On switching to Colemak

As a congenital geek, I have spent most of my life typing in one way or another. In fact my ability to type led to me getting a fairly well-paid holiday job in my teenage years working as a paralegal/typist at various London law firms. I have never properly learnt to touch type but as a result of the above I had developed a pretty quick, cack-handed, 8-finger style of typing with which I could max out at about 130 words per minute.


Perhaps for these combined reasons, I had never really thought to question the QWERTY keyboard layout. Thus the first I really heard of alternative layouts, I think, was an interview with Matt Mullenweg (the founder of Automattic, the company where I now work). Matt was introduced, among other things, as a “Dvorak user”. My curiosity piqued, I immediately Googled the term to find out what “Dvorak” was. I was fairly surprised by what I found. For the uninitiated, “Dvorak” is, in this instance, an alternative keyboard layout devised by Dr. August Dvorak in the 1930s. He spent years developing the layout while studying typing habits and testing lots of different possible ways of reorganising the keys.

Previously unbeknownst to me, and perhaps you, the QWERTY layout is incredibly inefficient. It originates from problems with the first typewriters whereby the typebars could easily jam if the user typed two neighbouring letters in quick succession. This prototypal snag was solved fairly early on in the development of typewriters but due to commercial reasons, including the fact that hundreds of thousands of people had already grown accustomed to the QWERTY layout, it became the industry-standard.

This is pretty bad in the grand scheme of things. Typing on QWERTY involves a lot of awkward finger stretching and very poor utilisation of the “home row” of keys (ASDFGHJKL). If you’ve learnt to type properly, you’ll be aware of the concept of keeping your fingers hovering over this row with your two index fingers on the notched F and J keys.

You may think that a bit of awkward finger stretching isn’t that big of a deal, but the problem is a lot worse than you might imagine. One of Dr. Dvorak’s studies compared two typists performing the same task. With Dvorak’s layout, the typist’s fingers travelled about 1 mile per day, with QWERTY the same task caused the typist’s fingers to travel about 20 miles per day. This difference exemplifies a genuine health concern – QWERTY is more likely to cause repetitive strain injury (RSI).

Since then various folk, including Dr. Dvorak, have tried largely in vain to convince the zombiefied public to use more efficient keyboard layouts with arguably limited success. People like Matt are fairly rare with Dvorak having an estimated global usage of less than 0.1%. In fact Dvorak himself pretty much gave up. “I’m tired of trying to do something worthwhile for the human race,” he is alleged to have said, “they simply don’t want to change!”

Anyway, I’m a sucker for anything that professes to make my life easier/better etc. I love new apps and things that can improve my workflow. Automattic is fairly unusual in that it boasts almost 7% Dvorak usage across the 225 employees working here. Matt is a pretty good Dvorak evangelist!

So, if you’ve read this far you might be wondering what the hell Colemak is, given that it is in the title of this post. Well, Colemak is one of the more recent developments in the world of keyboard layouts. It was released in January 2006 and gets its name partially from its founder, Shai Coleman, while stealing the last two letters of Dvorak. Standing on the shoulders of giants like Dvorak, Coleman felt that Dvorak was a little out of date. As good as it is, Dvorak was developed almost 80 years ago, some time before the first modern computer was built. Thus Coleman devised Colemak. It is a much less extreme reorganisation of the traditional QWERTY layout with only 17 differences. It retains the main shortcut keys such as C and V so copy and paste commands remain the same. However, it also comprises most of the benefits of Dvorak and is actually slightly more efficient.

I found out about Colemak from another fellow Automattician, Ian Stewart. I read a few of his blog posts about it and having had the privilege of being able to discuss with Matt and Ian, Dvorak and Colemak respectively, I decided to give Colemak a try. (Along the way I discovered that there’s a bit of tension between the Dvorak and Colemak cadres at Automattic so I may have limited my career prospects by not going with Matt’s preferred layout, but Colemak just seemed so appealing!) So mid-October 2013, I went cold turkey and switched my keyboard layout (Macs have native support for Colemak). I’ll be honest, the first few days were absolute hell. It was like forgetting how to talk and having to gradually learn from scratch. Typing a quick email became a daunting undertaking. Fortunately there are a fantastic series of lessons and exercises available in the form of an app called MasterKey. I worked through these in my downtime as often as I could and I soon found myself being able to get through sentences without as much agony as before. I had a print-out of the Colemak layout just beneath my monitor but other than that I completely touch-typed which is the recommended way of doing it.

Within a very short space of time, I could completely understand the benefits of Colemak. Once you get into typing complete words in the MasterKey tutorials you can clearly see the benefits of it and how little your fingers and hands have to move in order to type. Now, just under three months on, I haven’t quite got up to my previous speed but I’m definitely on my way and I’m really enjoying using a far more efficient layout.

So, as a New Year’s resolution, why not give it a try?

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