The Functional Art at Your Fingertips

Simon Levien, age 18

Sixty keys. No number pad, no arrows, no function row. The spots where the control keys should be are blocked off. Instead, control takes caps lock’s place. Backspace is where backslash was. Right shift is cut short; its rightmost part becoming an “Fn” key. This was Professor Eiiti Wada’s peculiar new design for a computer keyboard. Later, Fujitsu would market it as the “Happy Hacking Keyboard” or HHKB, which would pick up steam in mechanical keyboard circles, hobbyist communities of writers and programmers. Within, the HHKB is nothing short of a controversial icon, both vilified and lauded by typists. It’s noted for underwhelming construction: creaky plastic and flimsy flip-out feet. So, what could possibly justify a $200 price-tag on a keyboard?

Consider this: When was the last time you needed to hit Pause/Break? This and many other keys are rarely touched by most users. Wada then asks: Why have unused keys occupy desk space? The HHKB eliminates them. A smaller keyboard means your mouse and keyboard are closer together, leading to less arm strain. Similarly, the nearby placements of control and backspace are godsends in reducing awkward finger placement.

Like how holding shift enables uppercase, pressing the Fn key in combination with others enables a second “layer” of functionality: Fn + various keys accesses arrows, function keys, etc. There’s no longer a need to take your hands off the home row because full functionality is within pinkie’s reach. I’ll admit; it’s intimidating at first, but the learning curve is gentle. Rather than slow me down, these layout tweaks have increased my speed from word processing to webpage navigation, all while minimizing repetitive muscle strain for long computer sessions.

Fujitsu went with Topre key switches, lightly tactile rubber domes making each key a cushion. Typing is like pleasing pitter-patter, a sound fondly dubbed the Topre “thick-thock.” I’d say it feels like punching a pillow, soft but quick — perfect to add some oomph to your typing speed and stamina.

Topre switches can withstand 30 million keystrokes — virtually a lifetime. Add this on top of the lightly-textured keycaps which won’t fade, yellow or wear, and you have what enthusiasts call the sought-after “endgame” keyboard. For me, the HHKB’s lightweight longevity has made it my go-to, to-go laptop accompaniment.

For some, the HHKB is a canvas. There are forums dedicated to colorful keycaps, case painting and stickering, Bluetooth adaptation — you name it — all for the little keyboard I’m typing on right now. Wada’s thoughtful design is so popular because it’s ergonomic; it’s aesthetically pleasing; it’s customizable yet streamlined and minimalist. It turns a mundane input device into a personal piece of expression most comfortable and enjoyable by you, the user. In Wada’s own words, HHKBs are not keyboards, but “important interfaces” of “functional beauty.”