Puzzly Podcasts: 99% Invisible and Revisiting the “Average Solver”

A geodesic dome.

Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome and the World Game, once said, “Ninety-nine percent of who you are is invisible and untouchable.” This quotation inspired the title of 99% Invisible, a podcast about aspects of the designed and built world that typically go overlooked. Hosted by journalist Roman Mars, 99% Invisible began in 2010 as a joint effort between the San Francisco-based American Institute of Architects and SF public radio station KALW. Since April 2021, the podcast has been owned by broadcasting giant Sirius XM, but has remained essentially the same. On a weekly basis, Mars continues to provide listeners with calmly narrated explorations of topics like efforts to track the pandemic, the history of grocery store “ethnic food” aisles, and the skull logo representing Marvel’s Punisher character, including its memetic use among reactionaries.

It might sound counterintuitive, or in Mars’ words, like a “perversity,” to break down elements of design in a purely sound-based format. Without accompanying visuals, how are we meant to truly appreciate a discussion of graphic design in film and television, or the history of Hawaiian shirts? Mars considers the absence of images a boon, saying, “I thought the concept of doing a design radio show where you strip away the visual aesthetics actually made sense, it got to the parts of design I really loved, which was the problem solving.”

This element of problem solving at the core of every episode will likely appeal to any die-hard puzzler. If you’re interested in episodes more explicitly aligned with your love of puzzles and games, I would recommend starting with episode 189, “The Landlord’s Game,” about Monopoly, or episode 335, “Gathering the Magic,” about—you may have guessed—Magic the Gathering, or even episode 349, “Froebel’s Gifts,” which more broadly considers the history of play as a tool of intellectual development.

In Community, the attempt to represent an average human being led to this terrifying mascot.

Then there’s episode 226, “On Average.” My predecessor on the blog previously discussed the issues with the concept of the “average” crossword solver, questioning popular ideas that the average solver might not be familiar with spoon theory or arepas, and what these assumptions imply about the average solver’s identity. “On Average” takes Glenn’s questioning a step further, walking listeners through a nineteenth-century astronomer’s innovation of reducing human populations to statistical averages. The episode focuses most closely on the practice of flattening people out to bodily averages, but also discusses average calculation for social phenomena like marriages and murders, and the rise of the idea that the “average” is “morally the way to think about people.”

99% Invisible‘s host and guests take the stance of critiquing the average as ideal. One example the episode traces is the WWII design of Air Force planes for the average pilot. Most WWII pilots were not anywhere near average; in fact, zero of the 4,063 pilots measured in one study came anywhere close to perfectly fitting the average, and even when standards were relaxed, only a meager handful had average measurements. Todd Rose, author of The End of Average, sums the issue up thusly: “If you are designing something for an average pilot, it’s literally designed to fit nobody.”

The same might be said of puzzles. If we construct a puzzle for the average solver, are we really constructing a puzzle for anyone at all? Or has all the life been sucked out of the puzzle, all the potential for anyone to connect with its quirks? To settle into the cockpit and soar? If ninety-nine percent of who we are is invisible and untouchable, then ninety-nine percent of who we are cannot be reduced to statistics, cannot be turned into averages. Whether physically or mentally, people are more than patterns, more than perfectly proportioned crash test dummies, and every aspect of the world should be designed with this in mind, from planes to puzzles.

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