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Learn Colemak Now

erwald profile image Erich Grunewald ・3 min read

Ridding myself of the torturous pit of sadness that is QWERTY is the kindest thing I did to myself since starting out in this career, certainly the kindest thing I did to my fingers, poor fellows. Here's me telling you why.

Technology, like everything else that is part of culture, is driven by evolutionary processes. QWERTY is the result of an evolutionary process. Like the useless skeletal hind limbs of snakes and whales, it is a maladaptation. It evolved for typewriters, with common key combinations spaced widely apart to slow down typing and prevent jamming, and in the 1890s it was indeed the best layout on the market.1 But then, as the whales slid into the seas, so did QWERTY slide into the domain of computers.

QWERTY has some serious problems2:

  1. It does not place the most commonly typed keys on the home row (that's the ASDF row on QWERTY), where common keys ought to be placed to minimise finger movement.
  2. The 6th most common letter in English, N, is placed on the lower row, which is the hardest to reach.
  3. Some common digraphs (two-letter sequences) are placed so that they often need to be typed with the same finger, e.g. ED/DE and OL/LO.
  4. Ring fingers and pinkies need to do more work than they should.
  5. Ideally, each successive character should be typed by a different hand. QWERTY makes this harder.

Now look down. Look at your keyboard. Rest your fingers on the home row. Look at the keys. Does the most common letter in English, E, belong up on the top row? Whom did J bribe to get that prime spot? What about K getting a better place than I, the second most common letter? You and I both know that this is not the best humankind can come up with. And yet billions of people type on these keyboards many hours each day. Allow yourself to be struck by that.

When setting out to make the argument against QWERTY, you quickly realise that you're arguing against no one. What you're really arguing against is inertia. So let me repeat: QWERTY was designed for conditions totally different from those we find ourselves in today. Today, it is worse than sub-optimal.

At this point you may be thinking, Fine, I agree, QWERTY is pretty bad. But what is one to do? Switch to Dvorak? Ahaha.

The luckless Dvorak layout, of course, was developed by August of that name in the 1930s, and though it was – and is – by nearly all accounts vastly superior to QWERTY, nevertheless it has failed.3 Why? People have argued over this. Maybe it was because of conformity bias, iow people preferring to learn whatever is widely used. Maybe it was the lock-in effect: that it is difficult to learn a new layout and standardisation means you'll find QWERTY keyboards everywhere and Dvorak keyboards nowhere. Maybe it's some combination of these and other reasons. The reasons in aggregate are not really important here. What is important is: what can one do about it? Switch to Dvorak?

No: switch to Colemak. Dvorak improves on QWERTY but still suffers from some problems, one of which is learning curve. For instance, Z, X, C and V are moved such that Cmd-Z (or Ctrl on Windows), Cmd-X, Cmd-C and Cmd-V need to be relearned or remapped. Also, punctuation marks are moved.

Colemak, which was created in 2006, improves on that by retaining WAZXCV in their QWERTY positions. Colemak also has fewer same-finger digraphs, involves heavier use of home-row keys and involves slightly less finger travelling than Dvorak. (That's for English, but I find that the same applies for the other European languages I use.) Most importantly, perhaps, Colemak is more similar to QWERTY than is Dvorak, which makes it easier to learn. It was surprisingly (and literally) painless for me to make the switch from QWERTY to Colemak – it took about one or two weeks of having the printed-out Colemak layout next to my keyboard before I was able to touch-type again.

If we were ever given a clear sense of the loss involved in doing something slightly sub-optimally over vast periods of time, we would tremble and rue those lost riches. Because it is a disadvantage spread out over such an extended time frame, it is invisible to us. But the farseeing typist sees beyond and rises above; they smile, because they see new rewards in prospect. Learn Colemak now.

  1. David Piepgrass. Why QWERTY, and What's Better? http://www.geocities.ws/Qwertie256/misc/why-qwerty.pdf 

  2. ibid. 

  3. ibid. 


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