Ten years ago, a tiny radio show about design called 99% Invisible made its big debut. At first, longer episodes had to be edited down to fit into the broadcast clock, but over time, the podcast grew. 99pi now has more than 400,000,000 downloads to date, but with hundreds of episodes, where does a new listener start? For our 10th anniversary, the show’s host and producers picked some out to help you dive in:
As the podcast’s creator, Roman has a tough time picking favorites (though Freedom House Ambulance Service is one). But he often cites a classic episode from the middle years of the show: Longbox. In typical 99pi fashion, this piece ties together seemingly disparate threads, speaking to everything from packaging design and music to voting.
Like many stories on the show, this tale revolves around a designed object. It dives deep into both a big innovation as well as various designs that might have been along the way, all while weaving in bigger lessons about the designed world and how we interface with it.
“This is a tale of skateboarders and swimming pools,” explains Kurt, “but beyond that it’s also about inspiration as well as how ideas spread and change over time.” This piece comes full circle, “with lovely twists, turns, and squiggles along the way, crossing the world from California to Finland in search of the original kidney bean-shaped pool.”
“It’s not always described this way, but I think 99pi is a history podcast,” say Emmett. This two-part episode in particular “is a fascinating, harrowing history that helps you better understand the current moment in immigration politics.” Other multi-episode stories include City of the Future as well as Built to Burn + Fire and Rain.
Barbed wire became a rusted-out icon of American colonialism, but its twisted history has much to say about Manifest Destiny. Its associations have also changed over time, as in World War II (an era also covered in episodes including New Old Town and Show of Force).
Tackling braille and other writing systems, this episode offers “a comprehensive history that is also deeply personal,” explains Sean. Above all, “it’s a beautifully told story.” It is also one of many 99pi stories about accessibility, including DeafSpace, Icon for Access, Curb Cuts and most recently: Where Do We Go From Here?
Accessing buildings is important, but the ability to get out of them is even more essential. Methods to facilitate fast escapes in emergencies have evolved a lot over the years. This piece has serious stakes as well as weirdness and whimsy. “I don’t know. I just like it,” says Joe.
Some episodes are about big, world-changing designs — others, not so much. “This story has incredibly low stakes and is told in a way that will make you hang onto every word,” explains Vivian. “It’s so fun, with an amazing cast of characters. Plus: it has golf.”
99pi looks into the past, but also speaks to the present. Chris describes how this episode worked on both levels during a trying time: “The week after the coronavirus lockdown started, Roman recorded an episode about the small delights around his house. I love the writing and how refreshing this felt during an unrelentingly horrible week.”
P.S. Next Steps
If you’ve only recently learned about the show thanks to our book, The 99% Invisible City, there are many places (over 400 to date) to begin your listening journey. Also, the book’s co-author Kurt Kohlstedt comes up with a list each year of recommendations based on professions and areas of interest. Click here to start with last year’s edition and scroll down for more. Then subscribe to the feed for new weekly episodes!
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