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The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design

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A NEW YORK TIMES, WASHINGTON POST, USA TODAY, AND PUBLISHERS WEEKLY BESTSELLER

“[A] diverse and enlightening book . . . The 99% Invisible City is altogether fresh and imaginative when it comes to thinking about urban spaces.”
The New York Times Book Review


“Here is a field guide, a boon, a bible, for the urban curious. Your city’s secret anatomy laid bare—a hundred things you look at but don’t see, see but don’t know. Each entry is a compact, surprising story, a thought piece, an invitation to marvel. Together, they are almost transformative. To know why things are as they are adds a satisfying richness to daily existence. This book is terrific, just terrific.”
—Mary Roach, New York Times bestselling author of StiffGrunt, and Gulp


The 99% Invisible City brings into view the fascinating but often unnoticed worlds we walk and drive through every day, and to read it is to feel newly alive and aware of your place in the world. This book made me laugh, and it made me cry, and it reminded me to always read the plaque.”
—John Green, New York Times bestselling author of The Fault in Our Stars and Turtles All The Way Down


A beautifully designed guidebook to the unnoticed yet essential elements of our cities, from the creators of the wildly popular 99% Invisible podcast 

Have you ever wondered what those bright, squiggly graffiti marks on the sidewalk mean?

Or stopped to consider why you don't see metal fire escapes on new buildings?

Or pondered the story behind those dancing inflatable figures in car dealerships?


99% Invisible is a big-ideas podcast about small-seeming things, revealing stories baked into the buildings we inhabit, the streets we drive, and the sidewalks we traverse. The show celebrates design and architecture in all of its functional glory and accidental absurdity, with intriguing tales of both designers and the people impacted by their designs.

Now, in The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to Hidden World of Everyday Design, host Roman Mars and coauthor Kurt Kohlstedt zoom in on the various elements that make our cities work, exploring the origins and other fascinating stories behind everything from power grids and fire escapes to drinking fountains and street signs. With deeply researched entries and beautiful line drawings throughout, The 99% Invisible City will captivate devoted fans of the show and anyone curious about design, urban environments, and the unsung marvels of the world around them.



From the Publisher

roman mars, 99pi podcast, 99 percent invisible cityroman mars, 99pi podcast, 99 percent invisible city

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Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt

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When did you first decide to write The 99% Invisible City?

In 2014, the very first time Kurt and I met, we talked about working on a book involving design and cities. Publishers had asked me before about expanding 99% Invisible into printed media, but I was too busy with weekly episodes, and Kurt was occupied with writing daily articles. After Kurt joined the show in 2015, 99% Invisible continued to grow and we increasingly felt the need to distill the best of our combined years of research, knowledge and experience into a single book, sharing our passion for cities in a distinct standalone volume. In 2018, we began to outline the shape this would take.

Why did you decide to write a 99% Invisible book?

In some sense, the story of this book dates back to, or even beyond, the origin of 99% Invisible. This book brings together my years of design storytelling, including hundreds of interviews with urbanists and designers, and Kurt’s years of studying urban design and architecture, as well as his experiences as a designer and design writer. Together, we decided to create a volume that would accessible and universal—a guide that would engage more than just urbanists, architects, and 99PI fans.

The concept of a field guide seemed like a fun and effective way to organize our thoughts. With that driving idea in mind, we began to compile compelling narratives and intriguing characters. We singled out individual stories that would captivate an audience but that would also fit together and flow, forming a whole that was more than the sum of its parts. This book would encourage readers to look at all different aspects of cities—from individual objects, buildings, blocks to entire neighborhoods—in an entirely new light. Through many smaller narratives, the book tells a larger story of how to be more observant and thoughtful citizens.

What kind of research went into writing this book?

This book is the culmination of years of research, travel and storytelling. It grew out of interactions with many different urbanists and designers, from an interview with a US postal worker at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to a producer visit to the tuned mass damper at the top of Taipei’s tallest skyscraper. The book draws on local reporting from 99PI producers around the world as well as extensive research done specifically for this volume. Through all these interactions, we wove together the most interesting personalities encountered and tales uncovered into a dense but delightful volume.

What cities/regions are featured in The 99% Invisible City?

The book is not a guide to any one city, but to all cities; we wanted a subject of interest in one place to open up a door to understanding many others. Often, this meant taking the audience somewhere unexpected. Rather than visiting the site of the first US electric traffic signal in Cleveland, OH, for instance, readers are sent on a journey to Syracuse, NY, home to the country’s only upside-down signal (with a green light on top). From there, the story travels halfway around the world to Japan, where “grue” traffic lights illuminate the strange relationship between cities, design standards and the way different languages evolve to describe colors.

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