Imc 2014


The Science of the Non-Alphabetical Keyboard Layout

A standard QWERTY keyboard


You have probably already wondered why the letters on a keyboard are all mixed up and why we also use a different order than our Dutch neighbors. Most people think that there is a very ingenious system at the basis for the arrangement of the letters, to which at first glance there is no rope to tie. Some even use the helveticaforever guide to customize their keyboards so they will be even more personalized.

Some people argue that the keys on the keyboard as we know it are so suitable to ensure that the strongest fingers strike the letters that are most commonly used. But why do you have to strike a commonly used letter like the vowel a with the left pink? so it’s not right! Moreover, the system for blind typing with two hands was only developed about fifty years ago.

The typewriter

The arrangement of the letters on the keyboard (at least the qwerty version) is the work of the man who invented the typewriter in the 19th century: Christopher Sholes. That first typewriter was a cumbersome colossus with heavy keystrokes.

Sholes initially put the letters in alphabetical order on the keyboard of his typewriter. However, when he started typing a letter, he got into trouble. Letters and letter combinations commonly used in English such as h and i were next to each other and the typewriter had difficulty with that. The hammers that were struck to print the letters on the paper via the ink ribbon collided with each other and became trapped if they were struck too quickly after each other.

To prevent the problem from occurring too often and threatening the success of his invention, Sholes moved the letters on his keyboard until he had virtually solved this problem. The result was the so-called qwerty layout, named after the first six letters of the top row.


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The French felt that the qwerty classification had not taken sufficient account of their specific use of letters. So they developed a variant, the so-called azerty format. Belgium also opted for the azerty keyboard.

The placement of the letters and symbols used to be no matter of ease of use but had a purely technical reason. Since the use of electronic typewriters and computers, this reason no longer plays a role, but out of habit, the old keyboard layouts have been used.


In 1935, a certain August Dvorak invented a layout that did take into account the ease of use: the Dvorak layout. Unlike qwerty or azerty, Dvorak was not developed for typewriters, but for keyboards that do not involve hammers.

With the Dvorak keyboard, the vowels are all located on the so-called ‘home row’ (this is the line with the keys where your fingers are ‘at rest’) and are therefore accessible without much effort. The number of words that can be formed with just the home row is much higher than with the usual keyboard layouts. About 70% of the words in English are typed on the ‘home row’.