I have distinct memories of learning how to type on bulky grey keyboards in the library of my public elementary school in the ’90s. Keyboards seemed like these magical tools that somehow projected the letters I was pressing onto the giant first-generation Dell computer humming loudly on the desk. Meanwhile, my parents were both journalists, so the click-clacking of their typing often rang out from our home office as they wrote their articles and sent out these mystical things they called emails.
Soon after the formation of these core keyboard memories, the digital age exploded, and the evolution of mainstream keyboards inevitably followed suit. Keys slimmed down to sleek tiles embedded in our laptops, sometimes disappearing entirely after touch screens sauntered to the forefront of new devices. But even in the midst of these technological advancements, the core mechanical design has endured, and remains relevant and necessary in many fields. MVKB keycap and keyboard designer Tim appreciates them for their timeless functionality and decided to dive into the waters of making his own when the pandemic first hit.
I was quite taken when I discovered Tim’s eye-catching keyboards, so I reached out over email to learn more about his work, his personal affinity for the classic tool, and the basics of building them.
How did you first get into keyboard design specifically?
[Like] so many, I was part of the COVID-fueled boom of the hobby. I was working from home and got bored with the setup I’d been using for almost a decade at that point (an Apple keyboard and Apple mouse).
Until that point, I had always made fun of my co-workers who were using mechanical keyboards— it looks funny, makes a lot of noise, and most of them had an entire disco worth of LED’s on them. But curiosity got the best of me, and I started Googling, looking for what exactly went into building your own mechanical keyboard. Some trial and error later, I had all the parts I needed (honestly not that many) and put my first board together. That’s when it clicked.
From there, I got more and more interested in designing keycaps and keyboards myself. I spent a couple of months researching what exactly goes into producing them and started working on some concepts. Having been a software designer for two decades, designing something physical you can hold in your own hands is always special, even more so if it’s something others can purchase and use too.
What are some of the main considerations that go into designing a keyboard?
First off, it needs to be usable. Seems obvious, but always good to remind yourself of that!
Second, you need a strong theme. A theme supports the colors you use, the angles you implement, and much, much more. Some examples of themes I’ve been using are old work terminals, synthesizers, etc. Even simple things, like an old eraser, can steer an entire project. And sometimes there really isn’t a theme, and you just want to place a large banana mat on your desk.
In the keyboard community, the two most popular themes are color themes you see in your code editor of choice, and manga (the latter not really my preferred flavor, but it’s popular nonetheless).
Where do the ideas for your various keyboard designs typically come from?
They’re pretty random. I can start working on a new project, not really knowing what the theme will be, and kinda work myself towards it. Or I can be sitting in the car when a random theme just pops into my head and I can’t rest until I’ve got it worked out.
I also get a lot of inspiration from old sci-fi and print magazine covers. If it has a funky smell and some yellowed pages, I’m probably into it.
Do you have a favorite keyboard that you’ve designed, or one you’re especially proud to look at?
Oooh, that’s a tricky one! The way I decide whether or not a project is ready for shipping is whether or not I’m proud of it. Some projects take weeks; others are so straightforward, I might wrap it up in a couple of hours, but I won’t stop until I have that “Ah-ha!” moment where I know it’s good.
A project that surprised me is Terminal. It started out as a newspaper-themed design, and kinda took a weird turn after I added binary code. I didn’t think a whole lot of it until I started showing it around. People went crazy over the handful of 3D renders I shared. It’s been so popular, a second production run is launching soon, and there are some other projects planned [around it] in the near future.
In our modern touchscreen era, have you seen a shift in people’s relationship to keyboards and what they look for in a keyboard?
While I think touchscreens are used in a different context, where I’ve really seen a shift is in how people perceive their own workspace. Especially now that a lot of us are remote, people care more about what’s on their desk and what that [says] about them. I love it when someone spends a lot of time researching what exactly they want to add to their workspace, whether it’s decorative or functional. If someone decides one of my projects fits their idea of a nice desk, it absolutely makes my day.
Why do you love keyboards so much?
You can buy any off the shelf keyboard, plug it in, and start typing away— or you can spend a couple of hours doing research, order a bunch of components, and assemble it yourself. Building a keyboard yourself makes it unique, it makes it yours. You can choose specific components to your liking, or swap them out later, or even modify them— did you know a keyboard sounds 100x better if you lube the switches and stabilizers?! The end result is something unique you created; what’s not to love about that?