From QWERTY to Colemak

It’s now been nearly 3 years since I made the switch from typing in QWERTY to typing in Colemak.

QWERTY is the layout that all keyboards today follow – from typewriters to PC’s and Mac’s, to your phone’s keyboard. It’s called QWERTY because the top row of letters starts with Q, W, E, R, T, Y, and so on.

Colemak, however, is an alternative keyboard layout that’s designed for typing efficiency. Here’s what it looks like:

Colemak Keyboard Layout

Efficiency, in this case, means the distance your fingers and hands have to travel. QWERTY wasn’t designed for efficiency because in the age of typewriters a key consideration was to avoid the machine jamming. QWERTY was developed principally with this in mind.

We’ve long since solved the particular quirks of typewriters, but mass adoption of these machines (and later PC’s, also with the QWERTY layout) has led to our present day situation – everyone typing on an old system because no machines are sold without the QWERTY layout. There’s simply too much invested in QWERTY for a mass change to happen.

Beginning with Dvorak in 1936, however, new keyboard layouts began to be developed. They’ve since become popular in small online communities, particularly among writers and software developers. I first learned about alternative keyboard layouts from Matt Mullenweg, a Dvorak enthusiast.

Here are the key efficiency differences (between QWERTY, Dvorak, Colemak, and others).

How I learned

The first thing I did was add the Colemak keyboard to my computer. On a Mac this is super easy:

How to change your keyboard layout

Here’s how to add Colemak to Windows.

Once I had the keyboard up and running, I initially spent 20-30 minutes a night going over the great free learn Colemak in 9 days program. I also saved the following handy keyboard layout graphic from that I had open, split screen when practicing.

Colemak keyboard layout

Perhaps I learned quicker than most, but I don’t remember struggling to get my speed up once I memorized the layout. It took me a month or so to get comfortable typing on Colemak without having to reference the graphic above, and another month to get my typing speed to 60+ wpm.

Resources I used

What I learned

  • Typing in Colemak feels much more comfortable to me than QWERTY (but n=1 so take this with a grain of salt).
  • I can type quite fast in Colemak – around 85 WPM. But…
  • It’s much harder for me to type in QWERTY now. A quick speed test only put me at 35 WPM.
  • This sucks when having to use other people’s computers.
  • The world runs on QWERTY, and likely always will. There will be small annoyances (like the one above) that you’ll have to deal with.

If I could go back, would I make the switch again? Probably. But the benefits for someone like me – a fast QWERTY touch typer already – are smaller than I thought they would be.

I’d recommend learning Colemak (or another alternative keyboard layout) if you’re genuinely interested in it, but I wouldn’t expect huge benefits unless you’re not a touch typer already.