I was just looking at my keyboard (Logitech K200) for the millionth time and realized that the names of each key were "mostly" in the top left. The row of numbers at the top is just left aligned with the shift versions above the regular versions (make sense). Normally I would just call this a bit weird and move on. However, I then noticed that not all of the keys are left aligned! My media keys (sound control, calculator, mail, etc.) have centered pictoral representations. The "Print Screen", and "Pause/Break" keys are all center aligned along with the 6 keys in the "page navigation" block. Oddly enough, "Caps Lock" is left aligned while "Num Lock" and "Scroll Lock" are centered.

I realize that this might be different for various keyboards so I went searching throughout my house for various other keyboards. The HP Chromebook I just bought has most of the key names centered. However, "tab", "caps lock", and left "shift" are left aligned (with "backspace, "enter", and right "shift" right aligned).

An ancient IBM Thinkpad (not Lenovo) I scrounged up appears to be exclusively left aligned. An older Dell Latitude D420 is almost all left aligned except for the arrow keys and "page up/down" keys. A newer Dell Studio XPS 15 is mostly left aligned but with arrow keys and function keys centered.

Why? Is there a historical reason and nobody has bothered changing it (except for Google but I'm not surprised)? Have studies shown that the left corner is easier to see? Intuitively, I would have just stuck the symbols in the center of each key.

  • 6
    I'm not sure there is a reason, but my guess would be that in the old days the print on the keys would be susceptible to wear. Since people hit a key almost in the centre, placing the text on the top-left would avoid most of the "direct hit" so that the print wouldn't fade over time. – Brendon Nov 30 '13 at 21:44
  • Many people work with international keyboards. I use keyboard which support 3 languages. The letters are everywhere ). – Alexey Kolchenko Nov 30 '13 at 22:38
  • On Apple keyboards it's right in the middle. – WaterBearer Nov 30 '13 at 23:19
up vote 21 down vote accepted

It's actually due to ISO 9995.

Depictions on the keytops
According to ISO/IEC 9995-1, the level is indicated by the row where the character is depicted on the keytop:
* Level 2 (“shifted”) above of Level 1 (“unshifted”)
* Level 3 (“AltGr”) below Level 1 (“unshifted”).

The group is indicated by the column on the keytop:
* The first or “primary group” at the left keytop border
* The second or “secondary group” at the right keytop border
Additional groups (if existing) in between.

When letters on a case pair are associated with a key, only the capital character need to be shown on the keytop for the primary group, while the lowercase character only is shown for the secondary group.

ISO/IEC 9995-3:2010 applied to the US keyboard layout ISO/IEC 9995-3:2010 applied to the US keyboard layout

  • 1
    Implying that the Chromebook keyboard layout (at least my HP one) completely ignores this standard and goes against almost everything it mentions? – supersam654 Dec 3 '13 at 2:46
  • 2
    Well, it's an international standard, not a requirement :). Mac keyboards also ignore some of the standards too. – Fractional Dec 3 '13 at 11:28

Not sure if this is the reasoning but I assumed this was so you could still see which letter you're hovering over without moving your hand out the way.


download bmml source – Wireframes created with Balsamiq Mockups

  • Related: if keytop legends are printed in a way which wears out, less of the letter will disappear if it's not in the touch pattern (I have used keyboards where this has been a problem). – Andrew Leach Dec 2 '13 at 19:46

Another useful aspect of having them upper left aligned is the ability to put stickers for another alphabet on the keys - transparent stickers with, say, Cyrillic letters or Arabic letters on the bottom right corner allow you to switch between alphabets.

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