Smashing Podcast Episode 57 With Marcin Wichary: What’s The Key To A Great Keyboard?
In this episode of the Smashing Podcast, we ask what’s the key to a great keyboard? Is this essential part of our daily toolkit easily overlooked? Vitaly Friedman talks to expert Marcin Wichary to find out.
- Marcin Wichary on Twitter
- Marcin on Mastodon
- Marcin’s website
- How Designers Should Ask For (And Receive) High-Quality Feedback written by Andy Budd
- Five Steps To Design Your Product With Powerful Storytelling written by Chiara Aliotta
- Putting Gears In Motion: Animating Cars With HTML And SVG written by Paul Scanlon
- A Step-By-Step Guide To Building Accessible Carousels written by Sonja Weckenmann
Vitaly Friedman: He’s a great designer, excellent writer, and wonderful engineer. Originally from Szczecin, Poland, he used to work as a design lead and a typographer at Medium. He was a fellow of Code for America and a UX designer at Google working with the Chrome search and homepage dual teams. He now works as a design manager and editor design lead at Figma in San Francisco. He studied at West Palm University in Szczecin, and completed his doctoral in human computer interaction in Eindhoven, Netherlands, and also in Amsterdam. Apparently, he speaks at least — well, that’s from what we know — six languages including Polish, Dutch, and a little bit of English. Now he is extremely obsessed with many things, but most notably link underlines, typesetting, fonts, and guess what? Typewriters.
Vitaly: So we know he’s a great designer with a keen eye for typography, but did you know that Marcin is a former Polish handball goalkeeper, and after hours he likes to force his friends to watch Sneakers, over and over and over and over again. It’s like Groundhog Day all over again. And he managed to put Pac-Man on Google’s homepage. My Smashing friends, please welcome Marcin Wichary. Hello Marcin. How are you doing today?
Marcin: I’m smashing, but the handball players… That was funny. There’s a guy whose name exactly like me, who’s a handball player.
Vitaly: Oh, I thought it’s you. Marcin, this could not be coincidence. He looks like you.
Marcin: Kind of looks like me. It’s funny because I’m sort of little sour because he has a Wikipedia entry and I don’t. But also there are these cool YouTube videos of people chanting his name like Marcin Wichary. And I sometimes play them and pretend that that’s me.
Vitaly: But I’m sure that there are wonderful listeners who are listening to this very recording right now… They’ll be more than inspired and excited to create a Wikipedia page for you, just need to tell us about your story, all the things that typically go in a Wikipedia page.
Marcin: When the Wikipedia learns about this collusion here. I don’t—
Vitaly: That’s okay. I think we’re all safe here. We have wonderful friendly people listening to us. Marcin, it’s such a pleasure to see you again. I mean we haven’t seen each other for.. a long time. You spoke at SmashingConfs a while back as well, and it’s such a pleasure. You never change, do you? You never change. One thing that really excites me about you is that you are really obsessed with things, but in a good way. I mean, not in a bad way, right? In good ways. And I’m wondering, maybe it’ll be a good start just for you to briefly share your story. Where did it come to be? Did you want to become a web designer when you were growing up?
Marcin: Oh, that’s a great question. I’ve heard this… So the answer is probably no, in as much as web design didn’t exist when I was growing up.
Vitaly: Exactly. Yeah.
Marcin: For kind of an aspiring little nerd, I got pretty lucky because my dad had this sort of dream job at the moment, which was repairing arcade games and pinball machines. And it’s fun because it’s obviously games, right? It’s nice to be able to go into the arcade and play for free in early nineties or mid-nineties. But it’s also fun because you can kind of open them up and see how they’re built. And that I think was what got me hooked into, “Oh, this fun was designed, made by somebody.” And you can look up all of the assets, you can open the pinball machine and poke your finger at things and—
Vitaly: Which is, of course, what you did.
Marcin: I did, yeah. I highly recommend it if you have a pinball machine next to you, ask them to open it up and show you. There’s so much under the play field. And that sort of led eventually to computers and kind of programming and I think as many people probably, I felt like I was just a bad programmer who got distracted by phones and colors and recreating UI elements.
Marcin: And eventually much later I learned this is actually something like what I’ve been doing. It’s called UX design or interaction design or whatever you want to call it. And that became kind of my thing, but not before I actually invested in a lot of becoming a programmer, because I thought that’s the closest to where I was. And so I backed into the… There’s the classic should designers code question, which we shouldn’t really talk about it because it’s unanswerable. But I kind of walk myself back into it by accident. I was a programmer first and I kind of became a designer with all of this programming baggage. Which actually ended up being kind of at least useful in my line of work.
Vitaly: But I mean one thing that’s really interests me most of the time is that I had a very similar story as well when I was growing up. Because I remember there was no thing, becoming a designer, you just do some web stuff and then you kind of webmaster in a way. And one thing that I noticed many of my friends who were moving into design and this web thing, they came from everywhere. They were doing all different things. Some of them were building glasses, the others would be architects, the others would be writers. And it was this incredible moment of almost a wave, a very strong wave of just people from all over the place coming in. And it felt like you are more… You are just becoming something new, something entirely new.
Vitaly: So it’s like you used to be that person, then you’re becoming a new person. Do you feel, and this is moment of transformation, at least this is how I experienced it, did you feel the same way? You’ve become somebody else over time or you just grew naturally into this role being interested in everything digital? And obviously we’ll talk about also some of the technology. Ancient or I would say… Not ancient maybe, but vintage technology. So I’m really wondering just what brought you to that specific place. You could be doing so many things, not just programming, not just design. There are all those things.
Marcin: It’s a great question and it’s something I’ve obviously been thinking a lot about, because it’s attention between two things. One is have having a plan. I want to become this person, I want to do those things. I want to invest in that. Which you can and probably should have to some extent. But I think more of my career has been reflection on what things meant to me, and what excited me, and what I gravitated to, and seeing what more I can do with that and how I can connect it to other things. Like to give you a specific example, I joined Medium back in the day because it just seemed like extraordinarily cool, and huge kind of focus on craft, a small team, a very beautiful but also meaningful product that kind of helped people write. Which felt important to me, always felt important to me. But in the process of it, I started writing more and more in a different way.
Marcin: And I think Medium was actually kind of important for me. You joked about me knowing six languages, which I only know two very well and a few poorly, but at that point in my life I still wasn’t really sure if I can write in English, because my original language is Polish. And Medium got me over that hump. It got me comfortable with English enough and then I started writing about this typewriter stuff and people started reacting to it and at some point I was like, I connected these three things. One was I’ve always wanted to write a book because my mom was a librarian and I thought books is the biggest thing you can do in your life. If you write a book, you paid your dues on this planet. And then I crossed some sort of a threshold where I could do it in English.
Marcin: I felt for the first time English is my language. And then I found a thing to write about, completely by accident. So I think for me it’s, I’ve never really felt there was an inflection point that I became a new person. But in hindsight I always kind of look at those connecting things and saying like, “Oh, should I invest more in typography because I seem to be really into fonts.” But I didn’t know I was. I don’t know. Maybe at some point pinballs are going to be back and I will be the pinball guy. I don’t know, that’s probably not going to happen. But that’s kind of often how I thought about it. Think a little bit about what you want to do, but also connect the things that you already have, at least worked for me.
Vitaly: Yeah. I mean one other thing that really interests me is that we all get super excited about technology. We all are almost possessed or obsessed I would say by this notion, “Oh, we can do things faster and we can do things better.” And what I learned is that although we try to make things faster and we try to make things better, the humanity is still incredibly busy. We used to think that technology is going to help us and we’re going to be doing less and we’re going to be just a little bit more relaxed in life. But it seems like we’re doing more and more and more with that technology.
Vitaly: But what I really like and what really gives me a little bit of fascination I guess, is that you are always looking back. You are almost obsessed with old technology. I mean, probably also with new technology, maybe I’m wrong here. But I’m wondering is something wrong with modern technology that you are almost spending most of your time with the old one?
Marcin: What isn’t? Yeah, I mean there’s always something wrong with technology. I think we go through these cycles where we get excited and then we reevaluate it. I think crypto just went through this phase. I mean honestly, as much as I think you and I both love the web, there are probably some moments where we’re like, “Oh, was this good for all of us, or did it create some challenges? But I don’t think Tim Berners-Lee is just universally happy with what came of web. But I think generally, I can’t say the old… I want to actually very specifically avoid, “They don’t make them like they used to,” kind of line of thinking because I don’t think it’s particularly helpful.
Marcin: I think for me a lot of it is about connecting the past into the future and remixing it. Literally this week at my work, I will probably use some things that I learned in my research for the book about the keyboards, because keyboards are still around and typography is the same. Typography kind of has all of these waves and existed for hundreds of years, and you can grab things from the past and you have to be careful, because nostalgia is incredibly powerful but not always useful. And you can see what still makes sense and what can you learn from the past, and what you can throw away, or what needs to be revisited. Because there’s a lot of baggage there. I don’t know how much… I was just thinking about this. Do you know Playdate, the little game machine with the crank?
Vitaly: Yeah. Yes, yes.
Marcin: They made it, I think last year. Shipped it exactly at the pandemic time, so it slowed them down. But it’s this beautiful little device. It’s a handheld device with games with a monochrome screen and this kind of strange user interface. But what I really like about it as a statement is that it tries to negotiate with nostalgia. It’s not just an emulator of an old game. It’s more sort of looking at a past and saying, “What of those things that we moved on from were actually interesting and better.” Maybe the limitations of a monochromatic screen with fat pixels is something interesting for creativity. Maybe a device that’s sort of small and dedicated to one thing, it’s great and we kind of lost it over the years. But I also say we want internet connectivity. We want a really nice metal device that feels great.
Marcin: It’s this figuring out how to recombine those things. And I think that’s ultimately very important to me. That was the same story with Underlines at Medium. It wasn’t that let’s be forever indebted to the gods of typography from 200 years ago, who designed a perfect underline. Because that’s really not that exciting. I mean it is from the craft perspective, but it was really interesting, like how do we make links that look beautiful, because then you want to link to more things. And linking to more things, it’s just a very, very powerful thing that you can do.
Vitaly: And a very unique thing that we can do. Interactive media as well, right?
Marcin: Yeah, and I was inspired by just people who write in a way… That’s what I miss sometimes of writing for “paper.” That you cannot link to things. Because that’s just like-
Vitaly: Well, we have footnotes.
Marcin: Yeah, yeah. But you cannot… Do you remember John Syracuse’s MacOS 10 reviews? They were on Ars Technica for many, many years. Every time a new MacOS 10 came out.
Vitaly: Yeah, I remember. Yeah, yeah.
Marcin: And he linked all over the place, and it was just genuinely inspiring how much it changed the way you could read actively.
Vitaly: Yeah, but do you think Marcin, I mean I kind of keep coming back to this actually, for the last couple of weeks. Somehow I remember vividly this notion of imperfection when I was growing up. So I assumed that we have a similar age and I remember viewing all these TV shows, and the conversations and the broken, semi-broken internet connection, and pretty bad phones and all these things. And it felt so human to me somehow. Like, “Oh, of course this thing is broken.” And that’s fine.
Marcin: And I feel like these moments of almost serendipity, I guess. I mean, I’m not trying to be nostalgic here just for the sake of being nostalgic, but I have this feeling that maybe we have too much of what we actually want these days, in terms of technology. So you can watch anything you want with the click on a button. There is this notion of, you don’t have to go anywhere. Everything is right here.
Marcin: But then I kind of liked this moment. I watched one of the silly nineties movies, and there was this moment where you would go to this VHS store and you would pick up the VHS tape and you would have an endless conversation with your friends about what are we going to watch, without actually watching a trailer of it. Kind of imagine what it’s going to be. And I feel like, “Oh wow.” I don’t have that experience anymore. We just pick something up based on IMDB score and call it a day.
Marcin: Yeah, I think we are figuring out what this sort of abundance of things means to us. I think there’s a parallel argument you could make, and I think some people made, that for example, Twitter with its sort of virality and outrage and all of that, is just an expression of, we were never meant to be connected to so many people so intimately. That’s just not how we’re wired. The Dunbar number exists for a reason, and I think hopefully we’ll figure it out. I don’t know.
Vitaly: I’m very optimistic about that. I’ve always been.
Marcin: Yeah. I think you can see even in the wake of Twitter news, people trying to think… Maybe the sort of small curated set of blogs that I follow is actually a little bit more human, like you say. Maybe the Google reader was right all along. And so hopefully we’ll adjust and figure out what is that sort of human moment on this scale of zero to everything.
Vitaly: But I also think the human technology, I want to see more of human technology. And I think that’s in some way the hub. Actually, this is a nice segue to your work. Like the Figma editor, where you see cursors coming in and moving around and doing things together. I always feel just a little bit of excitement when I see cursors moving in and people coming in, and a few more of us just play around, and they do these things and sometimes it’s broken and sometimes this isn’t kind of… I don’t know. Sticky note or whatever.
Marcin: It’s just falls over the cliff or anything. But I like this notion. It seems like this is really something that really connects me with people all over the world, just the cursors. Maybe you could actually speak a little bit more about what exactly you’re working on than the Figma context. I noticed you’re working on the core, the heart, the classic Figma editor, but specifically keyboard shortcuts, if I’m not mistaken.
Marcin: Yeah, I’ve become the keyboard person also at work because, for obvious reasons, I guess. I joined Figma almost five years ago, and originally I was one of the designers. I work on the first version of auto layout and a bunch of typography things, selection colors, which I think turned out well. And a lot of smaller things, because I think we hope that Figma is also a lot of smaller things done well, and a lot of big things done well and they coexist.
Marcin: These days I’m moved towards being a manager, so I’m basically trying to help other people who are more talented than me to make those things happen. They’re working on really, really impressive features that you know might have seen already or you will see later this year. It’s all in the… We call it the editor, the classic Figma. And as for the keyboard, yeah, it’s kind of funny how it’s haunting me in a way, because Figma is kind of the productivity app in a way. And in some ways it’s actually really old school, if you think about it.
Marcin: It’s in a modern context, it has multiplayer on the web, but it really has right-click menus and a bunch of the… And again, it’s a negotiation with nostalgia in a way. It’s like how much of this is good, how much of this we need to revisit every day? And the same with the keyboard, because keyboards are still the tool if you want to do a lot of things really quickly. It’s kind of miraculous how they were not built to be that tool originally, maybe. But it’s still probably the best connection between your brain and the outside world, is the keyboard. So we are constantly, “Where do we put these keyboard shortcuts?” And there’s so much history of keyboard shortcuts that you have to negotiate. “What do we do with this modifier key?” Which we constantly run off modifier keys. That’s like an ongoing joke.
Vitaly: Oh, that’s not surprising. Even just how many keyboard shortcuts you already have.
Marcin: And how many things. It’s like the classic Doug Engelbart thing. It’s just one of the most beautiful things happens when you have one hand on the mouse and one hand on the keyboard. If you watch somebody use Figma or other power tools really well, it’s incredible. And yet, it’s funny how Doug Engelbart tried to invent his own device for the left hand, or if you’re right-handed for the mouse, which was a key set, a special device.
Marcin: But we don’t have that. We use the keyboard with the other hand, and the keyboard is not really designed that well to do that, because of the combination of modifier keys and a mouse. So that’s always… It’s funny, my job is in a lot of ways, it’s the same sort of historical research as my book, except put in a very different context. Like Shift + A for auto layout. That’s a shortcut we invented, right? In a way for Figma. It didn’t exist, but we were just… First of all, we were lucky that it was free, because Alt + A is already art board, Command + A is already select all. And you could argue Shift + A is actually not the proper shortcut because shortcuts are not supposed to start with Shift, except we all started doing this a few years ago because we run out.
Vitaly: I would love to be in that meeting where you’re actually deciding, “Okay, so we need to find a new shortcut. So this is how we’re going to this.” I’m just curious, how do you even run that meeting? So let’s explore all the options we have, or it needs to be connected in some way or the other with what we’re trying to do here.
Marcin: Yeah, it’s funny. You don’t want to be… It’s hard. I’m just going to say it’s really, really hard, because there’s just so many limitations. And I think the really hard part about keyboard shortcuts or anything revolving around motor memory is that you can’t really negotiate it. Once a keyboard shortcut puts itself in your fingers, it’s really hard to get it out of it.
Marcin: There’s this great research I learned of a long time ago, probably a century ago, they had a person who learned how to touch type, and then he moved on to do other things with his life. I think at this point it was still possible not to touch a keyboard for years or decades. So he touch typed for a while on the typewriter, and then for 25 years he did nothing. He had a secretary who typed for him. And they put him in front of the typewriter like 25 years since he last wrote, and he just typed. It wasn’t as fast as 25 years, but it was sort of miraculous how quickly he got back into typing really, really well. And then they did it again 25 years later.
Vitaly: Oh, that’s quite the experiment right there.
Marcin: Yeah. There was a funny… They just found this person, and because things just installed themselves in the motor memory in sort of really beautiful ways, in a way. That’s how we can walk, that’s how we can chew gum, that’s how we can do all sorts of things. And that’s how we can type.
Marcin: For some of us, not to make it very dark, but at some point in our life, you might forget who you are, but you will still be able to type, because that’s a different part of our brain. So if you are used to Command + S to save, if you’re used to Command + A to select all, if you used to Command + B to make something bold, that’s non-negotiable, more or less. It’s really hard to take that shortcut away and put something else in its place. So it’s very easy to just keep adding shortcut, but it also is tricky because there’s only so many keys.
Vitaly: Yeah, because it’s wrong.
Marcin: …those slack conversations, and I have some guidelines internally to Figma, but it’s just really hard. Every time, it’s just a really long conversation where you feel like you cannot win, but you have to.
Vitaly: Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean obviously keyboards have been following you for a long time, and I even heard rumors that you are working on a book around that. Started writing back in 2016, if not mistaken. And it’s not just the book, from what I could tell. It’s almost an epic monumental opus about keyboards in three volumes, beautiful slip case, 1,300 photographs, 42 chapters, 520 full color photos, 37 Easter eggs, and four photos of keyboards using Comic Sans. Well, that must have taken quite some time. And you probably are a little bit… Maybe you wouldn’t mean that. A little bit obsessed with keyboards. So maybe you could tell us a bit more about how this all came to be and what should we be expecting in the book?
Marcin: Yeah, so it started, like I mentioned earlier, I was at Medium and I think Medium offices, they used to have rooms named after typewriters. Just because it’s a publishing company, it’s kind of a cute gimmick. But they also had typewriters in those rooms as decoration. And I didn’t care as much about keyboards before, but I started looking at those typewriters and they all had QWERTY, but they had interesting keys on the periphery and they all were a little bit different. And I started being curious about why. And you mentioned this sort of obsession. What was really interesting about keyboards for me is that the more I kept reading about them, the more there was. There’s this sort of fractal for anything, let’s say backspace. I start looking into backspace. It’s like, “Oh my God.” It’s a whole set of stories just around this one key.
Marcin: And I learned over the years that not everything’s as interesting, but a lot more things are more interesting than you think, in general. I think you get into this little… You develop this sense of, “Is this world digging deeper?” And it felt like this. And so I started writing some Medium posts, and then people had really nice reactions to them. I think I wrote one about the Turkish typewriter just because I somehow learned about it. And I got messages from people in Turkey saying, “Thank you. Nobody appreciates this thing that we have.” And then I wrote something else about I think typography and typewriters, because that’s increasingly connected. And at some point I had this moment where I’m like, “Wait, if I keep doing that, there’s just enough words for a book.” There was almost a numerical approach. I multiplied, I was like, “Oh, it’s a book length.”
Marcin: And of course the joke’s on me, because it ended up being much more than I expected. Took a lot more time. But I was talking to Craig Mod, who’s a really good author and just this wonderful creative person. And I think at some point he told me, “If you want to write a book, I think you have to pick a subject that comes back to you even if you don’t want it, because you will need a lot of energy. You will need a lot of help. You will need something that will carry you when you are in the darkest moment. And there will be dark moments.” And I thought, “Oh, the keyboard thing keeps coming back to me.” I keep looking at it, I keep researching it, I keep writing about it. And that ended up being very, very helpful.
Marcin: I think the rest of it is just like, yeah, I sort of approach it in this sort of semi obsessive way as I do, which maybe will one day lead to my demise or some sort, because this is a lot of stuff. But it ended up being this… You mentioned epic, and maybe it is, but I also very deliberately want to make it not… How do I say it. Nerdy in all the right ways, or intimidating, but in a good way that makes you want to read it. Because it’s a lot of stuff, but it’s also I think written, I hope, in a very approachable way. So you can just get lost in some stories of various keys or typewriters or modern mechanical keyboards. I can pick one chapter, you can read it front to back, but also there’s one thing I’m proud of.
Marcin: I think you mentioned 1300 photos. I think most of them are full color, and it’s also just… You can just look at the book. It’s actually funny. I learned this somehow also through giving talks at Smashing conference, other conferences, of how you tell stories that are textual and visual at the same time. There’s all the schools about what do you put in your slides, don’t read over slide, do this, don’t do that. And I think a lot of them are, do whatever works for you, honestly.
Marcin: I saw people read from slides and I was engrossed. I saw people that have no slides at all, and it was great. So you find your way. But I think the way I found was just this rich tapestry of visuals, sometimes showing exactly what I’m talking about, sometimes showing something that’s parallel, but I don’t even acknowledge it. And I think it’s actually the book in many ways was inspired by Hawaii and other people give talks. Where you have your left brain engage with this, your right brain engage with this, and I hope it actually kind of counterintuitively helps you read the book more. By adding photos it becomes less hard to go through, because there’s always something to carry you. Those photos are also very deliberately chosen, not just so they’re pretty, but they also partake in telling the story.
Vitaly: And so did you design the book then as well? Because it’s a really beautiful design too.
Marcin: Yeah, I did. There’s another part of the journey, and I think the explanation of why it took so long is that I originally thought I’m going to have it published, like many others do. And I actually thought, I don’t want to self-publish it because honestly, I thought that’s just for losers. It’s like for people who cannot get a contract or cannot get an agent. And I kind of went 180 over the first few years where I talked to many people and they said, “Self-publishing is actually really interesting, in a way that you can make this book feel exactly like what you want.” And there’s no shame in that anymore. I mean, there are bad self-published books, but there are also bad published. The whole thing became much more flatter and much more actually complicated. Kickstarter made it possible for people to just make the book how they wanted. I decided to do it that way. To do it on my own, and Kickstarter actually coming soon in February. So if that works out, I think it’s going to be-
Vitaly: Well, it looks a sense of beautiful. I mean, the moment I saw it, I had to swipe through all the pictures and zoom in and zoom out to see everything. So it’s really beautiful.
Marcin: Thank you.
Vitaly: I’m very, very excited to see it coming to fruition. That’s great. Well, actually, because in that research, working and working on that book and looking at all these keyboards, I really have to ask at this point, what was actually the most remarkable typewriter or keyboard? I think maybe keyboard would be more appropriate, that you have discovered. Like the most unusual thing that you have seen.
Marcin: So yeah, it’s a lot, right? It’s really hard to choose this. I actually am in the process of making this book. I amassed this collection of probably 150 strange keyboards in there. The emphasis being strange, because there’s a lot of strange stuff, and I love that. And a lot of it is in the book, photographed. But I think I’m actually going to go the other way, which is, so if you look at the history of keyboards, I nominated five keyboards as being the important keyboards. Sort of like the milestones. The first one is the first QWERTY typewriter. Then there’s the Underwood No. 5, which is the first hit. First typewriter hit. Sort of like the iPhone of its day. Then there’s this electric, which is a beautiful kind of electric typewriter with a font ball and just reinvention of the typewriter. Then there’s the Model M, no surprise here. The clicky keyboard from mid-eighties.
Marcin: And then there’s the iPhone. I think the iPhone just changed so much how we think about keyboards. And so these five keyboards have centerfold in the book, they’re treated very, very well. But I added one more, just personally. I added one more to that list, just something that really excited me. Selectric, which was this electric typewriter came out in, I think 1961, very early sixties. And they kept improving it. And in 1973, I think, they released correcting Selectric II. Which was like v3 of this Selectric. And I actually rented it, because I was interested in it. And it’s really interesting, because it’s still a typewriter. You plug it to the wall, there’s no electronics there at all, and yet it does… First of all, it feels amazing. There were people saying, “Oh, Selectric was the best typewriter or the best keyboard I ever typed on.” And I was just like, “Whatever.” You just happened to be a teenager at the time, and you just learned to love it, because we all love everything that happened when we were teenagers, right?
Vitaly: We also associate kind of our feelings, whatever we experienced at the time with the device, although it might be just a device.
Marcin: Yeah, it’s classic, right? I’m not going to deny it. And then blah, whatever, nostalgia. And then I talked to him, I was like, “Oh my God, this is actually a really nice feeling typewriter, right? It’s a typewriter keyboard that feels like a computer keyboard. Which is kind of remarkable, even making that happen. But it also has a lot of these things that you would think only computers could have. So it has a little buffer when you press two keys. It remembers the second one, so you can overlap your strokes. It has obviously the font ball where it can replace fonts easily and type. And it has a bunch of other things including, and this is what blew my mind, it has a functioning backspace. If you make a mistake, you can erase it from paper, which seems like something that shouldn’t be possible, because how do you erase it from paper, right?
Marcin: It’s on paper. You can cover it up. No, they actually did this really complicated. It was chemistry. They made this very complicated. It’s not even ink, I think film where it sticks to paper sort of not very eagerly, so you can remove it. And it had this whole little special backspace key. That’s why it’s called correcting Selectric, that if you do it quickly enough, you can remove it. And it’s pretty much gone from paper, especially if you type over it. It’s obviously a dead end. Soon after that, computers took over and keyboards went in a very different way. And with computers, you don’t have to worry about the backspace. It’s almost the opposite. Everything disappears if you’re not paying attention. So backspace is almost the easiest key to make. But this correcting Selectric tool was just… My mouth was open the whole time I was using those. Like, “How is this possible?”
Vitaly: Yeah, that is very exciting. I never thought about this being even possible or ever implemented. That’s unusual. Now, do you think that for your work you could be imagining actually typing on that kind of typewriter and then it’s kind of in some way plugged into your computer? Or will it be just a misuse of technology?
Marcin: No, no. That’s actually another beauty of the Selectric is that the way it was built internally, and if you open… It’s an incredibly complex device, right? It’s so dense. Basically back in the day, the maintenance of IBM Selectric typewriters was a career. They were both so popular and so complicated compared to regular typewriters that you could literally spend your entire life fixing them if you wanted, and many people did.
Marcin: But one of the other things that I didn’t even mention is that Selectric inside, because of how the keys have to be connected to the ball that rotates. By the way, if anybody’s listening, look up Selectric ball, slow motion on YouTube, and it’s just like that alone is a marvel of technology. But the way they connect it, it’s actually through binary code. So people realized very quickly they could repurpose this typewriter to be a terminal.
Marcin: Like back when display screens were incredibly expensive, a lot of people used Selectrics to interface with their computers, because you could type, you can read, it’s a command line effectively. And then even IBM realized this, and they released what they called Selectric IO, which was just a little bit more prepared computer terminal. So on top of everything that I said, it also became this interface. It’s sort of like missing link, not only typewriter keyboards to mechanical keyboards, but also just sort of between typewriters and computers in a way. It’s sort of an event diagram of the universe, Selectric served both sides. I always loved those sort of transitional products, right?
Vitaly: Yeah, that’s incredible. But I mean, I think you have very strong opinions also about the butterfly keyboard. Then we had on Mac for a while, the issues we had there. And I do have to ask, I really have to ask. So what kind of keyboard do you use for work? It can’t be a regular one, can it?
Marcin: Well, okay, I’m looking at it now. So obviously I care about keyboards, but I’m not nearly as obsessed as a lot of people about mechanical keyboards. People who put keyboards together, lube their switches. I’ve never went that far, but some of those people are in the book. Some of the stories. I have, let me see. And I think the way I talk about it can tell you what’s important to me. So I have a HEXgears Gemini. Which I had to look up, because I actually forgot. But it’s a TKL. So it doesn’t have a numpad, because I don’t use it. It’s a relatively modern keyboard. It has lights, but I don’t use those lights. What’s important to me is that I have this blank kick ups. Just, I don’t know, it makes me feel cool.
Marcin: But also in the shape of old terminal kick ups from the seventies. I think it’s called SA or SAP, for those who know the jargon. And that was important to me because it’s sort of partly what I learned in my research for the book. And I just like the shape, and it sort of feels, again, like a little bit from the past, little bit from the future kind of situation. I don’t know what switch… People are going to cancel me for this. I don’t remember what the switches are, but they’re custom switch. Well, not common, they’re not Cherry, they’re something, they’re yellow. I can tell you that. Maybe some of the listeners can chime in. I got them because they’re quieter. They’re linear and they’re quieter for Zoom, but I also like the way they feel. So it was partly functional and partly necessity.
Vitaly: Well, Marcin, this is way more specific of an answer than I was expecting, but that’s okay. But one thing that you haven’t answered yet, and that’s something I do have to ask as well, is you must have tried at work keyboard or keyboard layout. Or maybe by any chance you have a Turkish F keyboard, I don’t know, or any of the… I don’t even know how to pronounce them. JCUKEN and autopsy or anything of that kind, or are you just using a regular QWERTY one?
Marcin: So again, this might be disappointing for people. I just use QWERTY. I actually don’t touch type very well. Here’s the fun thing. I touch type better with my left hand than with my right hand. I just watched myself, I recorded myself, because I was curious. It just happened. I just happened to learn that way. And that’s kind of like a story of QWERTY. I have a Dvorak typewriter somewhere. I have a Turkish typewriter. I definitely type on a bunch of those layouts as research. Because it’s interesting, and it’s interesting to watch your fingers do all of these different motions. But I think the reason why I use QWERTY, is I think the reason a lot of people use QWERTY, which is it’s just kind of good enough.
Marcin: I was lucky that I never had any issues with my wrists or forearms or what some people call RSI, even though it’s not a proper term. And so I never needed to type a lot. I never needed to type very, very fast. And so I just stopped at some point learning, and I just typed the way I type. And I think that’s true for many people.
Vitaly: Yeah, of course.
Marcin: QWERTY may be disappointing to many people, because we sort of standardized on a really bad thing. But I would argue it’s not that bad, in a way. It was definitely intentional, that we know. It is universal, which we cannot… We have to respect that. The fact that I can use this QWERTY keyboard and type in Chinese or Japanese or many other layouts, even if you switch it to AZERTY or Turkish. It’s just the same physical layout. I think there’s something that actually help us to some extent. And if you care about Dvorak and it’s useful for you, or many of those more modern layouts, or if you have to, because your hands protest at QWERTY, like you can. That’s the beauty of the kind of computer keyboards from the eighties and onward, that you can switch it. You no longer have to… Dvorak had to put it in a typewriter and sell it, and it was just a huge endeavor. Dvorak the person. August Dvorak.
Marcin: And that was hard at that point, in the thirties. Try to convince the typewriter manufacturers to launch a whole new line of typewriters with your thing, even though you said you have scientific proof that it’s better. And I don’t think that’s actually true, but today everybody… And people do come up with their own layouts. I admire a lot of that. But I also think, for example, the kind of market failure of QWERTY has nothing… Sorry, of Dvorak. QWERTY didn’t fail at all. QWERTY keeps-
Vitaly: I think QWERTY is, from what I can tell, from what I’ve heard recently, it’s quite successful.
Marcin: Yeah, I mean, that’s kind of like the funny thing. You can grab the guy who puts together the first QWERTY, right? Christopher Latham Sholes. Almost exactly 150 years ago, they released the first typewriter with QWERTY, and you could put him in front of the modern computer and he would know what to do. It’s the same thing. It’s kind of like, you could see it as very disappointing, but it’s also kind of an interesting success story.
Marcin: But I think the failure of Dvorak, or at least the mass adoption of Dvorak and other layouts has really nothing to do with the layout itself. People like Dvorak didn’t really maybe want to care about, which is marketing or storytelling or thinking about transitions. Again, something like with Figma, how do you transition from one keyboard shortcut to the other one? It’s a huge endeavor, and it takes years. So imagine that 50 years after QWERTY was invented. That was already very, very hard. And I think those are the things that also matter, and not just the sort of scientific advantage that’s proved by math of a certain layout, which by the way, is also really, really hard to do, and I don’t think we know how to do that.
Vitaly: Yeah. That’s right. Well, as we are wrapping up here, I do have to ask one important question, of course. Now, today we’ve been learning a little bit about keyboards, and we’ll now know that even Marcin is using QWERTY, which is I think perfectly cool and all. But I’ve been wondering also, what have you been learning about lately, Marcin? What keeps you awake at night? Are there any particular topics where you are diving in, or maybe there is one particular keyboard that you’re dreaming about seeing or typing on one day? Do you have this magical thing that you desperately want to see or touch one day?
Marcin: That’s a great question. So to answer in order, I’m learning a lot of things still for the book. I was learning 3JS for the website. I’m learning a lot about printing and marketing now. Not sure that’s super interesting. The one thing that was hard about writing the book, and I think maybe every historian has that, is that there are the artifacts, right? I actually typed on the first QWERTY typewriter for a very brief moment, and it was really cool. It was kind of magical, particularly that it was just in a museum, and nobody told me it was that, I just realized it was that. It was a great discovery. I wish I had a time machine to talk about some of those people and their decisions. People who made the first typewriter, people who made the Underwood No. 5, people who worked on the Selectric, because it feels like there are no blog posts, there are no talks as much. There are some papers, not very many. There are some patterns, but they’re not very useful.
Marcin: I just want some of those people on Twitter talking about their process. I know that’s not going to happen, and I think part of my book is trying to pretend this could happen, tell their stories for them. But I really wish I could just chat over drinks or something with some of those people. And if you want to tell me something that’s completely… It turns out writing a book is just all consuming. It’s just takes over your life, whether you want it or not. So for those who are considering it, I would recommend it, but beware. But I’ve been really inspired. There’s this person on YouTube called Adam Neely, who I think is a professional musician, and it’s just a very different world. Obviously keyboards and music, yes. But I don’t look at it this.
Marcin: He’s this really good storyteller around this… It’s kind of what I think I would want to be for my domain, which is go nerdy on things in approachable ways, and tell those stories about like, why do musicians need in ear monitors, which I’d never really thought about. And it’s a lot about propagation sound and delays and exactly the kind of stuff you think of as a designer. Or what’s the difference between C Sharp and B. Which apparently there is, or just pop culture stuff. So it’s Adam Neely, it’s really, really well done. He’s a great storyteller. And I don’t know much about music, but I’m surprised how often… It’s like watching a TV show. Sometimes it goes over my head, but it’s like always…. You’re watching a pro tell a really good story, and it’s always entertaining.
Vitaly: Oh, that’s very cool. I would love to look that up. Because I didn’t know why artists actually bother to plug in something into the ear. They probably have a pretty good sound quality anyway. But now I know. Well, if you, dear listener would like to hear more from Marcin, you can find him on Twitter where he’s @ M W I C H A R Y, which is mwichary. Also on his homepage, Aresluna. I do have to ask you, Marcin, at this point, Aresluna, I couldn’t find the connection anywhere between you and Aresluna. What is the connection? Where is the missing link here?
Marcin: Oh, yeah. So it’s actually all connected to the things we talked about. How do I tell this story quickly? My favorite writer of all time is Stanisław Lem, the Polish writer who did a lot of sci-fi. And I think just inspired me to write myself, and inspired me to think of language in much more sort of creative and malleable and fun ways, because he had so much fun with language. And part of that was, so I’m reading this book and there’s this one… It’s a future sci-fi kind of thing. And one ship talks to the other ship, and they say, “Titan for Aresluna reporting to the star base or something.” And it’s not explain what it means. It’s just the word Aresluna. And so what Lem was doing was… Turned out to be word building. He didn’t explain something, but if you look at those words, it’s like Ares is Mars, Luna is Moon.
Marcin: So you can very quickly get, oh, they’re flying between the Mars and Moon so often that they just have shortcut, they have jargon for that. So in this one world, you can just establish this big part of story building. So I just kind of like that. I like the sound of it. And I also like that Mars is not like Moon at all. He also wrote about that, and it’s fun. I don’t know, it was just this fun juxtaposition and… I don’t know, it felt kind of important to me to acknowledge that. And if you haven’t read science of Lem, he’s amazing. You should do that.
Vitaly: Yeah. Well, fortunately you don’t have to go to Mars or to Moon in order to read about Marcin, and also read his upcoming book. You can also find all the fine details, obviously on Aresluna, which is aresluna.org. We’re also going to link to it in the notes, and you can also be notified about the book updates. And it is really, really beautiful and really incredible and highly recommended, and the title is unbelievable, shifthappens.site. Which I think is a really, really cool name for a book about keyboards. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Marcin. Do you have any parting words of wisdom for people who are going to listen to us maybe 20 years from now, wondering why were they talking about keyboards? “We don’t even have keyboards anymore. We just speak to computers now.”
Marcin: Oh yeah, we’ll have keyboards. There’ll still be QWERTY around.
Vitaly: So are you sure we’re going to have keyboards?
Vitaly: QWERTY keyboards? So will it be like, I don’t know, touch slash, trackpad slash, whatever keyboard?
Marcin: No, there will be more stuff, of course. There will be voice, there will be maybe some neural connections. But I think keyboards will be with us for a while, because they’re just really good at what they do. For better or worse, QWERTY will be with us for the same amount of time, I’m pretty sure.
Vitaly: So in other words, you’re saying that your book is probably going to stay up to date for the next 150 years.
Marcin: Hopefully as maybe historical artifact, maybe not. Yeah, it’s funny, I just realized that we never mentioned the title of the book, which is a marketing faux pas. Shift Happens. Yeah, buy my book or do it on Kickstarter. But I’m joking. I mean, you don’t have to. I would appreciate it. I think it’s a fun book. I don’t want to pitch it too hard, but think the “parting words of wisdom,” is this whole thing happened because I just looked at the everyday object that I thought is boring, and I found it wasn’t boring.
Marcin: It really was not boring at all. So I guess I’m curious for everybody who’s listening, are there other things in your life that are worth looking deeper into, and checking out, and sort of poking at and seeing what happens? Because I think the journey of the book, we didn’t even talk about how many really interesting people I got to learn from and to interview and to talk about. And people for whom keyboards mean so much more than they ever did or will for me. And so I think that will be my suggestion, if you go deep in something and see where it takes you.