Tools, insights, and technologies for long-now design.

Deconstructing the Keyboard

Guest blog post by Zak Brazen, Creative Strategist of Brazenworks, a design and ingenuity lab we invited to create a branded object for our new studio. What we got was a work of art!

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The truth is, we take computer keyboards for granted. They’re too familiar; like the picture of that dolphin that’s hung in your bathroom for years. In fact, we often view them as an impediment to our productivity or creative expression.

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And as we quickly (read: awkwardly?) move toward hands-free interfaces, a la Google Glass, let’s take a minute to look at the humble keyboard with fresh eyes. These little interfaces are actually a fairly elegant way to tickle the soul of transistors and microprocessors. The keyboard, with all of its limitations, is our way into the matrix; it’s how we float up into the cloud and has helped to produce Harry Potter, Facebook, your final report, Google, the love letter to your significant other, the Human Genome Project, this blog post, and a few other quintillion things.

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Like the pencil and mouse trap, keyboards have changed little over time – in part because good design is lasting design, in part because of technological constraints. Regardless, the concept and layout of the computer keyboard owes its origin to the inventor of the first typewriter. Depending on how you read history, you might attribute this feat to Henry Mill (1714), Pelligrino Turri (1808), or William Austin Burt (1829). Over the years, keys like “Task Pane” and “Spell” have gone away. And we’re happy about that (although this project made me want to have the “Shopping” key back). We’ve either streamlined and stacked key functionality or made certain keys superfluous. These changes ultimately reveal our evolving relationship to computing, technology and manufacturing itself.

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Today, technology is allowing for the first significant changes in human computer interaction in half a century. Next generation keyboards may be not be keyboards at all. We will probably lose the physical interface altogether. But, progress is made by standing upon the shoulders of giants, and for now, it’s still the keys that make the immaterial possible. So, in a world that increasingly venerates the immaterial, Brazenworks and Cooper deliberately chose to honor the physical object (because in the end, it will be keyboards that make keyboards obsolete).

As a branded object, the sign is poetic - it’s made of classic interfaces for a company that helped lay the groundwork for the field of interaction design. Alan Cooper, a pioneer and legendary programmer, spent countless hours a day strapped down to the keyboard (listening to Ween) writing code and building an interaction design firm when there weren’t too many on the block. And Alan’s Design Classic, The Inmates are Running the Asylum, owes it’s life to those grubby little keys as well.

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Speaking of which, as we popped and pried our keys with screwdrivers and pliers, the underbelly of our boards were revealed. In a word: disgusting. You people gross me out. Seriously (in a report by ABC news, keyboards were found to contain five times more germs than a toilet seat). Underneath the hood, these boards reveal a lot about us; our eating habits, diets (read: penchant for muffins), hair color, the kind of pets we own, the nail biters, and the dust bunny collectors. Our typing patterns, as told by the wear and tear of specific keys, tell us about the emails we write, how much time we spend at the computer, as well as a physical record of our keystroke logging.

Assembled en mass, it’s interesting that the keys form an undulating topography reminiscent of a complex city scape. Layered in time and space, this miniature world, just like the real world, was built by multiple hands.

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Facts about our sign:
• 8′ in diameter
• Roughly 18,000 keys from 200 keyboards
• Keys plucked from 15 different keyboards designs
• 5 main keyboard manufacturers (Compaq, Dell, Microsoft, hp and Gateway)

If you made it this far, let us know what you think about the sign, and tell us:

What is your relationship to your keyboard?

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done with your keyboard? The most important thing? What do you think the keyboard of the future will look like?

Thanks to Sue and Alan Cooper, Kendra Shimmell, Teresa Brazen, Vivian, Rachel, Kyle, Abby, and all of the Cooperistas that contributed to the sign’s realization!!

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