David Zweig, author of 'Invisibles.' Illustration by Nathan Gelgud, 2015.
You're in an airport, rolling your suitcase, carrying a heavy tote bag on your shoulder, moving at a brisk pace to your gate. You're following signs to get to your destination in time to board, but you're also wondering if you have time to grab a coffee or a newspaper, maybe stop at the bathroom, or even pick up one of those pre-made meals before getting on the plane.
Suddenly, you stop. Something feels off. You look around at the signs, and sure enough, none are pointing in the direction of your gate. You weren't paying attention, and you took a wrong turn.
But why did you stop, and how did you know that you were headed the wrong way? As David Zweig writes in his book Invisibles, it's because you received a subliminal message from the design of the airport terminal itself. The color-coding on the signs may have changed, or the font differed slightly. Shapes were different. Some little insignia that was on the signs before you made the wrong turn were no longer there. Someone was telling you, “Back up, you need to take a left over there.”
That unseen person, known as a wayfinder, holds one of many professions profiled in Invisibles. Jim Harding is the wayfinder we meet in the book, and Zweig details his work on the world's busiest airport, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson. Harding had to redesign all of the airport's signage and mapping in ways that were clear, efficient, and pleasant to look at. If he succeeded, no one would ever think of him.
Zweig's book is focused on the kind of jobs that go unnoticed, or more precisely, that go unnoticed as long as they're done well. Harding knows that a traveler at Atlanta's airport will really only think about wayfinding if he gets lost and loses his flight. Then, the traveler suddenly gets very interested in the design of the maps and signs and how terrible they are.
Invisibles is not only about the jobs—magazine fact checkers, piano tuners, cinematographers, United Nations interpreters—but about those who excel at them. These are people at the top of their field, highly educated, dedicated, and skilled, who could have gone into jobs that got them more acclaim and attention. Instead, they do difficult work behind the scenes. Zweig celebrates them as paragons of the virtue of doing good work and seeking fulfillment instead of attention. They don't guide the planes through the skies, but work almost in secret, guiding us through our lives.