I was standing outside Revolution Hall on a sunny September day. It was XOXO Fest 2019, the seventh installment of the festival. For me, four years of attending had a dramatic effect. I learned to ignore self doubt and see creators I looked up to not as gods, but as mere humans like me. I finally felt confident in my skin.
There I was in a circle with a few others chatting about writing, when one of them asked me what I did. I said that I write about design. They didn’t seem impressed. I pulled out my phone to show them this blog, then suddenly it all clicked.
“Oh! I thought you were writing think pieces bound for LinkedIn. You write deep dives. This is great. You know who you should check out? Marcin Wichary.” I wrote down the name in my notebook and continued on with the conversion.
Later that night in my hotel, I looked up Marcin’s website. Almost immediately, I knew this was someone whose work I would love.
Marcin’s work is wide ranging. There’s his roadtrip following the projects of Robert Moses, subject of Robert Caro’s masterpiece The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. There’s the time he edited, translated, and subtitled the 1980s Polish TV show and then privately screened at a theater. And then, of course, there is Shift Happens.
Shift Happens, at first glance, may seem like an extensive book about keyboards currently on Kickstarter. Give it a closer look though, and you’ll see that it is far more than that.
Marcin often mentions the fractal nature of keyboards — how as you tug at a thread, you keep uncovering more and more endlessly. Shift Happens is the same. Beyond the book, there is the website, with layer upon layer of depth and interactivity. There is the newsletter, which itself could be a standalone project. There’s a talk he gave, in which he used a custom keyboard to invisibly advance the slides.
I won’t be writing about any of those things, as there is too much to take in. Instead, I’ll focus on a little preview of the book that Marcin graciously sent over.
Marcin sent the preview over with a personal note typed on Shift Happens stationary. He mentions that this preview is the same size, paper, and printer as the end product.
The cover is heavy stock adorned with a field of black shift keys missing their legends removed. This same image will extend across the outside of the slipcase in the final book.
The words on the cover are set in Gorton, a font used on many vintage typewriters and keyboards. Marcin went to great lengths to digitize the font. A copy of the font and a digital specimen are offered as a Kickstarter reward.
The pages inside are a matte, heavy paper. This book will definitely survive many years of reading. The text is set in Mercury Text by Hoefler & Co. The striking orange captions appear in Output Sans.
A vintage keycap motif appears all over the website and the book, which is a subtle unifying touch.
Anytime a key is mentioned, it is denoted with a little lozenge-like symbol.
Footnotes are denoted not with numbers, but custom symbols related to keyboard legends. These same symbols also find themselves on the spine of the individual volumes of the final book.
A few spreads feature an inverted the color scheme. The words are set in white, while images appear on a black background. The accent color, which is usually the unforgettable orange, is instead an equally eye-catching green.
The details I mentioned and many others serve the stories. However, they also induce curiosity. This system of details come together with the quality of the typesetting and the feeling of the paper to make something I want to hold. I don’t only want to learn about the history of a tool I use every day. I want to discover all the details and Easter eggs that Marcin has hidden.
The preview booklet contains “The Shift Wars”, which will be chapter two in the book. It follows the development of the shift key (can you even imagine a time before the shift key?) and keyboard typing battles from the late 19th century.
Like with all Marcin writes, I came in with little knowledge of the subject. A page in, I was hooked and had to read all the way through. He pulled me in with his storytelling, especially the way he weaves images and words together.
I’m in awe of the photography. Having tried photographing products before, I know the amount of skill needed to produce the results seen in Shift Happens.
If one chapter is like this, then I can only imagine what the full 40+ chapters will be like.
First, make sure to spend time enjoying the Shift Happens website. I especially enjoyed the page titled “My book and what it means to me.” The newsletter, like I mentioned earlier, is a treasure. You’ll likely not only learn about keyboards, but about the circuitous process of writing a book.
If you’d like to use your ears instead, then you can listen to Marcin speak at length about the book on Design Details and Brad & Will Made a Tech Pod.
Finally, If you have even the faintest of interest and the means, then back the Kickstarter. Marcin has stated that there may never be another edition (or at least not an edition like this). The Kickstarter may be the only way to get your hands on this phenomenal project.
Thanks to Q for reading drafts of this.