On industrial design and alphabetic keyboards

The train journey to Bristol may have changed a lot since Brunel’s time, but the trains themselves are still of a classic design of the 1970s.  Kenneth Grange, the British industrial designer responsible for the way that they looked, is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Design Museum.  As well as trains, he designed parking meters (now a rare sight in London),  taxis, the most recent versions of the Anglepoise light, and even some of the Kodak Instamatic cameras which would have introduced a generation to photography.  Interviewed in the Observer, he mentioned that because he divides his time between London and Devon, he gets to ride on one of his own designs regularly, which must provide quite some job satisfaction.  It’s nice to see some attention being given to industrial design, given its importance to the objects that we use all the time.

One of the artefacts in the exhibition is a Reuters keyboard from around 1973, and it’s notable, to a modern eye because the keys are arranged in alphabetical order.  Many computer terminals of that period did have QWERTY keyboards, which after all had been around for decades on typewriters.  But this boxy terminal wasn’t intended either for secretaries or for hardened technical computer types, so it was created on the assumption that its users would probably not be familiar with using a QWERTY keyboard.  So putting the keys in alphabetical order was a logical thing to do, and, by all accounts not an unusual choice at the time.

One of the giants of usability, Donald Norman, whose design of everyday things is a wonderful  read if your imagination is captured by the details which make everyday objects easy, or difficult, or frustrating, to use, looked at alphabetic keyboards way back in 1981, and concluded that the QWERTY keyboard remained as good as any.  Norman’s original paper is worth reading, not least because it looks as though it was originally picked out on a mechanical typewriter, and given how familiar the QWERTY keyboard as a pop-up on a touch screen has become, his conclusions have been proved right.


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