I was really tickled to hear this conversation between Edward Tufte (the guru of infographics) and Flora Lichtman on NPR’s Science Friday. It’s always a treat to have my divergent interests validated by mass-media productions.

Tufte’s musings are about “seeing well”, or forgetting what we assume we know in order to observe what’s actually there. Whether or not it is possible to wipe the slate clean of assumptions and biases has been up for debate among theorists since the dawn of Postmodernism. Our brains’ ability to skip over details in order to understand information in a way that has made sense and kept us out of trouble in the past is an amazingly useful and time-saving tool. But like so many shortcuts, working off of past assumptions can lead us to conclusions that untrue or irrelevant. This is the case in both science and design.

Tufte’s approach speaks to the revelation that comes from concentrated mindfulness. What can we see differently when we really pay attention? Tufte is saying that at the heart of all good infographics, there is a convergence of art and science, a oneness of data and representative symbols.

Will aliens from another solar system would be able to understand the charts on Nate Silver’s blog as Tufte does? They might need a copy of Envisioning Information and a stack of old GOOD magazines to use as their Rosetta Stone. Literacy and common understanding of symbols are prerequisites for communication. I agree with Tufte on the part about trying to pay more attention and see “better”, but I’m not sure I believe that any of us will ever see completely “straight”.

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Experts inspecting the Rosetta Stone during the Second International Congress of Orientalists, 1874