In the world of technology, almost nothing is constant. The mainframe gave way to the desktop, which stepped aside for the laptop, which has been superseded by the smartphone as our primary computing tool. Company-wide emails are now Slack channel alerts. Even USB Type-A, which has clung to relevance for a quarter of a century, is gradually being supplanted by USB-C.
In this context, the resilience of the 146-year-old QWERTY layout is remarkable. Not only did it survive the transition from typewriters to keyboards, but it’s also survived the decline of the physical keyboard itself, as we do more and more of our typing on touchscreens. Yet despite its success, for the past decade I’ve opted to use the Dvorak layout, an alternative to QWERTY that was invented in the 1930s, and one that’s supposed to be a faster way to type.
Spend enough time on the internet and you’re bound to hear Dvorak discussed, normally in response to the supposed shortcomings of QWERTY. You might hear stories that the QWERTY layout was intended specifically to slow down typists working on traditional typewriters, because their machines would jam if two adjacent letters were pressed in quick succession. Another popular myth claims that the layout was designed to allow someone to type the word “typewriter” on its upper row, although it stops short of explaining why.
There’s not enough evidence to conclusively prove any of these stories. In fact, the real reason likely has to do with the formation of a typewriter cartel in 1893, which caused its members to standardize the QWERTY layout for their models. But the common thread throughout each of these origin stories is the idea that the QWERTY layout was designed for reasons other than pure typing speed. The stories might not have been true, but that didn’t stop my curiosity about the alternatives, which is how I became a Dvorak user in 2009. Now, 10 years after making the switch, I’m fairly confident it made me a faster typist, but not for the reasons you might expect.
Dvorak is the QWERTY alternative with the design argument that made the most sense to me. You can dispute whether it’s due to design or sheer historical accident, but it’s hard to deny that QWERTY places all the most commonly used letters of the alphabet at opposite ends of the keyboard. Of the five vowels, for example, QWERTY only places one of them on the middle home row where a touch typist’s fingers are supposed to rest. The others are on the row above, where your fingers have to reach to get to them.
In contrast, Dvorak tries to place the most common letters directly on this home row. All of the vowels are here, mostly directly beneath the fingers of your left hand. Then, the remaining letters are arranged so that you type words with alternating strokes of your left and right hand. The aim is to maximize speed by sharing the workload equally between your fingers on both hands.
You can look at the most common words in the English language to see how this works in practice. Of the top 10 words, seven of them consist of letters found entirely on the home row, and of these, four of them can be written without moving any of your fingers away from the keys that they rest on. Longer words require more movement, but these short words that tie everything together can be typed with minimal effort.
By 2009, I’d read enough articles about Dvorak to convince myself to give it a serious shot. At the time I was still in high school, so I rarely had to type anything too lengthy in a short space of time. Helpfully, I also had the kinds of time on my hands that only teenagers have access to. I probably wouldn’t have bothered at basically any other point in my life, but at the time the opportunity cost was minimal.
Unlike QWERTY, which I learned through years of hunting and pecking during frantic instant messaging conversations, Dvorak only really works if you learn to touch type. This means you place your fingers along the so-called “home row” on your keyboard, and train each finger to reach the keys it needs to in relation to its resting position. Technically, yes, you could rearrange the keys on a compatible keyboard to visually show you the layout (thus removing the need for touch typing), but without learning the technique you’re not going to see much benefit from the layout’s design.
So instead, I downloaded a touch-typing trainer, changed my Windows XP machine’s keyboard layout in the software settings, and got to work learning to touch type.
Ten years later, I can remember little about the process beyond the fact it was a pain. Blog posts that would have taken me a couple of hours to write on a weekend took me an entire afternoon, and the speed of conversations across every messaging service slowed to a crawl. A decade earlier, I had taught my grandparents how to gradually learn to use a modern computer. In 2009, I got a sense for what that must have felt like for them.
But I persisted, and by the time I was faced by the daunting task of writing an essay a week at university, typing using Dvorak felt as natural as hunting and pecking had done at school, with the added benefit that I could now keep my eyes on a book or lecture while I took down notes.
Eventually, yes, it made me a faster typist, but not for the reasons that I hoped it would. Dvorak made me faster almost entirely because it forced me to learn to touch type. For years I’d tried to do the same using a QWERTY layout, but when my old hunt-and-peck method was so easy to revert to I’d inevitably give up on touch typing when I needed to write something quickly. Dvorak was different. It forced me to learn to type properly, and eventually I did.
But outside of the advantages of learning to touch type, switching to Dvorak has brought some other benefits along with it. For one thing, my laptop is now a lot more secure. You can watch me typing in my password, but the mismatch of key labels and layout will confound you. Even if you knew the password, you’d have to translate the key positions from QWERTY to Dvorak to type it in. Then, if I’m ever stupid enough to leave myself logged in, it becomes a lot harder to do anything with my machine for anyone who’s not me. Mouse clicking only gets you so far.
Dvorak isn’t perfect, mainly because most computer interfaces have been designed around a QWERTY interface since their inception. For example, while on a QWERTY keyboard the adjacent shortcuts for Cut, Copy, and Paste can all be pressed with a single hand, Dvorak turns most of them into a two-handed affair. You eventually get used to it, but you won’t be able to copy and paste with your left hand while your right hand is on the mouse.
Outside of these instances, I mostly forget that I’m even using a “non-standard” layout. Occasionally, Windows will default me back to QWERTY and I’ll type nonsense for a couple of words before I realize and switch my layout back. Unless someone else uses my keyboard, I rarely register that everyone else uses QWERTY.
Switching to Dvorak isn’t something I’d recommend to anyone who can already touch type using QWERTY. There’s no conclusive evidence that it’ll make you faster, and learning is a pretty painful process if you need to type with even the slightest sense of urgency.
But if you’re part of a generation of people that never really learned to touch type using QWERTY and you’ve always just “gotten by” with four or five of your ten fingers, then making the switch is a pretty good way of forcing yourself to learn to type properly. It’ll still be painful, but simply by virtue of learning to touch type you’ll almost certainly end up typing faster.
To finish, I’d just like to address the questions that literally everyone asks me about using Dvorak whenever it comes up in conversation. Firstly, yes, I can still type on a QWERTY keyboard if the need arises. No, I don’t switch the keycaps around on my keyboard to Dvorak, that would look terrible and besides, I touch type. No, my stupid $150 WhiteFox keyboard is unrelated to my stupid decision to use Dvorak.
Finally, no, I don’t use Dvorak on my phone. Mostly it’s because you don’t touch type on a screen, so the layout wouldn’t offer any real benefit, but also having the vowels all spaced out with the QWERTY layout is an advantage rather than a hindrance on a comparatively small screen.