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Learning the Dvorak Keyboard Layout

The Dvorak layout is an alternative keyboard layout which places the most frequently used letters within easy reach (on the home row, for example), while the less frequently used letters and punctuation are moved out to the more awkward reaches. That means that you’re making less unnatural motions with your hands, which results in faster typing and less chance of strain or injury.

Qwerty

Qwerty keyboard layout
All kinds of wonkiness.

Dvorak

Dvorak_keyboard_layout
Vowels are on the left half of the home row, common consonants on the right — think Wheel of Fortune.

The Dvorak and Qwerty (traditional) keyboard layouts have an interesting history that’s worth learning more about. The Qwerty layout was an adaptation to the technology of the time: typewriters. The earliest typewriters tended to jam up when letters were typed quickly in a sequence. The design of the Qwerty key layout was made to intentionally slow typists down by creating awkward reaches. I’ll let you decide how far you want to dig into the history of keyboard layouts, I find it really fascinating, but it’s well documented elsewhere online.

Qwerty is a poor user experience
Dvorak is a good user experience

What Made Me Want to Switch?

I’m currently in the process of teaching myself the Dvorak simplified keyboard layout, and it’s turned out to be a much easier transition than I had originally anticipated. I had been thinking about making the switch for a long time, but my concerns about lost productivity kept making me put it off. (Incidentally, the method that I’m using for learning Dvorak means that lost productivity isn’t an issue, as you will see.)

Last year, I was starting to get signs of a repetitive stress injury from my totally extreme lifestyle of sitting still and typing all day. To combat RSI, I started doing the typical things: arm stretches, taking breaks, and making adjustments to my workstation. But the fact remained that I was often working 10-12 hours a day and there wasn’t really any getting around that. I was also writing a lot of code at the time, and so my work was very keyboard-intensive. It was time…for Dvorak!

This week, I’m not particularly reliant on typing as I’m attending a conference. I used that as the excuse I needed to try and start learning Dvorak. I’m pleased to report that with about 15 minutes of practicing each night this week, I’m already proficient at the home row in Dvorak. I should mention that I’m already a trained touch typist for Qwerty and my instructions will assume that you are too. I currently type around 60wpm, and I’ll try to report back on speed improvements when I’ve fully switched to Dvorak.

How to Set Up the Dvorak Keyboard Layout on a Mac

The switch to Dvorak can be made very easily on a Mac. These directions are written for English-speakers in the United States:

  1. Open System Preferences > International
  2. Go into the Input Menu section inside International
  3. Scroll through the menu of choices and select Dvorak and Dvorak – Qwerty #
  4. Further down the menu, you’ll see that U.S. is selected, keep it selected
  5. At the very bottom, select Show input menu in menu bar

You should see a U.S. flag in the upper right of your Mac OS X menu bar. This means that your keyboard is currently mapped to the standard Qwerty layout. Clicking on it reveals a menu where you can quickly switch to Dvorak, and back to Qwerty again.

When you’re first beginning, I recommend using Dvorak – Qwerty # (that # is supposed to be a Command sign by the way). This maps the keyboard to Dvorak when you’re typing, but it keeps all of your beloved keyboard shortcuts like command-C, command-V for copy and paste in their traditional Qwerty locations. I imagine that after you’re fully converted to Dvorak, you might want to relearn the shortcuts but maybe not, I’m not that far along yet.

How to Start Practicing Dvorak

So now you know how to switch keyboard layouts. Now it’s time to do your practice exercises! This is what I’ve been using: ABCD: A Basic Course in Dvorak by Dan Wood. It’s a series of about 30 exercises that build progressively on each other. Try to take about 15 minutes each day to do the exercises.

For each exercise, I don’t proceed to the following one until I’m proficient (fast and accurate) with the current one. I’ll usually run through about 5 exercises a night, repeating each one as needed. Then the following night, I’ll back up about 2 exercises and start from where I know I’m proficient, not from the most recently learned skill level which still might be a bit shaky. So on Monday, you might do Exercises 1-5, and on Tuesday do Exercises 3-7, to get some overlap across days.

Don’t Go Cold Turkey!

I’d recommend that you keep doing your daily tasks like email using Qwerty, and only switch to Dvorak for your exercises until you get to a level of proficiency with Dvorak where it makes sense (no loss of productivity) to make the switch completely. So far, I haven’t found it at all confusing to switch back and forth between the two mappings — that had been another cause of concern for me and it just doesn’t seem to be a problem.

But My Keyboard Has Qwerty Printed on the Keys!

Yeah me too. That’s ok. If you learn to type properly, you’re not supposed to look at your hands. This will force you to learn the right way. I did put stickers onto my external keyboard, but I’m finding that I’m not looking, and that’s better anyway. When I practice on my laptop with the original Qwerty mappings printed on the keys, the experience is the same.

Please let me know if you try any of these tips out, and share your experiences here. I really wish I had made the switch sooner, and I’m tickled that it’s been a lot easier than I had originally anticipated.

Thanks to my friend Baron who taught me about Dvorak and was an inspiration for me trying it out.

Also, check out Alec Longstreth’s mini comic about Dvorak, it’s great fun, and a good thing to print up and leave in the break room at your office.

4 Comments

4 Responses to “Learning the Dvorak Keyboard Layout”

  1. Bryan January 6, 2011 at 10:18 pm #

    I kept practicing QWERTY while learning Dvorak like you did while learning. I found that it took longer to learn but I could (and still can) type proficiently in both now. I tracked my typing speeds and graphed them, so have a look if you’re interested:

    http://bryanbraun.com/2010/12/27/the-dvorak-keyboard-should-i-learn-it/

  2. Tuan December 5, 2010 at 11:08 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your switching from QWERTY to Dvorak experience.

    I has trained to reach speed of 60wpm at QWERTY, and your assurance of being able to switch back and forth between two mappings has encouraged me to try Dvorak.

    Your insight about using the same keyboard and overlapping exercises is also very helpful and instructive too.

  3. Barce March 1, 2010 at 1:54 am #

    Oh no, ViM has ruined me for Dvorak. I did use Dvorak for a bit when I was 11. The Apple //c had a Dvorak button and you could easily pop out the keys and make the keyboard Dvorak.

  4. JonathanTM December 4, 2009 at 2:12 pm #

    Wow, love it!
    (and love the linked graphic novel too!)

    “… haven’t found it at all confusing to switch back and forth between the two mappings”

    That’s my main concern, and so thanks to you and your wonderful page, I’m more stoked than ever to start.

    And I didn’t ever realize that I could use my existing keyboard! Wow!

    So, thanks again.
    -Jonathan

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