Keyboard Layouts: We Don’t Do QWERTY

Posted by Glen Moyes on Friday, 1 October, 2010 at 3:35 am

During our “Finish the Hackberry Hollow Script by New Years” writing sprint we’ve been doing a lot of typing, and I mean a lot. We’ve talked about our process and some of the tools we use, but did you know that both Adam and myself don’t type using the QWERTY keyboard layout? We both use Dvorak.

I actually decided to shorten this blog post down, so I’ll skip the circumstances behind why and how I learned Dvorak. I’ll just say that it didn’t take long (2 weeks of 15 minute a day practice), and I never looked back at QWERTY ever again. Which also meant that I forgot how to type in QWERTY.

Dvorak for Writers

Is it worth it? Absolutely. I can type a lot longer without needing to take a break. Can I type faster? No, not really. My WPM peaked at about 10% more than it did with QWERTY, but I think that’s because I re-taught myself how to type properly when I learned Dvorak. But again, I can type longer without taking breaks, so yes, I do get more writing done faster.

If you want to become a writer, even a part-time one, I strongly recommend getting away from QWERTY.

With that out of the way, lets go over the dark side of using Dvorak. Now, let me preface this by saying that even though the bad section is longer than the good section, that doesn’t mean that there’s more wrong with Dvorak than there are things that are right about it. I’m just going to be more detailed with the things I’ve struggled with, especially as an artist.

Dvorak and Art Software

When we are done with the writing phase for Hackberry Hollow we’ll focus on the art again, which means that I’ll be in Photoshop and Blender a lot. So how does Dvorak work into this?

Unlike using a word processor, with art programs I actually have to constantly switch between Dvorak and QWERTY layouts. Why? Because the shortcut keys in these applications are optimized for QWERTY. Developers usually place the shortcuts on the left side of the keyboard, which is a wise choice. This is especially true for Blender.

Now, my keyboard is just your standard off-the-shelf QWERTY keyboard but remapped to Dvorak in software, I can’t look at my keyboard to see where the B key is. And no, I don’t really remember what QWERTY key was swapped for which Dvorak key; it’s all muscle memory and I have to feel it, not see it. And feeling for the key is a hassle because one of my hands are on the Cintiq drawing.

Couldn’t I just remap the shortcuts to the Dvorak equivalent so I don’t have to switch layouts? In Blender 2.5, yes I could if I put the time into it, but version 2.5 just barely came out and it’s still in beta. How about Photoshop? Grrr. No. In Dvorak the Q, W, and E keys are replaced by punctuation marks, and the tools in Photoshop must be mapped to letters, as defined by some arbitrary restriction in the software. So I’ve been stuck with swapping keyboard layouts quite often to do certain tasks: SHIFT-ALT-1 when I’m making graphics, and SHIFT-ALT-2 when I’m typing in text into boxes or naming layers. It sounds annoying, but it actually hasn’t been that bad, or rather I’ve gotten used to it. I will add though that Windows 7, for some reason, only recognizes those SHIFT-ALT-1/2 shortcuts to change the keyboard layout about 70% of the time it seems. Now that’s annoying.

What About Colemak?

This is actually the reason why I decided to bring up this topic in the first place; we just barely rediscovered Colemak this week. Colemak is another alternative keyboard layout that is fairly recent, in fact Adam learned Dvorak before Colemak even came out.

Dvorak has definitely been nice while working on Hackberry Hollow because of all the writing we’ve been doing, and Colemak does slightly outperform Dvorak. Okay, a little bit more than slightly. I ran this blog post through a layout analyzer and found that Dvorak had 41% less finger movement than QWERTY, where Colemak had 46% less finger movement. Comparing Colemak to Dvorak, Colemak has 8% less finger movement than Dvorak.

If you are curious about HTML code, I tested it with a template (no content). Dvorak 18% better than QWERTY, Colemak 23% better than QWERTY, Colemak 6% better than Dvorak.

So Colemak does haves a slightly better layout for sure. Some other benefits with Colemak is that the Z, X, and C keys are in the same spot, meaning that Undo, Copy and Paste will be the same when you switch to Colemak from QWERTY. Except for the semicolon, all the punctuation marks are in the same place as they are in QWERTY. Something that has always plagued me with Dvorak is fumbling around for the plus, equals and bracket keys. With Colemak I can actually look at the keyboard for them for a change.

The placement of the punctuation marks also means that I have the added benefit of being able to remap the shortcuts in Photoshop! So that would be very nice.

Are we interested in switching to Colemak? Slightly. In our discussion Adam said that he would have switched to it had he known about Colemak when he switched to Dvorak, but again, that switch happened before Colemak was released. There isn’t as big of a benefit from switching from Dvorak to Colemak, as there was with switching from QWERTY to Dvorak.

Will we switch from Dvorak to Colemak? Hmmm. There’s two things going against us. The first one is that Colemak was designed to be easier to switch to‚Ķthat is if you are switching from QWERTY, so a lot of good that does the two of us. It’ll be like learning Dvorak all over again. Also Colemak is not natively supported by Windows in the same way Dvorak is (of course that isn’t a problem for Adam who uses Linux).

But the big issue is that we are in the middle of a writing sprint and can’t afford the reduced typing speed as we switch over. I might after the writing sprint when I’m focusing on artwork and will be using Photoshop a lot, but Adam may wait because he’ll be coding.

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