The Atlantic tries to show how genius happens

To the systems minded person, looking at how almost anything is done is at least as interesting as the final thing itself and when you already like the final thing — such as George Lois’s Esquire covers, say, or aerial photography of the Saudi desert — then so much the better.  In April last year, the Atlantic started its First Drafts column based on this premise and I’ve waited eight months or so to see how they would develop the idea.

In a sense, I am still waiting: the genius in a series like this is all in the curating and some of their choices are better than others.  They have, in fact, looked at the Esquire covers and desert photographs but I learned less from each than I’d hoped.  George Lois has what they call the gift of gab and he has been a legendary art director for decades so his behind the scenes look at the famous Warhol-in-a-soup-can cover is more social gossip — and, at this point, fairly familiar gossip — than the sort of technical description of how it was done that a generation raised on David Macaulay books might crave.

Likewise, to my mind the most intriguing thing about the aerial photography by George Steinmetz is that he flies around on what is basically a winged lawn chair — I saw someone on a similar device in Petra in 1996 and was transfixed by it — but that contraption is relegated to a link (The New Yorker has more on it) and instead the Atlantic tells us a lot about Google Earth.  Still, annotated maps are cool (the one above is taken from it) and suggest where the column might lead one day.

The best of the ‘first drafts’ get down to the nitty gritty: how Will Shortz edits clues for the New York Times crossword puzzle or why it was hard to build architecture after the Cuban revolution.  Somewhere in there lies the genius that made The Wire great television: the characters were compelling, yes, but much of the plotting was pretty standard; instead, it was the sense that you were getting a true glimpse into the watch-mechanism of the drug game that made it irresistible.

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