It makes perfect sense that the awkward term WYSIWYG – “what you see is what you get” – came into prominence only during the era of computers. For typewriters, what you saw was never not, with the paper output being both the first and the last step in the process, and the typebars matching the keys one to one. Even the non-printing keys (Tab, Return, Margin Release…) only had to be learned once, and afterwards never changed their purpose.
Computers complicated things. Suddenly, keyboards meant polyamorous function keys, shortcuts, macros, accelerators, secret semigraphics, modifiers like Ctrl and Meta and ⌥ – and three, four, or five legends per key.
What’s more, without mechanical linkages any key could conceivably become any other key at the moment’s notice. It happened more often than anyone realized: with any application switch. WordStar’s F3 was different than VisiCalc’s, and that created an interesting challenge: many people worked exclusively in one app, getting used to its particular (and often peculiar) keyboard language – but each person’s main app was a different one. And most keyboards had to be made for everybody.
What to do? Help screens and instruction manuals were slow, and far away. Custom key caps? Expensive. Relegendable keys – those with two plastic pieces and a paper insert – cumbersome. Either way, with at most 19mm² of room, there was only so much you could fit on one key.
And so app newcomers started adorning keyboards with tactical explanations made via technology that predated even typewriters – pen and paper:
Soon, a popular piece of software for a popular computer would often include a professional keyboard overlay or sticker waiting for you in the box, ready for immediate application:
And the keyboard makers started anticipating that need, leaving room around the keys for overlays…
…or adding areas to pencil things in:
Those spaces were sometimes beautifully complex, accommodating different modifier keys:
Or various strips of paper inserts:
There were even hybrid solutions of overlays for pencils:
If the keyboard manufacturer didn’t create room for stickers or templates, there were always after-market solutions:
And, of course, many first- and third-party overlays and templates themselves:
Some were minimalistic and elegant:
Some impressively huge:
And some so complex, they felt like manuals draped around the keyboard:
There was even an academic paper analyzing a bunch of templates and giving design suggestions (“Left justify the F key legend and labels. Do not use horizontal or vertical lines to demarcate areas.”)
But the era slowly faded away. Eventually, for most people, the problem disappeared as graphical user interfaces took over, function keys became less important, and computing overall became highly domesticated.
An early example of an overlay trying to adapt to the post-keyboard world
With time, stickers and overlays became more about self-expression than anything else:
And soon, touch screens rendered the whole approach pointless – atoms, after all, cannot move as fast as pixels – and those screens started invading keyboards themselves, between Lenovo’s Adaptive Function Row, and Apple’s equally disdained Touch Bar:
When looking at overlays and stickers I am, as always, drawn to stories – even those I can only speculate about.
This makes me imagine a story of a person who wanted to learn WordStar so badly, they used both stickers and an overlay:
This? Stories of people who were provided with official spaces, and decided to do their own thing anyway:
A story of just a few stickers that cost this one Macintosh its soul, forcing it to run PC applications:
A story of overlays promising hours of fun for two great friends:
A story of both a parent and their kid using the same keyboard:
Or (maybe my favourite) of a person who hated the new Apple Touch Bar so much, that they used a sticker not to explain something, but to recreate it, and to add a literal new dimension to their keyboard:
But this act of transgression was far from the end of add-on creativity… and dimensionality.
Are you interested in reading one chapter of my book and sending in your feedback? This is a big favour for me to ask, but maybe you have some time. The text won’t be fully copyedited yet, and there won’t be any photos – but I built a custom reading environment that should be fun to use, whether on your phone, or a real computer.
If interested, please reply what chapter (keyboard, subject, person…) you would like to read about! And: thank you, in advance.
Black bar means progress since last newsletter
I spent the last two months finding and taking photos, and collaborating with an illustrator to have visuals for a few things impossible to take photos of. Those are both progressing really well. I’m still aiming for both to be pretty much done this month (or soon thereafter).
As stickers and overlays disappeared into obscurity, the world moved on to solving other keyboard challenges. One was the bad feel of typing on glass. There, an obvious solution was adding an external, BlackBerry-like keyboard to your iPhone or Android (we talked about one long time ago):
Gamers also wanted more, leading to a host of aftermarket add-on joysticks and keypads for gaming, some of them looking quite ridiculous:
And even if atoms cannot move as fast as pixels, you can still try – instead of a joystick plugged into your smartphone, there were joysticks to put on top of it, acting as virtual fingers:
I was surprised to discover that the tradition of bolt-on joysticks was much older than the iPhone. In the era of original cell phones, there were a few solutions that promised better gaming (even if “gaming” meant “24/7 Snake”):
Before then, in the 1990s, multiple solutions sprang up to turn your cursor keys into joysticks:
And even as far as early 1980s, the same happened with at least one early microcomputer – instead of a plug-in joystick (which required an expensive interface), you could purchase a much cheaper bolt-on model.
I asked about in on Twitter (I swear I do my research elsewhere, too!), and I was amazed by the response. People helped me figured out the make of the joystick, pointed out another competing product, and even found it in their closet – and then took great photos of it for my use in the book:
But it wasn’t just joysticks. At one point, we already talked about Incredible Musical Keyboard:
And then there was an obscure British game Surf Champ – for the ZX Spectrum computer, once more – that came with some grandiose statements on its box:
This was supposed to be The first REAL computer sport, and the game that teaches you to surf. And in the corner of the box, it offered a revelation: “With its unique custom-built miniature surfboard Surf Champ gets as close as possible to real surfing.”
The miniature surfboard – the one promising that “all the stunts and manoeuvres of the professional surfer are within reach” – wasn’t, however, a peripheral.
Long story short: The game was awful (play it yourself if you dare), and the surfboard gimmick didn’t help. The board was supposed to lay on top of a keyboard, pivoting on a flimsy fulcrum. Swiveling it would press a bunch of keys in the vicinity – ironically, the normally unpleasant, chiclet-resembling, feedback-suppressing ZX Spectrum keyboard made this experience better than others would – and while perhaps a cute gimmick, the quotes from pro surfers who claimed that between the overlay and the sparse graphics, Surf Champ was “the closest simulation of the sport you can get” felt… hilarious.
(I didn’t have the ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64 handy, but I put the surfboard atop of my Netpliance Pizza-key keyboard, because… you know, surfing. See, I can be hilarious also.)
And then, there was something even more outrageous. Fifteen years after Surf champ, what appeared on the market was a perfect American counterpart to the sparse British minimalism of early Thatcherism.
The game was called Matchbox Caterpillar Construction Zone, and it too came with a keyboard overlay. Except this one couldn’t fit in a box – but rather needed a box constructed around it:
The box once again overpromised: “Did you ever wonder what it would be like to work construction? More importantly, did you ever want to drive one of those really big Caterpillar trucks? Now you can live out your fantasies.” But this time around, things weren’t as iffy. The game still wasn’t very good, but it wasn’t very good by the standards of 1999: two decades of computing progress made the graphics much more impressive, and the add-on itself – three levers, two buttons, a key – at least resembled the very motions you had to perform during actual heavy equipment operation.
Not that everything was great. Out of twenty keyboards I have, the clip-on failed on 19 of them. The boards were either too big or too small, the mounting straps too tight or too loose. The only keyboard that surrendered was a shitty, cheap office rubber dome from late 1990s, almost whispering in a resigned voice “my life’s filled with shame anyway – do what you have to do.”
Except, without the game, the overlay spoke gibberish – the middle lever output IMMIMMIM, the red toggle gave me RVVRRVVV, the key ignition at the bottom pressed a spacebar.
Underneath the overlay
I didn’t want to invest in finding a CD drive and installing an old version of Windows, but I had an idea: a journey in the exact opposite direction that I took with the IBM 4700 keyboard. I installed Karabiner and remapped all the affected keys. M became J, I became K, spacebar was translated to Y.
And then… I launched Gmail.
It all worked surprisingly well. I could scroll the screen with the left lever, switch between inboxes with the right one, the middle section was for selecting individual emails, and the key ignition… what else! Deleting.
It’s entirely possible that one day I’ll bring this setup to work. The coworkers will nod awkwardly and whisper “he’s been working on this book for how long, now?” Someone will take a photo. And, with some luck, twenty years from now, I too will become another person’s speculative newsletter story.
But if that happens, I hope that someone understands this experiment wasn’t necessarily just madness. It was also a particular (and peculiar) celebration: of keyboards as platforms, of the uneasy coexistence of their domestic and professional sides, and of the ethereality and uncertainty of software married once more with the physicality that harkens back to the typewriter world – the world that hasn’t yet heard of WYSIWYG.
This was newsletter №18 for Shift happens, an upcoming book about keyboards. Read previous issues · Check out all the secret documents