Dvorak to Colemak Mod-DH: Learning my third keyboard layout

14 years ago I switched from QWERTY to Dvorak. I don’t regret ditching QWERTY, but most software isn’t designed for Dvorak. This is my journey learning Colemak.

By Squirrel Logic on Jan 13, 2021

This is my ongoing story learning how to type using the Colemak Mod-DH keyboard layout. It started 2020 December 22 with the most recent update on 2021 January 11. I will be updating this article as time goes on. Follow me on Twitter for updates to this and other articles.

This article covers why I initially used the Dvorak layout, the problems I had with it, what made my decide to switch to Colemak, and how that transition has been going.

I’ve been using Dvorak for 14 years

Dvorak keyboard layout

5 months before graduating from college I decided to learn Dvorak. (The exact date was on 2007 February 13. Yes, I keep a journal.) I was getting wrist pain from typing. Since I was beginning to pursue writing as a potential career, I felt the need to take ergonomics more seriously. The cheapest way for me to do that was through a more optimized new keyboard layout.

I was introduced to the Dvorak keyboard layout through a friend. There were other options at the time. The Colemak keyboard layout had only been out for a year, so it wasn’t widely adopted. On paper Colemak was certainly better than Dvorak, and since it kept several of the same key positions as QWERTY, the layout was appealing. But because there was limited OS support I decided to learn Dvorak to ensure I could continue to use that layout on any operating system.

I don’t recall Dvorak being that hard to learn. I didn’t switch cold turkey, I learned Dvorak until I felt proficient enough to switch . I was fluent in both Qwerty and Dvorak until I felt comfortable enough to switch to Dvorak full time.

What has been my experience after switching to Dvorak?

My wrist pain gone

Once I got to speed and could switch to Dvorak full-time I noticed that my wrist pain from typing stopped. I do attribute this to the keyboard layout. With Dvorak the fingers move only 63% of what is required by QWERTY.

My typing speed did not dramatically improve

I recall that aAfter a few months my typing sped went up by about 5 WPM from my QWERTY baseline, but I do not attribute the increased in typing speed to the Dvorak layout. I attribute it to relearning how to type, this time properly with better technique.

I was constantly switching between QWERTY and Dvorak while using design software

This is one of the drawbacks that I had not anticipated when making the switch to Dvorak.

I have a degree in graphic design, so I was using Adobe software daily. From experience, I can firmly say that the Dvorak layout is not compatible with Adobe design software. The Adobe software I used forced you to use letters for tool shortcuts. Dvorak puts punctuation on the left hand, which is used for most of these keyboard shortcuts. That means there are 4 keys (or 27% of the left half of the keyboard) that can not be reassigned to tool shortcuts. So my dream of reassigning all the keyboard shortcuts to their Dvorak equivalent was not possible.

For the past 14 years my solution has been to be in QWERTY mode when using graphics software, and switch to Dvorak when I need to enter text.

I switch to QWERTY to copy and paste with one hand on the keyboard

In Dvorak the C and V keys on the right side of the keyboard which is my mouse hand. If I want to copy and paste with one hand on the mouse I have to switch to QWERTY so I can paste with the other hand on the keyboard. I end up doing that a few times per day with text or files.

Leaving the keycaps on my keyboard in the QWERTY configuration creates shortcut confusion

This is something I have dealt with forever using Dvorak but have never really noticed until recently. So bear with me for a minute while I explain this phenomenon as it goes against how people think you should type.

I leave all my keycaps in the original QWERTY configuration. Mostly out of necessity since I use Microsoft ergonomic keyboards with certain keys that only fit into certain spots. When I learned Dvorak, I could not look down to type because everything was still labeled in QWERTY. I learned Dvorak entirely by feel. That is great for touch typing. However, the consequence of this is that I can’t really tell you where on the keyboard certain letters are in Dvorak. It’s all muscle memory.

This has some interesting implications when learning keyboard shortcuts. An example is the “Quick Open” shortcut in Visual Studio Code. The shortcut for it is Ctrl-P. To learn that shortcut I put my finger where I know “P” is, type it once to make sure I have the right key, and look down. It’s the R key on my QWERTY keyboard. From then on I don’t think “Press Ctrl-P for the Quick Open dialog” I think “Press Ctrl-R” because that’s the label on my keyboard. It’s weird. I should know where all the keys are by memory and should not have to look down, and I don’t, but that’s not how my brain remembers these shortcuts.

Dvorak can also be annoying with games to. I’m okay with reconfiguring the keys for every game. I often don’t like the defaults anyway, but when a tool tip says “Press ' to use” it’s a little hard to tell if that if that glyph is a comma, apostrophe, or backtick. I also don’t remember where it is on the keyboard. Because again, muscle memory, and since my hand is off the home row and into the WASD position, I have no muscle memory at all for those keys.

What I learned from my experience with Dvorak

Despite all the issues I had with Dvorak, it’s still way better than QWERTY. These little annoyances I’ve had over the decades of real-life every-day software use is worth not having wrist pain. Dvorak? Colemak? Workman? It doesn’t matter a whole lot, just don’t use QWERTY if you are going to type for a living. But there are some things I would do differently had I had known better.

  • For graphic designers Dvorak is not a good choice. Interfaces and keyboard shortcuts are simply designed around QWERTY, so it’s best to use a keyboard layout that keeps the punctuation and ZXCVQW keys in their QWERTY positions.
  • Reposition your keycaps to match your layout. Yes, you should be touch typing and not looking down at the keys, but when you learn keyboard shortcuts it’s good to have those keys labeled.
  • Sticking with QWERTY so that existing passwords are easier to type is no excuse not to switch. You should be using a password manager anyway.
  • It’s worth the additional setup to get Colemak working on unsupported operating systems. OS support for Dvorak was not as important as I thought it was. I think about the number number of times I’ve switched back and forth between QWERTY and Dvorak throughout the day. I think about the number of times I’ve had to delete and retype something because I was in the wrong keyboard layout. All those extra steps have added up to far far far more time than it would have taken to get Colemak working in Windows.

In short, my life probably would have been a little bit easier had I learned Colemak instead of Dvorak. Of course I couldn’t have known that 14 years ago. Given all that, I’ve still had little motivation to switch keyboard layouts. The benefits of Dvorak is still far greater than a few inconveniences with how software is designed. Regardless, how my computing life could be improved by switching to Colemak has been something I think about from time to time. But instead I simply got better at toggling between layouts.

Fast forward to December 2020

Wrist pain returns

I started getting some wrist pain after putting in 70-hour weeks for about a month. This was brought on through typing only. I had to wear wrist braces which were difficult to wear while typing on my Microsoft Sculpt keyboard.

I dug through some moving boxes and found my hardly-used Kinesis Freestyle Edge with tenting kit.

Freestyle Edge

It’s a pricey mechanical keyboard that I did not enjoy very much at the time when I first got it so I stopped using it. But when I had to wear wrist braces while working I was forced to start using the Freestyle Edge again. Once I got use to it, it’s not bad. It’s actually a very enjoyable keyboard.

Using a mechanical keyboard

I discovered that I actually really liked mechanical keyboards. I do appreciate how silent the chiclet keys are on the Microsoft Scuplt. But after typing on a mechanical keyboard for a couple weeks I found that chiclet keys create more physical impact on the fingers when you type.

On mechanical keys (in this case the Cherry MX Browns) I can register a keypress without bottoming out. There’s a bit of tactile feedback when the keypress registers long before you hit the bottom. With chiclet keys you have to bottom out. Not only does it take more force to register a keypress, but then you hit a soft wall that stops your finger. With mechanical keys I can essentially type of a cloud with enough air beneath me so I don’t hit the ground.

It takes some getting used to, but after typing on it for a while I do like mechanical keys more. If I needed to type quietly during a video recording of in an office with other people in the room I’d totally recommend the Microsoft Sculpt. But for pure typing pleasure, I’m happy with the Freestyle Edge.

Wanting more out of the Freestyle Edge

I decided that I do like mechanical keyboards due to how much softer they are to type on, but the Freestyle Edge had some issue. Most of it is related to the key layout. It’s very close to the Microsoft Sculpt, but there’s some things that make it harder to use for graphics software: the distance of the modifier keys compared to the Sculpt, function keys not lining up with the number keys, placement of delete key, and other minor issues.

But it was enough issues for me to realize how much I valued not having to lift my hands off the home row. The Freestyle Edge introduced me to the concept of layers so that I could have a virtual numpad on the keyboard, but it lacked strong visual cues as to what layer or layout you were in.

Ergodox

I was aware of the Ergodox for a while. Having to lift off the home row to hit keys is one reason why I’ve considered it. But I found the Ergodox a little too strange and flat for me at the time (also expensive). However, once I started to realize the value of having a keyboard where no keys are out of reach by having multiple layers, I started warming up to the idea. But the Ergodox wasn’t enticing enough.

Moonlander

I’ve been aware of the Moonlander by ZSA for a few months now. It has a similar configuration to the Ergodox, fully programmable, and has a programmable RGB LEDs so I can individually color-code keys for easy identification. It had enough bells and whistles for me to consider getting it.

Being able to use it as an opportunity to learn Colemak was a big factor in my decision. So I ordered a Moonlander. At $365 it’s certainly an investment and not a purchase I made lightly.

What problems the Moonlander solves

  • It’s more ergonomic than my Freestyle Edge. It has better tenting and a columnar layout. It’s no Kinesis Advantage2 in the ergonomics department, but the Moonlander has way more features for my tastes.
  • It’s small enough that I can always have my Colemak layout with me in my backpack. The carrying bag is something I’ll actually use.
  • I can use any alternative keyboard layout without ever having to configure Windows. It’s baked into the firmware.
  • The RGB keys will indicate what layer I’m on and where certain keys are located. This is the problem I had with programming my Freestyle Edge to add a virtual numpad. It was a little too hard to see what layer I was on and where the “numbpad” was.

The only problem that the Moonlander will bring is it’s learning curve and the fact that I’ll have to continue buying these $365 keyboards in the future. But considering that each switch is hot swappable,

Using the Moonlander as an opportunity to learn Colemak Mod-DH

Colemak Mod-DH Keyboard Layout

I decided to learn Colemak Mod-DH. It’s a slight modifications of the Colemak that improves the layout a bit.

I have read that the columnar layout of the Moonlander does mess with people’s muscle memory a bit. It’s almost like learning a new keyboard layout. And in some cases it is because there’s not enough keys for all the punctuation and symbols on a traditional keyboard. You are expected to use layers to access those symbols.

Instead of learning Colemak on a standard keyboard and then learning Colemak with reassigned symbols on a columnar layout later, I decided to only learn Colemak on the Moonlander. I wanted to learn new muscle memory only on the keyboard I would be typing on for years to come.

But I did bend that rule a little bit. I started learning Colemak-DH just before getting the Moonlander because I didn’t want to wait. For the first 17 days I decided not to train on any keys that were not on the center row. I didn’t want to learn these new key positions on an angled keyboard.

Colemak progress

Graph showing my progress learning the Colemak Mod-DH layout. It shows my accuracy, words per minute, and what level I am in the Colemak Academy learning tool. There’s noticeable drops in typing speed when I switch to a higher level. Additional takeaways for this graph are mentioned below.

This is a graph of my progress between December 22nd and January 10th. A few key points have been marked on the graph.

I’m training using Colemak Academy, which divides the learning process into 6 levels. Level 1 is the home row. Level 2 adds two new keys on the middle row. The rest of the levels add 4 new keys.

On January 8th I received my Moonlander. I started back on Level 1 (the home row) and was able to progress my speed to just above 30 WPM (words per minute).

January 9th I decided to experiment and try and type using all the letters including the ones I hadn’t learned yet. I was surprized at how quickly I was able to memorize the positions of the remaining 12 keys. Only 7 of the keys were unfamiliar to me. The remaining 5 were the same as QWERTY, so I knew their positions by heart.

January 10th I decided to go back to Level 1 and only proceed to the next set of characters until I can get 3 consecutive runs of 30 WPM or higher.

I think that 30 WPM is an acceptable typing speed for me to start using Colemak throughout my work day. I may change my mind later if I feel like I need to practice more.

What I’m noticing so far

As I remember going from QWERTY to Dvorak, I’ve been able to keep my muscle memory in both my onl layout and my new one.

When I go faster than I’m able to be accurate, my WPM drops due to corrections. “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.” It’s totally true here.

Colemak is very well designed. The placement of keys make it really easy to roll pairings of common letters. I’m already starting to get muscle memory for common letter combinations so I can type 2-4 letters at 60 WPM-like speeds.

I have noticed that at the beginning of my training for the day my performance is high, then dips. It only improves after several practice attempts.

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