Profiles in Art: Avery Trufelman, 99 Percent Invisible

Avery Trufelman is a writer and producer on 99 Percent Invisible, a podcast about architecture and design supported by Radiotopia. Per their website, Avery is a fierce defender of Millennial Pink, her favorite font is Sweden Sans, and she is currently based in beautiful, downtown Oakland, California.

Interview conducted by: Tiffany Chan

Edited by: Morgan Moore and Tiffany Chan

Cover image provided by Avery Trufelman


Q: What is your story? How did you fall in love with design?
When I was a kid, my dad took me to see this show at the Cooper Hewitt called Design for the Other 90%. I remember they had the most brilliant, simple solutions for dire problems that people face every day. I got very inspired and decided I wanted to be an industrial designer. I took a summer course at RISD when I was in high school, and it turns out I am really really terrible at it. That’s when I realized that I was more captivated by the problems behind a design than with finding a solution myself. My hats off to designers, seriously. I couldn’t hack it.
Q: What was your professional path like? How did you get onboarded to the 99pi team?
My parents met working at WNYC. When I considered going into radio, they both were very encouraging, so I started doing internships after high school. In college, I spent most of my time at my school’s radio station. And then, after I graduated, I interned for NPR in DC, and then got an internship at 99% Invisible, which turned into a job. And here I am! Lots of luck and a lot of elbow grease.
Q: What is a typical day like for you? What is your workflow?
Hahah mostly it’s transcribing. Seriously. I interview like 4 to 7 people for a given story, and I digest all their words by typing them all out myself. There are lots of ways to opt out of transcription- like there are robots that can transcribe for you, or you can hire other people to do it- but for the most part, it’s really important for me to review all the information slowly, myself. It doesn’t mean I like it- it’s an utter pain in the butt. I just feel shackled to this process for some reason. Other than that, my job is mostly research research research, and writing. Occasionally I get to go to someone’s home or office to interview them, and I get to peek into their world. But those days are actually surprisingly rare!
Q: What has been your favorite topic to work on so far? (for the show or otherwise)
Oh man I love when I get to travel for a story. It’s really stressful but exhilarating trying to navigate cultural and language divides. So I suppose my favorites were the ones I did about garbage collection systems in Taiwan and swimming pools in Finland.
Glen_E_Friedman_photographing_Lance_Mountain_2014
Photographer Glen E. Friedman taking a photo of skateboarder Lance Mountain in a pool in Los Angeles, image by Seanbonner (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Q: What inspires you? What motivates you? How do you choose new piece and/or work out of a creative rut?
Talking to people! Seriously, that’s where I get all my ideas. Literally, just going to parties and hearing what people are thinking about and what they notice. My best stories were my friend’s ideas.
Q: What is the oddest side-hustle you’ve ever had?
Oh God, I acted in a series of educational videos for an Australian online university. So mortifying. I get nervous that they will one day resurface in my life somehow.
Q: In your opinion, what are the most important considerations that make up good design?
Adaptability. In the scope of all my research, I notice that so much about our world morphs and changes with time. The designs that survive the best are ones that are able to take on multiple meaning and unexpected incarnations, like how the pound sign turned into the hashtag, or the curvy swimming pool turned into a skatepark.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you faced at your job?
Hahah just booking people! Scheduling interviews and just getting. People. To. The. Microphone. That’s honestly the trickiest part. People are so busy, and oftentimes they don’t know the show and I really really have to convince them to give me their time.
Q: What are the greatest rewards of your job?
Getting to talk to people! I mean, what more could you ask for! This job gives me the most incredible access to experts and designers and storytellers. I thrive on that.
Q: Can you tell us a funny anecdote from your field work/research?
Oh there are too many. Every story becomes a tiny adventure, with its own mishaps. I mean, one of my favorite things I ever got to do was visit the little factory in San Francisco where almost ALL fortune cookie fortunes are made. Not the cookies, the fortunes. It’s in the Bayview- and they’re just out there printing these tiny little slips of paper with all sorts of generic fortunes on them (which are all written by the factory owner’s daughter). That was awesome.
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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash
Q: What is the most memorable/funny/unfunny reaction someone has had to your work?
I did a story about neon signs, and the master neon tubebender I interviewed actually donated a beautiful neon sign to our office! I get to see it every day. Shawna Peterson is the best.  Everyone should hire her for their neon needs.
Q: What is one contentious issue in the art world that you are very passionate about?
Healthcare. We all need to be sure we can be taken care of. Art and philosophy are at the very pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, and we need to climb up there by covering our basics first.
Q: Were there every moments throughout your career when you doubted yourself/your path/what you were doing? How did those moments resolve?
It still happens. Every single story. It comes in waves, you know? I’ll have days where I really feel like I have a hold on things, and then other days where I am swallowed up in doubt, and I have no idea if the story I’m working on works at all. The only solution is to give it time. It’s just a pendulum swing. I just try to make myself remember that. In terms of my career- totally. I’ve made really really massive mistakes in the past- ones which utterly convinced me I would never survive in radio. It all just played out in time. I had to ride it out. And I still do.
Q: What advice would you give to your younger self/someone just starting in the field? Alternatively, what is the best advice you have ever received?
Go make stuff! Seriously, if you want to make audio, just use a cheap mic, or even your phone. Just interview people and practice editing in a free program like GarageBand or Audacity. Seriously, that’s the best way to get started. It’s how to develop story sense, and also start to build a portfolio to apply for jobs. Also, if you start by listening to yourself, you can develop your own voice and your own style, without waiting for someone else to give it to you.
Q: As you probably know, the new proposed federal budget eliminates funding for the National Endowment for the Arts as well as many other cultural/educational organizations. If you had to address the general public, why is arts/art history education important for the average American?
Art is  the only way we can grasp some form of human experience outside our own. It’s the only way we can come identify what unites us as a “species,” and understand what our tendencies are. I could fill a book with reasons why art is essential for the mind and spirit, but if we’re trying to speak pragmatically, art is what tells us how to function in society. It’s how we make sure we’re all aware of others’ needs and feelings.  Art is what builds harmony and identity: as a nation, as a group, as a corporation, whatever. Without it, things fall apart.
Q: Some parents may discourage their children from following a creative path, out of concern for financial stability (or at the very least, worry greatly about their children). How would you address those parents/their concerns?
People are willing to support experiences and ideas that moves them, whether that means buying expensive tickets to a performance, or kicking in $5 to a Gofundme campaign. There are so so so many different ways for creative people to make a living. In a future where artificial intelligence will slowly dominate all sectors of the economy, a creative and free-thinking mind will be the most valuable asset to have.
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Avery in beautiful, downtown Oakland, California

Just for fun…

Q: Can you recommend a wine (any alcohol/cocktail) and cheese (any drunk food) to us?
Ha! My partner and I drink a lot of old fashioneds at home. And stovetop popcorn, topped with whatever crazy things I can find in the spice rack.
Q: What do you do for self-care?
I have a special potion that my friend, herbalist Brunem Warshaw made for me. I take 5 drops in the morning and in the evening, and use that time to have a little moment to myself.

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