Personal Touch

Mechanical Keyboards for a Human-Centered Future

Shiva Viswanathan

Illustration by Suraj Barthy, ITP ‘23
When I type on a mechanical keyboard, I can see the key lower, feel the switch actuate, and hear the keycap and switch bottom out on the board. A sentence echoes out into the room like a symphony with each row playing a different harmony in the orchestra. I look down and I’m greeted by colorful plastic that has an appealing aesthetic on my desk. I choose all these things for myself. I choose the switches, deciding whether I’ll gently smush the keys or force my entire being into jamming them down. I choose how the keyboard sounds by picking the materials of the case, selecting from heavy aluminum, light polycarbonate, or a dense wood. I choose the colors of the keycaps and cases, letting my mood decide between a sleek black look or a refined white keyboard with purple accents. I built this keyboard to reflect my aesthetic, to be the most satisfying to type on, and to hit those perfect frequency ranges. The mechanical keyboard rekindled my love of computers and all things tactile.

The majority of digital communication is made through tiny phones that strain our thumbs, and regular desktop and laptop keyboards are prone to obsolescence. In 2015, Apple released a new line of Macbooks that featured a stunning low profile butterfly switch keyboard. The butterfly switch was so prone to failure that it awoke an entire community of users to the importance of keyboards, forcing Apple to redesign them. The DIY keyboard community reminds us that we are only as skilled as the tools we use. Just like how a sword or a hammer is an extension of our arms, the keyboard is the extension of our voice and ought to be respected as such.

Using a computer used to feel soulless to me. Now I'm excited to get back on my desktop for the chance to type something out. This feeling did not exist for me until a few years ago, when I discovered mechanical keyboards as a hobby.  When I bought my first keyboard, it opened a whole new world of interaction to me. Feeling each key and hearing their sounds changed my position on the way we use keyboards. I wasn’t as attuned to nuances in audio until I found quirky keyboard videos scattered across the internet and paid attention to the sounds the keys make. All of a sudden, I found joy in this tool that had been overlooked and forgotten. The office and laptop keyboards that I was used to were just a means to an end.

Computer keyboards were revolutionary for helping us communicate with the machines that transformed our world. They’ve devolved into cheap and frail interfaces when they should be celebrated as the most important peripheral of a computer. The keyboard is the bond between humans and the digital world and therefore, the rest of the world. With our bodies we are able to use our voices to create different tones, change our rate of speech, and many other factors that define the way we sound. Now that most of our communication is done through some form of typing, we should find ways to customize those tools because not everyone types the same, just like how no one sounds the same.

The keyboard is the bond between humans and the digital world and therefore, the rest of the world.

A mechanical keyboard is made up of a PCB, a case, and 30+ switches and keycaps, which all come together to create a unique typing experience. Through more design choices and an expanded market (and demand) for a variety of parts, users get to create a personalized tool that they will use every day. A user feels more connected to keys that they’ve tailored for themselves, and the process of writing teases a fruitful flow state.  

Switches are the highlight of mechanical keyboards and the most sensitive aspect for users. They come in three categories: clicky, tactile, and linear. Tactile switches have a tactile bump that users need to press through; clicky switches feel like tactiles but have a distinct audible click noise for every keystroke; and finally, linears are smooth to press through all the way down. If you want someone to hate a keyboard, give them a clicky switch that echoes a high pitch plastic scratchiness through the room. Within these three categories there are thousands of permutations.  Switches are now designed in different plastics with a range of spring weights that determine how heavy a switch is, and so much more.

If you want someone to hate a keyboard, give them a clicky switch that echoes a high pitch plastic scratchiness through the room.

Keycaps are the showcase aspect of any keyboard and bring all the pieces together. Users choose between font legends and colors for each key, but there’s a whole variety of keycap height profiles that can completely change the way a keyboard feels. Tall keycaps will make a keyboard feel more tactile and sound deeper at the cost of straining your wrist, while flat keycaps make the keyboard sound lighter and feel minimalistic, but can sometimes result in typos.

Humans are innately and intimately connected to the tools they use. For a world where 64.4% of the entire population uses the internet, often requiring a keyboard to do so, we pay very little attention to the keyboard. It boggles my mind that for something used by a huge variety of people, the larger interest to invest in keyboards is practically nonexistent. The keyboard has been around for over 150 years and there seems to be no interest in redesigning it. Why not?

Mechanical keyboards are the pinnacle of functionality and joy. When tools provide functionality but are difficult to use or do not feel good, users will move away from them. The barrier of entry for mechanical keyboards is a high price tag, but I believe that joy-less keyboards for digital screens will also lead people toward mechanical keyboards. Our tools should serve us, not the other way around.


Shiva Viswanathan is a 4th-year design student studying Interactive Media Arts at New York University. When not at school, he’s usually home in his Brooklyn apartment eating Oreos, playing video games, or reading manga. He loves all things tactile like keyboards and draws every day. You can find his drawings on Instagram @daysofshiva.