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Roman Mars on 99% Invisible and the Narrative of Design

Roman Mars is the host and producer of 99% Invisible, the most innovative and beloved radio program about design, and how design impacts the world around us. Roman is an ideal keynote speaker for UX Week, much like his radio show, UX Week is not about the day-to-day act of designing, but how design exists in the world and how it got there. Our designer, Scott, got to speak with Roman about the evolution of his understanding of design since he started 99% Invisible back in 2010.

Yeah. Well, the only thing I would say that might be a little bit different than that is that I’m looking at the world through the lens of design using narrative. It was very purposeful that designers found the show first and enjoyed it and I do think it is a show about design ultimately.

But we take a pretty broad view of what design means to the world and we use that to sort of shape the way we tell all kinds of human narratives. I think that we learn a lot about ourselves through the things we make, and that’s kind of the point of the show.

I would say it has. It’s certainly evolved in the scope of what the show is, especially since we added people to the team. Originally it was just me and then it was a couple of us, and now there’s nine of us, so it is necessary that the show evolves to include the voices of all those people.

I had a really strong concept of what I wanted the show to be and it still holds true to that. We probably tend to be even more narrative focused than we used to be. I used to just kind of cover a topic or a subject and the show was so short, when it’s four minutes long you can say, “Hey, here’s a thing. This is neat. There you go. See you later.” and that’s enough.

Whereas when you’re doing 25 minutes there better be a character and a story and things that sort of keep things going. And so in that sense it’s become more narrative and story driven over time.

I’ve certainly learned a lot. I mean this is one of the great joys of being a journalist—you get to become a little expert on something for about four to six weeks and then put it out in the world.

One of the things I love about design is that a lot of it is common sense There’s a way that the stories work, they sort of come back to fundamental principles of how we explain and make the world a better place.

And so in a way I would say that I certainly know a lot more, but one of the things that’s pretty interesting is that I can stand by a lot of the early stuff even though I’m smarter now. I would still stand by the early stuff because I was explaining it through the lens of a person new to design recognizing the common sense of good design. And that common sense doesn’t really change all that much and it doesn’t evolve all that much.

Oh no, not at all. I mean I studied to be a scientist before I got into journalism—and even now I rarely use journalism as a noun to describe myself. I just stumbled into this. I was the sort of person who went on architecture tours and noticed the design details and then my friend in college gave me this book, The Design of Everyday Things and I was like, “Oh yeah, this is great.”

When the idea of doing a radio show about design came up, what I liked about it was that I personally don’t have a very strong aesthetic sense or bias, quite honestly. I tend to not know how I feel about things — I’m not someone who just looks at a poster and goes, “Oh, that’s ugly,” but a lot of people have really strongly held opinions about fonts and various things, and I honestly don’t really have them.

I have a bias towards a story, I like the font with the best story. And so I thought that the concept of doing a design radio show when you strip away the visual aesthetics actually made sense, it got to the parts of design I really loved, which was the problem solving because good design is the more invisible part of design — you notice bad design; you don’t notice good design. We begin to recognize that the world becomes a better place,it gets nicer when you recognize all these people that are smarter than you making sure that the world is navigable for a dummy like you.

I love that. I often say there’s a perversity of covering design on the radio or the podcast but really it’s the heart of the show that there aren’t visuals and that it’s more of a storytelling exercise than a discussion about the merits of the aesthetics of design.

EDIT 2018: This interview was originally published for Roman Mars’ UX Week 2017 Keynote 99% Invisible: Looking Closely at Broken, Ugly, and Exclusionary Design. He’s coming back for UX Week 2018 with his live podcast Keynote 99% Invisible: Design is in the Details. Don’t miss your chance to see him and explore other great talks and workshops—register today!