Colemak is an alternate keyboard layout. Colemak evangelists—and other assorted annoying people with an interest in ergonomics1—assert that this way of organizing keys reduces finger movement and improves comfort. There’s also a general expectation that because it’s more travel-efficient (your fingers move less total distance for the same words), it’s potentially faster to type this way.
part I: who the fuck
I live online, doing a lot of typing and various hotkey-memorization dances in MMOs, and manage a persistent stress injury in my left wrist, acquired from a childhood full of StepMania. I think the study of ergonomics is cool, but my interest is mainly practical; I just want to enjoy my hobbies while keeping my injury flare-ups to a minimum.
I also type 130WPM on the QWERTY layout, so I was curious how my typing speed would be affected; my QWERTY typing style uses a lot of strange or variable fingerings, rather than the strict one-finger-per-column Mavis Beacon style, and attempts to learn the “classical” typing stuff have only slowed me down.2
Fair warning: I am one of those weird mechanical keyboard people. I’m not quite at the point where I’m crawling the aftermarket for $700 metal rectangles, but I’ve drilled down to my esoteric preferences pretty hard, and I’m now gently bothered by both “normal” office keyboards and “high-end” mechanical gaming keyboards, choosing to get my keyswitches from weird one-man retailers and daily-driving a board that looks like a spaceship control system.
It’s possible that I’m just way too deep in the hole to have a remotely normal perspective on this, so if you use a Razer keyboard or whatever came with your PC, you might just wanna turn around and leave. No hard feelings.
(Also, every time I say “Colemak” in this article, mentally replace it with “Colemak Mod-DH” if you like. Mod-DH is an alteration to Colemak with a few principled key swaps, and IMO there’s no reason not to use it over vanilla Colemak, but it sounds fucking horrible in conversation.)
part II: strong claims, source: my ass
If you’re already comfortable with QWERTY on a typical row-staggered keyboard, you probably have nothing to gain from switching to Colemak on its own.
Colemak won’t improve your speed, the break-in period is brutal, and if you use a bunch of comfortable alternate fingerings it may make your comfort worse. In the worst case, you may get much slower on QWERTY while you’re learning—it gradually bounces back with practice, but you may not be able to simply “turn on” your normal typing if you’re in the middle of the learning process.
If you’re switching physical keyboard layouts—for instance, from a row-staggered board to an ortholinear or columnar-staggered board—you might want to consider switching to Colemak.
Switching physical layouts is hard, even without adding Colemak to the mix—but because you’re already relearning everything, adding Colemak isn’t that much harder, and the muscle memory you build will be separate from “normal” keyboards, making your QWERTY speed and comfort easier to maintain.
The one-finger-per-column style is a little awkward on row-staggered keyboards, but much more comfortable on more ergonomic key layouts; combine this with Colemak’s cozier finger movement, and the result is pretty smooth and pleasant.
If you’re willing to grit your teeth through the learning process, that smoothness might be appealing enough to justify the switch. You can even switch back to a row-staggered keyboard if you need your “normal” typing again, without setting back your learning too much.
If you’re using Colemak, rebind every application to Colemak ASAP. If you use non-rebindable software extensively, Colemak may be a frustrating waste of time.
Some programs are just assholes, and have hardcoded keybinds that assume a QWERTY layout. This is a disadvantage of all alternate layouts, and it’s pretty much intractable; while you can switch back to QWERTY, switching layouts during the same session can be difficult even when you’re acclimated.
I can’t type QWERTY on an ortholinear board at all, so when a game or editor asks for QWERTY, I need to rapidly switch back to Colemak for other tasks. This sucks. If you use non-Colemak-friendly software on a regular basis, it might be a decent reason not to switch, especially if that program involves a lot of text input. (Hotkeys themselves aren’t too tough to work out—it’s the context switch that gets you.)
Keyboard layout is one of the least important aspects of PC ergonomics. If you haven’t tried the other stuff, do it first.
Desk/chair height, monitor placement, foot rests, split keyboards, tenting, ortholinear/columnar stagger, all of those things that you’ve probably already heard about if you’re this far into an article about a keyboard layout—all of these will improve your comfort more effectively than Colemak. This isn’t a reason not to use Colemak, but if you’re motivated by a specific physical problem, you might want to refocus.
part III: journey into hole
I started learning Colemak around two years ago, using a standard row-staggered keyboard, and it was miserable. I was a complete mess for the first few weeks, and while there was an amusing quality to it—my 130WPM ass reduced to the speeds of a fourth-grade typing class—I wasn’t exactly religious about sticking with it, since I had actual work to do at the time and 10WPM wasn’t going to cut it.
I reached a shaky 80WPM in around two months of practice, generally functional for day-to-day use. Unfortunately, Colemak was giving me new strain-patterns in my hands, unused to the traditional column-adherence stuff, and I didn’t see much reason to stick with it; I generally reverted to QWERTY, practicing Colemak occasionally just to keep the developing muscle memory intact.
At some point in 2022, I started trying split keyboards, trying a Sofle RGB before switching to a Sol 3 (not affiliate links, not strong general recommendations). I was helpless on these boards with QWERTY, since none of my weird fingerings worked, but my old Colemak muscle-memory kicked in fast—within a day or two, I was much faster on Colemak than QWERTY, and I started practicing again, leaving my old keyboard plugged in for games and important conversations.
This time, things were much easier; if I was ever frustrated about my speed, I could just switch keyboards and be back at 95% efficency within a few moments. I started to really enjoy the feeling of Colemak, the way that everything seems to flow out of your fingers with your hands totally still, and I was much more motivated to practice—it seemed like there was basically no downside.
During this time, I also made a bunch of changes to my workstation—I installed tenting to keep my wrists tilted, experimented with about 20 different wrist rests, changed my monitor mounts and layout, got a shitty particleboard desk from IKEA because it was the only thing that could be adjusted low enough for my 5'5" manlet frame, and tried everything else I could think of. I made a lot of these changes at similar times, so ranking them in importance is a series of educated guesses, but I’d rate the split keyboard at #1, the desk-lowering at #2, and the tenting at #3.
Colemak came in behind all of them—after all, I’d tried Colemak before and it fucking sucked. But I was feeling pretty good about it regardless—it was working for me on the new keyboard, and I felt no need to go backwards and relearn QWERTY on the unfamiliar key layout.
At some point, I decided to commit to Colemak + split + ortho full-time. I didn’t want to rebind all of my games, though, so I kept a QWERTY layer around for gaming: I think it was the wrong approach. Switching from games to chat applications required multiple layout switches, bound to out-of-the-way keys, and I’d frequently make nonsense typos because I was on the wrong layout for the context.
Things got much more comfortable when I took 5 minutes to rebind everything. There are still some annoying outliers, like Destiny 2 not accepting my left thumb key as a Jump input (bound to Left Alt), but that has very little to do with Colemak and more to do with my wacky mod layout. Some games (VRChat) and applications (Unity) still insist on QWERTY, but they’re the only seriously awkward parts of my setup now, and I use them rarely enough that I don’t really mind.
These days, I’m a lot more comfortable at my desk; I was able to type the Kusoge Advent Calendar 2022 writeup at my full 130WPM and largely without pain, in 6 to 8-hour work blocks. Even if Colemak isn’t principally responsible for the improved ergonomics, I think it’s definitely doing something—plus typing just feels good, in a way that it didn’t before. Is this sunk-cost fallacy? Maybe, but I’m historically okay about detecting that stuff, and my warning sirens aren’t going off here—I think the switch was worth it in the long run.
Colemak hasn’t affected my strain while gaming, of course, and it’s still possible for me to push too hard in Final Fantasy XIV and inflame my wrist for a bit. I don’t think there have been any extensive studies on the optimal locations for 36 combat abilities and a handful of movement keys; I’ve been sticking with some old-habit modifier keys because I need to JUICE DPS HARD and don’t want to put tons of time into experimenting with a rarely-used set of keybinds.
So…yeah. I don’t really have a way to wrap this one because I put all the impactful conclusions in the middle of the article. I guess I just find this stuff neat, and if you’re the type of person who’s actually made it to the end of this, chances are that you do too—you’re probably the sort of person who’s motivated enough to uproot their entire desk setup in a similar fashion, and it gets my cautious recommendation. Feel free to email me if your experience is wildly different from mine.
(Also I guess my keysmashing looks really weird now. “asdjfklsjkldfjksadf;asjdfkl;jsdf” just has a more naturalistic quality than “arsnteioanrseitrsnteo”. Communication is wild.)
I’m annoying people ↩︎
I think this is the most important thing that separates this article from all the writing on alternate layouts out there. Most people writing about Colemak, Dvorak, Workman etc. fall into two types: type A are hunt-and-peckers who are properly learning typing for the first time with their alternate layout, and type B are column-adherent speed typists looking for a theoretical edge.
I’ve always believed that my alternate fingerings are both faster and more comfortable than the “classical” typing style, specifically because the QWERTY layout is designed so badly. This seems like a weirdly rare position. ↩︎