Click-Clack Chic: The Art of Building the Perfect Keyboard
While for most people, keyboards are simply a text input tool, a growing community of hobbyists in China and around the world are creating their own custom typing devices, both to allow for a personalized experience and as an artistic endeavor.
Some people stumble into the hobby by chance, perhaps after seeing a custom keyboard on social media. Others are drawn to it as they enjoy the do-it-yourself process, relishing the opportunity to select the components and build their own unique keyboards from scratch. There are also enthusiasts who collect different custom keyboards, not for practicality but as treasured pieces of art.
But with an uptick in scams targeting low-knowledge newcomers, can the custom keyboard community survive its own surging popularity?
An array of choices
Newcomers eager to build their own custom keyboards will discover an infinite array of choices. Starting with the keyboard PCB (printed circuit board) and case, materials range from the traditional choices like plastic, wood, and acrylic to more premium options like aluminum alloy, bronze, and even titanium alloy. Then keyboard users move on to the switch mounting plate and stabilizers, both of which can be tailored. When it comes to switches, they can seek a linear and smooth switch, a tactile bump with every keypress, or a pronounced click of each stroke. Keycaps add another layer of personalization, with different designs, heights, and materials. Users can also customize the coating of the keyboard to create a metallic finish, a refined solid coating, or a subtle translucent effect to their liking.
On top of these component parts, users can also customize the keyboard layout according to their preferences, ranging from the most comprehensive layouts that accommodate all keys including the numeric keypad to more optimized layouts that exclude the number keys for a sleek and compact design.
Custom keyboards are not available in traditional electronic stores. Getting hold of one depends on one’s level of enthusiasm and connections.
In China, newcomers can easily find pre-assembled keyboards on retail sites like Taobao or resale platforms like Xianyu. But dedicated keyboard users who desire the latest designs and wish to select the components and assemble their own boards must stay active on online forums such as zFrontier, a site dedicated to keyboard specialists. There, design studios post “interest check” threads to gauge interest in their newest creations, and enthusiasts can offer feedback through forums or social media platforms as well as reserve their copies.
Most production runs are limited: Studios place orders with factories to manufacture the exact number of keyboards needed. In a few weeks, users receive their limited-edition keycaps and can begin building their personalized keyboards.
The price of assembling these custom keyboards can range anywhere from 100 yuan to over 100,000 yuan ($14-$14,000), according to Ah Qiu, a keyboard enthusiast and blogger who asked to be identified by his screenname on the lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu. The industry is relatively young — Ah Qiu dates its emergence to around 2018 — and mainly consists of people working in three areas: design, publicity, and after-sale service. The studios may be run by as few as one designer or as many as hundreds of people. But most design studios in China are small and need to outsource their production to factories.
Unlike the traditional customer-seller relationship, keyboard designers usually first join the industry as enthusiasts, Kiki Liu, a keyboard designer, told Sixth Tone. Liu, along with two of her friends, founded a design studio in Chengdu in March 2023 after two of them lost their jobs.
Liu studied industrial design, while one of her partners specializes in product design. Being passionate about keyboards, they decided to turn their hobby into a business and started their own custom keyboard studio. In the beginning, they were worried about their keyboard design not attracting enough interest to proceed with production. But their worries proved unnecessary, as Liu and her partners were surprised by the overwhelming support their designs received from keyboard enthusiasts. Many of their earliest customers now voluntarily help them manage their fan group chats on messaging app QQ.
Another designer, Zhou Jiongwu, from a larger keyboard studio, Wukds, had a similar story. Frustrated with his previous job during the COVID-19 pandemic, he decided to quit and, facing a lack of other employment opportunities, he utilized his background in design to venture into designing keycaps, eventually establishing his own studio.
The pandemic helped make custom keyboards more popular than ever, as people spent more time working at home on their own electronic devices, Zhou told Sixth Tone.
But Zhou is concerned about the potential downsides of this rising popularity, as he’s noticed that a lot of people entered the industry this year purely to make a profit without being genuinely passionate about keyboard design. “The arrival of these profit-driven individuals could disrupt the custom keyboard industry,” he says.
Ah Qiu shares similar concerns regarding the state of the industry. While customers have a broader range of choices as more entrepreneurs join the field, the boom has also lured opportunists looking to make a quick profit. That trend is set to continue as interest rises: Sales of custom keyboards rose more than 50% year-over-year on e-commerce site JD.com during the recent June 18th shopping holiday, according to the platform.
The custom keyboard industry is a tight-knit community in China, in which designers and customers traditionally communicate directly with each other. Standards are high: According to keyboard influencer Pepper Tan, one of the things that sets the China market apart is consumers’ insistence that the keyboard internals be in new or like-new condition. (They are also more interested in so-called HiFi keyboards which can play custom sounds with every keypress, Tan noted, while non-Chinese buyers prefer a more “OG” retro mechanical vibe.)
The lack of a third-party platform like e-commerce site Taobao creates vulnerabilities, however. Ah Qiu told Sixth Tone that some individuals exploit this sales model by selling fake designs that will never be produced or by providing customers with low-quality products without after-sales services.
Nevertheless, growing numbers of people have developed an interest in keyboard customization. Simba Hua, founder of Chinese mechanical keyboard brand Meletrix, told tech media outlet ChinaTalk that custom keyboards have become popular not just for their personalized features, but also as a way for young Chinese in their 20s and 30s to express themselves. By having complete control over each component, users can make sure that their keyboard stands out from others to reflect their individuality and taste.
Despite the negative influence from amateurs and opportunists, Liu, the keyboard designer, is hopeful for the future of the industry. She believes that custom keyboards have become a form of self-expression among younger people, akin to hobbies like skateboarding and wearing hanfu, or traditional Chinese dress. Most designers and customers still get into the community out of genuine passion rather than purely for profit.
“We just hope to keep doing what we love,” Liu says. “If we don’t end up starving because of our stubbornness, that would be the dream!”
Contributions: Fu Xiaofan and Matthew Hall; editors: Elise Mak and Ding Yining.
(Header image: A keyboard design by Kiki Liu’s studio with traditional Chinese elements. Courtesy of Kiki Liu)
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