The 99% Invisible City

I recently finished reading The 99% Invisible City, by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt. The authors both work on one of my favorite podcasts called 99% Invisible. And the book follows a similar concept to the podcast. It points out many of the subtle, often-invisible ways that the human environment is designed and developed. They cover everything from a traffic light in Syracuse (New York) where the green light is on top, to cellular towers camouflaged to look like trees, to the inflatable figures that dance along roadsides. These things may seem mundane. But their backstories can provide surprising insights to human nature.

If I’m going to be completely honest, I was disappointed by this book. Mostly because it overlapped with the podcast so much. I’d venture a guess that more than 50% of the “99%” has already been shared — in some form — on the podcast. And I personally like the podcast versions better. The illustrations in the book are fine, but I don’t think they reveal extra information. In many cases, photographs would have been preferable. The written descriptions are well-articulated, but the reader doesn’t get to hear Roman Mars’ distinctive voice or any of the background audio effects that make the podcast so good. Ironically, I wonder if the book might be more enjoyable for people who are not familiar with the podcast.

I don’t regret buying The 99% Invisible City or taking the time to read it. I still learned some new things. And I like the way that a book can serve as “A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design” (as the subtitle suggests). It works better as a reference manual, with a searchable index, than a collection of podcast episodes. I guess it just ended up being a “6” or “7” when I was expecting or hoping for an “8” or “9.”

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