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Switch to Colemak for the sheer unholy joy of it

Or, “The questionable merits of alternative keyboard layouts explained with dog gifs”.

There is no compelling reason to switch your keyboard layout from Qwerty if that's what you use and you feel okay about it.

Switching makes it harder for you to type on any computer that is not your own, it requires an unproductive re-learning phase, and it turns you into the type of person who talks about Colemak at parties; who writes blog posts about keyboard layouts; who hopes to garner nerd cred by bucking the mainstream; who begins to think of other computer users as Qwerty muggles.

Switching to Colemak may turn you into someone who puts hideous stickers on their keyboard like my ones:

Apple wireless keyboard modified with comic book -style key stickers using the Colemak layout.
The Colemak layout presented in what — to some — is a less than tasteful style. Stickers from Keyshorts.

There are sixteen quintillion things you could learn that would be more rewarding than a new keyboard layout, and — speaking as someone who now uses Colemak full-time and finds it more comfortable but of no life-changing benefit — you should probably spend your time learning something entirely different instead.

So that's it, then? Stick to Qwerty? Exit stage left.

The itch that must be scratched

Had someone given me the same honest caution before I started my journey through the dark lands of Colemak, Dvorak, Minimak, Asset, Norman, Workman[1] and stenography[2], I may be a different person today: A person who speaks fluent Klingon, or a person who plays the kazoo to a level surpassing the comic and the irritating.

But there was no-one to say that to me. No spoilsport to say, there is little compelling evidence outside of mere anecdote that switching keyboard layout is worth it — why don't you do something useful with your time?

And I am here to tell you that I am glad of it. I am grateful that no-one turned me away from a hobby that became a hideous time suck with few practical benefits. I feel richer for having explored these alternative input systems and ideas; for spelunking through computing history, dabbling with a bit of everything I found, and for coming to appreciate that so many of the defaults we take for granted were not decided by anything approaching a scientific or democratic process. There was little hypothesising or voting — there is often only accident, happenstance, and madness: bad decisions made through path dependence compounded by a lack of any strong force to contest them. It is helpful to remind yourself that successes are not always due to something being better, and failures not always because a thing is worse.

If the idea of going through that same journey holds the slightest interest, you may find joy in dabbling with keyboard layouts too, and this article is for you.

But don't switch for the (questionable) speed increase or the (doubtful) nerd cred or to separate yourself from those backwater Qwerty folk.

Switch for the sheer unholy joy of trying something different.

Switch for the pleasure and the pain of being a beginner again.

Switch for the chance to correct your terrible typing habits.

Switch because keyboard layouts can be interesting, they are part of computing history and its immediate future, and they sit on that fascinating boundary between human and machine.

Although very few arguments will sway those who remain certain at this point that playing with your keyboard layout is anything but a mad folly deserving of indoorsy types and the socially bankrupt, there are some things that may pull you in if you're on the fence.

The argument from feel via irritating dog gifs

It's hard to pitch feel as a benefit for switching keyboard layout, but let me try anyway.

Typing with Colemak to me feels like this:

An animated gif showing a beautiful dog with its ears gently billowed by the wind as it rides in a car.

There is progress here, but it is calm and measured.

Typing with Qwerty feels more like this to me now:

An animated gif showing a perhaps less beautiful dog with its head out of a car window and its jowls being buffeted violently by the wind.

There's a flurry of activity with a rhythm to it, but it's not dignified.

The argument from plain laziness

If you type Qwerty in English and hate needless work, it should grate at you that another keyboard layout exists that's been optimised for reduced hand movement; one that places the most frequent English letters under your fingers on the home row without affecting common keyboard shortcuts or punctuation. One that you can use for free without buying new hardware.

When you read about these optimisations they sound nice — they sound like how it should have been in the first place. And so, even though you can foresee that switching layout will be a pain, once you know that other people have sought to improve the keyboard you use for twenty-eight hours a day by juggling the letters around after some amateur statistical analysis, it can be hard to resist the urge to look into what they came up with, and then try it out hoping that your inevitable increased productivity and attractiveness will make up for having avoided real work.

The point of the dog gifs is that alternative layouts may not make you faster if you're already proficient with Qwerty, but they will often make your fingers work less for the same output:

A keyboard heatmap showing the Qwerty layout, where keypress frequency for English text is left-hand dominant and away from the home row.
Qwerty heatmap, generated with Patrick Wied’s keyboard tool.
A keyboard heatmap showing the Colemak layout, where keypress frequency for English text is focussed on the home row.
Colemak heatmap, generated with Patrick Wied’s keyboard tool.

These are keyboard heatmaps, or representations of the most-commonly pressed keys when typing the same passage of sample text, where red (the E key) denotes highest frequency. Qwerty alternatives like Dvorak and Colemak cluster common keys around the home row, so your fingers move less if you learn to touch type.

“Move my fingers less” might not top your life goals right now, and nor should it unless you are typing almost constantly, which only goes to show that attempting to present compelling reasons for you to mess with your keyboard layout is madness.

The argument from unfortunate historical accident

If you're a rational person, it should drive you mad that you use Qwerty not because it had the most thought and research, but because of historical accident.

Qwerty keys were not placed as a result of ergonomic considerations. Take the R key, for example. Colemak puts this on the home row. But in Qwerty it was moved to the top row. Why? To make it easier to peck out TYPEWRITER on a single row in sales demos by Remington reps[3]. By accepting Qwerty, you are stuck in demo mode forever.

More compelling, for me, was the discovery that Qwerty's creator, Christopher Latham Sholes, spent his life after Qwerty designing alternative layouts to try to improve on the mess he had made[4]. Layouts like this one:

An old typewriter showing one of Sholes' patented keyboard layouts supposed to improve on Qwerty.
U.S. Patent 568,630 for a “Type Writing Machine” (retrieved from Google Patents).

I like to think he recognised too late the monster he had released into the world, and in a funny way I feel we owe it to him now to use something else.

What layout to choose?

It depends on what you do, what language you write in, and what your reasons for trying to switch are. Spend no more than an hour reading about some of the options and then pick one that appeals to you. You'll find notes below about how to learn a new layout without going insane.

After trying different layouts — and a three-month diversion into stenography with custom hardware that ended only in a renewed respect for stenographers — I settled on Colemak.

Why Colemak?

One benefit of Colemak is that letters for common shortcut combinations such as C and V remain in the same place[5]. Another is that Colemak is installed on Linux and Mac by default, so unless you work with Windows you should be able to switch to Colemak on any machine without installing new software. (On iOS and Android, Colemak's creator suggests you stick with Qwerty, which is what I've done, although Colemak layouts are available via keyboard apps.)

On speed and learning time

Before Colemak, I touch-typed Qwerty but I wasn't that fast, hovering around 50 words per minute. I blame this on a collection of broken and misshapen fingers that look more like a bundle of organic carrots than hands — one of the reasons I wanted to try a layout that requires moving them less — as well as a list of bad typing habits I never made time to correct.

Switching a layout is not fun at first. Slack and other live messaging was hard for about two weeks, but I surpassed my (unimpressive) Qwerty speed within three months, hover between 70-90 words per minute now, and seem to be getting quicker.

Graph showing speed increase from 15 to 80 words per minute using the Key Hero dot com service.
Typing speed (words per minute) on Colemak as measured by Key Hero after around six months of use. Others have picked it up much faster.

Of course, this is largely just because I've been practising typing in a way I never did with Qwerty, but I'm happy enough with Colemak for its feel that I don't want to go back yet. Switching to Qwerty now slows me down somewhat, but its rare for me to use a computer that's not my own.

How to switch

The Colemak website is full of tools to learn Colemak, citing time to match Qwerty speed from one to eight months, but it can be hard to pick your own learning path without a lot of reading.

In case you don't care to choose your own typing adventure, here is a plan you can follow and some free sites I used to get to ~50wpm in one month, which is quick enough not to drive your friends and coworkers insane while they wait for your responses in Slack or IRC.

To switch your layout

See the guides for your OS on the Colemak setup page.

To learn the layout

  1. Print one of the Colemak layout images to keep close by, such as this one (click to enlarge):

    Colemak layout
    The Colemak layout on a US-style keyboard.
  2. Try Keyzen's Colemak layout teacher, which will only let you move on to other keys once you make no mistakes with the current one you're learning.

  3. Alternate this with while you're learning the layout, being sure to change the layout settings to Colemak. This also uses an active learning system where you can't move on until you know the current keys.

Once you have the keys down — and it will take an hour or so a day for a week or more — move on to practising full words and sentences:

To practise

I recommend two sites:

  • I like Key Hero for its clean interface and gentle encouragement.

  • TypeRacer is fun for its live competitive element.

General tips

To make Colemak adoption a success, I recommend that you:

  • Abandon any notion that Colemak will make you faster, happier, or more attractive.
  • Treat it as a hobby and challenge at first, and see if it develops into a permanent feature of your setup from there.
  • Try not to look at your keyboard as you type. I added sticker overlays only because:
    • It's a helpful indicator when standing or using your keyboard in any position that is not conducive to touch typing.
    • It's a signal to other people who may try to use the laptop that this is not a normal keyboard and typing on it will give odd results.
    • It really annoys designers, fans of minimalism, and anyone with good taste. A graphic designer friend I showed the stickered keyboard to told me they wanted to beat me to death with it. Having spent much of my working life appeasing designers by recreating their mockups with coded hacks and spells uttered to the dark side of the blood moon, the notion that someone might find my keyboard so ugly they'd use it as a murder weapon gives me a warm fuzzy feeling. I am not big on revenge, so making the world slightly uglier on purpose will have to do.

Life with Colemak

Colemak didn’t change my life, but I feel more comfortable typing with it than I did with Qwerty.

It might not be worth the time investment for most but — if nothing else — for me it’s been fun.

Atta boy! Now you’re fighting for the joy of it. For the sheer fuckin’ unholy delight of it!

— Mad Sweeney, American Gods

  1. Alternative keyboard layouts on ↩︎

  2. The Open Stenography Project is the best place to learn about stenography and try it out. ↩︎

  3. From page 159 of Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology by Robert Pool ↩︎

  4. From an account of Qwerty's history by Smithsonian Magazine. ↩︎

  5. Some believe this to be a downside, as the cut, copy, and paste keys are not placed ergonomically. Reducing the amount of new things to relearn proved compelling for me nevertheless. ↩︎

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Filed in: Hardware

Nick Cernis

About the author

Nick Cernis is a software developer writing about code, web culture, and surviving the internet age. Contact him here or learn more.