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Handwriting, keyboards and the devaluation of typography

Image: H is for Home / cc by-nc

Something that has bugged me for a long time is the bluntness of our keyboards from a typographical point of view. I think the way keys are layed out might be a contributing factor to the lack of typographic quality in our everyday writing and online publishing. Solutions? Read on and see if you agree with me …

Going back in time

Prior to desktop publishing and computers most published books or magazines were typeset by craftsmen that had the necessary tools and skills to reproduce and publish a text to meet the highest standards of readability and typography. A lot of this had to do with the printer and typographers’ knowledge of language and typography. He or she knew that each character in a typeface meant different things just like different words means different things.

Typographers and printers had access to a very extensive character set with typesetting books and magazines. Typographers and printers had access to a very extensive character set when typesetting books and magazines. Image: Marcin Wichary / cc by

! » # $ % & ‘ ( ) * + , – . / 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 : ; < = > ? @ A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z [ \ ] ^ _ ` a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z { | } ~ ¡ ¢ £ ¤ ¥ ¦ § ¨ © ª « ¬ ® ¯ ° ± ² ³ ´ µ ¶ · ¸ ¹ º » ¼ ½ ¾ ¿ À Á Â Ã Ä Å Æ Ç È É Ê Ë Ì Í Î Ï Ð Ñ Ò Ó Ô Õ Ö × Ø Ù Ú Û Ü Ý Þ ß à á â ã ä å æ ç è é ê ë ì í î ï ð ñ ò ó ô õ ö ÷ ø ù ú û ü ý þ ÿ ı Ł ł Œ œ Š š Ÿ Ž ž ƒ ˆ ˇ ˘ ˙ ˚ ˛ ˜ ˝ – — ‘ ’ ‚ “ ” „ † ‡ • … ‰ ‹ › ⁄ € ™ − fi fl

Publishing back then was for mass producing information. It was not something anybody could do. It took time, was expensive and contained a lot of details that had to be carefully considered to be done right.

Image: Tom Garnett / cc by

The opposite of the slow and expensive publishing was handwriting. Handwriting was fast, cheap and in my view an extension of the human voice. We talked when our recipient was close, we wrote when far away. Since the purpose of the handwriting was to mimic the voice it didn’t require the extended charachter set, and in most cases it worked well with just A-Z and numerals.

! ( ) + , – . / 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 : ; < = > ? A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z [ \ ] a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

Those two; the typesetting and the handwriting were two things that could live together since they didn’t compete; one was for fast and informal communication, the other for permanent and formal communication.

The crossroad

If we look at the history of the typewriter we can see that the purpose of the invention was not to replace or democratize printing or mass publication. It was to replace handwriting at offices, formal correspondence and professional writing.

[he] hath by his great study and paines & expence invented and brought to perfection an artificial machine or method for impressing or transcribing of letters, one after another, as in writing, whereby all writing whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print; that the said machine or method may be of great use in settlements and public records, the impression being deeper and more lasting than any other writing, and not to be erased or counterfeited without manifest discovery. From Henry Mills 1714 patent of his typewriter-ish machine.

There were other patents filed for «typing devices» in 1808 and 1829 and 1852 but those didn’t gain any public interest. Around 1860 the typewriter similar to what we have today was introduced and gained popularity.

Those early typewriters had their keys layed out in a kind of alphabetical order.

3 5 7 9 N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
2 4 6 8 . A B C D E F G H I J K L M

As you see they only had A–Z and numerals on their keyboard. So that shows that their purpose was to replace handwriting.

They used type-bars that physically ‘hammered’ the letters onto the paper. The problem was that the most frequently used letters on those typewriters sat really close together which resulted in the type-bars jamming and getting stuck.

Around 1868 Christopher Latham Sholes introduced the qwerty keyboard layout to prevent the type-bars from jamming.

The first QWERTY keyboard by Sholes The first qwerty keyboard by Sholes. The idea was to rearrange the keys to minimize the jamming. Image: Wikipedia

Originally keys were laid out in alphabetical order which caused frequent jams of moving parts. Sholes rearranged the keys so that most frequently typed letters were spread apart to minimize the jamming. He obtained a patent for this keyboard layout which became known as qwerty and became us standard 101 keyboard. Qwerty and Dvorak keyboards compared

This was a huge improvement from a technical point of view, but that was all that it was, a solution to a technical problem. The qwerty layout made the typist slower and forced him or her to move the fingers in unnatural and awkward ways to type without jamming the type-bars. But it did not improve the typist situation at all.

In about 1878 the qwerty layout settled for what it is like today

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 – =
Q W E R T Y U I O P [ ] \
A S D F G H J K L ; ‘
Z X C V B N M , . /

In the 1930 the electric typewriter was invented and the most popular one was the ibm Selectrics that used a ball to type letters onto the paper.

Little did they know back then about the coming transformation of print and digital publication. Had they known they might have made some pretty different choices.

Image: Ira Bryant / cc by-nc-sa

With the invention of the type-ball and the electric typewriter we could see two things:

Firstly, since type-bars was out of the equations it was possible to rearrange the keys in any way that benefited the typist and in 1936 Dr. August Dvorak invented the dvorak layout.

The Dvorak keyboard layout

The Dvorak layout arranges the keys so that the most frequently used letters was evenly spread ‘under’ the typists strongest fingers. This was great for the typist since it increased typing speed and was much more pleasant to use. Unfortunately the Dvorak layout didn’t gain much momentum and the qwerty layout became the standard layout.

Secondly, The character set could also have been extended to better resemble the variety in characters that was used by the printers and the professional typewriters. But, just as the mechanical typewriter, the electric typewriter wasn’t meant to compete with printing, mass production or publishing in larger scale so I guess it was natural to just go with the existing layout of the mechanical typewriters.

The only extension of the character set was the permanent introduction of the shift key. It was used to add characters to the keyboard. We see alternate characters added to the numeral-keys; [ ] @ # $ % & * ( ) and an inch-mark (") being added to the foot-key (’) for example.

I haven’t found any information on why those characters were chosen in favor of any other that would, from a typographical point of view, be more valuable. But I guess that since the typewriters were used in offices, formal communication, agreements, financial documents and such those were the most needed characters.

Since the extended qwerty layout now had become standard it meant that people started using what was available on the typewriter to ‘typeset’ their text. Such as the inch-mark as quotation-marks even though it was typographically wrong.

The same thing happened with a lot of other typographically important characters like the em-dash (–) and the ellipsis (…) for example. Since they initially weren’t available, and later in computer keyboards, almost unreachable, they simply became forgotten.

The result for typography today

When the typewriter and the computer were introduced it was through a chain of inventions and patents that started out by replacing handwriting. Those did not compete with traditional printing and publishing, but in hindsight it was pretty obvious that the path of the typewriter would lead to the invention of mass duplication machines like the mimeograph or the photocopier. While good, it democratized mass communication and publishing and today anyone can, at almost no cost, publish their own books, blogs, magazines or anything that we can imagine.

The only thing that bugs me is that we still have pretty blunt typographic tools when doing so.

Surprisingly often I meet designers, editors and developers that spend a majority of their time working with text and copy that has very little or no knowledge of the language implications of the different characters they use.

I think the handwriting to typewriter to keyboard can be one of the causes of the lack of typographical understanding today.

So … what is there to do about it? Well, the qwerty keyboard won’t go away. There might be edge cases where remapping keys on a keyboard might provide a short term solution. But the only longterm solution I see is to build the typographic handling into our software. The introduction of the OpenType format in larger scale will give the public access to the variety of characters the professional typographer had back in the days. So we need to continue to push for open-type features in browsers and software and once that is done we will have come a long way. But we’ve not there yet so in the meantime I think it’s equally important to continue building workarounds like the OpenTypography php framework. Those workarounds will put pressure on the browser vendors and keep the discussion going, just like sifr and picture did for custom fonts and responsive images.

Andreas Sunday, 2 November, 2014    |    Agree or disagree? Please