Some of the keys on a keyboard are rectangular in shape, and the Enter key is often a strange shape, but the majority of keys are square. But there could be other possible shapes for those keys.

For example hexagonal keys could fit well with the staggered layout of keys, and reduce the distance between adjacent keys in a diagonal direction.

Hexagonal keyboard layout

(This could be skewed to provide the same positions we are used to.)

I see some manufacturers have also created some keyboards with round keys, but I have never seen these in use, except on very old typewriters.

So is there are good reason why keys on a keyboard are square, and why a hexagonal layout has never caught on?

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    You should try: Print it and try putting your fingers on it like if you were typing. You will understand why it's not optimal. – user3374574 Jan 10 '16 at 6:47
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    Such keyboard would be loved by football fans – Mikhail V Jan 11 '16 at 23:29
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    ... and bees... – devios1 Jan 15 '16 at 0:19
  • Because the keys on a typewriter were originally round. – user67695 Sep 14 '17 at 13:48

Keyboard design is largely governed by convention for many reasons:

  • The QWERTY layout is what consumers want and expect
  • Typing is so ubiquitous and so driven by muscle memory that the staggered layout is easiest to use for most users

The hexagonal layout isn't a bad idea. But there are some real drawbacks:

  • Flesh out your design more. What would the space bar and number keys look like? What about the numeric keypad, which is non staggered? Now you have a choice between mixing square and hexagonal keys, or having a very awkward slanted keypad. What would the tab, backspace and shift keys look like?
    • You will find that the hexagonal shape creates a lot of layout problems with a full keyboard
  • Not all keys in a standard format QWERTY keyboard are exactly staggered, and hexagonal keys only allow for a specific, centered, stagger.
  • Square keys are nicely aligned in rows so there is cognitive benefit to having the keys laid out with a horizontal baseline between the keys....they eye can distinguish the rows better.
  • Regarding the "specific, centres stagger", the OP explained that the hexagons could be skewed, solving this prob. – aaaidan Jan 10 '16 at 7:44
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    @aaaidan I'd encourage you to try the skewed hexagon layout on top of an actual reference keyboard....such as an IBM PS2. I think you will find that you end up with some very irregular hexagons, and the resulting lack of symmetry and grid alignment creates a lot of cognitive load for users because of the camouflage effect. – tohster Jan 10 '16 at 7:50
  • Oh of course, I totally agree that it would add a lot of cognitive load, and probably look like a dog's breakfast. I was just pointing out that a hexagonal design isn't stuck in that centres stagger you mention in your answer. Sounds like you knew that... – aaaidan Jan 10 '16 at 7:53
  • Ahhhhh. Agreed! – tohster Jan 10 '16 at 8:11
  • This picture helps to visualise why hexagonal keys would affect more than just the alphanumerics. – joeytwiddle Jan 19 '16 at 11:27

I see, this is actually a good idea. I would honestly love just a few keyboards like this, so that some people can get what they want (I can adapt very quickly between types of keyboards, being a computer scientist), and this type of keyboard would help me a lot more.

The space key could be the same as usual, but instead of only two vertexes on each side, it would have 3. Same goes for the backspace, shift, and tab buttons. The staggering could still exist, but the keys would be divided into 3 types of rows, which would likely help the typist associate letters with others and increase organization. In fact, the buttons could be placed with alternating exterior sides parallel to each other, which provides staggering and organization at once, and decreases cognitive load. Also, the keys could be compacted far more than the keyboard on, say, a laptop, which would mean more space to put similar shortcut keys and other aids. Additionally, if this keyboard comes into effect, it wouldn't be nearly as different as, say, a 3-Dimension Keyboard (holographic), but could be similarly compact.

The shape of these keys also appear far more natural and pleasing on the eye than square, misplaced keys. Finally, even if these keyboards weren't mass-produced, they could still be very helpful to scientific facilities for their compactness and the fact that they're a lot less difficult to type on. The reason I give the last reason is because although it may seem that out current QWERTY keyboards seem easy enough to type on, it would likely be far easier to type on a Hex keyboard due to the 3 levels of organization, or even 4. We are already adjusted to the QWERTY keyboards because we are taught that way, and indeed, I am currently using one. However, it may be a lot easier to use, say, an ABCDEF keyboard because you know where the letters are, for you likely know the alphabet. That on a Hex keyboard would provide the fourth level of organization.

In conclusion, a keyboard with hexagonal keys may be difficult to accept at first, but if the world attempts typing with one, it is possible that this type of keyboard could overthrow the current QWERTY, AZERTY, etc keyboards.

Note: English is not my first language, so pardon if I misuse or misspell words. Also, I apologize if my wording wasn't as good as it could be.

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    This doesn't answer the question, "Why are keyboard keys square?" – Shreyas Tripathy Sep 14 '17 at 4:46
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    We could just have a flat membrane with the letters printed on it, and so no gaps or separation of the 'keys' at all. Hey, wait a minute... – user67695 Sep 14 '17 at 13:51

Why not use square keys? Square keys seem ostensibly simpler; each row does not need to be perfectly staggered by 1/2 of the key width (or, if you don't need perfectly hexagonal keys, you don't need to go through much trouble figuring out how to skew your hexagons), and it's easier to deal with keys that are extra wide (or extra tall).

While I think your hexagonal layout is cute, what problem does it actually solve? You claim that a hexagonal keyboard would "reduce the distance between adjacent keys in a diagonal direction", but:

  • The distance from the center of one key to the center of another key would be the same regardless of whether the keys are square/rectangular or hexagonal.
  • The gap between keys is similarly independent of whether the keys are square/rectangular or hexagonal.

That is, a keyboard with square-ish keys looks pretty much the same:

The same keyboard with square-ish keys

The key borders are moved around a bit when using hexagonal keys, but does that matter?

The hexagonal arrangement does give you keys that more closely approximate circles, and therefore the edge of each key is closer to being equidistant from its center. However, it is not at all clear that that property is important; as long as the key face is sufficiently big to easily press, the distance between key centers seems more important.

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