Dvorak: ‘old’ is the new ‘new’

In an average working day, a typist’s hands might travel sixteen miles on a QWERTY keyboard.

If that typist were using a Dvorak, however, the same typist’s fingers would only travel a fraction of that distance.

Perhaps ‘Dvorak’ means nothing to you.

Perhaps you associate the name with a famous composer of classical music.

The ‘Dvorak’ I’m talking about is a keyboard layout, an alternative to the QWERTY layout with which almost every English-language computer user is familiar.

Are you sitting comfortably?

In the 1860s, a mechanical engineer named Christopher Scholes developed the QWERTY layout. His main objective was to ensure that successive typewriter keystrokes would alternate between sides of the keyboard, so as to avoid jams. ‘Jams?’ you ask. Yes, ‘jams’. His design was for a MANUAL TYPEWRITER, laid out so as to reduce collisions of the keyboard’s mechanical arms.

QWERTY was a design optimised for the machine, not for the human user.

When the electronic keyboard appeared, the QWERTY layout carried over, becoming today’s de facto standard as a result of simple inertia – all the typists of the time were accustomed to it.

In short, QWERTY should be sent to join the infamous Norwegian Blue: instead of resting on our desks pining for the fjords, it should be pushing up the daisies and singing along with the bleeding choir invisibule.

Big Words

75 years ago, in 1932, Dr. August Dvorak, an educational psychologist and Professor of Education, redesigned the keyboard layout to address the problems of (human) inefficiency and (human) fatigue which characterized the standard QWERTY layout.

25 years ago, in 1982, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) designated the DVORAK layout as an alternate standard (X3.207:1991). The ANSI standard differs slightly from the “Classic” Dvorak.

The net effect of all this intensive design work is a highly-optimised ergonomic design – just waiting to be used. All major operating systems have it built-in, waiting patiently for you to enable it.

Ah, yes, ‘ergonomic’. A much-misused word. My dictionary says this of ‘ergonomics’:

“The applied science of equipment design, as for the workplace, intended to maximize productivity by reducing operator fatigue and discomfort. Also called biotechnology, human engineering, human factors engineering.”

Microsoft markets a device it proudly boasts as being an ‘ergonomic keyboard’. Don’t be fooled: this is just our old friend, the QWERTY keyboard, with a few curves in it. This fancy over-priced widget undoubtedly does confer some benefits. It also has some features that are certainly NOT good ergonomically, such as the ‘wrist rest’.

If you’ve never heard of DVORAK and suffer from Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) (which includes ‘Carpal Tunnel Syndrome‘) I would imagine that it might come as a surprise to you to find out that a design that could minimise – or eliminate – these symptoms has been available for three-quarters of a century.

Tests have shown that the QWERTY layout is no better as a text input tool for the English language than any other random key layout. In contrast, the DVORAK layout is specifically designed for the electronic keyboard; as a result, increased typing speeds are easy to achieve with very little effort.

So why are we still using this anachronism, when a better solution exists?

“There’s no call for it, guv.”

The DVORAK layout is relatively unknown (have you heard of it?). And as it’s not the standard that most people use (i.e., QWERTY), there’s little demand for it. As a result, few manufacturers make them (and don’t make a great many); and as they’re not made in the billions, the few that are made are relatively expensive.

A ‘true’ dvorak keyboard would have curved surfaces matching the curvature of the fingers of the hand. But there’s a ‘simplified dvorak’ layout that’s just a flat keyboard… and it’s a fairly simple matter, using a screwdriver, to prise the keycaps off a standard keyboard and rearrange them into this layout.

Now, some would say that this isn’t a good idea, and if your aim is to become a touch-typist, they’d be right: you shouldn’t have to look at the keys. But most people I know are ‘hunt-and-peck’ typists; they look at the keyboard when they’re typing. I’m one. My fingers generally ‘know’ where most keys are, but I’ve got into the bad habit of looking at the keyboard while I type.

If I were to take the time to learn to touch-type then my speed would increase. But if I’m going to retrain my fingers in this way, I might as well do it on a DVORAK layout – and end up being able to touch-type up to 20% faster (than I could using QWERTY) as a result.

Even if I’m not interested in learning how to touch-type, I can still reduce the strain on my fingers and wrists – and speed up my typing – by switching to the Dvorak layout. Since I’m a hunt-and-peck typist anyway, I need a keyboard that has the keys arranged according to the DVORAK layout, because otherwise I’m going to get mightily confused when I’m peering at the keys.

But I can’t buy a proper Dvorak keyboard cheaply, because nobody makes inexpensive ones.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

And what about those who are new to computers – especially children?

New computer users, of whatever age, are all currently introduced to – and taught to use – the same old QWERTY, perpetuating the problem. Since computers are new to them anyway – why on earth not teach DVORAK?

All youngsters today are, from the beginning, still using the same old keyboard, from an ever-earlier age – don’t we owe it to them to provide a tool that will minimise the risk of health problems in later life?

We’re not offered the choice when we buy a computer. Thus QWERTY (not to mention MS-Windows itself) becomes the standard ‘chosen by millions’.

If we’re not even aware that there is a choice – how can we choose?

About pendantry

Phlyarologist (part-time) and pendant. Campaigner for action against anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and injustice in all its forms. Humanist, atheist, notoftenpist. Wannabe poet, writer and astronaut.
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3 Responses to Dvorak: ‘old’ is the new ‘new’

  1. Chatty says:

    RSI Again; Colin says ‘no more’
    He threw his QWERTY on the floor
    He’ll turn into a right anorak
    Rightly promoting THE DVORAK :)


  2. Lo says:

    My RSI is mouse-related and I touch-type, so I’m not sure how much I’d be improved by it, but do like the idea. xxLo


  3. Pingback: Adventures with a dumbphone, Part Four | Wibble

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