

Logos used to be a thing people didn’t really give much thought to. But over the last decade, the volume and intensity of arguments about logos have increased substantially. A lot of this is just the internet being the internet. Logo redesigns, in particular, attract a lot of hyperbolic vitriol. I was wondering what this felt like to a designer, so I talked to one of my favorites. Michael Bierut is an AIGA Medalist and partner at the international design consultancy Pentagram, where his work includes brand identity, logos, book design, and packaging. Michael says that for a very long time, no one understood what his job as a graphic designer really meant, but recently that’s changed.

Negative Space: Logo Design with Michael Bierut

Live shows!

Los Angeles with Helen Zaltzman April 14, Arts for LA

West Coast Tour May 8-12 Radiotopia Live

March 7, 2017

In the 1980s, the United States experienced a refugee crisis. Thousands of Central Americans were fleeing civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, traveling north through Mexico, and crossing the border into the U.S. [Note: Just tuning in? Listen to the previous episode.]
In response to this mass migration, a network of churches across the country declared themselves “sanctuaries,” offering shelter to Central Americans who were threatened with deportation and in some cases helping to smuggle people across the border. Leaders and members of these sanctuary churches believed they had a religious imperative to help people fleeing persecution.
The government, however, wasn’t swayed by the religious motivations of participating churches. In 1984, the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service), a predecessor to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), launched a full-scale investigation into the sanctuary movement.

State (Sanctuary, Part 2)

February 28, 2017

In the 1980s, Rev. John Fife and his congregation at Southside Presbyterian Church began to help Central American migrants fleeing persecution from US backed dictatorships. Their efforts would mark the beginning of a new — and controversial — social movement based on the ancient religious concept of “sanctuary,” the idea that churches have a duty to shelter people fleeing persecution. There’s been a lot of talk about “sanctuary” in the news recently and the modern movement in the U.S can trace its roots back to Fife.

Church (Sanctuary, Part 1)

February 21, 2017

As the world entered the Atomic Age, humankind faced a new fear that permeated just about every aspect of daily life: the threat of nuclear war. And while the violent applications of atomic research had already been proven, governments and scientists hoped this powerful technology held promise for peaceful applications as well. As part of the “Atoms For Peace” efforts, experts would be mobilized to apply atomic science to the fields of energy, medicine, and agriculture. One of the products of these initiatives were the atomic gardens of the 1950s and 60s—experiments that used radioactive material to genetically alter plants into what they hoped would be better, stronger breeds. And the legacies of these largely forgotten experiments are still around today in the form of fruits, vegetables, and grains that can be found in grocery stores and markets the world over.

Atom in the Garden of Eden

February 14, 2017

Frank Lloyd Wright believed that the buildings we live in shape the kinds of people we become. His aim was nothing short of rebuilding the entire culture of the United States, changing the nation through its architecture. Central to that plan was a philosophy and associated building system he called Usonia. This is part 2/2 in Avery Trufelman’s Usonia series.

Usonia the Beautiful

Listen to part 1 here.

February 7, 2017

Frank Lloyd Wright was a bombastic character that ultimately changed the field of architecture, and not just through his big, famous buildings. Before designing many of his most well-known works, Wright created a small and inexpensive yet beautiful house. This modest home would go on to shape the way working- and middle-class Americans live to this day. And it all started with a journalist from Milwaukee.

Usonia 1

January 31, 2017

Eponym (noun):  A person after whom a discovery, invention, place, etc., is named or thought to be named; a name or noun formed after a person. An eponym, almost by definition, has some kind of story behind it — some reason it came to be named after a specific person. In this double-feature episode, Helen Zaltzman of The Allusionist speaks with Roman Mars about his fixation with eponyms.

The Eponymist

January 24, 2017

Winifred Gallagher, author of How the Post Office Created America: A History, argues that the post office is not simply an inexpensive way to send a letter. The service was designed to unite a bunch of disparate towns and people under one flag, and in doing so, she believes the post office actually created the United States of America.

The Revolutionary Post

January 17, 2017

On January 3, 1979, two officers from the Los Angeles Police Department went to the home of Eulia May Love, a 39-year-old African-American mother. The police were there because of a dispute over an unpaid gas bill. The officers approached her, and Love allegedly threatened them with a knife. They fired twelve times and killed her.
The killing led the department to research non-lethal weapons to see if there was some alternative that would reduce the LAPD’s reliance on guns. Daryl Gates, the Police Chief at the time, told the L.A. Times, “What we need is that thing used in Buck Rogers… to zap’em, freeze’em, stop’em.”
After several years of development, an engineer named Jack Cover invented a weapon to do just that, one he designed to be non-lethal. He named it after a science fiction novel from his childhood called “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle.”

January 10, 2017

Part 2 where host Roman Mars talks to the 99pi producers about their favorite “Mini-Stories.” These are little anecdotes or seeds of a story about design and architecture that can’t quite stretch into a full episode, but we love them anyway. Roman talks backwards flags, Katie appreciates an appreciation for Byker, Sharif finds paper towns, Kurt opens our eyes to Knox boxes, and Avery opens our eyes to the chart we all know, but know little about.

Mini-Stories: Volume 2

December 20, 2016

Host Roman Mars talks to the 99pi producers about their favorite “Mini-Stories.” These are little anecdotes or seeds of a story about design and architecture that can’t quite stretch into a full episode, but the staff loves them anyway. Roman talks concrete arrows, Sam squares Circleville, Kurt teaches us how to get out of a car, Emmett discovers the Big Zero, and Delaney listens for a little chirp.

Mini-Stories: Volume 1

Leave a comment on Mini-Stories page if you have any suggestions for Volume 2.

December 13, 2016

The urban grid of Salt Lake City, Utah is designed to tell you exactly where you are in relation to Temple Square, one of the holiest sites for Mormons.
Addresses can read like sets of coordinates. “300 South 2100 East,” for example, means three blocks south and 21 blocks east of Temple Square. But the most striking thing about Salt Lake’s grid is the scale. Blocks are 660 feet on each side. That means walking the length of two football fields from one intersection to the next. By comparison, nine Portland, Oregon city blocks can fit inside one Salt Lake block.

Plat of Zion

December 6, 2016

In 2014, President Obama expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, making it the largest marine preserve in the world at the time. The expansion closed 490,000 square miles of largely undisturbed ocean to commercial fishing and underwater mining.
The preserve is nowhere near the mainland United States nor is it all in close range to Hawaii. Still, President Obama was able to protect this piece of ocean in the name of the United States.
To understand how the U.S. has jurisdiction over these waters in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, one has to look back to the 19th Century when, for a brief period, the U.S. scoured the oceans looking for rock islands covered in guano. That is: seabird poop.

Guano Mania

November 29, 2016

The NBC chimes may be the most famous sound in broadcasting. Originating in the 1920s, the three key sequential notes are familiar to generations of radio listeners and television watchers. Many companies have tried to trademark sounds but only around 100 have ended up being accepted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office — and NBC’s iconic chimes were the first.
This story from the new podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz features the last person to play the NBC chimes on the NBC radio network, broadcaster Rick Greenhut, as well as radio historian John Schneider. Twenty Thousand Hertz is an audio program that tells “the stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds.”

NBC Chimes

November 22, 2016

Dollar stores are not just a U.S. phenomenon. They can be found in Australia and the United Kingdom, the Middle East and Mexico. And a lot of the stuff—the generic cheap stuff for sale in these stores—comes from one place. A market in China, called the International Trade Market, or: the Futian market.

Dollar Store Town

November 15, 2016

Through a combination of passive and active acoustics, architects and acousticians can control the sounds of spaces to fit any kind of need. With sound-proofing and selective-amplification, we can add reverb or take it away. We can make churches sound like clubs and clubs sound like opera houses. This degree of acoustic control, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Up until the early 1900s, designers and engineers knew very little about the effects of architecture on sound. Architectural acoustics were pretty much a roll of the dice in any given project. Until Wallace Sabine.


November 7, 2016

People who write the White House know that the president himself will most likely not see their message. Many of their letters start with phrases like, “I know no one will read this.” Although someone does read those letters. And sometimes that person is Fiona Reeves, Director of Presidential Correspondence at the White House. She and a group of 45 staffers, 35 interns, and 300 rotating volunteers read thousands of letters sent to Barack Obama, who has specifically requested to receive ten letters to read every night.

Ten Letters for the President

A version of this piece originally aired on Slate’s Working podcast as part of a series on White House jobs produced by Jacob Brogan and Mickey Capper.

November 1, 2016

Every now and again, a truly great athlete shatters all previous assumptions about what’s possible to achieve in a sport. When this happens, opposing teams scramble to find ways to stop them or slow them down. In basketball, teams tried to to stop Shaquille O’Neil by immediately fouling him (the “hack-a-shaq” strategy); in soccer, opposing teams continuously foul the great Argentinean player, Leo Messi, before he can dribble through the defense. But in baseball, the solution for stopping the greatest hitter of all time was to actually redesign the game itself. And it started in the 1940s with Ted Williams. The solution was “The Shift.”

99% Invisible was a collaboration this week with FiveThirtyEight — the Data Journalism site owned by ESPN.

October 25, 2016

In the summer of 1961 the upper stage of the rocket carrying the Transit 4A satellite blew up about two hours after launch. It was the first known human-made object to unintentionally explode in space, and it created hundreds of fragments of useless space junk. Some of these pieces were pulled into the atmosphere where they burned up but around 200 of them are still up and orbiting today.

At the time, people were not all that concerned about a few bits of metal floating around in the vastness of space. But like the ocean and other frontiers, space isn’t endless as it first appears.

Space Trash, Space Treasure


October 18, 2016

Few forms of contemporary architecture draw as much criticism as the McMansion, a particular type of oversized house that people love to hate. McMansions usually feature 3,000 or more square feet of space and fail to embody a cohesive style or interact with their environment. Kate Wagner, architecture critic and creator of McMansion Hell, is on a mission to illustrate just why these buildings are so terrible.

McMansion Hell: The Devil is in the Details

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October 11, 2016

On the night of February 27th, 2010, a magnitude of 8.8 earthquake hit Constitución, Chile and it was the second biggest that the world had seen in half a century. The quake and the tsunami it produced completely crushed the town. By the time it was over, more than 500 people were dead, and about 80% of the Constitución’s buildings were ruined.
As part of the relief effort, an architecture firm called Elemental was hired to create a master plan for the city, which included new housing for people displaced in the disaster. But the structures that Elemental delivered were a radical and controversial approach toward housing.

They gave people half a house.

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October 4, 2016

On September 11, 1973, a military junta violently took control of Chile, which was led at the time by President Salvador Allende. Allende had become president in a free and democratic election. After the military coup, General Augusto Pinochet took power and ruled Chile as a dictator until 1990.

The military regime dissolved the congress, took control of the media and went about dismantling the socialist and democratic institutions that Allende’s government had built.

In the midst of this takeover, the military discovered a strange room in a nondescript office building in downtown Santiago. The room was hexagonal in shape with seven white fiberglass chairs arranged in an inward facing circle.

This “operations room” (or: opsroom) was the physical interface for a complex system called Cybersyn.

September 20, 2016

Who decides that the color this season is “mint green” or that denim jackets are “back?” Of course, there’s top-down fashion, where couture houses and runway shows set a trend that trickles down through the rest of the industry. Then there’s bottom-up – where street photographers hunt down grassroots ways that people are wearing clothes, which then comes to influence popular fashion.
But these two methods are for the relatively cutting-edge. For the mass market, for retailers, designers, and marketers working in major clothing chains, there’s a middle path to determine what’s “in.” And often times, it is through a company called WGSN.

The Trend Forecast

September 13, 2016

Large portions of San Francisco, New York City, Boston, Seattle, Hong Kong and Marseilles were built on top of human made land. What is now Mumbai, India, was transformed by the British from a seven-island archipelago to one contiguous strip of land. The most extraordinary example of land reclamation and manufacture may be the Netherlands. As early as the 9th century A.D., the Dutch began building dykes and pumping systems to create new land in places that were actually below sea level. But the historic scale of land manufacture is minuscule compared to the rate at which it is taking place today.

Making Up Ground


September 6, 2016

Infrastructure makes modern civilization possible. Roads, power grids, sewage systems and water networks all underpin society as we know it, forming the basis of our built environment … at least when they work.

As Henry Petroski documents in The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure, physical infrastructure in the United States is in an ongoing state of crisis. Using roads as the example, Petroski talks through some of the challenges of getting our infrastructure back on track.

Public Works

August 23, 2016

In many ways, the built world was not designed for you. It was designed for the average person. Standardized tests, building codes, insurance rates, clothing sizes, The Dow Jones – all these measurements are based around the concept of an “average.”
Todd Rose wants us to re-examine our concept of the average and find new ways to accommodate all the people who aren’t average, which, it turns out, is everyone.

On Average

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August 16, 2016

Founded by architect Walter Gropius in 1919, the Bauhaus school in Germany would go on to shape modern architecture, art, and design for decades to come. The school sought to combine design and industrialization, creating functional things that could be mass-produced for the betterment of society. It was a nexus of creativity in the early 20th century. Many now-famous designers and artists who were in Europe during the 1920s and ’30s spent time at the Bauhaus. The popularity and influence of the Bauhaus beyond Germany, however, owes a great deal to a lesser-known photographer: Lucia Moholy. Her photographs are some of the finest documents of the Bauhaus’s architecture and its products, but when she lost control of her negatives during the war she was written out of the history.

Photo Credit

Special bonus appearance by The McElroy Brothers of My Brother, My Brother, and Me, using episode #316 of MBMBaM.

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August 9, 2016

The largest body of water in California was formed by a mistake. In 1905, the California Development Company accidentally flooded a huge depression in the Sonora Desert, creating an enormous salty lake called the Salton Sea. The water is about twice as salty as the Pacific Ocean. The ground beneath the southern end of the sea is volcanic and water bubbles to the surface in muddy pools. The only fish that can live in Salton Sea are tilapia, but even they struggle to survive. This sea—this gurgling, sometimes stinky, accident of a sea—is actually in danger of drying up and disappearing. And you may be thinking: “good riddance! It doesn’t sound all that nice.” But the Salton Sea needs us. And we need it.

A Sea Worth its Salt

August 2, 2016

In 1996, President Bill Clinton and the Congress undertook a reform effort to redesign the welfare system from one that many believed trapped people in a cycle of dependence, to one, that in the President’s words, would give people “a paycheck, not a welfare check …. Today, we are ending welfare as we know it.”
Many of the key components implemented by Clinton can be traced back to a bureaucrat named Larry Townsend and a pilot program he operated in California called GAIN (Greater Avenues for Independence). Head of the welfare office in Riverside County, Townsend focus on a singular mission: get people into jobs as fast as possible.
Krissy Clark from Marketplace’s The Uncertain Hour has the story.

The Magic Bureaucrat and His Riverside Miracle

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July 26, 2016

The US military buys a lot of foam ear plugs. Visit any base and you’ll find them under the bleachers at the firing range, in the bottoms of washing machines. They are cheap and effective at making noise less … noisy.
But there’s a problem with earplugs on the battlefield. Soldiers won’t wear them. If they do wear them, they may miss other important (softer) noises happening around them. The result is lots of service members coming home from battle with tinnitus or hearing loss. In fact, for as long as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has reported such statistics, tinnitus and hearing loss have remained the number one and two most common injuries of service members. Mary Roach, author of Grunt, has the story.

Combat Hearing Loss

July 19, 2016

In 1943, the Army Corps of Engineers began construction on a scale model that could test flooding in all 1.25 million square miles of the Mississippi River. It would be a three-dimensional map of nearly half of the continental United States, rendered to a 1/2000 horizontal scale, spanning more than 200 acres. It was so big that the only way to see all of it as once was from a four-story observation tower. Ryan Kailath paid it a visit.

America’s Last Top Model

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July 12, 2016

In the late 1950s, the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research embarked on a mission to study the personalities of particularly creative scientists and artists. Researchers established categories, grouping analytical creatives together (including scientists and mathematicians) as well as artistic creatives (including painters and writers). At the intersection, there was a hybrid type: architects were seen as representing both groups. The hope was that studying architects and their creative habits could yield lessons applicable across a variety of creative fields. The researchers recorded the conversations of some of the most prominent architects of the era. This is the first time these recordings have been heard publicly.

The Mind of an Architect


July 5, 2016

Benches in parks, train stations, bus shelters and other public places are meant to offer seating, but only for a limited duration. Many elements of such seats are subtly or overtly restrictive. Arm rests, for instance, indeed provide spaces to rest arms, but they also prevent people from lying down or sitting in anything but a prescribed position. This type of design strategy is sometimes classified as “hostile architecture,” or simply: “unpleasant design.”

Gordan Savičić and Selena Savić, co-editors of the book Unpleasant Design, are quick to point out that unpleasant designs are not failed designs, but rather successful ones in the sense that they deter certain activities by design.

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June 28, 2016

It started with a place called the Stonewall Inn.

Gay bars had been raided by police for decades. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people had been routinely arrested and subjected to harassment and beatings by the people who were meant to protect them.

But one night, in this place called the Stonewall Inn, when the police stormed in to continue their abuse, the clientele fought back.

Remembering Stonewall,” produced by Dave Isay of Sound Portraits and StoryCorps, was was first broadcast in 1989, on the 20th anniversary of the uprising. It was the first documentary, in any medium, to explore what happened that night, and it weaves together the perspectives of survivors, historians, and people who were deeply affected by the events that night.

June 21, 2016

In 1968, an Italian industrialist and a Scottish scientist started a club to address what they considered to be humankind’s greatest problems—issues like pollution, resource scarcity, and overpopulation. Meeting in Rome, Italy, the group came to be known as the Club of Rome and it grew to include politicians, scientists, economists and business leaders from around the world. Together with a group of MIT researchers doing computer modeling, The Club of Rome concluded that sometime in the 21st century, earth would reach its carrying capacity—that resources would not keep up with population—and there would be a massive collapse of global society.
In 1972, the Club of Rome published a book outlining their findings called The Limits to Growth. The book became a bestseller and was translated into more than two dozen languages. It had its critics and detractors, but overall The Limits to Growth was incredibly influential, shaping environmental politics and pop culture for years to come. There was a growing sense that limits would need to be put in place in order to regulate populations and economic growth.
But in the midst of the debate, a physicist named Gerard (Gerry) O’Neill suggested a solution—one that would ask us to look beyond planet earth and into outer space.

Home on Lagrange

June 14, 2016

In 1968, the police department in Menlo Park, California hired a new police chief. His name was Victor Cizanckas and his main goal was to reform the department, which had a strained relationship with the community at the time.
Cizanckas made a number of changes to improve the department’s image. One of the most ground-breaking and controversial was the new blazer-style uniform he implemented.

The Blazer Experiment

June 7, 2016

September 3rd, 1967, also known as H-Day, is etched in the collective memory of Sweden. That morning, millions of Swedes switched from driving on the left side of the road to driving on the right. The changeover was an unprecedented undertaking, involving national infrastructural overhauls, extensive educational campaigns, and pop music.

May 24, 2016

Sub Pop Records has signed some of the most famous and influential indie bands of the last 30 years, including Nirvana, Sleater-Kinney, The Postal Service, and Beach House. Over time, the stars and hits have changed and the formats have evolved as well, from vinyl to CDs to MP3s. In recent years, however, the label has started releasing new albums on a medium few thought would ever see a comeback: the cassette.
But there’s one big user group that never entirely stopped using the old school technology. The United States prison system has the largest prison population in the world and many of its inmates listen to their music on tape. For this group, cassettes aren’t necessarily the cheapest or hippest way to listen to music; in some cases, it’s the only way.

Loud and Clear

May 17, 2016

“Für Elise” is one of the world’s most widely-recognized pieces of music. The Beethoven melody has been played by pianists the world over, and its near-universal recognition has been used to attract customers for companies as big as McDonald’s  and as small as your local ice-cream truck. But if you hear the song playing on the streets of Taiwan, accompanied by the low grumble of an engine, the only ice-cream you’ll find if you follow the tune will be the soupy remains of a neighbor’s Häagen-Dazs. In Taiwan, “Für Elise” means it is time to take out your trash. Directly out to the truck. Yourself.

Separation Anxiety

May 10, 2016

Neighborhoods are constantly changing, but it tends to be the people with money and power who get to decide the shape of things to come. New York City has an especially long history with change driven by landlords and real estate investors. Today, change is taking the form of gentrification, but in the 1960s, the neighborhood of East New York became a nexus of what has since become known as white flight.

Turf Wars is an episode from the series There Goes The Neighborhood from WNYC Studios and The Nation Magazine.

Turf Wars of East New York

May 4, 2016

The Bellevue-Stratford opened in 1904 and quickly became one of the most luxurious hotels of its time, rivaling the Waldorf Astoria in New York. The building was an incredible work of French Renaissance architecture. It was 19 stories high, had over a thousand guest rooms, light fixtures designed by Thomas Edison, and what was said to be the most lavish and magnificent ballroom in the United States. It hosted guests from around the world, including royalty, world leaders, and the magnificently wealthy. The hotel came to be known as “The Grand Dame of Broad Street.”

The hotel went through some hard times during the Great Depression and then again in the 1950s and 60s, losing some of its luster from the early days. But it was always considered one of the nicest places to stay in Philadelphia.

That is, until 1976, when the Bellevue-Stratford found itself at the epicenter of a series of mysterious deaths that terrified the country and stumped everyone trying to find answers.

Elana Gordon, from WHYY’s The Pulse, has the story

April 26, 2016

Humans form cities from concrete, metal, and glass, designing structures and infrastructure primarily to serve a single bipedal species. Walking down a familiar city street, it is easy to overlook squirrels climbing in trees, weeds growing up through cracks in the concrete, and pigeons pecking along the sidewalk. Those creatures that do manage to live all around us, thriving alongside humans, are rarely celebrated for their ingenuity. In many cases, however, such synanthropes (from the Greek syn [“together with”] + anthro [“man”]) tell fascinating stories of urban fortitude.
Author Nathanael Johnson began digging into some of these everyday urban species, leading him to write Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness.

Unseen City: Wonders of the Urban Wilderness

April 19, 2016

Starting in the late 1990s, the government of Taipei began looking into how they could turn global attention to their city, the capital of the small island of Taiwan.

The initial idea was to create two 66-story office towers, which would be the tallest in Taiwan’s capital and one of the tallest in the country. The city government then raised its aspirations, targeting 88 stories, the same number as the twinned Petronas Towers in Malaysia (which, at the time, were the tallest in buildings in the world). Then they had another idea to go even higher than the tallest buildings in the world, and make their building a perfectly round 100. In the end, they decided to go above and beyond, settling on one hundred and one floors.

Supertall 101

April 12, 2016

In 1939, an astonishing new machine debuted at the New York World’s Fair. It was called the “Voder,” short for “Voice Operating Demonstrator.” It looked sort of like a futuristic church organ.

An operator — known as a “Voderette” — sat at the Voder’s curved wooden console with a giant speaker towering behind her. She faced an expectant audience, placed her hands on a keyboard in front of her, and then played something the world had never really heard before.

A synthesized voice.

Vox Ex Machina

April 5, 2016

In the late 1960s, a civil rights leader named Floyd B. McKissick, at one time the head of CORE (the Congress on Racial Equality) proposed an idea for a new town.  He would call this town Soul City and it would be a place built for and by black people—a land of black opportunity in rural North Carolina.

Katie Mingle has the story.

March 29, 2016

Israeli buses regularly make international headlines, be it for suicide bombings, fights over gender segregation, or clashes concerning Shabbat schedules. One particular ill-fated megastructure, however, has been at the nexus of various lesser-publicized conflicts: a building in Tel Aviv designed to be the largest bus station in the world.

This episode was originally produced for Israel Story, the English-language version of the popular Israeli radio program Sipur Israeli, which is distributed by PRX and produced in partnership with Tablet.

The White Elephant of Tel Aviv

March 22, 2016

The last hundred years or so of food advertising have been shaped by this one simple fact: real food usually looks pretty unappetizing on camera. It’s static and boring to look at, and it tends to wilt under the glare of hot studio lights. So advertisers have had to walk a fine line between enhancement and fakery, trying all kinds of tricks to get food to look good.

Then, in the 1970s, food advertising took a radical turn. Food started moving, which opened the door to all the fancy tricks we see in advertising today: shrimp executing acrobatic flips, lobster claws cracking open in slow-motion, french fries bouncing across a table. An ad director named Elbert Budin developed this new aesthetic

Flying Food

March 15, 2016

In San Francisco, the area South of Market Street is called SoMa. The part of town North of the Panhandle is known as NoPa. Around the intersection of North Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville, real estate brokers are pitching properties as part of NOBE. An area of downtown Oakland is being branded as KoNo, short for Koreatown Northgate. But no one actually calls it that, or at least, not yet.

There is not really a name for this naming convention. They are not quite acronyms, not quite portmanteaus, and not just abbreviations. We at 99% Invisible have been calling them acronames.

The SoHo Effect

March 8, 2016

Centuries ago, Germany came up with a way to keep books that contained “dangerous” information without releasing them to the general public: The Giftschrank.
The word, a combination of “poison” and “cabinet,” has a variety of meanings in different contexts. At its most literal, a Giftschrank is a space for storing controlled substances in places like pharmacies. Colloquially, it can refer to spaces reserved for all kinds of hidden and forbidden objects, ideas, or stories.

March 1, 2016

Situated in the middle of the Mojave desert, over a dozen miles from the nearest pavement, a lone phone booth sat along a dirt road, just waiting to become an international sensation.

Mojave Phone Booth


The piece was produced by Joe Rosenberg and originally broadcast on Snap Judgment.

February 27, 2016

There is an epidemic of terrible doors in the world. But when Don Norman got frustrated with them, he ended up changing the way people everywhere think about design.

Video by Joe Posner of Vox, featuring Roman Mars of 99% Invisible.

February 23, 2016

The middle of the 20th Century was a golden age for road travel in the United States. Cars had become cheap and spacious enough to carry families comfortably for hundreds of miles. The Interstate Highway System had started to connect the country’s smaller roads in a vast nationwide network. That freedom and mobility, however, was not equally available to everyone.

Some African-American tourists would drive all night instead of trying to find lodging in an unfamiliar and possibly dangerous town. They would pack picnics so they could avoid stopping at restaurants that might refuse to serve them.

But in 1936, a man named Victor Hugo Green started a travel guide to make life on the road easier and safer for black motorists.

The Green Book

February 16, 2016

All around the country, there stands a figure so much a part of historical architecture and urban landscapes that she is rarely noticed. She has gone by many names, from Star Maiden to Priestess of Culture, Spirit of Life to Mourning Victory. Now nearly forgotten, Audrey Munson was once the most famous artist’s model in the United States.

In and beyond her time, she has represented many things, including truth, memory, seasons, the stars, and even the universe itself. Immortalized in iron, marble and gold, Audrey remains perched on high, quietly watching over cities from coast to coast.

Miss Manhattan

February 9, 2016

In 1891, a physical education teacher in Springfield, Massachusetts invented the game we would come to know as basketball. In setting the height of the baskets, he inadvertently created a design problem that would not be resolved for decades to come.

The Yin And Yang Of Basketball

This piece is part of a podcast mini series ESPN is launching later this spring called “Dunkumentaries.” It’s a collection of stories all related to basketball’s slam dunk. The feed is live and you can subscribe to it on the ESPN mobile app or iTunes.

February 2, 2016

In the mid-19th century, decades before home refrigeration became the norm, you could find ice clinking in glasses from India to the Caribbean, thanks to a global commodities industry that has since melted into obscurity: the frozen water trade.
In the cold Northeast of the United States, workers would cut ice from frozen ponds, haul it to port, put it on a ship and send it around the world on voyages that could last for months.

The Ice King

January 26, 2016

The Iron Curtain was an 8,000-mile border separating East from West during the Cold War. Something unexpected evolved in the “no man’s land” that the massive border created. In the absence of human intervention and disruption, an accidental wildlife refuge formed.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, conservationists from both sides of the divide realized this long-unused space could become the core path of a “European Greenbelt” connecting habitats across countries, including national parks and nature preserves.
Such wildlife corridors can be found around the world at a range of scales, from mountain lion freeway overpasses and crab bridges to squirrel wires and fish ladders.

Then, of course, there’s the fish cannon.

January 19, 2016

In September 1958, Bank of America began an experiment – one that would have far reaching effects on our lives and on the economy. They decided after careful consideration to conduct this experiment in Fresno, California. The presumption was that no one was paying much attention to Fresno, so if the plan failed, it wouldn’t get a lot of media attention.
Bank of America sent out 60,000 pieces of mail to people in Fresno. Inside was a little plastic object that has become in equal parts emblematic of opportunity, convenience, and debt, a card featuring a $500 line of credit.

The Fresno Drop

January 12, 2016

Date labels (e.g. “use-by”, “sell-by”, “best-by”, “best if used by,” “expires on”, etc.) are on a lot of products. Forty-one states require a date label on at least some food product, but there are huge inconsistencies, not just in the wording, but in the meaning of these labels. Some states require them only on dairy, some on shellfish, some on any perishable foods.

It’s become complicated to decipher these dates, or to know how to act on them, for large retailers and individual consumers alike. And despite what many people assume, they are not about food safety, and were actually never meant to be.

Best Enjoyed By

December 22, 2015

In 1950s Soviet Russia, citizens craved Western popular music—everything from jazz to rock & roll. But smuggling vinyl was dangerous, and acquiring the scarce material to make copies of those records that did make it into the country was expensive.

An ingenuous solution to this problem began to emerge in the form of “bone music.”

This is a collaboration with the unstoppable Kitchen Sisters. Subscribe to their Radiotopia podcast Fugitive Waves today!

December 15, 2015

The skyline of beautiful downtown Oakland, California, is defined by various towers by day, but at night there is one that shines far more brightly than the rest: the neon-illuminated Tribune Tower.

Each side of the tower says “Tribune” in bright red letters, and has a neon-illuminated clock with neon hands. Neon this prominent and well-maintained stands out for its brightness, of course, but it also has become a rarity in the 21st century city.

Avery Trufelman explores the history of neon signs and the tube benders who made our cities spectacular.

December 8, 2015

For Americans, the sight of pagoda roofs and dragon gates means that you are in Chinatown. Whether in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, or Las Vegas, the chinoiserie look is distinctive.

But for those just arriving from China, the Chinatown aesthetic can feel surprisingly foreign.

Pagodas and Dragon Gates

December 2, 2015

Many material trifles, such as Silly Putty, started as attempts at serious inventions, but in rare cases, the process works in reverse: something developed as a gag gift can turn into something truly heroic. Invented by high school prankster Alan Whitman using a home chemistry set, the “worst smell in the world” began as a novelty, but eventually came to serve a higher purpose.

Amy Standen, co-host of the new podcast The Leap, tells the story.

November 24, 2015

Superhero costumes for TV and film used to be pretty cringe-worthy. Lately, however, super outfits are looking much better. Costume designers are learning new tricks, and using better technology, but there has also been a change in attitude. They are now constantly going back to the source material and incorporating that knowledge into the practice of designing costumes with real materials on real bodies.

Fixing the Hobo Suit producer Eric Molinsky spoke with costume designers Michael Wilkinson (Watchmen, Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman), Sammy Sheldon Differ (X-Men: First Class, Ant-Man) and James Acheson (Spider-Man trilogy) about the evolution of superhero costume design. Imaginary Worlds is a bi-weekly podcast about sci-fi and other fantasy genres, how we create them and why we suspend our disbelief.

November 17, 2015

From rock-paper-scissors, to tennis, to Mario Kart, every game is a designed system and all games are grounded in the same design principles. One popular game in particular has a mixed reputation with game players and designers alike: Monopoly.

The Landlord’s Game

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November 10, 2015

On April 21st, 1859, an incredible thing happened in London and thousands of people came out to celebrate it. Women wore their finest clothing. Men were in suits and top hats, and children clamored to get a glimpse…of the very first public drinking fountain.

Fountain Drinks

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November 3, 2015

Ballots are an essential component to a working democracy, yet they are rarely created (or even reviewed) by design professionals.
Good ballot design is mainly a matter of following good design principles in general—familiar territory for graphic designers, but not necessarily so for election officials.

Butterfly Effects

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October 27, 2015

Households tend to take pantry food for granted, but canned beans, powered cheese, and bags of moist cookies were not designed for everyday convenience. These standard products were made to meet the needs of the military.
Reporter Tina Antolini, host of the podcast Gravy, tells the story.

War and Pizza

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October 23, 2015

To get your exclusive 99% Invisible Challenge Coin, make a donation to the Radiotopia Forever campaign. Thanks!

Coin Check

The United States Military is not known for being touchy-feely. There’s not much hugging or head-patting, and superiors don’t always have the authority to offer a serviceman a raise or promotion.

When a member of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard wants to show appreciation, love, sympathy, or professional connection, they can use challenge coins.

October 20, 2015

The phrase ‘from Central Casting’ has become a kind of cultural shorthand for a stereotype or archetype, a subject so visually suited to its part it appears to have been designed for that role. Search the news for ‘straight out of Central Casting’ and you will find examples referring to athletes, executives, politicians and philanthropists.
Not everyone who uses the reference realizes that there is an actual Central Casting, located in Burbank, California (with additional offices in New York and New Orleans). Nor do most people realize that this company is the single biggest source of extras for Hollywood productions.


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October 13, 2015

99% Invisible is honored to accept a 2015 Third Coast International Audio Festival award for Structural Integrity, a story of architectural engineering gone wrong, and then covertly made right.

When it was built in 1977, the 59-story CitiCorp Center had a potentially fatal flaw that could have caused the building to collapse during a sever storm, and take out the entire Midtown Manhattan skyline with it. This flaw (and the plan to fix it) was so secret, that even the person who found the problem only discovered the full story decades later.

October 6, 2015

Indian philosopher and mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh had a vision: he would build a Utopian city from the ground up, starting with 64,000 acres of muddy ranchland in rural Oregon.

Purchased in 1981, this expanse was to become both a fully-functional urban center and a spiritual mecca for his followers from around the world.

For this plan to work Rajneesh and his red-clad devotees (known as “sannyasins”) needed autonomous authority with which to construct their paradise.


September 29, 2015

When something is lost in the mail, it feels like it has disappeared into the ether, like it was sucked into a black hole, like it no longer exists. But, it turns out, a lot of the mail we think is lost is actually in a designated place. The USPS Mail Recovery Center is the contemporary name for the Dead Letter Office. It’s where our lost mail ends up. And eventually, if our mail doesn’t find its way back to its rightful owner, it’s auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Samara Freemark is reporter at APM’s American RadioWorks.

Dead Letter Office

September 23, 2015

On the night of March 30, 2005, the Powerball jackpot was 25 million dollars. The grand prize winner was in Tennessee, but all over the United States, one hundred and ten second-place winners came forward. Normally just three or four players guess all but the last digit and claim a secondary prize, but this time something was clearly different.

Lottery officials were flustered, unsure if there was a computer glitch or a hack in the system, but when they asked the winners how they picked their numbers each had the same response: from a fortune cookie.

What we call Chinese food (including the fortune-filled cookies) has become an integral part of the American culture and cuisine, with a complex history that dates back to the 19th Century.

A Sweet Surprise Awaits You

September 15, 2015

On a Sunday morning in 1982, in Des Moines, Iowa, Johnny Gosch left his house to begin his usual paper route. A short time later, his parents were awakened by a phone call–it was a neighbor—their paper hadn’t come. When the Goschs went looking for Johnny they found only his red wagon full of newspapers, abandoned on the sidewalk.

Johnny Gosch was 13 when he disappeared. He had blue eyes and dirty blond hair with a small gap between his front teeth. And his would be the first face of a missing child ever printed on a milk carton.

Reporter Annie Brown spoke with Noreen Gosch, mother of Johnny Gosch and author of the Johnny Gosch Bill; Barbara Huggett of the National Child Safety Council; Paul Mokrzycki-Renfro, historian at the University of Iowa; and Bonnie Lohman, who was found through the milk carton campaign.

Milk Carton Kids

September 9, 2015

There are around 6,000 cargo vessels out on the ocean right now, carrying 20,000,000 shipping containers, which are delivering most of the products you see around you. And among all the containers are a special subset of temperature-controlled units known in the global cargo industry, in all seriousness, as reefers.

70% of what we eat passes through the global cold chain, a series of artificially-cooled spaces, which is where the reefer comes into play.

For this story, Nicola Twilley, reporter and founder of Edible Geography, spoke with Barbara Pratt, Director of Refrigerated Services at Maersk.

Reefer Madness

September 2, 2015

In 1860, a chance find at sea forever changed our understanding of marine habitats, sparking an unprecedented push to explore a new world of possibilities far below the surface of our planet’s oceans. Deep sea life, previously thought possible down to a maximum depth of 1,800 feet, was found in the form of creatures attached to a transatlantic telegraph cable.
Raised for repair from its resting place some 6,000 feet down on the ocean floor, the line was covered with marine species. This paradigm-shifting revelation sparked the public’s imagination, fueled global scientific research and propelled the eventual development of new submarine vessels, including the record-breaking Bathysphere.

August 26, 2015

Stirling, Scotland is the home of Stirling Castle, which sits atop a giant crag, or hill, overlooking the whole town of Stirling. There has been a castle on that hill since the 12th century at least, and maybe before, but the current buildings date from the 15th and 16th centuries.

When we think of medieval castles we usually picture a grand structure, with subdued, dark stone masonry. But when you gaze upon Stirling Castle today from the town below, you will notice that one of the buildings is different from the others. Since 1999, after a decade long restoration effort that altered the building inside and out, the Great Hall of Stirling Castle has been a bright, cheery yellow.

But not everyone in Stirling is happy about that.

The Great Restoration

Plus, we’re featuring an episode from our Radiotopia sister, The Allusionist. Enjoy!

August 19, 2015

In communities across America, lawns that are brown or overgrown are considered especially heinous. Elite squads of dedicated individuals have been deputized by their local governments or homeowners’ associations to take action against those whose lawns fail to meet community standards.

Call them—lawn enforcement agents.

There’s a paradox to the lawn.

On the one hand, it is the pedestal on which sits the greatest symbol of the American Dream, the home, which people can ostensibly govern however they wish. And yet—homeowner often have almost no control over how they should maintain their lawn.

Grass may be a plant, but a lawn is a designed object.

Lawn Order

August 11, 2015

No matter which James Bond actor is your favorite, it’s undeniable that the Sean Connery films had the best villains. There’s Blofeld, who turned cat-stroking into a thing that super-villains do, and then there’s Goldfinger—Bond’s flashiest nemesis. Fun fact: the author of the James Bond books, Ian Fleming, named Goldfinger for a real person—an architect by the name of Ernő Goldfinger, who made giant, hulking, austere concrete buildings. Fleming disliked these buildings so intensely that he immortalized their architect as a villain in pop culture.
This divide—this hatred from the public and love from designers and architects, tends to be the narrative around buildings like Goldfinger’s. Which is to say, gigantic, imposing buildings made of concrete.

August 5, 2015

The Bowery, in lower Manhattan, is one of New York’s oldest neighborhoods. It’s been through a lot of iterations.
In the 1650s, a handful of freed slaves were the neighborhood’s first residents. At the time, New York was still a Dutch colony called New Amsterdam, and the Lower East Side was farm land.
In the early 1800s, The Bowery had become a bustling thoroughfare with elegant theaters, and taverns, and shops. But by the late 1800s it had become a much seedier place, full of saloons, and dance halls, and prostitution.
By the 1940s, The Bowery had become New York’s skid row—a place where down-and-out men could go and rent a cheap room for the night in one of the neighborhood’s many flop houses.
Now, of course, Lower Manhattan affords no room for a skid row. The Bowery, like the rest of that area, is full of expensive places to live, and fancy grocery stores.
But back in 1998, before the last of the flop hotels closed their doors, David Isay and Stacy Abramson spent months documenting one of the last of these places: The Sunshine Hotel.

July 29, 2015

In 1933, delegates from the United States and fourteen other countries met in Montevideo, Uruguay to define what it means to be a state. The resulting treaty from the Montevideo Convention established four basic criteria for statehood—essentially, what is required to be recognized as a country.

The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications:

1. A defined territory

2. A permanent population

3. A government

4. Capacity to enter into relations with the other states

Over time, some people got to thinking that the criteria for becoming a state seemed surprisingly simple. So simple, that some attempted to declare their house an independent country. So-called “micronations” popped up around the world.

Most of these micronations aren’t expecting anyone to take them seriously, and many don’t even meet all four criteria laid out at the Montevideo Convention. But one micronation, The Principality of Sealand, cannot be dismissed so easily.

July 21, 2015

By the late 1980s, AIDS had been in the United States for almost a decade. AIDS had be the number one killer of young men in New York City, then of young men in the country, then of young men and women in the country.

Despite the gravity of the AIDS crisis, in the late 1980s there was little public acknowledgement of AIDS. A group of artists in Manhattan decided to change that.

New York artist Patrick O’Connel would spend days visiting friends in the hospital, going to funerals, and coming home to a panicked answering machine message from friends who just learned they were sick. O’Connel and other artists banded together and started making art in response to AIDS. In 1988 they began calling their collective Visual AIDS.
Visual AIDS held public events and organized gallery shows to raise AIDS awareness. But of all the work the group did, they made their biggest impact with a simple little symbol. A little concept that, at the time, was very novel: The AIDS awareness ribbon.

July 14, 2015

So many classic movies have been made in downtown Los Angeles. Though many don’t actually take place in downtown Los Angeles.

L.A. has played almost every city in the world, thanks to its diverse landscape and architectural variety, but particular buildings just keep coming back on screen again and again. The Bradbury Building, for instance, is arguably the biggest architectural movie star in all of Los Angeles.

Avery Trufelman goes On Location

July 1, 2015

More than 90% of all automobile accidents are all attributable to human error, for some car industry people, a fully-automated car is a kind of holy grail.

However, as automation makes our lives easier and safer, it also creates more complex systems, and fewer humans who understand those systems. Which means when problems do arise—people can be left unable to deal with them. Human factors engineers call this “the automation paradox.”

Sam Greenspan gets under the hood of our potential future dominated by the “Johnnycab”.

June 23, 2015

On the evening of May 31, 2009, 216 passengers, three pilots, and nine flight attendants boarded an Airbus 330 in Rio de Janeiro. This flight, Air France 447, was headed across to Paris. Everything proceeded normally for several hours. Then, with no communication to the ground to or air traffic control, Flight 447 suddenly disappeared.

Days later, several bodies and some pieces of the plane were found floating in the Atlantic Ocean. But it would be two more years before most of the wreckage was recovered from the ocean’s depths. All 228 people on board had died. The cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorders, however, were intact, and these recordings told a story about how Flight 447 ended up in the bottom of the Atlantic.

They told a story of a communication breakdown between the pilots and the plane’s automation.

Children of the Magenta (Automation Paradox, pt. 1)

June 17, 2015

Sigmund Freud’s ground-breaking techniques and theories for therapy came to be called “psychoanalysis,” and it was embodied, in practice and popular culture, by a single piece of furniture: the couch.

Producer Ann Hepperman explores the role of this canonical object in the theory of the mind that changed the world.

June 10, 2015

People who make horror movies know: if you want to scare someone, use scary music.

Some of the most creative use of music and sound to evoke fear and anxiety is on the TV show Hannibal.

Hrishikesh Hirway of Song Exploder spoke with evolutionary biologist Dan Blumstein, Hannibal executive producer David Slade, and composer Brian Reitzell.

Bonus: To celebrate the addition of Song Exploder to Radiotopia, we’re playing Roman’s favorite episode of the program, featuring John Roderick of The Long Winters “exploding” his masterpiece “The Commander Thinks Aloud.”

All In Your Head

June 2, 2015

This week on 99% Invisible, we have two stories about the early days of broadcasting and home sound recording, produced by Radio Diaries and the Kitchen Sisters.

The sounds that came out Frank Conrad’s Garage in 1919 and 1920 are gone. There were no recordings made, and everyone who participated in his audio experiments have died. In this piece, Radio Diaries uncovers what might have happened in Frank Conrad’s garage, where some people say modern broadcasting began.

The first portable audio recorder was made in 1945 by a man named Tony Schwartz. He moved the VU meter from inside of the unit to the top, so he could see the recording volume. And, he put a strap on it so that he could hang the device over his shoulder. Armed with his recorder (and sometimes a secret microphone attached to his wrist), Schwartz chronicled every sound in his Manhattan neighborhood. He recorded children singing songs in the park, street festival music, jukeboxes in restaurants, vendors peddling vegetables, and more than 700 conversations with cab drivers, just to name a few examples. The Kitchen Sisters have his story.

May 27, 2015

On January 3rd, 1961, Che Guevara suggested to Fidel Castro that they go play a round of golf. They drove out to what was then the ritziest, most elite country club in Havana. It was empty—almost all the members had fled during the revolution—and Fidel and Che romped around the bucolic green acres while their official photographer snapped publicity shots.

As they played, they realized that the grounds of the country club were spectacular. They knew they had to do something with the property. There, with golf clubs in hand, they decided they would build an art school.

Viva La Arquitectura! 

May 20, 2015

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, Maryland is a busy place. Anyone who dies unexpectedly in the state of Maryland will end up there for an autopsy. On an average day, they might perform twelve autopsies; on more hectic day, they might do more than twenty.

But there’s one room on the fourth floor that sits apart from the buzz of normal activity. It feels a bit like an art gallery.

This room houses the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.”

May 13, 2015

We live in a post-billiards age. There was an age of billiards, and it has been over for so long, most of us have no idea how huge billiards once was. For many decades, starting in the mid-19th Century, billiards was the one of the most popular amusements.

A hundred years ago, there were 830 pool halls in the city of Chicago. Today, there are ten.

Billiards is not what it used to be—but we continue to live in a world affected by its former prominence. The growth of billiards led to the development of a material that would come to define the modern world. Without billiards, we might never have discovered plastic.

The Post-Billiards Age was produced by Dan Weissmann

May 5, 2015

Retail spaces are designed for impulse shopping. When you go to a store looking for socks and come out with a new shirt, it’s only partly your fault.  Shops are trying to look so beautiful, so welcoming, the items so enticingly displayed and in such vast quantity, that the consumer will start buying compulsively.

This is the Gruen Effect.

Producer Avery Trufelman spoke with Jeff Hardwick, author of Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream, and Ellen Dunham Jones author of Retrofitting Suburbia.

April 28, 2015

According to legend, Sarah Winchester’s friends advised the grieving widow to seek the services of a Boston spiritual medium named Adam Koombs. The story goes, Koombs put Mrs. Winchester in touch with her deceased husband—but William had bad news.

He told Sarah Winchester that she would always be haunted by the spirits who had been killed by Winchester rifles.

Speaking through Koombs, William Winchester instructed Sarah to placate the spirits by building a structure that would perpetually grow to shelter the ever-increasing number of Winchester rifle victims.

And if she did this, Sarah Winchester would gain immortality.

But the real story might have a lot fewer ghosts, but is way more inspiring. Ninna Gaensler-Debs gives us a tour of the Mystery House

April 22, 2015

During World War II, a massive recruitment effort targeted students from the top art schools across the country. These young designers, artists, and makers were being asked to help execute a wild idea that came out of one the nation’s most conservative organizations: the United States Army.

The crazy idea was this: The United States Army would design a “deception unit”: a unit that would appear to the enemy as a large armored division with tanks, trucks, artillery, and thousands of soldiers. But this unit would actually be equipped only with fake tanks, fake trucks, fake artillery and manned by just a handful of soldiers.

Katie Mingle tells the story of the Ghost Army

April 14, 2015

The pursuit of lock picking is as old as the lock, which is itself as old as civilization.

But in the entire history of the world, there was only one brief moment, lasting about 70 years, where you could put something under lock and key—a chest, a safe, your home—and have complete, unwavering certainty that no intruder could get to it.

This is a feeling that security experts call “perfect security.”

Sam Greenspan has the story.

April 8, 2015

A month is hardly a unit of measurement. It can start on any day of the week and last anywhere from 28 to 31 days. Sometimes a month is four weeks long, sometimes five, sometimes six. You have to buy a new calendar with new dates every single year. It’s a strange design.

Avery Trufelman explores the weirdness and alternate designs for the calendar.

March 31, 2015

Eighty years ago, New York City needed another tunnel under the Hudson River. The Holland Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge could no longer handle the mounting traffic between New Jersey and Manhattan. Thus began construction of the Lincoln Tunnel.

But this is not a story about the Lincoln Tunnel. This is about the men who made it. The Sandhogs.

Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister are Long Haul Productions.

March 25, 2015

United States paper currency is so ubiquitous that to really look at its graphic design with fresh eyes requires some deliberate and focused attention. Pull a greenback out from your wallet (or look at a picture online) and really take it in. All the fonts, the busy filigree, the micro patterns…

It’s just dreadful.

The Colour of Money

March 18, 2015

In the mid 1800s, not many (non-native) Americans had ever been west of the Mississippi. When Frederick Law Olmstead visited the west in the 1850s, he remarked that the plains looked like a sea of grasses that moved  “in swells after a great storm.” Massive herds of buffalo wandered the plains. Cowboys shepherded cattle across long stretches of no man’s land. It was truly the wild and unmanaged west, but it was all about to change, due, in large part, to one very simple invention that would come to be known as “the devil’s rope.”

March 10, 2015

The United States Military is not known for being touchy-feely. There’s not much hugging or head-patting, and superiors don’t always have the authority to offer a serviceman a raise or promotion.

When a member of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard wants to show appreciation, love, sympathy, or professional connection, they can use challenge coins.

Challenge coins are not currency. Different branches of the military have different uses and customs for them, but when they’re being given or exchanged, the coins serve as literal tokens of gratitude. They can symbolize everything from a nod of appreciation to a deep personal connection.

Coin Check

March 3, 2015

Reports of palm theft have appeared in LA, San Diego, and Texas; palm rustling also gets a mention in Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief.

To understand why someone would want to steal a palm tree, we need to understand their value—which has a lot to do with the space they occupy in our collective imagination. We don’t plant palms for any of the normal reasons we want other trees around. They produce little shade, are difficult to climb, and don’t, for the most part, produce edible fruit.

Palm trees, it seems, do something else.  They’re evocative. They’re transportative. They inspire us to dream big.

Palm Reading 

February 24, 2015

Portlanders have a tradition when visiting their airport: taking a picture of their feet. It’s not to show off their shoes, but rather, what’s under them. They are documenting the famous PDX airport carpet. Julie Sabatier from Rendered has the story.

PDX Carpet

February 17, 2015

A few months before the end of the world, everyone was saying their goodbyes.
The world that was ending was The Sims Online, an online version of The Sims. Even though The Sims was one of the most popular computer games ever made, the massively-multiplayer online version did not do well.
Despite rebranding the game as EA-Land, sales did not improve, and EA Games decided to pull the plug.

This is a collaboration with Robert Ashley from A Life Well Wasted and originally presented on Snap Judgment in 2010.

Game Over

February 11, 2015

At some point in your life you’ve probably encountered a problem in the built world where the fix was obvious to you. Maybe a door that opened the wrong way, or poorly painted marker on the road. Mostly, when we see these things, we grumble on the inside, and then do nothing.

But not Richard Ankrom.

Guerrilla Public Service

February 3, 2015

The idea of the mascot came to America by way of a popular French opera from the 1880s called La Mascotte. The opera is about a down-on-his luck farmer who’s visited by a girl named Bettina; as soon as she appears, the farmer’s crops start doing well and his life turns around. The word “mascotte” is a play on the French slang word “masco,” meaning “witch.”
Hence, “mascotte” (or the anglicized “mascot”) came to mean a person or thing that brings good luck.

La Mascotte

January 27, 2015

In 1885, Austin, Texas was terrorized by a serial killer known as the Servant Girl Annihilator.  The murderer was never actually found, but he claimed eight victims, mostly black servant girls, all attacked in the dark of night. The very, very dark night of Austin in 1885.

After night fell, Austin only had moonlight.  The city had no outdoor lighting until 1894, when Austin decided to buy more moonlight, in the form of towers. They were fifteen stories tall, each crowned with a circle of six lights, soaring way up above the city.

Under The Moonlight

January 20, 2015

If you are looking at a computer screen, your right hand is probably resting on a mouse. To the left of that mouse (or above, if you’re on a laptop) is your keyboard. As you work on the computer, your right hand moves back and forth from keyboard to mouse. You can’t do everything you need to do on a computer without constantly moving between input devices.

There is another way.

A device called a “keyset” could help us navigate virtual environments without moving your hands back and forth. With the mouse in your right hand, the keyset would occupy your left hand. Its five buttons resembled piano keys.

Doug Engelbart invented the keyset in the 1960s. Engelbart was also the person who invented the mouse.

Of Mice And Men

January 13, 2015

The first trademark for a sound in the United States was issued in 1978 to NBC for their chimes. MGM has a sound trademark for their roaring lion, as does 20th Century Fox for their trumpet fanfare. Harley Davidson tried to trademark the sound of their motorcycles, but after years of litigation, they finally withdrew their application.

Right now there are fewer than two hundred active trademarks for sounds. A surprisingly small number, considering sound has the power make—or break—a brand.

Producer Katie Mingle spoke with Joel Beckerman and Tyler Gray, the authors of The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy; Jim Reekes, creator of the Apple startup sound; and Shawn Carney, sound quality engineer for Ford Motors.

January 6, 2015

New Yorkers are known to disagree about a lot of things. Who’s got the best pizza? What’s the fastest subway route? Yankees or Mets? But all 8.5 million New Yorkers are likely to agree on one thing: Penn Station sucks. Reporter Ann Heppermann tells the story.

December 31, 2014

As you probably know, 99% Invisible is a show about the built world, about things manufactured by humans. We don’t tend to do stories about animals or nature. But our friend Jon Mooallem writes brilliant stories about the weird interactions between animals and humans, interactions that are becoming ever weirder and more designed. Mooallem is a writer with the New York Times Magazine and for Pop -Up Magazine, the live magazine in San Francisco, which is where we first heard these two stories. You might remember them as episodes #40 and #91 respectively, but now we present them together in a radio special we’re calling Mooallempalooza.

December 16, 2014

If you want to follow conversation threads relating to this show on social media—whether Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, Tumblr—you know to look for the hashtag: #99pi. In our current digital age, the hashtag identifies movements, events, happenings, brands—topics of all kinds. The “#” didn’t always have this meaning, though.

It’s had a few different lives and a few different names.


December 9, 2014

Hanging in the garage of Fire Station #6 in Livermore, California, there’s a small, pear-shaped light bulb. It is glowing right now.
This lightbulb has been glowing, with just a couple of momentary interruptions, for 113 years. You can see it glow in real time.
The bulb is a genuine heirloom from the dawn of electric illumination, built by one of its pioneers: Adolphe Chaillet.

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out

December 3, 2014

You see them on street corners, at gas stations, at shopping malls. You see them at blowout sales and grand openings of all kinds. Their wacky faces hover over us, and then fall down to meet us, and then rise up again. Their bodies flop. They flail.

They are men. Men made of tubes. Tubes full of air.

November 25, 2014

There’s a little trophy shop called Aardvark Laser Engraving  down the street from our office in Oakland. Its small but bustling, and its windows are stuffed to the brim with awards made of all kinds of materials and in any shape you can imagine. There are chalices, orbs, golfers, gavels, apples, and plaques. Plenty of plaques. They’re engraved to award the Club DJ of the Year, the newest member of a local Freemason branch, one mysterious trophy just says “Rifle Expert,” and there are plenty of heartfelt engravings to spouses, family members, and retiring co-workers.

For this episode, producer Avery Trufelman spoke with Pat Gorman, designer of the MTV Moon Man, Julia Reydel, engraver and owner of Ardvark Laser Engraving, and Scott Siegel, of R.S.Owens & Company. Special thanks to Frank Olinsky and Fred Siebert for their help.

November 19, 2014

This week on the show we’re presenting one of our favorite radio features, “Three Records from Sundown,” about singer Nick Drake. The documentary, by producer Charles Maynes, retraces the roots of Drake’s legend through interviews with Drake’s producer, Joe Boyd. Boyd signed Nick Drake to Island records when Drake was just 20 years old. The first album they recorded together was Five Leaves Left, released in 1968.

Three Records from Sundown

November 12, 2014

Vexillologists—those who study flags—tend to fall into one of two schools of thought. The first is one that focuses on history, category, and usage, and maintains that vexillologists should be scholars and historians of all flags, regardless of their designs.

The other school of vexillology, however, maintains that not all flags are created equal, and that flags can and should be redesigned, and improved.

Ted Kaye of the Portland Flag Association—the largest subnational flag organization in the country—is one such vexillologist. Kaye has a word for these activist vexillologists of his ilk, who go out into the world and lobby for more beautiful flags: “vexillonaires.”

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November 4, 2014

“A Chair is a difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier.” — Mies van der Rohe.
The chair presents an interesting design challenge, because it is an object that disappears when in use. The person replaces the chair. So chairs need to look fantastic when empty, and remain invisible (and comfortable) while in use.
Edge of Your Seat

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October 28, 2014

The Ouija board is so simple and iconic that it looks like it comes from another time, or maybe another realm. The game is not as ancient as it was designed to look, but those two arched rows of letters have been spooking people for over 125 years. Actually, the roots of the board go back even farther, according to Ouija historian Robert Murch. To understand where Ouija boards (generically called “talking boards”) come from, you have to go back to middle of the 1800s, to three sisters in New York…

This story was adapted from a piece by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie which originally appeared in the Smithsonian Magazine. Producer Katie Mingle spoke with historian Robert Murch and Professor Chris French.

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October 22, 2014

The first print advertisement for Wonder Bread came out before the bread itself. It stated only that “a wonder” was coming. In a lot of ways, the statement was true. Wonder Bread was the perfect loaf.  “Slow food” advocates have pronounced industrial white bread of any brand a symbol of a modern grocery problem:  we consumers don’t know where our food comes from. The funny thing is that industrial white bread—that evenly sliced, squishy, moist, perfectly white and wondrous loaf—was once a highly designed solution to that very same problem.


October 19, 2014

When you support Radiotopia, you are making sure 99% Invisible can keep coming to you weekly and you’ll be supporting our entire collective of award-winning, independent radiomakers. Please go to our Kickstarter page and back us in our effort to remake radio for the most innovative creators and curious listeners. Thanks!


October 14, 2014

On July 13th, 1977, lightning struck an electricity transmission line in New York City, causing the line’s automatic circuit breaker to kick in. The electricity from the affected line was diverted to another line. This was fairly normal and everything was fine—until a second bolt of lightening struck.
Electric lines started shutting themselves off. As more and more lines were shut off, the system started to shut itself down. Eventually, the largest power generator in the area, known as Big Allis, turned itself off.
And then all of New York City went dark.
On that evening, DJ Grandmaster Caz, a Bronx native, was spinning records in a park. Caz recalls the evening: “The record just started slowing down, you know what I mean? So, quite naturally, we thought, it was us. We thought we had drained too much power and we shorted out the electricity. So we’re frantic, we’re looking around, we’re checking buttons, were checking switches, we’re seeing what’s up.”
“It was chaos that night,” says Grandmaster Caz. “And it was exciting afterwards. But while it was going on, it was scary.”
But Caz also believes that the the 1977 blackout may have accelerated the burgeoning Hip Hop movement. His theory: the looting that occurred during the blackout enabled people who couldn’t afford turntables and mixers to become DJs.

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October 7, 2014

Everyone has tried it at some point. The authorities started turning a blind eye years ago, but it wasn’t officially legalized until the summer of 2014. Finally, after more than 80 years of illegitimacy, the City of Oakland has legalized…pinball machines.
Pinball’s design history can help explain why it was illegal for so long.

September 30, 2014

Straight lines form the core of our built environment. Building in straight lines makes predicting costs and calculating structural loads easier, since building materials come in linear units.
Straight lines might be logical, predictable, and efficient, but they are also completely “godless”—at least according to Austrian artist and designer Tausendsassa Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser (which translates to “Multi-Talented Peace-Filled Rainy Day Dark-Colored Hundred Waters” in German).
Hundertwasser made a name for himself, so to speak, with his psychedelic, whimsical paintings and his public speaking engagements that he would sometimes deliver completely naked.
As a proponent of radical human expression, Hundertwasser sought to create structures that were free from straight lines, which he saw as constricting and devoid of organic elements.

September 24, 2014

There’s a photograph we have tacked to our studio at 99% Invisible HQ. The photo, taken 1899, shows three men, all looking very fashionable, suspended mid-air on the lifted arm of a giant dredging machine.
There are plenty of images like this from this era— scenes of people standing around proudly as they shaped the earth. And in these old photos there seems to be a real sense of awe and reverence for the marvels of civil engineering.
The above photo is a scene from the reversal of the Chicago River (see episode episode #86, true believers!). The reason that photo is famous—or at least famous enough for us to have seen it—is because the reversal of the Chicago River was an enormous engineering project that was successful.
But you have to figure that there were countless other photographs depicting similarly-awe-inspiring feats of engineering prowess that we have never seen— because those feats turned out to be failures.
Failures like the Port of Dallas.

September 16, 2014

On the southwest corner of Central Park West and 106th Street in New York City, there’s an enormous castle. It takes up the whole east end of the block, with its red brick cylindrical turrets topped with gleaming silver cones. All the stained glass windows and intricate stonework make the building looks like something out of a fairytale.
This building’s past, however, is not very fairytale-like at all.
When it was built in 1887, this castle was the country’s first hospital devoted solely to the treatment of cancer. In the late 1800s, cancer was known to start as a tumor, but they didn’t know a whole lot beyond that.
In the back of the castle, was a smoke stack that used to lead out from the crematorium. That smokestack was smoking pretty often.

September 10, 2014

In the beginning, there was design.
Before any other human discipline, even before the dawn of mankind its self, design was a practice passed down from generation to generation of early humans. Today, everything that has been designed–space ships, buildings, pyramids, weapons, clothing , artwork, everything–can be traced back to a single designed object. The first designed object: the Acheulean hand axe.
This episode features designer William Lidwell and UC-Berkeley anthropologist Terrence Deacon.

September 2, 2014

Around 2005, a Seattle neighborhood called Ballard started to see unprecedented growth. Condominiums and apartment buildings were sprouting up all over the community which had once been mostly single family homes and small businesses. Around this time, developers offered a woman named Edith Macefield $750,000 dollars for her small house, which was appraised at around $120,000. They wanted to build a shopping mall on the block where Macefield had lived for the last 50 years.

Macefield turned down the money. Developers went forward with the shopping mall anyway. The mall enveloped her house on three sides.

August 26, 2014

Cities, like living things, evolve slowly over time. Buildings and structures get added and renovated and removed, and in this process, bits and pieces that get left behind. Vestiges. Just as humans have tailbones and whales have pelvic bones, cities have doors that open into a limb-breaking drop, segments of fences that anyone can walk around, and pipes that carry nothing at all.
Most of the time, these architectural leftovers rust or crumble or get taken down. But other times, these vestiges aren’t removed. They remain in the urban organism. And sometimes—even though they no longer serve any discernible purpose—they’re actually maintained. They get cleaned and polished and re-painted just because they’re there.
These urban vestiges first caught the attention of an artist in Japan named Akasegawa Genpei. One day, in 1972, he was walking to lunch, and he came across a staircase that went up and then back down but had no door at the top. Then Akasegawa noticed that a piece of the railing that had been recently fixed. That’s when something clicked.
Akasegawa started noticing similar urban leftovers, and treasured them as artistic byproducts of the city. He photographed all the things he could find that were both vestigial and maintained. He began publishing his findings in a magazine column, accompanied by musings about each object.
People began to send Akasegawa pictures of similar architectural leftovers that they found, and in his column, Akasegawa would judge all submissions on two criteria:
1. Were they truly, completely useless?
2. Were they regularly maintained?
In 1985 Akasegawa published a book of these collected photographs and writings, in which he coined a term for these kinds of urban leftovers. He called them, “Thomassons.”

August 19, 2014

IKEA hacking is the practice of buying things from IKEA and reengineering—or “hacking”—them to become customized, more functional, and often just better designed stuff. The locus of the IKEA hacking movement is a website called IKEAhackers.net. It’s a showcase for people who have tricked out their KALLAXES, their ARKELSTORPS and their FLÄRDFULLS .

Would-be hackers can gather tips from other hackers, and once they’re ready, post pictures and how-to guides of their own hacks.

IKEAhackers.net was started in 2006 by Jules Yap (Jules is not her real first name—it’s a pseudonym derived from an IKEA product). But in March of 2014, Yap got a cease and desist letter from IKEA. IKEA claimed that using their trademarked name  was a violation—even just using the blue and yellow color scheme was not allowed.

Producer Sean Cole spoke with Jules Yap of IKEAhackers.net, and academics Daniela Rosner and Jonathan Bean (the latter of whom helped him hack an IKEA storage-bed out of KALLAX bookcases and some doors that can be found at any big-box home improvement store).

August 11, 2014

Way back in October 2011 (see episode #38, true believers!), we broadcast a short excerpt of a radio documentary produced by Peregrine Andrews about faking the sounds of sports on TV broadcasts. It was one of our most popular and provocative programs ever, primarily because people were shocked that any aspect of a sporting event might be faked. Since then, I’ve received several requests from the audience asking where they can hear the full-length documentary. Well today, my friends, you are in luck.

When we think of the sound of sports on TV or radio, it’s generally commentary. But sports broadcasts would be nothing without all the sounds that are behind the commentary– the crowds, the kicks, the thwacks, and the grunts.

August 4, 2014

As humans have developed cities and built environments, we have also needed to develop ways to find our way through them. Sam Greenspan went on a wayfinding tour with Jim Harding in the Atlanta airport. Harding is one of the expert “invisibles” that do critical, but generally unrecognized work profiled in a new book by David Zweig.

July 29, 2014

The best knock-offs in the world are in China. There are plenty of fake designer handbags and Rolexes, but China’s knock-offs go way beyond fashion. There are knock-off Apple stores that look so much like the real thing, some employees believe they are working in real Apple stores. And then there are entire knock-off cities.

July 22, 2014

Reporter Whitney Jones argues that R.E.M.’s Out of Time is the most politically significant album in the history of the United States. Because of its packaging.

July 15, 2014

Well before the early 1500s, when Sir Thomas Moore first coined the term “Utopia,” people have been thinking about how to design their ideal community. Maybe it’s one that doesn’t use money, or one that drops traditional family structures and raises children collectively. For a community of people on the outskirts of the small Arizona town of Snowflake, “utopia” is just a place where they won’t be physically sick. That’s because everyone in this community is suffering from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity or MCS.

July 8, 2014

When designing a commercial structure, there is one safety component that must be designed right into the building from the start: egress.
“Egress” refers to an entire exit system from a building: stairs, corridors, and evacuation routes outside the building. Each state’s building code specifies a certain number of means of egress, depending on the size and purpose of the structure.
Simply put, there have to be enough doors, corridors, and stairs for every occupant to exit in an orderly manner in the event of an emergency.

July 1, 2014

During the 1961 Berlin Crisis—one of the various moments in the cold war in which we came frighteningly close to engaging in actual war with the Soviets—President John F. Kennedy vowed to identify spaces in “existing structures both public and private that could be used for fallout shelters in case of attack.”

After JFK’s speech, a fallout shelter economy sprung up overnight in the U.S. There were door to door bomb-shelter salesmen, shelter displays at malls and county fairs, and pamphlets for sale on every magazine rack.

But by the time Kennedy made that speech, one small town in Southern New Mexico had already broken ground on a unique shelter that would double as an elementary school.

June 24, 2014

The term “hijacking” goes back to prohibition days, when gangsters would rob moonshine trucks saying, “Hold your hands high, Jack!” However, in the early days of commercial air travel, the idea that someone would hijack a plane was scarcely even considered.
When the government started to oversee aviation in 1958, the congressional law did not even make hijacking a crime and the early design of airport terminals reflected this mentality. Airports were once more like train stations, where you walk through the terminal and onto the tarmac, and sometimes straight onto the plane itself, without flashing a ticket or showing anyone your identification.
Then in 1961, an epidemic of hijackings began.
For this story, Roman spoke with Brendan Koerner, author of The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking.

June 17, 2014

As a fashion object and symbol, the high heel shoe is weighted with meaning. It’s also weighted with the wearer’s entire body weight. The stiletto might be one of the only designs that is physically painful but has somehow has persisted for centuries.
At their origins, high heeled shoes were originally worn by men. As early as the tenth century, many horseback riding cultures wore heels on their boots and on their shoes, because heels help you stay in the stirrups (which is why cowboy boots have heels).

June 10, 2014

99% Invisible presents Song Exploder. A song is a product of design. It’s difficult to create an original melody, but that’s only the blueprint. Every element of a piece of music could be produced any number of ways, depending on which instrument plays at what time, for how long, and with what what kind of effect. The architecture behind a piece of music can be much more involved than meets the ear, and this is what inspired Hrishikesh Hirway to start a podcast called Song Exploder, where musicians “take apart their songs, and piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made.”

June 3, 2014

In just about every movie set in New York City in the 1970s and 80s there’s an establishing shot with a graffiti-covered subway.
For city officials, train graffiti was a sign that they had lost control. So, starting in the early 70s, mayors of New York vowed to eradicate graffiti. First, Mayor John Lindsey formed the first anti-graffiti task force. He also re-classified graffiti from a nuisance, like littering or loitering, into a crime.
In 1984 David Gunn became President of the New York City Transit Authority.
Systemically, train line by train line, Gunn took the subways off the map for graffiti writers. While they were fixing it, they didn’t allow any graffiti on it. If graffiti artists “bombed” a train car, the MTA pulled it from the system. Even during rush hour.
May 12, 1989 was declared the official day of the city’s victory over train graffiti.
But of course train graffiti has never stopped.
There is still subway graffiti—it just never leaves the train yards. Artists—many of them from abroad—paint subway cars knowing full well that they will get cleaned before they’re ever seen by the public.

May 27, 2014

When I go into a bank, especially if I have to stand in line waiting to make a deposit, my mind wanders. And one of the first place it wanders to is: how I would rob the place. How could it be done? Most of the time, buildings are our friends. But it’s fun to recast the building as the enemy. The obstacle we have to overcome.

May 20, 2014

The westernmost part of Manhattan, between 34th and 39th street, is pretty industrial. There’s a bus depot, a ferry terminal, and a steady stream of cars. But in the late 19th early 20th centuries, this was cow country.
Cows used to be ferried across the Hudson River from New Jersey, herded across Twelfth Avenue (now the West Side Highway), and brought to this part of town to be made into beef.
You’ve heard of the meat packing district. This was like the meat hacking district. It was nicknamed “Abattoir Place.” It was a hive of bone boilers and hide stretchers and lard renderers. There was a disassembly line for every single part of a cow.
As more and more cows were ferried to the slaughterhouses in Manhattan, it became impossible for passing herds to to coexist with Twelfth Avenue traffic. Not only did the number of cows increase, but so too had the number of carriages, and trains, and, eventually, cars. Cows were in the way. There were reports of epic cow jams on Twelfth avenue.
That’s why people invented cow tunnels. Or at least the story of cow tunnels. At one point there might have actually been tunnels made expressly for cows to march underneath Twelfth Avenue to the abattoir. Or people might have just invented this crazy story about cow tunnels because everybody loves a good, vaguely plausible urban myth.
We have tunnels for cars, for subways, electrical cables, and the internet. Could there be subterranean infrastructure for cows, too?

May 13, 2014

In 1990, the federal government invited a group of geologists, linguists, astrophysicists, architects, artists, and writers to the New Mexico desert, to visit the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. They were there on a mission.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is the nation’s only permanent underground repository for nuclear waste. Eventually, WIPP will be sealed up and left alone. Years will pass and those years will become decades. Those decades will become centuries and those centuries will roll into millennia. People above ground will come and go. Cultures will rise and fall. And all the while, below the surface, that cave full of waste will get smaller and smaller, until the salt caverns swallow up all those oil drums and entombs them. Then, all the old radioactive gloves and tools and little bits from bombs –all still radioactive– will be solidified in the earth’s crust for more than 200,000 years. Basically forever.
The problem that the aforementioned panel was convened to address was how to convey this information to people 10,000 years in the future, when language and symbols may be so different as to make direct communication impossible.

May 6, 2014

About ten miles north of Concord, New Hampshire, off of interstate 93 there’s a little island with a great, big monument on it. The monument depicts a woman, who is holding a hatchet in her right hand and bunch of scalps in her left hand. When it was erected in 1874, this was the first statue to honor a woman in the United States. But despite this historic status, the monument is controversial because of the woman it memorializes and what she did. The woman in the monument is Hannah Duston and in 1697 she was living in Haverhill, Massachusetts when she, her infant daughter and her nurse-maid, Mary Neff were kidnapped by a band of Abenaki Native Americans. The three were marched north and at some point Hannah’s infant daughter was killed by the Abenakis. They stopped for the night in Boscawen, New Hampshire (on the island above with the monument) and while the Abenaki families slept, Hannah and her companions killed ten of them – including six children – and then scalped each victim before making their escape back to Haverhill.

April 29, 2014

If you’ve wandered around Machu Picchu, or Stonehenge, or the Colosseum, or even snuck into that abandoned house on the edge of town, you know the power in a piece of decrepit architecture. And even if you don’t want to leave your house, the internet is littered with evidence of the human love affair with all things abandoned.
People flock to remainders of ancient civilizations, but people also flock to things that just look like they’re ancient. The combination of decomposition and romance makes a perfect cocktail of repulsion and allure. And for San Franciscans, this place is Sutro Baths.
At the northwestern edge of San Francisco, right on the Pacific Ocean, is a curious jumble of concrete ruins. You wouldn’t know just looking at it, but this ruin is quite young. It’s what’s left of Sutro Baths, a palatial indoor swimming pool and amusement park built in 1898.

April 22, 2014

Uniforms matter. When it comes to sports, they might be the only thing to which we’re actually loyal.
Sports uniforms are packaging. But unlike any other packaging, if the product inside changes or degrades, we remain loyal. Players come and go, but change the uniform, and you’ll hear about it.
There are very few ways for players to put their own personal style into their uniforms. In baseball, in the face of huge opposition from curved-brim loyalists, some players take the bold stance of wearing a straight brim, like George Sherrill who is nick-named “The Brim Reaper” for his flat-brimmed style.
But for people who really geek out about baseball uniforms (like Paul Lukas from Uni Watch) the space below the knee may be the most interesting. It is here that players have the most choices, can make the biggest statement, and be, in the words of Lukas, masters of the “uni-verse.”
Most players today choose to wear their pants long, but if you truly want to honor baseball’s hosiery heritage, you should wear your pants up over your calves and a sharp pair of stirrups.

Paul Lukas of Uni Watch (and creator of the zine Beer Frame, to which 99% Invisible owes a considerable debt) talked with Jesse Thorn, host of the NPR show Bullseye, owner of Maximumfun.org, and life-long SF Giants fans, even though it’s really hard to wear the cap out because black and orange doesn’t go with anything.

April 15, 2014

When it was built in 1977, Citicorp Center (later renamed Citigroup Center, now called 601 Lexington) was, at 59 stories, the seventh-tallest building in the world. You can pick it out of the New York City skyline by its 45-degree angled top.
But it’s the base of the building that really makes the tower so unique. The bottom nine of its 59 stories are stilts.
This thing does not look sturdy. But it has to be sturdy. Otherwise they wouldn’t have built it this way.
The architect of Citicorp Center was Hugh Stubbins, but most of the credit for this building is given to its chief structural engineer, William LeMessurier.
According to LeMessurier, in 1978 he got a phone call from an undergraduate architecture student making a bold claim about LeMessurier’s building. He told LeMessurier that Citicorp Center could blow over in the wind.

April 8, 2014

The name is important. It’s the first thing of any product you use or buy or see. The tip of the spear. You are bombarded by thousands of names every day.
In this daily barrage, only the names that are most interesting and most pleasant on the tongue can survive in your memory. So it’s no surprise that companies—especially large ones like Sony or Procter & Gamble—hire naming companies.
That is, there are companies that come up with names for things. Cars, lines of yogurt, iPhone apps, small businesses, sodas, movies, and even theories have all been named by professionals.
There are really only a handful of businesses that deal exclusively in names, and their services can cost thens of thousands of dollars. In addition to coming up with names, they also determine what names are available for trademark, which URLs are available, and they conduct linguistic checks to ensure that potential names are pronounceable, unique, and appropriate in languages around the world.

April 1, 2014

When George Laurer goes to the grocery store, he doesn’t tell the check-out people that he invented the barcode, but his wife used to point it out. “My husband here’s the one who invented that barcode,” she’d occasionally say. And the check-out people would look at him like, “you mean there was a time when we didn’t have barcodes?” A time without barcodes is hard to imagine now. But it wasn’t that long ago, and the story doesn’t start with George Laurer. It starts with an engineer named Joseph Woodland.

March 25, 2014

When it’s three o’clock in the morning and everything is going wrong in your life, there’s a certain kind of ad you might see on basic cable. Lawyers–usually guys–promise to battle the heartless, tight-wad insurance companies on your behalf. There’s disaster footage and stiff readings off of cue cards. The ads look like they were made in a high school A.V. class.
Believe it or not, lawyer ads are actually tightly regulated. There was an era before ads like these were allowed–and a big bang after which they couldn’t be contained. And now, the legal world is in a subtle, possibly endless civil war over how attorneys should advertise their services (and whether they should advertise at all).
This story was produced by contributor Sean “The Hammer” Cole. Sean spoke with On the Media host (and former Advertising Age critic) Bob Garfield; Elizabeth Tarbert, who is on the ethics council for the Florida Bar; divorce attorney Steve Miler; Lucien Pera, an attorney who advises nationwide law firms on their ads; personal injury attorneys Matt Hardin and Lowell “The Hammer” Stanley.

March 18, 2014

Quatrefoil is the name of the four-lobed cloverleaf shape. It’s everywhere: adorning Gothic cathedrals, more modern churches, Rhode Island mansions, mission-style roofs in California, and decorating victorian homes from coast to coast. It’s embroidered on bedding, plastered on wallpaper, and patterned on public garbage cans.

The quatrefoil has been re-interpreted and re-contextualized in a phenomenon called “iconographical drift.” The associations with the shape are constantly shifting depending on where it’s used, who is using it, and the purpose for which it is used.

But no matter where it’s turns up, it always implies the same thing: fanciness.

March 11, 2014

A few years ago, reporter Sean Cole was working on a radio story and needed to interview the rapper Busta Rhymes.
Sean was living in Boston at the time, so he did a Google search for “Busta Rhymes” and “Boston” to see if Busta had any upcoming shows that Sean could stake out.

Google didn’t return any relevant tour dates. But it did give Sean a map, centering on a tiny speck of land in a neighboring suburb called Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.

The tiny speck of land was labeled Busta Rhymes Island.

March 4, 2014

At its peak, the Berlin Wall was 100 miles long. Today only about a mile is left standing.

Compared with other famous walls in history, this wall had a pretty short life span.

The Great Wall of China has been around for 2500 years. So have the walls of ancient Babylon—although its most famous part, the Ishtar Gate, is actually in a museum in Berlin.

But even though the wall dividing Berlin into East and West was only up for 30 years, it had a huge impact on the psyche of the city. It broke families in two. In the decade that followed, more than 2 million people fled from east to west. East Germany was losing its most skilled workers as they sought jobs–and to reunite with their families–across the border. And East Germany was losing face with every East Berliner who chose to defect.

And that’s why, in 1961, East Germany closed its border to West Berlin with a wall. But this isn’t a story about the design of the Berlin Wall. This is a story about one design to get through it—or really, underneath it. Ralph Kabisch, then a 20-something-year-old university student, was there.

February 25, 2014

It started with some Pittsburgh humor.

Pittsburgh-based comedian Tom Muisal does a bit about a GPS unit that can give directions in “Pittsburghese.” Because in Pittsburgh, no one calls it “Interstate 376,” it’s “The Parkway.” It’s not “The Liberty Tunnel,” it’s “The Liberty Tubes.”

And directions are often given by way of what used to be there.

One day Tom was trying this routine out on his friend, Mike Neilson. Mike is not from Pittsburgh–he grew up on the other side of the state. When he moved to the Steel City, he had a hard time figuring out how to get around. Because Pittsburghers are always telling him to turn left at something that isn’t there anymore.

And then, as Mike was listening to Tom’s Pittsburgher GPS routine, he noticed that in in one iteration of the joke he said, “turn left at the place that used to be a Pizza Hut.”

This resonated with Mike. He realized that, because the architecture of a Pizza Hut is so distinctive, he could easily identify any building that used to be a Pizza Hut. The former Pizza Hut was thus a beacon of light shining through a thick fog of impossible directions. Here, in his friend’s comedy routine, was the one Pittsburghese direction he could give that anyone, regardless of where they’re from, could comprehend: turn left at the place that used to be a Pizza Hut.

And from there, Mike created a global atlas of all the places that used to be Pizza Huts.

February 18, 2014

There is a beauty to a universal standard. The idea that people across the world can agree that when they interact with one specific thing, everyone will be on the same page– regardless of language or culture or geographic locale. If you’re in Belgrade or Shanghai or São Paulo, you can look at a sign and know instantly, without speaking a word of the local language, that this floor is slippery. That the emergency exit is over there. That that substance is poisonous, and you should not eat it.

The group behind those internationally recognized logos is called the International Organization for Standardization. One of the most recognizable ISO symbols in the International Symbol of Access. You might not know it by that name, but you’ve seen it.

The International Symbol of Access is everywhere–on parking spaces, on buttons that operate automatic doors, in bathrooms, on seats on the bus or at movie theaters. Anywhere there’s an indication of special accommodations made for people with disabilities.

The logo was created through a design contest in 1968, coordinated by an organization now called Rehabilitation International. The logo would have to be readily identifiable from reasonable distance, self-descriptive, simple, unambiguous, and practical. The winner was a Danish designer named Susanne Koefed–though her original design didn’t have a head!

As the logo got absorbed into the built environment, and the politics of (dis)ability became more nuanced, some people started finding it a little lacking. So one group, the Accessible Icon Project, has created a new logo that they hope will ultimately replace ISO standard.

February 11, 2014

You know the saying: you can’t judge a book by its cover. With magazines, it’s pretty much the opposite. The cover of a magazine is the unified identity for a whole host of ideas, authors, and designers who have created the eclectic array of stories and articles and materials within each issue. And, some would argue, this identity extends to the reader as well.So if, say, you’re seen with an issue of Vogue, you’re don’t just own that copy–you become a Vogue reader.

Magazine covers are a challenge to design, since they have to be both ever-changing and also consistently recognizable. For this reason, most publications stick to a standard set practices.

February 3, 2014

Like the best of these stories, the two bitter rivals started out as best friends: William Van Alen and Craig Severance.

They were business partners. Van Alen was considered the artistic maverick and Severance was the savvy businessman. It’s unclear why they broke up, but at some point, Severance decided he could do better on his own. The two parted ways and set up separate practices.

At the time of their breakup, New York City was undergoing a boom like nothing ever seen before. Massive wealth turned Manhattan into some of the most valuable property in human history. And when property gets valuable, we build up.

Late in 1928 Walter Chrysler, founder of the Chrysler car company, came to New York and bought a plot of land and decided to build, what he referred to as, “a monument to me.” Van Alen had already been working on plans for the previous owner of that plot and Chrysler decided to hire him to develop that plan into what would become the Chrysler Building. Walter Chrysler was a great fan of art and architecture and felt a real kinship with the Beaux-Arts trained William Van Alen.

Meanwhile, downtown at 40 Wall Street, Craig Severance was planning the Manhattan Company Building. It was funded primarily by the young, Wall Street hot shot, George Ohrstrom. The two towers had different goals. Severance’s building was being constructed to make money. The Chrysler Building was intended to be a monument to Chrysler, but it also aimed to be a beautiful and innovative structure.

At the time, Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth building was the tallest building in New York City and both Van Alen and Severance intended to take its crown.

What followed was an epic back and forth struggle for the glory of ruling the New York City skyline.

January 15, 2014

On July 28, 1945, an airplane crashed into the Empire State Building. A B-25 bomber was flying a routine mission, chartering servicemen from Massachusetts to New York City.

Capt. William F. Smith, who had led some of the most dangerous missions in World War II in the European theatre, was the pilot. The day was foggy. Smith called LaGuardia Airport and requested a clearance to land. With nearly zero visibility, the tower suggested that Smith stay in the air. He ignored air traffic control and started a descent that took him over midtown Manhattan.

Just as he straightened out, the clouds broke up enough for him to realize he was flying among skyscrapers.

The bomber crashed into the Empire State Building, the tallest building in the world at the time. The collision killed Smith, two others on the plane, and eleven people who worked inside the building.

When the plane hit, parts of the engine flew ahead and severed the lifting cables of two elevators on the 79th floor. The elevators crashed to the sub-basement. In one of the elevators was a 19-year-old elevator operator named Betty Lou Oliver. She broke her pelvis, back and neck — but she survived.

This story was produced by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark for Radio Diaries. The Radio Diaries podcast is produced by Sarah Kramer.

January 2, 2014

Elevators are old. They would have to be. Because it is in our nature to rise.

History is full of things that lift other things. In ancient Greece, and China, and Hungary, there were systems of weights and pulleys and platforms designed to bring nobility–or their meals–to new heights.

And somewhere below were draft animals, or even people, tasked with turning a wheel to bring these early elevators up and down. One man even spent the year of 1743 in a chimney in order to turn a lever to raise King Louis XV on a platform so the king wouldn’t have to walk up a single flight of stairs.

These elevators were dangerous. Ropes would snap, and then anything getting raised or lowered would plummet to the ground. Fall one story and you break your leg–fall two stories you break your neck. And this fear of falling kept building heights low. People only wanted to ascend as high as they could walk. The tallest buildings for most of the 19th century were churches, or lighthouses–buildings made up primarily of empty space.

And then came Elisha Otis.

Nate Dimeo from the memory palace provides our stories today. It’s a fantastic monthly program everyone should subscribe to.

December 20, 2013

If you tune around on a shortwave radio, you might stumble across a voice reciting an endless stream of numbers. Just numbers, all day, everyday. These so-called “numbers stations,” say nothing about where they are transmitting from or who they are trying to reach, but they can be heard in Spanish, Thai, German, Russian, Chinese, and any number of other languages from around the world.

These mysterious shortwave transmissions caught the attention of producer David Goren when he was just a kid. His piece, Atencion! Seis Siete Tres Siete Cero: The Mystery of the Shortwave Numbers Stations, aired in 2000 as part of the series Lost and Found Sound. In tuning into these weird little broadcasts, Goren joins a curious community that has been listening to numbers stations for decades, some suspecting that the stations are run by intelligence agencies sending encrypted messages to individual agents in the field.

December 3, 2013

Cameron Smith is building a space suit in his apartment.

He’s not an astronaut. He’s not even an engineer. Cameron Smith is an archaeologist–on faculty in the anthropology department at Portland State University in Oregon. But Cameron is an explorer by nature. He’s been diving in Puget Sound, survived arctic winters in Iceland and Alaska and summited Oregon’s Mount Hood more times than he can count.

Now he wants to take on outer space. And since Cameron doesn’t have an entire space program behind him, that means doing it on the cheap. His homemade space suite costs $2,000. A standard issue suit from NASA runs about $12 million.

The space suit has been a 3 years in the making. Eventually, Cameron will put on the suit and step into a gondola and a balloon (also homemade) will take him up 50,000 feet in the air. At that point, he’ll be depending on his own craftiness to keep himself alive.

This episode is based off an episode of the public radio program and podcast, Destination DIY.

November 21, 2013

We have seen the future, and the future is mostly blue.
Or, put another way: in our representations of the future in science fiction movies, blue seems to be the dominant color of our interfaces with technology yet to come. And that is one of the many design lessons we can learn from sci-fi.
Designers and sci-fi aficionados Chris Noessel and Nathan Shedroff have spent years compiling real-world lessons that designers can, should, and already do take from science fiction. Their new book, Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons From Science Fiction is a comprehensive compendium of their findings.
All music (after pledge preamble) is by OK Ikumi.

November 12, 2013

There is an allure in unbuilt structures: the utopian, futuristic transports, the impossibly tall skyscrapers, even the horrible highways, all capture our imagination with what could have been. Whether these never built structures are perceived as good or bad, they still had an effect on the environment that does exist. We talk with Allison Arieff, John King and Andrew Lynch about the amazing things we missed out on, and the bullets we dodged, in the history of the unbuilt in San Francisco and New York City.

Season 4 Kickstarter:

November 6, 2013

The story goes like this: Theophilus Van Kannel hated chivalry. There was nothing he despised more than trying to walk in or out of a building, and locking horns with other men in a game of “oh you first, I insist.” But most of all, Theophilus Van Kannel hated opening doors for women.

He set about inventing his way out of social phobia. And that’s how, 1888, Theophilus Van Kannel was awarded US Patent #387571 A for a “Storm-door structure,” which would soon become known as the revolving door.

**Be one of the 10,000! Support 99% Invisible on Kickstarter NOW!**

October 29, 2013

I love those moments when you’re walking in your neighborhood and suddenly nothing is familiar. In a good way.

Sean Cole began seeing his neighborhood, actually the whole city of New York, with new eyes because of one artist who is trying to do nothing less than draw all the buildings in New York.

James Gulliver Hancock’s drawings are intricate, but still a little cartoony. Little squiggles and dots hover above the roofs, as though they’re saying “look out!” or maybe “ta-da!”

Cole became infected with Hancock’s worldview and began to appreciate all the tiny details the artist would highlight.

Support the Season 4 Kickstarter:

October 23, 2013

99% Invisible started as a side project I made in my bedroom at night, and after two years of making the program, I turned to Kickstarter to see if I should keep it going. To my great surprise, the Season 3 fund-raising campaign broke all previous records for a journalism project on Kickstarter. We hired a producer (Sam Greenspan!), overhauled the website, grew the audience, and made the show better than it has ever been.

For Season 4, we want to Kickstart the next giant leap in the evolution of 99% Invisible:

We want to go weekly.

We’re staffing up and going pro. This involves hiring more help (contract reporters, editors, a production coordinator, paid interns), moving into a proper office, and commissioning more stories. The 52 weekly episodes of Season 4 will start February 4, 2014 and run for one year.

Please pledge now:

October 14, 2013

We have one cardinal rule on 99% Invisible: No cardinals. Meaning, we deal with the built world, not the natural world.

So, when I read Jon Mooallem’s brilliant book, Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, I didn’t think we’d ever do an episode of 99% Invisible about it. I just read it for fun.

But then I saw Jon perform stories from the book live with musical accompaniment from the band Black Prairie. And that changed everything.

What you need to know about Wild Ones is that it’s not a book about nature. It’s a book about how we fit nature into our lives. Wild Ones is about the cutesy stuffed animals, the eco-tours, and the byzantine methods of conservation that evolve when our experience with wild life goes from something natural to something designed. Human-animal interaction has become a designed experience and the story of that transition, as the title of the book suggests, is sometimes dismaying and weirdly reassuring.

October 2, 2013

If you are an undertaker in 1878 Kansas City, and you learn that your competitor’s wife works as a telephone switchboard operator and has been diverting business calls meant for you to her husband, you have a few potential courses of action. Almon Brown Stroger picked the one that changed the world.

Last July, we told the story of the Purple Hotel. Here’s the original story, with an update at the end.

What’s the difference between what the public sees and what an architect sees when they look at a building?

The hotel on the very prominent corner of Touhy and Kilbourn Avenues in Lincolnwood, Illinois used to be the town’s most famous building: The first Hyatt hotel in all of Chicagoland, premiere accommodations, top-notch restaurant. It was swank! Roberta Flack stayed there. Barry Mannilow stayed there. Perry Como. Michael Jordon stayed there on his first night in Chicago. Every thirteen-year-old in the area had their bar mitzvah there.

Then, slowly, over time, it became Lincolnwood’s most infamous building. Changed hands, got seedy and run down. It was the home of the Midwest Fetish Fair and Marketplace convention. There were drug-fueled sex parties attended by shady Chicago politicians later convicted of things like extortion. And of course there was the convicted mobster Alan Dorfman, who was gunned down in the parking lot. It’s now dilapidated and empty.

But even if you know nothing about the history, everyone in the area knows this hotel.

Because it’s purple. Really, really purple.

September 17, 2013

If you were a movie star in the market for a mansion in 1930s Los Angeles, there was a good chance you might call on Wallace Neff.

Neff wasn’t just an architect–he was a starchitect. One of his most famous projects was the renovation of Pickfair, the estate owned by the iconic silent film actress Mary Pickford, and her husband Douglas Fairbanks. When the couple moved into Pickfar, the house sat on a nameless street in an empty neighborhood called Beverly Hills. If you were lucky enough to be invited to dinner at Pickfair you might find yourself seated next to Babe Ruth, the King of Spain or Albert Einstein. Life magazine called Pickfair “only slightly less important than the white house, and much more fun.” Neff designed estates for Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland and Groucho Marx. His Libby Ranch is now owned by Reese Witherspoon.

But at the end of his life, Wallace Neff lived in a 1,000 square foot concrete bubble. And Neff believed that this simple dome was his greatest architectural achievements.

Los Angeles-based reporter David Weinberg spoke with historian Jeffrey Head, author of No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff. David also spoke with Kathy Miles, who grew up in Igloo Village; Steve Roden, an artist and current resident of the last remaining bubble house in the US; and architect Stefanos Polyzoides, who has his practice in a classic Spanish/Mediterranean-style Wallace Neff building.

We also hear from Dakar-based producer Juliana Friend, who was nice enough to go check on the bubbles over there.

A different version of this story originally aired on KCRW as part of their Independent Producer Project.

David Weinberg is also the brains behind Random Tape, an audio experiment in, well, random tape.

September 3, 2013

There’s a term that epitomizes what we radio producers aspire to create: the “driveway moment.” It’s when a story is so good that you literally can’t get out of your car. Inside of a driveway moment, time becomes elastic–you could be staring straight at a clock for the entire duration of the story, but for that length of time, the clock has no power over you.

But ironically, inside the machinery of public radio–the industry that creates driveway moments–the clock rules all.

Reporter/producer Julia Barton explores the design of the broadcast clock, the pie diagram that determines what you listen to when.

August 21, 2013

By now, the story is well known. A man sits in the backseat of a cab, sketching on a notepad as night falls over a crumbling city. He scribbles the letter I. He draws a heart. And then an N, and then a Y. Right away he knows he’s got something. This is it, he thinks. This is the campaign.

The man was a designer named Milton Glaser. The City was New York. The year was 1977.

The city needed a miracle. And it kind of got one in three letters and a symbol: I ♥ NY

The I ♥ NY campaign was so successful that it became part of the built environment. So people started doing with I ♥ NY the same thing that humans have always done when encountering something in nature: they started imitating it.

August 8, 2013

Chicago’s biggest design achievement probably isn’t one of its amazing skyscrapers, but the Chicago River, a waterway disguised as a remnant of the natural landscape. But it isn’t natural, not really. It’s hard to tell when you see the river, but it’s going the wrong way. It should flow into Lake Michigan, but instead fresh water from Lake Michigan flows backwards, into the city. The Chicago River is, in large part, a carefully-designed extension of the city’s sewer system.

Reporter Dan Weissmann talked with Richard Cahan (author of “The Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed its River and the Land Beyond”) about the amazing lengths the city went to, over the course of several decades, to carry away the sewage that threatened to drown Chicago.

July 29, 2013

If you grew up watching Warner Brothers cartoons, you might remember seeing the name Chuck Jones in big letters in the opening credits. Chuck Jones directed cartoons like Looney Tunes from the 1930s until his death in 2002. He was also an animator, and brought the world characters like Elmer Fudd.

But part of what makes his characters so memorable is the world that they inhabit. Part of what’s so striking about Looney Tunes is that they are recognizable as Looney Tunes even without characters in the foreground.

The backgrounds were revolutionized one layout artist: Maurice Noble.

July 15, 2013

An ode to an information designer who made life a little bit easier for millions and millions of people: Ladislav Sutnar, the man who put parentheses around area codes.
99% Invisible and Planet Money team up and we talk to commodities traders to answer one of the most important questions in finance: What actually happens at the end of Trading Places?
We know something crazy happens on the trading floor. We know that Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd get rich and the Duke brothers lose everything. But how does it all happen? And could it happen in the real world?

July 2, 2013

Growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Alex Goldman was a misfit. Bored and disaffected and angry, he longed for a place to escape to. And then he found Heyoon.

The only way to find out about Heyoon for someone to take you there. It was like there was this secret club of kids who knew about it. Alex got initiated when he was fifteen.

To find Heyoon, you’d drive out into the middle of nowhere, deep in the country, and park alongside a dirt road. A fence ran along the property line, with signage explicitly telling passers by to keep out. Once over the fence, a path behind a white farmhouse led to a thin line of trees, and then to a huge field. And there was something else there in the field. Something man-made. Something really big.

June 20, 2013

I’m willing to concede from the get-go that I might be wrong about the entire premise of this story, but Superman has never really worked for me as a character. I preferred the more grounded Marvel Comic book characters, like Spider-man, who lived in real cities and had human thoughts and feelings. Superman is basically invincible, not relatable, and oozed “establishment.” And even though I really love the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie, it contains a perfect example of why I don’t really dig the character. Just so you know, this is a 25 year-old spoiler alert, but at end of the 1978 movie, all of the greatness of that film is nearly undone by the fundamental flaw in having a character that is all-powerful. Superman flies around the earth backwards and turns back time!

My problems with the character aside, Superman is an extremely successful and important design. Glen Weldon, author of Superman: The Unauthorized Biography (and panelist of the great Pop Culture Happy Hour) talks me through the iconography of our first superhero and why Supes has managed to stay relevant for 75 years. Glen even explains why I’m wrong about Superman “turning back time” in the 1978 Superman movie.

June 7, 2013

There’s something about rebar that fascinates me. If nothing else because there are very few things that invoke a fear of being skewered.

My preoccupation with metal reinforcement bars dovetails nicely with a structure in San Francisco I’ve kind of become obsessed with– a tiny bridge on the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park called the Alvord Lake Bridge.

Ernest Ransome, the father of modern rebar, constructed the bridge in 1889. Today, it is a dumpy, cracked and neglected structure. The inside is a surreal tunnel of phony stalactites.

But the Alvord Lake Bridge is, quite literally, the bridge to the modern world. It is one the oldest reinforced concrete structures still standing. The twisted iron bars embedded in the bridge served as the model for the all the rebar containing structures that followed. It is the ancestor to an endless number of reinforced concrete buildings, bridges, tunnels, viaducts, and foundations. Ransome major innovation in rebar was to twist the square bar so that it bonded to the concrete better.

Concrete has incredible compression strength, but it does not have much tensile strength. So if you want concrete to span any significant distance, you need to embed metal reinforcement.

Thanks to CCA Senior Adjunct Professor of Architecture, William Littman (he of the Forgotten Monument) for first telling me about the Alvord Lake Bridge and showing me around. I spoke with Robert Courland, author of Concrete Planet: The Strange and Fascinating Story of the World’s Most Common Man-Made Material (a great book!) and Bob Risser of the Concrete Reinforcing Steel Institute (a great person to talk to!).

May 28, 2013

Lawyers have an ethics code. Journalists have an ethics code. Architects do, too. According to Ethical Standard 1.4 of the American Institute of Architects (AIA):

“Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.”

A group called Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) has taken the stance that there are some buildings that just should not have been built. Buildings that, by design, violate standards of human rights.

Specifically, this refers to prisons with execution chambers, or prisons that are designed keep people in long-term isolation (or as prison officials call it, “segregation”). The latter kind of prison is called a “supermax,” or “security housing unit” (SHU). There is no legal definition for solitary confinement, so it’s up for debate as to whether the SHU constitutes solitary confinement.

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding one SHU at a Northern California prison called Pelican Bay.

Life inside of the SHU at Pelican Bay means 22 to 23 hours a day inside of 7.5 by 12 foot room. It’s not a space that’s designed to keep you comfortable. But it’s not just these architectural features, that concern humanitarian activists and psychiatrists. It’s the amount of time many prisoners spend in that cells, alone, without any meaningful activity. Some psychiatrists, such as Terry Kupers, say there is a whole litany of effects that a SHU can have on a person: massive anxiety, paranoia, depression, concentration and memory problems, and loss of ability to control one’s anger (which can get a prisoner in trouble and lengthen the SHU sentence). In California, SHU inmates are 33 times more likely to commit suicide than other prisoners incarcerated elsewhere in the state. There are even reports of eye damage due to the restriction on distance viewing. Terry Kupers says that a SHU “destroys people as human beings.”

Compared with some other prisons in the California system, the Pelican Bay SHU has some redeeming architectural features. Inmates can get natural light from skylights outside of their cells, which drifts in through doors made of a perforated metal. These porous doors also allow for inmates to communicate with each other, even though there are no lines of sight to any prisoner from within the cell.

But on the other hand, cells don’t have windows. Inmates never get to see the horizon. The only times prisoners get to leave the cell is to visit the shower, or the exercise yard–which is an empty, windowless room not that much bigger than a cell, with twenty-foot high concrete walls.

Again, there is no universally accepted definition of solitary confinement. But some groups, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have gone beyond calling the SHU solitary confinement–they call it torture. In 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture said anything over 15 days in solitary confinement is a human rights abuse–which other sources have interpreted as torture.
So if it is the ethical code of architects to promote human rights…what is their responsibility to the people who are incarcerated in their buildings?

Enter Raphael Sperry, a San Francisco-based architect and president of ADPSR. He believes it’s up to architects to lead the charge against these buildings. Sperry and the ADPSR are trying to get the American Institute of Architects to adopt an amendment to their ethics code:

“Members shall not design spaces intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement.”

This episode is a special collaboration between 99% Invisible and the podcast Life of the Law. Find out about their show at lifeofthelaw.com

May 8, 2013

For the ancient Greeks, sirens were mythical creatures who sang out to passing sailors from rocks in the sea. Their music was so beautiful, it was said, that the sailors were powerless against it–they would turn their ships towards these sea nymphs and crash in the impassable reefs around them.

In Homer’s Odyssey, there’s a story where Odysseus and his men are traveling near an area that Sirens are known to inhabit. Odysseus knows that if he hears the siren’s song, his ship is going to sink. But he still wants to hear what they sound like. So he comes up with a plan: Odysseus has his men tie him to the mast of his ship so that he can’t give commands. And then Odysseus has his men fill their own ears with beeswax so they can’t hear anything. They set sail in striking distance of the sirens’ call. The plan works: Odysseus gets to hear the music, his men don’t, and they sail on to safety–with Odysseus pleading with his crew to crash the boat the whole way.

And for the next 2000 or so years, that’s what a siren was: a creature that makes a beautiful sound.

But that all changed in 1819, when a French engineer named Charles Cagniard de la Tour decided to call the artificial noisemaker he was working on–the siren.

And this new, mechanical siren became one of THE signature sounds of the turn of the Century. Sirens warned people about immanent bombing raids during World War I. Sirens announced incoming fire engines, and ambulances, and police.

Thanks in part to the siren, the world of the the early 20th Century had become a lot louder than any time in human history. And we can probably assume that these sirens that people heard in cities all over the world–sounded NOTHING like the siren songs of Greek myth.

At least to most. One man, a composer, named Arseny Avraamov heard music in the cacophony of the modern world. And he tried to create a composition–a symphony– from the clatter of the newly formed Soviet Union.

Moscow-based producer Charles Maynes investigated the legend of Avraamov and his forgotten masterpiece. This is The Symphony of Sirens, Revisited.

This story was part of the Global Story Project, presented by PRX with support from the Open Society Foundations.

Plus, we hear a rebroadcast of “The Unsung Icons of Soviet Design.” (episode #25)

April 29, 2013

Americans have always had an uneasy relationship with gambling. To circumvent anti-gambling laws in the US, early slot machines masqueraded as vending machines. They gave out chewing gum as prizes, and those prizes could be redeemed for cash.

That’s where the fruit logos come from. In fact, in the UK, slot machines are called “fruit machines.”

Despite outward appearances, slot machines have evolved dramatically since they first appeared in 1895.

To play the first slot machines, you slipped in a coin and pulled the lever to set the machine’s wheels in motion. The slot machine’s crank-action operation (and the way it took your money) earned it the nickname of the “one-armed bandit.”

But today, those hand-crank levers are uncommon, and where they do exist they are known as “legacy levers,” because they have zero relation to how the machine actually works. Everything inside a slot machine has been computerized and automated–from how you enter money, to how you bet, to how you play, to how you win and lose, and even to how you feel when leave.

At first, gambling machines existed at the fringes of casino culture–both figuratively and literally. The real money was in tabletop games–or so it was thought–and the slots were set up around the edges of the casino to give gamblers’ wives something to do while they waited.

But then video technology expanded what slots could do. Now a machine could have more rows and columns than the standard three-by-three, and allowed you to place multiple bets on a single spin. A penny slot machine could let you place a hundred different one-cent bets per spin–so even if you win 40 cents on one line, and the machine congratulates you with flashing lights and chimes, you still lose 60 cents.

And that’s how video slots have become the most lucrative–and addictive–game in a casino.

Our guest this week is Natasha Dow Schüll, an MIT-based anthropologist who has been studying Las Vegas and the culture of gambling for more than fifteen years. Schüll is the author of Addiction by Design.

April 15, 2013

Regardless of how you feel about basketball, you’ve got to appreciate the way it can bring groups of strangers together to share moments of pure adulation and collective defeat.

That moment when time is running out, the team is down by one, a player arcs the ball from downtown just as the buzzer sounds—and sinks it. It’s exhilarating. It’s heart breaking. And most of all, it’s good design. But it’s not the way basketball was originally designed.

During pro basketball’s infancy in the 1950s, nothing forced a player to shoot the ball. If a team was winning, and they wanted to keep their lead, the team could literally hold on to the ball for ten minutes and run the clock out.

But in 1954, Syracuse Nationals owner Danny Biasone had crunched some numbers, and he believed that some simple arithmetic could save basketball.

Reporter Eric Mennel, from the radio show BackStory with the American History Guys, spoke with Dolph Schayes—who played on the Syracuse Nationals both before and after the advent of the shot clock—about how Biasone’s contribution to the game shaped basketball into what it has become today.

April 3, 2013

On the streets of early 20th Century America, nothing moved faster than 10 miles per hour. Responsible parents would tell their children, “Go outside, and play in the streets. All day.”

And then the automobile happened. And then automobiles began killing thousands of children, every year.

Many viewed the car as a death machine. One newspaper cartoon even compared the car to Moloch, the god to whom the Ammonites supposedly sacrificed their children.

At first, pedestrian deaths were considered public tragedies. Parades were held in dozens of cities to commemorate the dead children. Cities built monuments. Mothers of children killed in the streets are given a special White Star to honor their loss.

The main cause for these deaths was that the rules of the street were vastly different than they are today. A street functioned like a city park, or a pedestrian mall, where you could move in any direction without really thinking about it. The only moving hazards were animals and other people.

But automotive interests wanted to claim the streets for cars.
So they put forth a radical idea–cars weren’t to blame, it was human recklessness. They found that they could exonerate the machine by placing the blame on individuals.

They also coined a new term: “Jaywalking.”

March 20, 2013

Wherever there is sufficient demand to move between two points of differing elevation, there are stairs. In some hilly neighborhoods of California–if you know where to look–you’ll find public, outdoor staircases.

The large number of hidden public staircases is part of what makes California so great. Charles Fleming is one of the world experts of coastal California’s public stairs. He has documented and mapped walking routes through nearly every useable public staircase in San Francisco’s East Bay, as well as in Los Angeles (where he lives). Charles published his findings in two walking guides, appropriately titled Secret Stairs.

Producer Sam Greenspan met with Charles in the Pacific Palisades, where people from all over Los Angeles had gathered to attend one of Charles’ monthly stair walks.

March 8, 2013

There was a time when every street sign, every billboard, and every window display was made by a sign artist with a paint kit and an arsenal of squirrel- or camel-hair brushes. Some lived an itinerant lifestyle, traveling from town to town, knocking on the doors of local shops, asking if they could paint their signs.

This was the way things were until as recently as the 1980s, when everything was upended by the vinyl plotter. Now, sign-making was faster, easier, and cheaper than ever before. Moreover, vinyl signs didn’t require any skill to make. But over time, they created an environment of anonymity and impermanence. Hand painted signs began to disappear. But not completely.

Our contributor Benjamen Walker spoke with Faythe Levine and Sam Macon about their new book and documentary film, Sign Painters, which profiles more than two dozen contemporary sign painters keeping the tradition alive. Benjamen also spoke with sign painter and cartoonist Justin Green, who draws the comic series Sign Game (among others).

Our own Sam Greenspan visited New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco to get their take on the sign painting scene.

February 18, 2013

There comes a time in the life of a modern city where it begins to grow up–literally. Santiago, the capital of Chile, has been going through a tremendous growth spurt since its economic boom of the mid 1990s. It happened fast. In just a few years, single family homes all over the city were replaced with high rises.

A man named Rodrigo Rojas played a small part in Santiago’s “upward mobility”–which wouldn’t be that remarkable if he were an engineer, a real estate developer, or an architect. But Rodrigo Rojas is a poet.

This is how it worked: A developer bought an old house, tore it down, and had an architect draw up plans for a high rise. And then Rodrigo stepped in to give the building a name. Rodrigo even fabricated whole stories in the service of building an identity. He came up with one story about a ship called the Zanzibar, a luxury liner built with the Titanic, but slightly smaller. You’ve never heard of it, he explained, because the Zanzibar never sank.

Our reporter this week is Daniel Alarcón, host and executive producer of Radio Ambulante.

February 5, 2013

Like many cities in Central Europe, Warsaw is made up largely of grey, ugly, communist block-style architecture. Except for one part: The Old Town.
Walking through this historic district, it’s just like any other quaint European city. There are tourist shops, horse-drawn carriage rides, church spires. The buildings are beautiful–but they are not original.
During World War II, Nazi forces razed more than 80% of Warsaw. After Soviet troops took over, much of the city was rebuilt in the with communist style: fast, cheap, and big. They built apartment blocks, wide avenues, and heavy grey buildings. It was communist ideology in architectural form.
But when it came to the historic district of Warsaw– the Old Town and a long connecting section called the Royal Route–they decided not just to rebuild, but to restore. Builders would use the same stones, and use special kilns to make special bricks to preserve its authenticity. After six years of reconstruction, the new Old Town was opened. Poles were ecstatic to have it back. Even in the West, it was seen as a triumph of the human spirit.
But here’s the thing: Warsaw’s historic Old Town is not a replica of the original. It’s a re-imagining. An historic city that never really was.
Reporters and producers Amy Drozdowska and Dave McGuire talk with social anthropologist Michael Murawski about the fake recreation of Old Town and what it means to modern Warsaw.

January 23, 2013

Though its officially name is JFK Plaza, the open space near Philadelphia’s City Hall is more commonly known as LOVE Park. With its sleek granite benches, geometric raised planter beds, and long expanses of pavement, its success as a pedestrian plaza is debatable. But it turned out to be perfect for skateboarding. As skateboarding culture grew in the 1990s, LOVE Park became a Mecca of the skating world–even though skateboarding was officially banned there.

Skateboarder and radio producer Andrew Norton takes us for a ride through the surprising history of LOVE Park, and pulls back the curtain on a decades-old battle over public space in Philadelphia and beyond.

January 11, 2013

When Eric Molinsky lived in Los Angeles, he kept hearing this story about a bygone transportation system called the Red Car. The Red Car, he was told, had been this amazing network of streetcars that connected the city–until a car company bought it, dismantled it, and forced a dependency on freeways.

But like most legends, the one that Eric heard about the Red Car is not entirely accurate. It’s true that Los Angeles did have an extensive mass transit system called the Red Car, which at one time ran on 1,100 miles of track–about 25 percent more more track mileage than New York City has today, a century later.

But the Red Car wasn’t the victim of a conspiracy. The Red Car WAS the conspiracy.

December 31, 2012

If you’re not from California, or missed this bit of news, the University of California has a new logo. Or rather had a new logo. To be more precise they had a new “visual identity system,” which is the kind of entirely accurate but completely wonky description that gets met with sarcastic eyerolls from anyone who isn’t a designer, but there it is. But they don’t have a new anything anymore. Because of a massive public backlash, the UC system actually suspended the entire new brand identity while we were reporting this story.

In this episode, we talk to the Creative Director of the UC Office of the President, Vanessa Correa, who led the team that created this short-lived brand identity and Christopher Simmons, principal of MINE, who waded into the UC logo fight with a brilliant blog post called “Why the UC Rebrand is Better Than You Think.”

Fourth generation UC Berkeley alum, Cyrus Farivar (see episodes #36 and #55, true believers) takes a look at the new UC identity and chronicles its tumultuous life and rapid death. We also use this opportunity to ruminate on the topic of how and when a design should be judged.

December 12, 2012

I want you to conjure an image in your mind of the white stripes that divide the lanes of traffic going the same direction on a major highway. How long are the stripes and the spaces between them?

You can spread your arms out to estimate if you want to.

Over the course of many years, a psychology researcher named Dennis Schafer at Ohio State asked students from many different parts of the country this question and the most common response was that the white stripes are two feet long.

Tom Vanderbilt, author of the brilliant book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), reveals the real answer and some of the other perceptual countermeasures that are designed to make you feel comfortable going way faster than your brain can adequately process.

We also talk about how this design language of exaggerated scale and wide vistas is great for limited access highways, but it’s problematic when these features are grafted onto suburban landscapes where they don’t belong.

November 29, 2012

When Melissa Lee was growing up in Hastings-on-Hudson, a small town in upstate New York, there were only so many fun things to do. One was buying geodes and smashing them apart with a hammer. (You know geodes, right? Those dull-looking brown rocks that you break open to reveal crystalline structures inside?)

One day, when Melissa was thirteen, she and her friend Liz bought some geodes. They didn’t want to wait to get home to crack them open, so they decided to throw them against the wall of an apartment building. Liz’s aim went wild, and the geode went through a window.

Melissa and Liz tried to find person whose window they had broken, but they couldn’t figure out which door in the apartment building lead to the unit with the window in question. Eventually they gave up.

Melissa would have probably forgotten about the incident had it not been for one inexplicable thing: the window didn’t get fixed. Ever.

It was clear that someone lived there. Melissa would walk by the window and see the apartment lit up by a TV. Someone was opening the window in the summer, and closing it in the winter. But the hole remained.

Melissa finished middle school, then high school, then went away to college. And when she came home and saw the window still broken, it had this effect of making her feel like the nervous, insecure thirteen year old she was when she broke the window.

This became a pattern for Melissa: she’d leave home, do some growing up, come home, see the window, and feel like a teenager.

Melissa traveled the world. She went to graduate school, She moved to Washington, DC, She got married. And every time she’d come home, she’d see the window. “As much as I was changing, this part of my past was completely frozen,” Melissa says. “As soon as I saw the window I was brought right back to those middle school days when we had broken it.”

So in 2011, 22 years after the incident, Melissa went to go find the person who left the window broken for so long. She brought along a tape recorder.

November 19, 2012

Kowloon Walled City was the densest place in the world, ever.

By its peak in the 1990s, the 6.5 acre Kowloon Walled City was home to at least 33,000 people (with estimates of up to 50,000). That’s a population density of at least 3.2 million per square mile. For New York City to get that dense, every man, woman, and child living in Texas would have to move to Manhattan.

To put it another way, think about living in a 1,200 square foot home. Then imagine yourself living with 9 other people. Then imagine that your building is only one unit of a twelve-story building, and every other unit is as full as yours. Then imagine hundreds those buildings crammed together in a space the size of four football fields.

We can’t really imagine it, either.

Kowloon Walled City began as a military fort in Kowloon, a region in mainland China. In 1898, China signed a land lease with Great Britain, giving the British control of Hong Kong, Kowloon, and other nearby territories. But the lease stipulated that the fort in Kowloon would remain under Chinese jurisdiction.

Over time, the fort became abandoned, leaving the area subject to neither Chinese nor British authority. This legal gray zone was attractive to displaced and marginalized people. Thousands of people moved there after the war with Japan broke out. Even more people moved there after the Communist Revolution. It attracted gangsters, drug addicts, sex workers, and refugees. And it also drew a lot of normal people from all over China who saw opportunity there.

They built the city building by building, first blanketing the area of the fort, then building vertically. Buildings were packed together so tightly in the Walled City that the alleys were nearly pitch-black in the day time. Electricity and water were brought in by illegal or informal means.

The Walled City gained a reputation as a sort of den of iniquity–there were high levels of prostitution, gambling, mafia activity, and, for some reason, rampant unlicensed dentistry.

But an order did emerge. The Walled City had no schools, but there was an informal kindergarten. A resident’s organization settled disputes. And there was lots of industry: a fishball factory, a noodle factory, metalworking shops, a textile mill. There were stores, restaurants. You could even receive mail in the Walled City.

Kowloon Walled City was torn down in 1993. Today, it’s a park, and most traces of the city are gone. But the memory of the city lives on. It was featured in the non-verbal film Baraka, plays a cameo role in Bloodsport. It’s also served as the setting in a number of video games, including most recently Call of Duty: Black Ops

This week’s episode was produced by Nick van der Kolk. He spoke with photographer Greg Girard and architect Aaron Tan, who both spent time in the Walled City. Nick also talked to as Brian Douglas, who helped design Call of Duty: Black Ops.

Nick is the director of the award-winning podcast, Love + Radio. You can also hear him over at Snap Judgment.

November 5, 2012

When most people think of camouflage they think of blending in with the environment, but camouflage can also take the opposite approach.

It has long been hypothesized that stripes on zebras make it difficult for a predator to distinguish one zebra from another when the zebras are in a large herd. The stripes also might make zebras less attractive to blood sucking horseflies. This is called disruptive camouflage.

When it comes to humans, the greatest, most jaw-droppingly spectacular application of disruptive camouflage was called Dazzle.

Dazzle painting emerged in the 1910s as design solution to a very dire problem: American and British ships were being sunk left and right by German U-Boats. England needed to import supplies to fight the Central Powers, and these ships were sitting ducks in the Atlantic Ocean. They needed a way to fend of the torpedoes.

Conventional high-similarity camouflage just doesn’t work in the open sea. Conditions like the color of the sky, cloud cover, and wave height change all the time, not to mention the fact that there’s no way to hid all the smoke left by the ships’ smoke stacks.

The strategy of this high-difference, dazzle camouflage was not about invisibility. It was about disruption. Confusion.

Torpedoes in the Great War could only be fired line-of-sight, so instead of firing at where they saw the ship was at that moment, torpedo gunners would have to chart out where the ship would be by the time the torpedo got there. They had to determine the target ship’s speed and direction with just a brief look through the periscope.

The torpedo gunner’s margin of error for hitting a ship was quite low. Dazzle painting could throw off an experienced submariner by as much as 55 degrees.

Our expert this week is Roy Behrens, a professor graphic design at the University of Northern Iowa. He’s published several books about camouflage, and also runs the Camoupedia blog.

October 25, 2012

In the Cape Cod town of Woods Hole, buildings are not usually dome-shaped. Producer Katie Klocksin was pretty surprised when she came across one.

Katie started asking around about the dome.  She found it was built by the late Buckminster Fuller, who called himself a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist,” out to solve the problems confronting “Starship Earth” by changing the way we make buildings.  “Bucky” Fuller invented and patented the geodesic dome, a spherical structure made from small triangles.  The design is based on a lot of complicated math, but the idea is that by relying on the strength of of the triangle, these buildings could be made from cheaper materials, like plastic and aluminum instead of steel and concrete.

In 1953, Fuller was commissioned to build a dome in Woods Hole by architect (and aspiring restauranteur) Gunnar Peterson.  The dome would become the posh Dome Restaurant.  Diners could gaze through the building’s triangular windows out on onto the sea.  A zither player named Ruth Welcome entertained guests.

Despite its Utopian aspirations, the building had some structural problems.  The glass windows heated the restaurant up like a greenhouse, so the owner installed fiberglass over most of the dome, blocking the ocean views.  It leaked constantly, and was difficult to maintain.  Even though the Woods Hole dome did not radically change the world, Bucky Fuller would go on to become one of the most influential thinkers in design and architecture of the 20th Century.

Today, the Dome Restaurant lies vacant. A new development project could lead to the dome’s restoration, but for now, it remains a decaying curiosity, inviting exploration from microphone-wielding out-of-towners.

October 12, 2012

On this special edition of 99% Invisible, we joined forces with Andrea Seabrook of DecodeDC to investigate all the thought that goes into the most miniscule details of a political campaign. Andrea was the star of episode #48 of 99% Invisible, The Bathtubs or the Boiler Room.

Andrea reveals seven (and a half) secrets about the staging of events along the campaign trail.  Like how every campaign has an “Advance Team” that flies in ahead of a candidate and makes everything from a campaign rally to a 20-minute media appearance run smoothly.

Andrea spoke with Advance guys John Seaton and Donnie Fowler, who have been directing this very American brand of political theater for years.

October 2, 2012

Benjamen Walker had a theory that priority queues are changing the American experience of waiting in line. So he visited amusement parks, highways, and community colleges to find out how these priority queues work and who is using them. What started as an episode of 99% Invisible became a half-hour radio documentary for the BBC.

Along the way Walker met the man that may be responsible for the reason why many Americans know the word “queue” at all: Neil Hunt from Netflix. He has been trying to abandon the word ever since he introduced it into the DVD service over a decade ago.

Walker also met up with Susan Crawford, a net neutrality advocate, who thinks that queues are a good way to examine the pitfalls with what she calls the “cablelization” of the internet. Comcast has taken the lead in providing high-speed internet to consumers, but people like the CEO of Netflix have been critical of Comcast favoring its own video content over video from third party services such as Netflix and HBO Go. Crawford’s concerns go way beyond streaming video to the heart of the net neutrality debate: is a market without any meaningful competition a safe place to determine the future of communications in this country?

Maybe we should all move to Kansas City.

September 20, 2012

Pneumatic (adj.):  of, or pertaining to, air, gases, or wind.

In the world before telephone, radio, and email, the tasks of transmitting information and moving material objects were essentially the same challenge.  The way you sent someone a message was pretty much the same process as sending someone a package—you had to send a piece of physical media through the post, or on a ship.

It was really the telegraph that divided telling someone something from far away and  giving someone something from far away. But every day people didn’t speak morse code (or have telegraph equipment).  The message had to be deciphered, written on a slip of paper, and then that was delivered to the recipient. For many cities, the pneumatic tube was essential in getting these slips of paper to the intended recipient quickly.

It’s no surprise that electronic communication eventually killed most of the need for pneumatic tubes. But you may not know that it was the telegraph itself that also put pneumatic tubes into widespread use.

Architectural historian and pneumatic tube aficionada Molly Wright Steenson leads us through the rise and fall (but not disappearance of) pneumatic tubes in Paris, and beyond.

September 10, 2012

I only recently started listening to BackStory with the American History Guys, but it’s already earned a top spot in my crowded weekly rotation. With great stories and lively discussion, the “History Guys” connect our history to the present day. They’ll also help you win your next argument about the causes of the War of 1812. Be prepared. This happens.

In this piece from their “Monumental Disagreements” episode, BackStory producers Eric Mennel and Nell Boeschenstein visit Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia to tell the story of a monument in honor of Heyward Shepherd, a “free black,” and the first man killed during John Brown’s 1859 raid.

Season 3 starts on September 19!

August 22, 2012

While we’re gearing up for season 3, we present two pieces from two shows we love:

First up, Language Bites from RTE Choice in Ireland. Language Bites is a series of 1-minute programs exploring the origins of popular phrases in the English language. It’s presented by Colette Kinsella and sound designed by Lochlainn Harte. This episode is about the origin of the word “storey” (or in American English “story”) when used to refer to a level of a building. There are 80 episodes in the series and I just adore them. They are in heavy rotation on the radio stream/station I curate for PRX called Public Radio Remix.

Our second selection is from Nate Dimeo’s brilliant show, the memory palace. Each episode of the memory palace features pointedly short, surprising stories about the past. It’s sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hysterical, and often a wonderful mix of both. It was also a huge inspiration in the creation of 99% Invisible. This episode is about the beautiful sculpture and star map commemorating the Hoover Dam.

August 6, 2012

New Public Sites is an investigation into some of the invisible sites and overlooked features of our everyday public spaces. These are the liminal spaces within cities that are not traditionally framed as “public space” because, quite frankly, they are often ugly and unpleasant, the leftover scraps of urban design centered on the automobile. By giving these places succinct, fun and poetic names and leading people on playful walking tours, Graham Coreil-Allen says we can help start a discourse about our public spaces and how we want to envision them for the future. You can download a pdf of the New Public Sites book here.

July 25, 2012

Sean Cole is a poet and he knows what you think of that.

He is also a radio producer. One night, drunk and stumbling around the Hudson River with his friend Malissa O’Donnell, he discovered a monument — two of them actually — to two of his poetry heroes. Apropos of the name of this show, the tribute wasn’t very obvious. In fact, he and Malissa nearly walked right past it. Still, embedded in the architecture of a 25 year old plaza were the words of Walt Whitman and Frank O’Hara. And weirdly, Sean had he’d been reciting from O’Hara’s Lunch Poems just minutes before.

Thus began Sean’s quest to talk to the people whose idea this was — forging a largely unloved art form into a permanent fixture of the cultural landscape. Along the way he talks with urban landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, former Battery Park official Richard Kahan and none other than Frank O’Hara’s younger sister, Maureen O’Hara.

Sean Cole and Malissa O’Donnell both work for WNYC’s Radiolab. And Sean is also a 99-percentilist from way back.

July 13, 2012

What’s the difference between what the public sees and what an architect sees when they look at a building?

The hotel on the very prominent corner of Touhy and Kilbourn Avenues in Lincolnwood, Illinois used to be the town’s most famous building: The first Hyatt hotel in all of Chicagoland, premiere accommodations, top-notch restaurant. It was swank! Roberta Flack stayed there. Barry Mannilow stayed there. Perry Como. Michael Jordon stayed there on his first night in Chicago. Every thirteen year old boy in the area had his bar mitzvah there.

Then, slowly, over time, it became Lincolnwood’s most infamous building. Changed hands, got seedy and run down. It was the home of the Midwest Fetish Fair and Marketplace convention. There were drug-fueled sex parties attended by shady Chicago politicians later convicted of things like extortion. And of course there was the convicted mobster Alan Dorfman, who was gunned down in the parking lot. It’s now dilapidated and empty.

But even if you know nothing about the history, everyone in the area knows this hotel.

Because it’s purple. Really, really purple.

Gwen Macsai grew up nearby and she always thought it was really, really ugly. Lots of people did. To be fair, lots of people didn’t. But everyone has an opinion about it.

But Gwen Macsai, host of Re:sound from the Third Coast International Audio Festival, has a secret about the Purple Hotel.

Gwen talks to the original architect of the Purple Hotel, plus WBEZ architecture critic Lee Bey, developer Jack Weiss, and the new architect, Jackie Koo, who’s looking to bring the Purple Hotel back to its former glory.

July 12, 2012

This is the Kickstarter video for funding the new season of 99% Invisible. If you enjoy the show and want to help keep it going, now is the time to go to our funding page and chip in a little. During the campaign, any amount that you can give matters a lot, because if we don’t make the goal, even by one dollar, we don’t receive any of the funds that have been pledged. Plus, right now there are some amazing thank you gifts available for your donation. Thanks so much for listening and for helping us out.

New episode any day, probably tomorrow. Thanks!

June 28, 2012

Starlee Kine’s friend Noel works in advertising. In 2003, Noel was working in at an agency in Richmond, VA. Everyone wanted to work on flashy spots like Apple or Nike or Gatorade. Do you know what wasn’t flashy? Insurance. Which is why when a company called Geico became a client everyone hoped the campaign wouldn’t end up on their desk. Noel ultimately got stuck with Geico. His job was help them somehow figure out a clever, not painfully boring way to explain how simple it was for people to sign up for their insurance online.

Maybe you see where this is going.

But you don’t know where it came from.

Starlee Kine guides us back the surprising, culturally rich path of inspiration that ultimately resulted in a commercial for an insurance company.

This story originally appeared at Pop Up Magazine #6 in San Francisco.

June 14, 2012

Goethe said, “Architecture is frozen music.” I like that.

Of course that was before audio recording, so now, for the most part, music is frozen music.

It’s only very recently in the history of music that we’ve been able to freeze music into an object. In my life, the form of this object mattered a lot. I once bought vinyl albums and cassette tapes, where there were two first songs per album, Side A and Side B. The energy of a first song makes it stand apart, at least in my head it does. Then the CD came along and eliminated Side B and there was only first song, and the actual number of a track (that you see prominently on the UI) became my index for sorting songs. Then MP3s jumbled my sense of track order, and albums began to feel more like a loose grouping of individual pieces rather than a conceptual whole. I could name hundreds more examples like these, and I welcome you to chime in, but my point is: the form of the thing matters.

But no effect has been as world changing as that original innovation: freezing music in time onto a recording, where a single version of a song, a single performance of a song, became the song. An inherently mutable method of communication was fundamentally changed.

I heard a radio broadcast several years ago that really affected the way I thought about all this. Jim Derogatis and Greg Kot are the hosts of a radio program I’m a huge fan of called Sound Opinions (subscribe now). The songwriter, composer, and producer, Jon Brion came to WBEZ in Chicago to talk to Sound Opinions in 2006. At the time, Brion has just co-produced Kanye West’s album Late Registration and he was also already a renowned film composer. In this interview, Brion talks about the difference between what he calls “performance pieces” and “songs” and how recorded music has changed the way we appreciate the different art forms.

Special thanks to Sound Opinions for allowing me to rebroadcast this segment.

May 31, 2012

If you’re a beer nerd, or have a friend who’s a beer nerd, you’ve heard of Belgian beers. Belgians take beer very seriously. Amongst the 200 Belgian breweries, there’s a very specific sub-type: Trappist beers.

According to our reporter Cyrus Farivar (also from Episode #36 “Super Bonn Bon”), there are two things you need to know about Trappist beers. First, they’re amazing. Second, they’re made by Trappist monks. These monks trace their roots to a monastery in 17th century France, and have since spread out to all over the world.

The main concept behind the Trappist lifestyle is that the abbey should be economically self-sufficient. In other words, the monks should make something and sell it to the public as a way to fund the operations of the abbey itself. Some make cheese. Some make spirits. There’s even one in Germany that makes lentil soup. But none of the Trappist products are as famous as the beer.

The beer that is considered the best of the best is Westvleteren 12. With its plain brown bottle, no label, the only writing is on the cap- the beer is super cool. It’s quite rare and year after year it’s rated the best beer in the world.

But here’s the thing about Westvleteren. You can’t just go there and have as much beer as you want. You can’t even have it shipped from the abbey. If you want to buy beer to take with you, you have to look up the beer reservation phone number on the abbey’s website. Then, you call certain phone number during certain hours, on certain days.

If you’re lucky enough to talk to a monk to take your reservation, you have to give your license plate number and be available to come pick up your crate during the appointed time that weekend. You’re limited to one crate per person per car, maximum two per car. And, you can’t buy more than one crate during a 60-day period. You also have to agree not to resell the beer.

This sort of thing is not unheard of: velvet ropes and random reward have long been imposed to create artificial scarcity to heighten demand, but the mainstream trend today seems to be more geared toward greater access and accommodation for customers. The new ideal is that everything is available, at all times, no matter where you live. Yet the Westvleteren Trappists are trying to make it as difficult as possible.

Jef van den Steen, author of a book called Trappist: The Seven Heavenly Beers and an acclaimed brewer himself, says that’s not the case, “Before, Westvleteren was only well-known was in Belgium. And now it’s worldwide, and that’s the problem. They decide we will brew the same amount as the last 40-50 years, and they have enough for that, so why must they brew more? Because you want? No. They live between the walls of the abbey, so for them it’s not a problem.”

The “customer service” is not designed to provide convenience for the consumer of their beer, it is designed for monks themselves. Their “customer” is God, so to speak. They have a mission, and making beer is only a fraction of that. The Head of the Abbey says, “We are not brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks.”

Cyrus Farivar recently returned to California after having lived in Bonn, Germany for two years. These days, he can be found frequenting The Trappist bar in downtown Oakland. He plans on presenting a bottle of Westvleteren 12 to his favorite bar owners. His book, The Internet of Elsewhere, was published last year.

May 16, 2012

US paper currency is so ubiquitous that to really look at its graphic design with fresh eyes requires some deliberate and focused attention. So pull out a greenback from your wallet (or look at a picture one online) and just take really take it in. All the fonts, the busy filigree, the micro patterns…it’s just dreadful.

Even though paper currency itself, just idea of money, is a massive, world changing technology, the look and feel of US paper money is very stagnant. Richard Smith is the founder of the Dollar ReDe$ign Project and in an article in the New York Times, he pointed out five major areas where the design of US currency could improve: color, size, functionality, composition, and symbolism.

It just so happens that Australian currency addresses each and every one of the points made by Richard Smith. Tristan Cooke and Tom Nelson of the blog Humans in Design are big fans of all the design innovations in Australian money. Aussie polymer notes are varied in color, get larger with each denomination, are more durable and are generally considered better and easier to use than US currency.

But there are some interesting reasons why the greenback is the way it is. David Wolman, author of The End of Money, explains that the legacy features that make US paper money look stale and anachronistic are meant to convey stability and timelessness. Since the US economy is so important in the world economy, why mess with it? Some fear that changing the design of the currency significantly (or eliminating the penny) could undermine the faith in the federal reserve note.

Even though Tristan and Tom are fans of the Australian polymer bills, they share Wolman’s view that the more interesting future innovations are not going to have anything to do with physical cash. Clever user interfaces that help us manage our money better, while providing even greater convenience, are getting more refined and accepted. So that ugly $20 in your wallet may never actually get prettier and more functional, it’ll just be gone.

May 1, 2012

What happens when we build big?

Julia Barton remembers going to the top floor of Dallas’s then-new city hall when she was teenager. The building, designed by I.M. Pei, is a huge trapezoid jutting out over a wide plaza. Julia found the view from the …

April 18, 2012

Even during the construction of the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the deck would go up and down by several feet with the slightest breeze. Construction workers on the span chewed on lemon wedges to stop their motion sickness. They nicknamed the structure Galloping Gertie.

The original Tacoma Narrows Bridge design by Clark Eldridge was pretty conventional for a suspension bridge, but it was later modified by Leon Moisseiff to be slimmer and more elegant. The most notable change was that the 25 foot lattice of stiffening trusses underneath the bridge on the original drawings, were replaced with 8 foot solid steel plate girders. The new solid girder along the side in Moisseiff’s design made for a much lighter and more flexible bridge— it also caught the wind like a sail— but they didn’t know that. Moisseiff’s design was also 2/3 the price of the original Eldridge design and that fact ultimately won the day.

Motorists who used the bridge found out first hand why it got the name Galloping Gertie, and during the four months while the bridge was open, many traveled from far away just to ride the undulating waves as they crossed high above Puget Sound. The thrill ride didn’t last long.

On November 7, 1940 stiff winds caused the road deck to twist violently along its center axis. The center span endured these brutal torsional forces for about an hour and finally gave way.

The collapse of the twisting suspension bridge is one of the most dramatic images caught on film.

I talked to John Marr from the seminal zine Murder Can Be Fun for this story and I’d like to give a shout out to Alan Bellows of Damn Interesting for independently suggesting Galloping Gertie as a show topic and publishing a great, much more detailed account of the disaster on his site.

Special thanks to Benjamen Walker for the audio of Kathryn Schulz. That interview originally aired on his show Too Much Information in the episode called “Mistakes Were Made.”

April 3, 2012

“Cities exist to bring people together, but cities can also keep people apart” – Daniel D’Oca, Urban Planner, Interboro Partners.
Cities are great. They have movement, activity and diversity. But go to any city and it’s pretty clear, a place can be diverse without really being integrated. This segregation isn’t accidental. There are design elements in the urban landscape, that Daniel D’Oca calls “weapons,” that are used by “architects, planners, policy-makers, developers, real estate brokers, community activists, neighborhood associations, and individuals to wage the ongoing war between integration and segregation.”

Daniel D’Oca is an urban planner with Interboro Partners, an architecture and design firm based in New York City. Over the past few years, D’Oca, along with colleagues Tobias Armborst and Georgeen Theodore have been cataloging all the stuff inside of a city that planners use to increase or restrict people’s access to space. They’re publishing their findings in a book called The Arsenal of Inclusion and Exclusion: 101 Things That Open And Close the City (Fall 2012).

D’Oca took our own Sam Greenspan and Scott Goldberg on a tour of Baltimore to demonstrate the subtle ways different neighborhoods are kept apart.

March 22, 2012

The acoustics of a building are a big concern for architects. But for designers at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, it’s the absence of sound that defines the approach to architecture.

Gallaudet is a university dedicated to educating the deaf and hard of hearing, and since 2005, they’ve re-thought principles of architecture with one question at the forefront: how do deaf people communicate in space?

Unlike hearing people, the deaf have to keep sightlines in order to maintain conversations. So when deaf people walk and talk, they’ll lock into a kind of dance. Going through a doorway, one person will spin in place and walk backwards to keep talking. Walking past a column, two deaf people in conversation will move in tandem to avoid collision.

Spaces designed for the hearing can also give the deaf a great deal of anxiety – when you can’t hear footsteps from around the corner or behind you, you can’t anticipate who or what is around you.

Robert Sirvage is a deaf designer, researcher, and instructor at Gallaudet, and in collaboration with Hansel Bauman — who is not deaf – and a group of staff, students and architects, they’ve developed a project called DeafSpace. Reporter Tom Dreisbach took a tour through the new building at Gallaudet that is incorporating the innovations of DeafSpace to create an environment more pleasing to everyone, both hearing and deaf.

March 8, 2012

In the US, it’s called a line.

In Canada, it’s often referred to as a line-up.

Pretty much everywhere else, it’s known as a queue.

My friend Benjamen Walker is obsessed with queues. He keeps sending me YouTube clips of queue violence. This preoccupation led him to find a man known as “Dr. Queue.” Richard Larson is a queue theorist at MIT and he talks us through some of the logic behind the design of queues.

Whereas US companies like Wendy’s and American Airlines once prided themselves on their invention of the single, serpentine, first-come first-served queue, more and more companies are instituting priority queues, offering different wait times for different classes of customers.

February 26, 2012

“I have this habit of walking into any door that’s unlocked…You start poking around, going into doors…you find the coolest things…”
-Andrea Seabrook, NPR Congressional Correspondent
In the eight years Andrea Seabrook has been reporting on Congress, she has made it a point to get to know the whole Capitol building. “The members of the House Republican Caucus–and sometimes the Democrats–meet in the basement for their closed door secret strategy sessions,” Andrea says. “And it’s really good place to get a tip from members that you know about what’s going on.” One day, after getting the info she needed for her story, she decided to press further on into the depths of the Capitol.

That’s when she found the marble bathtubs.

The bathtubs were installed around 1860 during the expansion of the Capitol. DC is known for its swampy summers, and legend has it that senators could be banished from the chamber if they were too smelly. But lawmakers–like most Americans at the time–didn’t have indoor plumbing at home. They needed a place where they could wash up.

So the Architect of the Capitol ordered six marble bath tubs, each three by seven feet and carved by hand in Italy, to be installed in the Capitol basement–three on the House side, three on the senate. Today, only two tubs remain on the Senate side, in a room which now stores the building’s heating and cooling equipment. But evidence of room’s former grandeur remains.

February 10, 2012

Somebody might be able to do a great painting that’s 20 x 30 inches, but you take that down to 1 x 1.5 inches, and it’s a challenge to make it work.

-Ethel Kessler, Art Director for USPS Stamp Services
Stamps design takes, on average, a year to a year and a half, from conception to execution. Unfortunately, most of the stamps we encounter on a day-to-day basis are the rather predictable flag, bell, and love stamps, but there are some really fantastic commemorative stamps, which are supremely functional and affordable tiny works of art.

To determine what should go on a US stamp, the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee combs through nearly 50,000 suggestions per year offered by the general public. Once the subjects are chosen and approved by the Postmaster General, they are assigned to a handful of art directors to be designed.

There are loads guidelines to help stamp subject selection, but one of the big rules recently changed. In 2012, the first living person will be commemorated on an official USPS stamp.

Julie Shapiro, Artistic Director of the Third Coast International Audio Festival, produced this episode. Julie spoke with Terry McCaffrey, the retired manager of stamp development for the USPS Stamp Services Office, and Ethel Kessler, an Art Director who’s been working with Stamp Services for over 15 years.

January 27, 2012

Before the 1850s, dentures were made out of very hard, very painful and very expensive material, like gold or ivory. They were a luxury item. The invention of Vulcanite hard rubber changed everything. It was moldable, it could be precisely fitted, and it was relatively cheap. Everyone began making dentures with Vulcanite bases. But in 1864, a long disputed patent application, originally filed in 1852, was awarded and then acquired by the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company. It was an outfit created to collect fees, or very often, sue dentists who already used vulcanite, and there were plenty of dentists to go after.

The person in charge of pursuing the violators was Josiah Bacon, the treasurer of the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company. The patent was enforced with extreme prejudice, despite the protestations of the US dental profession.

To quote the secretary of the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company, Ernest Caduc: “Many dentists…relying upon the secret nature of the business, prefer to steal this property rather than buy it…”

It all came to a head on Easter Sunday in 1879. A Vulcanite denture patent violating dentist named Samuel Chalfant went to settle his business with his pursuer, Josiah Bacon, in his San Francisco hotel room. Chalfant brought a gun.

A print version of this story originally appeared in the fanzine Murder Can Be Fun by John Marr.

January 18, 2012

Beauty Pill is band I really like from Washington DC. They have released two EPs (The Cigarette Girl From the Future and You Are Right to be Afraid) and their last album, The Unsustainable Lifestyle, came out in 2004.

In the interim, the singer/guitarist/producer for Beauty Pill, Chad Clark, got very sick and nearly died. That can be enough to make anyone stop making music, but in Clark’s case, he continued to make music, but he just never felt the need to release a record or play live. His music was just for him and his friends, and that was OK.

But a strange confluence of opportunity, desire and architecture knocked Beauty Pill out of their unforced exile. The curators at a new multimedia art center called Artisphere invited Chad Clark to come in and do something musical in the space. While they were showing him around, he saw the angled, 2nd floor window overlooking the Black Box Theater and it reminded him of the window in Abbey Road Studio 2, made famous by The Beatles. Months later, the Black Box Theater was transformed into a very public recording studio, capturing the sounds and energy of the band, onlookers and guests over the course of a couple weeks.

They called the project Immersive Ideal.

January 5, 2012

The Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis became most famous at the moment of its demise. The thirty-three high-rise towers built in the 1950’s were supposed to solve the impending population crisis in inner city St. Louis. It was supposed to save the urban poor from the indignities of the downtown slums that lacked natural light, water and fresh air. And for a short while, it worked. It was a housing marvel.

But when conditions started to decline, everything got very bad, very fast.

It got so bad, only two decades after it was built; the housing authority blew it up. The image of the first Pruitt-Igoe controlled implosion circled the globe.

The implosion footage became the unassailable proof that Modernist architecture and federal housing just didn’t work.

Chad Freidrichs is the director of the new documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth and in the film he examines all the reasons people cite for the demise of Pruitt-Igoe.

In this episode of 99% Invisible, we focus on the popular idea that the architecture was to blame.

December 19, 2011

“There’s a secret jazz seeping from Washington’s aging Metro escalators – those anemic metal walkways that fill our transit system…they honk and bleat and squawk…why are you still wearing those earbuds?”

-Chris Richards, “Move along with the soundtrack of Metro’s screechy, wailing escalators” The Washington Post, 01/14/11
Ever since the industrial revolution, when it became possible for products to be designed just once and then mass produced, it has been the slight imperfections and wear introduced by human use that has transformed a quality mass produced product into a thing we love. Your worn blue jeans, your grandmothers iron skillet, the initial design determined their quality, but it’s their imperfections that make them comfortable, that make them lovable, that make them yours.

And if you think that a “slightly broken” escalator can’t be lovable, then our own Sam Greenspan would like to introduce you to Chris Richards. Chris Richards is a music critic for the Washington Post, and after years of ignoring the wailing and screeching of the much maligned, often broken escalators in the DC Metro, he began to hear them in a new way. He began to hear them as music.

December 8, 2011

Anonymous is not group. It is not an organization. Rob Walker describes Anonymous as a “loosely affiliated and ever-changing band of individuals who… have been variously described as hackers, hacktivists, free-expression zealots, Internet troublemakers, and assorted combinations thereof.”

But when Anonymous came up against the Church of Scientiology, a small, non-hierarchical collection of Anons decided to take the disparate phrases, images and ideas circling around the 4Chan.org /b/ message board (where Anonymous has its roots) and combine them into a very engaging and effective “brand identity” (For lack of a better word. Is there a better word? I’d love to hear it. -rm).

In this episode, Rob Walker explores the origins of the meme-like images in the Anonymous “visual brand” and explains why these icons so powerfully define a phenomenon that eschews definition.

This piece was produced by me and Rob Walker based on his article “Recognizably Anonymous” in Slate.

December 2, 2011

Paola Antonelli is the Senior Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art. Her most recent blockbuster show, Talk to Me, explored the communication between people and objects: from chairs that talk to subway kiosks.

It’s pretty easy to get overwhelmed and frustrated by all the human-object interactions in the modern world. I’ve never used a “coin return” button on a vending machine that worked and there is interesting criticism of the increasingly common “pictures under glass” type of interface on the iPhone and iPad.

But as Paola Antonelli explains to producer Benjamen Walker (from Too Much Information), the evolution of communication design is pointing to a world that minimizes human-object interfaces and leaves us to free to focus on real human habits and needs.

November 23, 2011

It’s totally unfair. Hydrox cookies came out four years before the introduction of Oreos, but Hydrox could never shake the image that it was a cheap knock-off, an also-ran. As a consumer product, it’s completely out of your hands if you’re deemed a mighty Transformer, or a loathsome Gobot.
Sometimes it doesn’t make any sense at all.
But sometimes it does.
This is the tale of two toys with two very different fates. The Teddy Bear, named after the charismatic president Theodore Roosevelt, was a sensation in the early twentieth century. It even displaced baby dolls as the top toy in all of the United States, but no one thought it would last.The burgeoning mass-market toy industry thought the bear was a novelty that would die out once Teddy Roosevelt left office in 1909. So the powers that be went on the search for the next cuddly companion that America’s children would adore. It was completely logical that they looked at the next president for inspiration, Roosevelt’s handpicked successor, William Howard Taft. In 1909, the toy makers of America placed their bets on the Taft presidency’s answer to the Teddy Bear: the Billy Possum.
This story comes to us from the insanely talented Jon Mooallem. He first presented a version of this story at Pop-Up Magazine #5 in San Francisco. Mooallem’s latest story for the New York Times Magazine is about the heroics of the Turtle People during the Gulf oil spill. He’s currently working on a book about people and animals for Penguin Press. He’s my favorite person to follow on twitter (@jmooallem) because he regularly posts strange animal facts that he comes across in his research.

November 18, 2011

United Nations Plaza sits in the center of San Francisco. Most people consider it a complete failure as a public space. Its central feature, at the entrance of the plaza, is a unique fountain that was designed by Lawrence Halprin in 1975. The water shoots out at various angles, from inside a sunken pit, filled with large granite slabs. It’s a design that kind of pulls you in and invites you to take the steps down to the water and climb in between the hulking stones. And that’s part of the problem.

In 2004, radio producer Ben Temchine, created a really fantastic documentary of UN Plaza, called “The Biography of 100,000 Square Feet” that first aired on my first radio program called Invisible Ink in May of 2004. (Yep another “invisible” show) The documentary really takes a hard look at UN Plaza when it was really at its worst and asks the question, is there a point where the good intentions and idealism of a design become so removed from reality, that it actually borders on negligence?

October 28, 2011

It’s hard to imagine a place where more desperate and depressing drama unfolds on a daily basis than a family courthouse- custody battles, abuse, divorce- and if you were to design a place to reflect and amplify that misery, not mitigate it, it’d probably take the form of the old New York County Family Courthouse in Lower Manhattan.

The original shiny black cube, built in 1975, was referred to as the “Darth Vader building” by court employees (presumably after 1977). The foreboding and intimidating structure is primarily criticized in relation to its function as a family courthouse, which should strive to inspire a feeling of trust, authority, and (one hopes) inclusion.

The building was remodeled in 2006. The bones are largely the same, but the shiny, black cladding is gone, replaced by a more conventional grey/beige. The problematic entrance to the building has been completely opened up, making ingress and egress a much less daunting proposition. To quote our 99% Invisible reporter this week, Brett Myers, “walking into the building is no longer like being consumed by a beast.”

But a little something was lost in the facelift. The original building was definitely not boring and commanded your attention. I don’t know if the same can be said for the current design. Modern design principles and cultural preservation are not necessarily at loggerheads, but when they do come into conflict, it’s not always easy to answer which ideology should win.

October 13, 2011

If Dennis Baxter and Bill Whiston are doing their job right, you probably don’t notice that they’re doing their job. But they are so good at doing their job, that you probably don’t even know that their job exists at all. They are sound designers for televised sporting events. Their job is to draw the audience into the action and make sports sound as exciting as possible, and this doesn’t mean they put a bunch of microphones on the field. It sometimes means they fake it.

Peregrine Andrews produced this piece narrated by Dennis Baxter for Falling Tree Productions for BBC Radio4. It is an extract from a much longer, and really stunning doc called “The Sound of Sport.”

September 29, 2011

If I asked you to close your eyes and mimic the action of using one of the simple human interfaces of everyday life, you could probably do it. Without having a button to push, you could close your eyes and pretend push a button, and that action would accurately reflect the action of pushing a real button. The same goes for flipping a switch or turning a door knob. If you closed your eyes and faked the movement, it would sync up with its real world use.

Now if I asked you to do the same with a car’s steering wheel, you’d think you’d be able to describe steering accurately and mime the correct movements with your hands in the air, but you’d be wrong. Very, very wrong. You’d probably kill a bunch of imaginary people.

Our friends at Humans in Design, Tristan Cooke and Tom Nelson, bring us this story about how our brain knows how to steer without really knowing how to steer, and what that means for steering wheel design. They interviewed Dr. Steve Cloete, from The University of Queensland, who conducted the awesome blind driver studies.

September 16, 2011

Cities are pretty robust organisms, they tend to survive even when put under tremendous stress and strain. Local industries rise and fall, people immigrate and emigrate, but most of these changes happen over decades. What happens to a city when its purpose is stripped away virtually overnight? Bonn was the quiet, unlikely capital of West Germany and then the newly unified Germany for 50 years, and then the Cold War ended and the seat of government was moved back to its historic home of Berlin. Ten years after the move, Bonn is finding its new identity and purpose, but hidden clues in the urban landscape remind us of the city it used to be.

Cyrus Farivar takes us on a tour of his neighborhood in what used to be the diplomatic quarter of Bonn with local historian and tour guide Michael Wenzel. Farivar is the science and technology editor at Deutsche Welle English and the author of The Internet of Elsewhere – about the history and effects of the Internet on different countries around the world.

September 1, 2011

I want to be careful not to overstate what it means for a building to die. A building’s worth is an infinitesimal fraction of the worth a person’s life. Even two buildings don’t even move the needle in comparison to real human loss. But a building is still a living thing in a way. It breathes and it moves. This movement makes a sound.

Les Robertson, the structural engineer of the World Trade Center, says that the people working inside the tower couldn’t feel this movement, but they could hear it.

This episode of 99% Invisible was produced with the Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, and the creaking “Buildings Speak” section was mixed by Jim McKee of Earwax Productions. It’s comprised of extracts and outtakes from the Peabody Award Winning Sonic Memorial Project produced in 2002. A new, tenth anniversary edition of the Sonic Memorial Project, which is narrated by my literary hero Paul Auster, is going to be playing on public radio stations around the country. Find out where and when it’s playing on your local public radio station and make an appointment to listen.

August 18, 2011

Last year, Steve Burrows CBE (Principle at the engineering consulting firm Arup) spent several weeks in Egypt studying the pyramids through the eyes of a modern day structural engineer. The result, which was presented in a documentary for the Discovery Channel and published in an article for DesignIntelligence, presented fascinating insights into the design of the pyramids and offers some lessons in how we may think about sustainability through longevity in modern architecture.

Burrows’ research reveals that some of the same practical considerations that structural engineers and architects contend with today, may have driven all the major decisions about the design and construction of the Giza Pyramids.

August 4, 2011

If you look at the outer hull of commercial ships, you might find a painted circle bisected with a long horizontal line. This marking is called the load line, or as I prefer, the Plimsoll line. This simple graphic design has saved thousands of lives. The Plimsoll line shows the maximum loading point of the ship and lets a third party know, plainly and clearly, when a vessel is overloaded and at risk of sinking in rough seas. If you see that horizontal line above the water, you’re good, if you don’t, you could be sunk.

The load line was named after the crusading British MP Samuel Plimsoll. The advent of insurance in the 19th century, created an incentive for ship owners to purposely sink their own ships and collect the insurance money. This grim practice became so widespread, and killed so many merchant seamen, that the over-insured, overloaded vessels became known as “coffin ships.” Samuel Plimsoll (“the sailors friend”) fought for sweeping merchant shipping regulation that led to the adoption of the marking that bears his name.

Tristan Cooke, a human factors engineer and creator of a great blog called Humans in Design, tells us the history of the Plimsoll line and explains why it’s one of his favorite examples of design.

July 27, 2011

When I spoke with Allison Arieff about the design of airports, she said to me, if all airports simply played Brian Eno’s album Ambient 1: Music for Airports over the speakers, every airport would be better. I say this to serve not only as an introduction to Allison Arieff, but also so you’ll know that she is someone whose judgment is perfectly true.

Using T2 at SFO as an example, Allison Arieff of the New York Times talks us through some of the considerations that go into designing an airport terminal, how the priorities have changed since 9/11, and how architects struggle to keep pace with ever-changing technology.

July 14, 2011

Nicholas Felton is an information designer. Since 2005, he has tabulated thousands upon thousands of tiny measurements in his life and designed stunning graphs and maps and created concise infographics that detail that year’s activities. The results were originally intended for his friends and family, but the “personal annual reports” have found an audience with fellow designers and people that really geek out on seeing lots of data, beautifully presented.

In 2010, Nicholas Felton’s father passed away, and Felton decided to turn his annual report into a full biography of his father. He took 4,348 of his father’s personal records and created an intimate portrait of a man, using only the data he left behind.

I produced this story with Nate Berg, who is an awesome freelance journalist and blogger at Planetizen (a site you should add to your daily routine).

June 30, 2011

In 1998 Dr. Gary Kaplan, the CEO of Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle received some bad news about his hospital. It was losing money. So Dr. Kaplan started studying how other hospitals were being run to see if there was a better way to manage his hospital. He scoured the country, looking for a hospital with a management system worth adopting, but he never found one. Instead he ended up in Japan. At a Toyota factory. This entire, multiyear overhaul started with a ball of blue yarn. The staff met with a Toyota Production System sensei and he took out the ball of blue yarn and a map of the hospital and told the staff to trace the path a cancer patient would take on a typical visit for chemotherapy treatment. When they were finished, it was an immensely powerful visual experience for everyone in the room. They all stared at this map with blue yarn snaking all over the place, doubling back on itself and making complicated twists and turns from one end of the building to the other. They understood for the first time that they were taking their sickest patients, for whom time was their most precious resource, and they were wasting huge amounts of it.

This story was produced by David Weinberg. David spoke with Charles Kenney, author of Transforming Healthcare and Dr. Henry Otero and Nurse Michele Wettland from Virginia Mason.

June 16, 2011

When people critique cul-de-sacs, a lot of the time, they’re actually critiquing the suburbs more generally. The cul-de-sac has become sort of like the mascot of the suburbs– like if suburbia had a flag, it would have a picture of a cul-de-sac on it. Cul-de-sacs by definition aren’t well connected to other streets and they are far away town centers. People can argue whether or not these are pros or cons, depending on what lifestyle choices they prioritize. For little kids, cul-de-sacs can be great, but they do have some real, quantifiable design flaws. Imagine being a garbage collector, or a street cleaner, instead of driving down one long street and collecting all the garbage from that street, then taking a right onto the next street and so on, you have to turn around in all of these cul-de-sacs over and over again. It takes more time and uses more gas. They’re expensive for governments to maintain, and now, governments are starting to enact regulations against them. Producer Katie Mingle talks with Matt Lassiter about cul-de-sacs, the pitfalls of suburban design, and of course, E.T.

June 9, 2011

More and more I’m finding that the first 2-3 minutes of a movie are my favorite part of the film. My life is devoted to the beautiful expression of information, which is why film title sequences hold a special place in my heart. On this episode, I talk with Ian Albinson (Editor-in-Chief and Founder of the kick-ass Art of the Title) and the brilliant Gareth Smith (title sequence designer- along with his wife Jenny Lee- of such films as Juno and Up in the Air) about the benchmarks of film title design and the constraints involved in presenting what is essentially a legal document to a paying audience.

June 3, 2011

There are rules that dicate what you can build and how. Rules of physics and rules of men who sit on various bureaucratic boards and bodies. These rules dictated that if silk magnate John Noble Stearns wanted to build one of those ten story towers that were all the rage in 1888, on his 22 foot wide lot, he would need to build walls of stone and brick that were 5 feet thick. With tiny windows. Which left room for an interior that was only 11 feet wide. Slice off a few feet for a hallway. A few for a bathroom.A couple for a coat closet. Another for some filing cabinets and an umbrella stand. And he would be asking his well heeled tenants to work in a dark cell better suited to monks illuminating manuscripts. Stearns asked the best architects in the northeast for a solution. They all told him it couldn’t be done. Everyone except Bradford Gilbert. This week’s episode is an original commission, produced by Nate Dimeo from the memory palace.

May 20, 2011

The Metropolitan Correctional Center, or MCC, is a federal jail right in the middle of downtown Chicago. It’s a triangle-shaped skyscraper, 27 stories, with tall, super-narrow, irregularly-spaced windows up and down each wall. The outside walls look like old computer punchcards. As odd as it looks, each of these striking details serve a purpose. The architect, Harry Weese, made bold innovations that were solutions to practical problems. The triangular shape creates easy sight-lines for the guards inside.  The windows are narrow (5 inches) to prevent escapes (without requiring bars), but beveled out, to funnel natural light inside. The interior design was very thoughtfully considered as well. As stunning as it is, the building can also be a little hard to see from up close.  Producer/reporter Dan Weissmann worked nearby for years and rarely looked up at it. This is apparently by design, as well. The triangular shape keeps the building pushed back from the street, there’s a tall hedge between the sidewalk and the plaza in front of the jail, and the El train blocks the much of the view of the floors above.  But recently Dan kind of became obsessed with the MCC and discovered that Harry Weese’s groundbreaking design may still gain admirers from the throngs of people that pass it on the street, but for the 681 temporary residents inside, it may not be living up to Weese’s grand vision.

May 12, 2011

There’s something that links most of the everyday objects presented in “Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design.” But it’s hard to tell exactly what that is just by looking at this collection of wobbly dolls, drinking glasses, primitive arcade games, and arsonistic space heaters. The essence, argues editor Michael Idov, is the system that built them: a post-WWII economy, mostly closed from the rest of the world, trying to transform its tank and grenade factories into places that churned out Western-style consumer goods. Idov grew up in Soviet Latvia with “some pretty terrible stuff,” but he believes the experience makes him, and other Soviet citizens, hyperaware of good design when they see it. Julia Barton explores the good, the bad, and the weird products of the former empire.

May 6, 2011

If you were present for any of the presidential inaugurations, from Andrew Jackson to Dwight D. Eisenhower, you saw the solemn oath of office taken between twenty-two smooth, sandstone columns at the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol Building. The slabs that made up the columns were considered so important that when they were transported from a barge on the Potomac River to Capitol Hill in 1824, they were pulled by man power alone, because lowly mules were deemed unfit to move such sacred objects. The columns did not have the same standing in 1958. During the renovation of the East Portico, the columns were removed, crated and stored, until a couple of women fought to put them back on their feet in the National Arboretum. Other parts of the façade were also carted away in the renovation, but they didn’t get quite the same treatment. The episode was produced by Sam Greenspan and Jess Schreibstien, with help from Melissa Lee and John Asante. The four of them have their own fledgling podcast called Whisper Cities. It presents stories of overheard and out-of-site places.

April 22, 2011

youarelistening.to appeared online on March 6, 2011 and I was hooked instantly. The combination of the police scanner and ambient music is an intriguing, and distinctly live, experience (unlike most of the time shifted audio I tend to consume). Its other appeal is its simple and elegant execution. There are three component parts: a police radio stream from Radio Reference (radioreference.com), a pre-screened ambient music playlist from SoundCloud, and a cool photo from Flickr. Each element is from some other source, that never could have envisioned that this is the way their content would be used. This is the power of a sharable and mashable web. As a bonus this week, I’ve added a story I did in 2005 about another radio obsession of mine called Radio Net. For two hours on 200 NPR stations in 1977, sound artist Max Neuhaus conducted a massive, experimental audio symphony using processed sound from callers all around the nation. This Radio Net piece was originally broadcast on Re:sound from the Third Coast International Audio Festival

April 15, 2011

In 1989, a group called the Berkeley Art Project decided to hold a national public art competition to create a monument that would commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, which began on the University of California Berkeley Campus in 1964. The winning design, created by Mark Brest van Kempen (who was then a graduate student at the San Francisco Art Institute), is an invisible sculpture that creates a small space completely free from laws or jurisdiction. The six inch circle of soil, and the “free” column of airspace above it, is framed by a six foot granite circle. The inscription on the granite reads, “This soil and the air space extending above it shall not be a part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity’s jurisdiction.” The six inch free space acts as a beacon for speakers and political events. When you stand next to it today, 20 years after it was installed, you’d never suspect the contentious battle and the ironic compromise that finally led to its placement in Sproul Plaza.

April 1, 2011

Most sound design in architecture is centered around designing for silence. Buildings are trying to block out that constant stream noise from the street and insulate you from those jarring clangs of industry. Geoff Manaugh loves the intersection of sound and architecture, but he’s primarily interested in those cases where buildings and spaces are designed to harness environmental sounds and bring acoustics into the architectural equation in clever ways. Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG is a site about architectural conjecture, urban speculation, and landscape futures. Can you imagine anything better? It’s essential reading. Nick van der Kolk from the amazing Love + Radio podcast (Vocalo.org) produced this piece.

March 25, 2011

In 2001, Delfin Vigil was walking the streets of San Francisco and ran across the name “Nikko” carved into the concrete sidewalk. After seeing Nikko once, Delfin began to see the name everywhere. One block after another, there he was again and again: Nikko. The carvings numbered in the hundreds, seemed to go back decades, and Delfin Vigil became obsessed with finding San Francisco’s mysterious “concrete commando.”

Vigil’s story about the hunt for Nikko is beautifully written and illustrated (by Paul Madonna) in his self-published chapbook available at The Rumpus. It’s outstanding. The original, audio version of this story was produced by my future employer Stephanie Foo for the smokin’ hot, new public radio program Snap Judgment.

March 21, 2011

This week, the radio audience heard episode #10, but for you web and podcast listeners, I have a story I did about a year and a half ago, about the reactive music app called RJDJ. I did this piece for an ill fated tech show pilot that was never broadcast, which totally bummed me out at the time, but I found a way to get some of the tape and ideas into episode #3 of 99% Invisible about augmented reality. I think that episode by itself worked, but to keep the show tight and on point, I cut a lot of the cooler aspects of the original story about the broader implications of reactive music and where it fits into the evolution of music. So, here it is in it’s full glory. Enjoy! Thanks for checking it out.

March 10, 2011

In a recent piece from Urban Omnibus, Vishaan Chakrabarti (Professor at the Graduate School for Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University), wrote about how urban open spaces contribute to political change, “Public spaces like Tompkins Square, Tiananmen Square and Tahrir Square have been stages for history because they provide the loci for urban gathering, particularly for a city’s youth…One could argue that without cities and the spaces they inspire, nations themselves would never change.” Host of WFMU’s Too Much Information, Benjamen Walker, took a walk with Chakrabarti down to Tompkins Square Park to talk about the past and present design of the space and how the layout has affected the public actions that have taken place there. Chakrabarti also relates this to the current protests in the Middle East. Twitter and Facebook may have had a significant role in organizing the protests, but if there is no place for everyone to gather, what possible change can result?

For you podcast listeners (and website streamers) I’ve also added a very 99% Invisible excerpt from Benjamen Walker’s brilliant radio program Too Much Information. This is a piece called “New York Dick” from the What A Difference Makes episode from Jan 17, 2011. Enjoy!

March 3, 2011

A few years ago, journalist Douglas McGray learned that the largest chain of check cashing stores in Southern California, Nix Check Cashing, was being bought by the nation’s largest credit union, Kinecta. The credit union thought it had something to learn from the check casher about how to reach out and serve the poor. This was curious. McGray’s impression was that check cashers (and especially payday lenders) were predatory, the bad guys, and that credit unions, especially one dedicated to serving the poor, were the good guys. This proposed sale made McGray look at the whole situation with fresh eyes.

I highly recommend reading Douglas McGray’s New York Times Magazine article all about it. It’s excellent.

I, of course, was drawn to the design aspects of the story.

Check cashing stores can feel very odd when you’re not used to them. Quite simply, they are often designed to look and feel more like a corner store. The furnishings are sparse, and the information is on signs— big, bold and clearly presented. Banks, on the other hand, have a design legacy of carpeting, heavy desks, suits, and pamphlets that are hard to parse. If you were to start over and design a financial products retail location today, which model would you follow?

February 25, 2011

The New City Hall, designed by Finnish architect Viljo Revell, was the first modern, concrete, civic building in Toronto. When it opened in 1965, it stood out very prominently in the traditional Victorian fabric of the city. The striking concrete design was carried throughout the building and was even incorporated into the office furniture. Desks, coffee tables, cabinets- they all had concrete legs- and nearly everyone hated it. A lot.

The public was angry. Controversy ensued. Someone even resigned.

But reporter Sean Cole found at least one person, architect Masha Kelmans, who thinks the naysayers were wrong.

February 18, 2011

The idea is simple and quite beautiful: if we all shared a second, politically neutral language, people of all different nations and cultures could communicate freely and easily, and it would foster international understanding and peace. This is the idea behind the invention of Esperanto. It was a linguistic solution to what seemed like a linguistic problem. Esperanto may not have achieved the goal of ubiquity and international peace, but it has become the most widely spoken constructed language in the world. Much of its success has to do with its design as a language. The grammar is very regular and easy to learn, but it also has a flexible and poetic nature that facilitates wordplay and artistic expression.

For this episode I talked with Sam Green, director of the live documentary Utopia in Four Movements and Arika Okrent, author of In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers and the Mad Dreamers who tried to Build a Perfect Language.

February 11, 2011

Without all the beeps and chimes, without sonic feedback, all of your modern conveniences would be very hard to use. If a device and its sounds are designed correctly, it creates a special “theater of the mind” that users completely buy into. Electronic things are made to feel mechanical. It’s the feeling of movement, texture and articulation where none exists. We talk with Sound Designer Jim McKee of Earwax Productions about the art of designing organic sounds for inorganic things.

February 4, 2011

Everyone knows it when they see it. The classic “castle with turrets” periodic table is a beautiful and concise icon that contains a great deal of amazing information, if you only know how to read it. And even if you don’t know anything about the table, it’s still easy to admire and get lost in. Author of The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean, talks us through the design of the table that hung in the front of your science class for years, but you probably never really understood.

January 7, 2011

99% Invisible Extra! The tape rolls as we witness the tearful end of a perfect online world. This is a piece I did for Snap Judgment, based on a story from Robert Ashley’s brilliant A Life Well Wasted internet radio program. New episodes of 99% Invisible start on 02/04/11. Stay tuned.

December 16, 2010

I’m sorry, but if you don’t love maps, I don’t think we can be friends anymore. Maps are amazing. They are art and story. A representation of where we are and where we wish we could be. They’ve always had a power over me.

Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City, a new atlas of San Francisco maps, explores the poetry, beauty and arbitrary nature of maps to the fullest. The assembled cartographers, researchers, writers and artists have rendered twenty-two maps that tell strange and surprising stories about the Bay Area. Each point of fact and odd juxtaposition presents just one of the infinite possible visions of the city.

December 3, 2010

“Sustainable Design is a design philosophy that seeks to maximize the quality of the built environment, while minimizing or eliminating the negative impact to the natural environment.” -Jason F. McLennan, The Philosophy of Sustainable Design

I like McLennan’s definition of sustainable design because it’s broken into two parts (1) minimizing negative impact, and (2) maximizing quality. Minimizing the negative is a given that I think everyone understands (and is absolutely critical, no doubt), but it’s the aspect of sustainable design that is also seeking to “maximize the quality of the built environment” that I find really inspiring. That is what intrigued me about Civil Twilight’s Lunar-resonant Streetlights. This project won the 2007 Metropolis Next Generation Design Competition partly because explored the serious issue of massive energy consumption by excessive outdoor lighting by offering a poetic solution that really focused on maximizing quality. Civil Twilight’s streetlights sense and respond to ambient moonlight and allow people in urban areas to reconnect with the nighttime cycles that were lost long ago to light pollution.

November 24, 2010

Almost everything in modern life is designed to waste energy. The whole system evolved on a false premise that petroleum is cheap and plentiful and will be that way forever. The awesome Lisa Margonelli, author of Oil on The Brain and a fellow at the New America Foundation, talks us through the design of a world that completely disregards the perils of oil consumption and how new designs are meant to make us all more content with the mess we’ve made.

November 19, 2010

Chris Downey explains it like this, “Beethoven continued to write music, even some of his best music, after he lost his hearing…What’s more preposterous, composing music you can’t hear, or designing architecture you can’t see?” Chris Downey had been an architect for 20 years before he lost his sight. It would be understandable to think that going blind would mean the end of his career, but that turned out not to be the case at all.

November 13, 2010

99% Invisible Extra! NASA is figuring out how to take the next great leap into space. The difficulty is, if we leap to Mars, we might not make it back. This is a story I produced last year (Summer 2009) for a public radio tech show pilot that didn’t get picked up, and since I am taking a week off of the radio program, and this story presents a cool design challenge (and solution!), I thought it would make a nice, extra long 99% Invisible bonus story. I hope you dig it.

November 5, 2010

Privately Owned Public Open Spaces, or POPOS, are these little gardens, terraces, plazas, and seating areas that are private property, but are mandated for public use. City planners require developers to add these little “parks” to their buildings to make downtown more pleasant (or even just tolerable). Some are out in the open and used regularly by downtown office workers, and some are hidden away and don’t really serve the community all that well. They pop up in the most densely populated parts of the city, where large public parks are few and far between. Whereas the physical aspect of POPOS are pretty well established by the city planners, the social aspects of what constitutes a “public” space is harder to define. Blaine Merker, from the badass design activist group Rebar, showed superstar producer Stephanie Foo around a few of San Francisco’s POPOS to find out just how public these open spaces really are.

October 29, 2010

It’s weird how much anxiety comes from parking in a city. Beyond the stress of looking for parking, you must contend with the frequently unreliable meters. The signage can be indecipherable. As a point of interaction with your municipality, it’s just a nightmare. Plus, from an urban planning perspective, the spaces themselves are a horribly mismanaged city resource. A new pilot program in San Francisco is looking to change all that. SFPark is trying to use smart parking to make a smarter and better designed city. This episode features Jay Primus, Manager of the SFPark project and Donald Shoup, author of the highly influential book called, The High Cost of Free Parking.

October 14, 2010

Humans need a few basic things to survive- air, water, food, heat, shelter- but just surviving isn’t really enough. We also need familiarity, a little comfort, interaction, a small place of our own. When it comes to designing space habitat modules, engineers have that first set of basic needs covered, but figuring out the how to incorporate those other things, that not only keep an astronaut alive, but also mentally healthy and happy, is a little more complicated. The funniest and coolest science writer in the world, Mary Roach guides us through the evolution of space habitat modules and how far design can be optimized for zero g before astronauts start to lose it.

October 7, 2010

Before I moved to Chicago in 2005, I didn’t even know cities had their own flags. In Chicago, the city flag is everywhere. It’s incorporated into all different aspects of city life and the design elements are used on businesses, websites, clothing and apparel. So when I moved back to San Francisco in 2008, I looked up our city flag and wondered why I never really noticed it before. Ugh, now I know. Ted Kaye, editor of Raven- a scholarly journal of vexillology and treasurer of the North American Vexillological Association, helps me understand the principles of good flag design and imagines with us a better flag for the greatest city on earth (IMHO).

October 1, 2010

At the top of Mt. Olympus in San Francisco, on what was once thought to be the geographic center of the city, is a pedestal for a statue that isn’t there. There’s no marker. You can just make out the word “erected” on the stone surface, but there’s nothing that lets anyone know that this was once the site of San Francisco’s own (much smaller) statue of liberty and light. It is now surrounded by 1950’s condos, and even though it offers some of the best views of the city, I’ve only met two people who have even heard of it (and I asked around a lot). CCA architecture historian Bill Littmann shows us around.

September 24, 2010

It’s a stick with bristles poking out of it. It doesn’t even qualify as a simple machine, but the careful thought and design that went into the creation of the modern, angled bristle, fat handled toothbrush shows just how much brainpower goes into something that is designed to simply work well and not be noticed all that much (until it’s time to buy the next one). This piece features John Edson, President of LUNAR.

September 24, 2010

There’s not much that we can do about all the physical matter that’s been designed and built by someone else. It is the way it is. But with the advent of portable devices with GPS, a compass, and a network, we can now design a layer on top of the real world that can contain all kinds of new information, ideas, and experiences. This is called augmented reality. When most people use the term, they are talking about a visual experience. You hold up the camera of your smart phone and infographics overlay the image of the the thing right in front of you. But for my money, the best experience of augmented reality is auditory. Using the iPhone platform, RJDJ is exploring the next phase of music, called reactive music. Compositions coming out the headphones are completely unique, mixed in the smart phone, having incorporated data from the listeners environment.

September 23, 2010

In the beginning, former AIA-SF president Henrik Bull and the Transamerica Pyramid did not get along. The building was an affront to late 1960’s modernist ideals. It was silly. It looked like a dunce cap. Its large scale had no respect for the neighborhood in which it lived. But over 40 years, something happened…

September 23, 2010

This episode of 99% Invisible is all about acoustic design, the city soundscape, and how to make listening in shared spaces pleasant (or at the very least, possible). It features an interview with Dennis Paoletti from Shen Milsom & Wilke.