How Visonic Dome Got Its Tailbone – A Look At 2 Vestigial Design Elements

vestigial design blog post
Just like humans and other animals, as products evolve they gain new features and ditch old ones. But if you look closely, you can spot the proof of previous versions. They linger like little tailbones in the new design.

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What the heck is a vestigiality?!

As we evolve, sometimes things that used to be useful stop being necessary.

But even though we aren’t using it anymore, doesn’t mean it automatically disappears. Sometimes it sort of… sticks around. And you’re sitting on a perfect example.

Your tailbone
(a.k.a. Coccyx)
is the last remnant of what was once – most definitely – a lovely, bushy, glorious tail.
Now, it is but a stub. Just a bit of bone near your butt with a funny name.

Your appendix, wisdom teeth, and even goosebumps are all examples of leftovers from revisions to the human design. And these leftovers are called vestigial features.

Vestigial design elements

Product designs have leftovers, too.

Just like humans and other animals, as our products evolve they gain new features and ditch old ones. But if you look closely, you can spot the proof of previous versions. They linger like little tailbones in the new design.

My favorite example is the ignition switch position in Porsche sports cars.

porsche vestigial design feature
As a spunky startup, Porsche put their ignition switch on the left to save money. These days, the luxury car brand doesn’t need to spare that expense. But it continues with this unusual design element for nostalgia and tradition.

The Porsche tailbone:

For those who don’t know, Porsche has this quirky design detail in all of their modern cars. They put their ignition switch on the left. You turn the key to start your car with your left hand.

Legend has it that this vestigial design feature comes from Porsche’s racing history.
The story goes that, in the early days of Le Mans, racers could save precious seconds at the start of the race by inserting the key with their left hand and putting the car into first gear with their right.

The truth, according to Klaus Bischoff from the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, is a little less exciting. But it’s equally interesting from a design perspective.

When wire was scarce in post-war Europe, Porsche opted to put their ignition switch on the left to save money.

Putting the switch on the left “saved a little bit of wire, a little bit of money,” Mr. Bischof said, “and maybe 200 grams.”

The Real Reason Porsche Ignitions Are Left of the Wheel – Wall Street Journal

These days, Porsche is the world’s biggest luxury car brand, worth over $29 billion in 2019. So it probably doesn’t need to save money on wiring anymore. But the unusual position of their ignition is a fun callback to earlier design necessities when they had to count their costs more carefully.

More skeuomorphs

There’s a special word for vestigial elements that are done on purpose in industrial design.
Designers call them “skeuomorphs.”

Skeuomorphs can be leftovers from previous design iterations that keep getting added back in, like the Porsche ignition position. Or they can be added to a brand new design on purpose. A designer might do that to help the user understand the function of their product.

Remember when Apple’s iBookstore showcased your eBook library on a digital shelf with faux wood-grain? Or the way that the virtual pages “curled” as you tapped through them?

Yeah, skeuomorphs.

Steve Jobs was famously in love with skeuomorphs. Up until his death in 2011, these design callbacks to physical media were all over Apple’s digital products.

Here are a few more examples you might recognize:

  • Button-operated phones arranged like rotary dials
  • Your computer “desktop” – complete with digital recycle bin
  • The front grill on an electric car
  • Plastic furniture with faux wood grain
  • The shutter sound effect on your digital camera

Visonic Dome tailbone:

visonic dome vestigial inner ridge design
The Visonic Dome was originally designed with the contact lens baskets attached to the inside of the top cover. See that ridge around the inner chamber? It used to house a silicone ring. Now it holds the baskets in place.

My dad’s ultrasonic contact lens cleaner has a couple interesting design leftovers, too.

In his original Visonic Dome from 1989, the baskets attached to the inside of the top cover. You didn’t remove the baskets from the chamber so much as you flipped them out of the center. Imagine them like butterfly wings, opening up flat to the left and right.

[Read more about the old basket design by clicking here.]

That design caused one shocking issue.

When you removed your contact lenses, they’d sometimes drip solution into the inside of the top cover. And when you closed the Dome back up, those drops of solution risked running down the back of the device – and into the AC/DC power jack.

At least, that was the concern raised by UL safety regulators.

So my dad designed a plastic hood that would prevent any liquid from reaching the power jack. Potential short-circuit averted. And the safety regulators were pleased.

Later, he ditched the “butterfly wing” baskets entirely in favor of the design we’re using today. Fully removable and independent of the top cover. But the Visonic Dome’s tailbone – the hood that protects the AC/DC jack – is still there. Just in case.

visonic dome vestigial design feature
Cute little black tailbone. Still protecting that AC/DC jack from solution that will most likely never spill. We’ll probably make it in white this time around – but we’re definitely still keeping it.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

If you scroll back up a bit, you can see one other vestigial design feature that made it into the current Visonic Dome. And I think it’s even cooler than the last one.

You see that indent that runs along the top of the yellow part? That’s where you place the baskets so they don’t shift around.

Funny thing is, it was part of the original design, too. But at the time, that indentation housed a silicone ring.

[Again, click here to see what that looked like if you haven’t already.]

Remember when I said that the baskets were attached to the inside of the top cover? And that they tended to drip when you opened them? In that original design, the silicone ring acted as a seal. When you closed the top cover, it rested on silicone.

But when my dad changed the design so that the baskets were independent and removable, the silicone ring wasn’t needed anymore. Instead of redesigning or removing the indent, he just made the top of the baskets fit right in the rim.

An elegant solution, right?

Anyway, I hope you liked looking at this example of design evolution with me. Good industrial design isn’t created over night. It evolves. It’s improved. My dad whittled away at his ultrasonic contact lens cleaner until it was the perfectly simple little dome that it is today. And I can’t wait to get it into your hands so you can see what I mean.

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