The initial goal with the blog was to model what Hodinkee has done with watches. Hodinkee doesn’t write hit pieces ever. Instead, their philosophy for pushing the watch industry forward is by celebrating the best parts of it.
It’s easier for Hodinkee to focus on celebrating greatness because the watch world is rich with great product, but I don’t have that same luxury with keyboards. That’s cuz keyboard design kinda sucks right now.
In the last few months, I’ve seen the same design tropes repeated to the point of being stale. The 2-part case with seam is ever-present. Deviations from that case style are limited to throwbacks to vintage keyboards, repackaged OTD features (the Koala curve has been particularly hot as of late) and/or variations of a side profile recess.
It’s not that the community only wants simpler designs, either. We’ve actually been supportive of wackier designs. Gray Studio’s SPACE65 keyboard comes to mind as one that received positive feedback in its Interest Check phase and is now doing decently in group buy. Also, an ‘out there’ design from TGR, Quantrik, LZ or (insert literally any other popular designer) will sell well regardless of how it looks. Designers just need to make the leap and actually expand the frontiers of keyboard design.
In addition to case aesthetics, improvements to performance design have also stagnated. Top-mounted, 1.5mm, 8-holed brass plates (a 2016 innovation) are great, sure, but do we know for sure that they’re the best if we have not been experimenting? And if we can’t even improve on the major stuff like plate mounting, there is little hope that we perfect smaller details like the number of mounting points, the position of mounting points, the PCB-to-base distance, case thickness or weight implementations. Heck, the Tokyo60 couldn’t even get keycap-to-bezel spacing right and that should be a given.
My grievances with keyboard design go beyond the case. PCB programming is a defining feature of custom keyboards, yet it is mostly a shitshow. QMK is the best thing we’ve got for programming PCBs, and I much prefer it over the competition, but it still lacks the polish and ease-of-use of a truly great product.
I can’t help but compare the state of keyboards to the other hobbies I’m interested in. In high-end clothing, fountain pens and watches, designers take every detail into account. For example, the attention to detail in making clothes is staggering. Construction wise, the drape, fit, fabric, stitching, etc are all rationalized and designed. Performance wise, there has always been a heavy emphasis on flattering the body and maximizing mobility. This obsession with design is a far cry from the mere 20 hours on Autodesk Fusion 360 that some designers put into a project. (EDIT: ‘some designers’ and not ‘designers’)
This slowing down of improvement has had and will have serious consequences on the health of the hobby. Because of the lack of both depth and variety in design, some of the most passionate of collectors have moved on to other hobbies. Furthermore, we are just not attracting new members like we used to. I (very irrationally) love this hobby we have here, and the last thing I want is to see it shrink.
So, what can we do?
Expect more prototyping. It’s no surprise that the most successful keyboard designers have been the ones who prototyped the most. Notably, yuktsi of TGR fame went through 9 prototypes for his TGR Alice keyboard before settling on a final design. The extended prototyping phase helped yuktsi nail down the measurements, surface finish and typing feel of the Alice, so much so that many people consider it THE keyboard of 2018.
Yes, repeated prototyping is prohibitively expensive for many independent designers. However, I (and many others) would gladly pay more for a keyboard if I know that a keyboard has gone through multiple iterations before going to market. Not to mention the fact that many designers make serious bank from group buy and B-stocks.
Expect innovation. To push the hobby forward, we not only need creativity from our designers, but also selectivity from us as consumers to support projects that actually matter. With every new interest check, ask yourself: ‘What is this keyboard bringing to the table that doesn’t exist already?’ It could be a new feature, different implementations of an existing feature, or similar features at a much lower price.
Seek inspiration from outside the hobby. For too long (10 years!) have we stuck to the design language established by OTD keyboards. Instead of looking within the hobby for inspiration, keyboard designers should look outward. There is so much out there to draw from in product design, architecture and visual arts that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the two-part case with seam.
From architecture, we can call upon International Style, Brutalism, high-tech architecture, or even the avant-garde for new ideas on case shapes and construction. From product design, we can look to the Bauhaus and Braun for creative color usage and positioning. By tapping into existing fields of design, we not only inject fresh ideas into the hobby but also draw new people into the fold.
Keyboard design and innovation has slowed down recently, but I believe we can and should do better.