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The GRACE Plotter Pt. 1 – Da Vinci, Saint-Exupéry and the old Irish distillery

By 3 February 2021February 1st, 2024Data visualization

Flying machines, Leonardo da Vinci style

Three simple rules to build our tools

As we mentioned in our previous post Fish, tools and investment, we like to build tools to make our life better. If you’ve not read it yet, we recommend you start with it first. Of course, fishing nets date way back to the Neolithic period, and are a little bit out of fashion, but the philosophy remains very much unchanged in the 21st century. Today, the tools we build at Stellar are computer programs or interactive websites to visualize data. So, how do we design them? What are our rules? Let’s give you three of them. First, we strive to make our tools highly functional. We want to perform a lot of complex tasks with only a few movements. Just as if we were in high altitude with little oxygen to spare.  We want to compress time and effort, and get the maximum done systematically. Second, we spend a lot of trials and errors to make our tools simple and intuitive: we think brain power (which is available in finite quantity), should be used to do scientific work, instead of being used (and confused) on which button to press, which menu to search, or worse, wrapping your head around the 100-pages user manual… Does this sound familiar? A user manual really should not be needed if your tool is well-built. We want something simple, ergonomic, and easy to use. Third, we try to build designs with beautiful aesthetics, so we can use our tools extensively every single day and never get tired of them. Beauty sweetens the daily life, and stimulates the creative parts of the brain. Make it a life goal to surround yourself with beauty every single day. (Work with Stellar!)

Our special boiling machine for data-visualization tools

The (triple-distilled) spirit of it

For someone who is not regularly involved in design process (either industrial or artistic), it is very hard to imagine the amount of work, care and trials required to come to a finished product that has the three previous characteristics. If it looks simple, then people think it was simple. But no, it’s actually quite the opposite. It is extremely difficult to do something simple. The natural tendency is to build one thing on top of another, and to stretch it to the limit where only one more brick will make it crumble. If you don’t do any cleanup regularly, if you don’t review your design at every step, you will invariably end up with a monster with countless tentacles and an horrendous face. If it’s a computer program, it means endless duplicated code and bugs. If it’s a car engine, it means you may have to dismantle the whole motor for a small repair because the part you need to access is located below everything else. Have you not seen this before? The short-sighted vision can only bring you so far before a predictable catastrophe. No. You have to refine the process endlessly. Remove all unnecessary features. Ask yourself if each feature can be done more elegantly. Simplify. Select. Review. Refine. It’s like a distillation process. Imagine the sight of a 400 hundred-year-old distillery, and the copper stills, standing magnificently in the room. They stand here with a purpose. If you like a good whiskey (or a good gin), it is better if it is triple-distilled. Take the oldest distillery in Ireland, for example. It dates back to 1608. That is 400 hundred years of mastery in extracting essentials. There’s a reason for the title of « Master Distiller ». Only when it’s been distilled with mastery can we enjoy all the aromas, fragrances, taste and flavours… And so it goes with a good software.

Triple-distilled spirit, and years of mastery (of course we’re not encouraging you to drink!)

The wisdom from Leonardo da Vinci and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Leonardo Da Vinci was an inventor, a painter, a writer, a musician, a philosopher, a scientist and an engineer. A visionary in his own right. Saint-Exupéry was a writer, a poet, a pioneer and an aviator. They lived 400 years apart, and yet they deliver the same message. They teach us the same lesson with the same eloquence. Leonardo da Vinci said: « Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication ». And Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said: « Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away ». Isn’t it the same message in essence? What was it that these two visionaries both saw, which others didn’t, and which made them come to the same conclusion? They preach simplicity, and they also remind us of the effort it takes to keep things simple. History is a long string of repetitions. Why don’t we use their wisdom for ourselves and incorporate their findings into our philosophy? Into our software design? When geniuses speak, you should listen. So we listen carefully, and we take a good drop of inspiration from them.

Flying machine, Saint-Exupéry style

Implementing the vision

The lessons of Da Vinci and Saint-Exupéry give you the spirit behind our work. Like mathematics are the distilled essence of how physics works, the simplest skeleton of nature, expressed with the fewest words (symbols), if you distill our work to the core, you will come to the contents of this article. We like beauty, we like simplicity. If you work with us, we’re going to pour both of them all over you. Of course there is a lot of labor in the implementation, a lot of earthly obstacles to overcome, a lot of human limitations, a lot of imperfections, trials and tribulations in the materialization of the vision (understand: a whole lot of computer bugs), but we are aiming in that direction. That’s our compass. So, in the next article, we’ll introduce you to an incarnation of our vision, a tool for which we hope you will use and enjoy, the GRACE Plotter.