Conceptualizing the _____

Conceptualizing the _____

Originally uploaded by Siriomi

Okay, I’m sitting in the back corner of the Hyatt bar at CHI, having a bit of a freak out. You see, I just read another set of papers, one by Daniel Fallman included, which has basically sealed the deal. I don’t want to have anything to do with the term “user.” Fallman’s paper, Design-oriented Human-computer Interaction, claims that designers are bricoleurs. I, however, think users are the same.

Because I don’t have time to be timid, I’ve emailed Fallman asking his thoughts on the matter. I’ve included a link to this sketch, which I drew during the drive down to Atlanta. Props to me for fighting my motion sickness!

Thoughts? Should I change the title of my capstone from Conceptualizing the User-Maker to Conceptualizing the Bricoleur? Argh this is so frustrating.

Artifact Analysis: Second Wooden Keyboard

Here we have another wooden Steampunk modification of a keyboard, this one from Marcus in Germany. I can’t seem to find much information about this modder. I know he’s a reader of Jake von Slatt’s Steampunk Workshop website because that’s where I found this modification, and that he had made a comment about a different method for creating typewriter-style keys for the keyboard. I take this to mean Marcus is a problem-solver, as are most user-makers, and that he is worried about cost. As he said on Steampunk Workshop, there are only “so many typewriters in the world,” and not many are available on eBay in Europe.

Before (kind-of):



This modification is made using “fancy brass fasteners” with the gems taken out for the key frames, paper, polycarbonate sheet to protect the key printouts, cardboard, an 80-yr-old  wooden picture frame, three analog displays for the status lights, a brown shoelace to cover the power cord, and fabric.


This is one of the few keyboards that I’ve seen where Marcus really focused on the analog metaphor. It wasn’t enough to convert the keys to a typewriter style, even the status lights had to be converted to analog gauges to indicate on/off. This keyboard is a representation of the maker’s dedication. For example, the method for creating the keyboard keys is as follows:

  1. Remove the key
  2. Cut off the key skirt in the manner described by Von Slatt
  3. Remove gems from brass fasteners
  4. Print new key labels
  5. Paste new labels to cardboard backing
  6. Cover new labels with polycarbonate sheet
  7. Place label inside the brass fasteners
  8. Insert brass fastener inside keyboard key leg
  9. Replace key leg into keyboard frame

And this was the process for every key on the keyboard! That’s dedication, as far as I’m concerned. From the pictures I’ve seen, some keys look a little more neatly done than others, which makes me wonder whether Marcus got tired of the process. Too much repetition can equate to boredom, I’ve found in my interview analysis.

It seemed important to Marcus to represent the implied age of the keyboard modification. Rather than using wooden molding and making it look old, he found old furniture spare parts and fitted them together to encase the keyboard frame. I’m unsure why this particular fabric was used, as to my eye, it doesn’t necessarily go with the analog gauges and wooden frame. I would have gone with a deep velvet, perhaps, or some other material that would more closely complement the dark stain of the wooden frame. I think it’s the hue of the green that gets me, but then, I’m very picky about colors.

Cultural Analysis

I originally found this on Jake von Slatt’s Steampunk Workshop, as it seems von Slatt is the go-to man for such modifications, or at least for sharing modifications. I suspect this is because von Slatt shares his process and is very open and welcoming to other ideas and processes, especially when compared to Datamancer, another well-known technology modder. This isn’t to say that Datamancer isn’t open and welcoming at all, but this is simply to say that von Slatt encourages discussion by posting to a blog, whereas Datamancer has only recently created a blog and instead posts to static HTML pages. Additionally, von Slatt doesn’t provide “DIY keyboard kits,” and Datamancer does.

That said, Marcus has posted his process to a German forum named OffRoad Cult, and seemed very open to answering questions about his process. He posted pictures as he went along so others could follow and perhaps determine where they would differ.

The existence of the internet and its community is a huge contributing factor to Steampunk’s existence. This isn’t to say that without the internet Steampunk wouldn’t exist, because people involved with Steampunk have always been interested in these topics… now they have a singular term to describe their varied interests.


What is the meaning behind this modification? Well, it’s hard to say without speaking to Marcus so I’d like to reference something from my interview with P9 which relates, I think. P9 mentioned that so much of how we interact with the outside world, family, friends, etc, is through technology (our computers). As such, shouldn’t the metaphorical importance of our technology physically look its importance? P9 said that it’s “sad” to see this “beige lump of plastic and metal” whose ugliness doesn’t properly represent their feelings about it, that being their connection to family, friends, and culture.

With this in mind, I’m beginning to see that particular opinion in these modifications. People want their computers and technology to physically represent the emotional or psychological importance. Not only that, but they want their technology to better represent their identity, how they interact with the technology, etc.

I find it fascinating that people are making these modifications. Why keyboards, I wonder? Perhaps because it’s easier to modify a keyboard in comparison to a monitor or laptop keyboard. There are pieces to pull apart and scrutinize. There are tons of functioning keyboards in the dump or Goodwill or in our basements to pull apart and experiment with, without fear of ruining the keyboard we are currently using with our machines. As mentioned by my interview subjects, people are more likely to experiment with materials that don’t cost an arm and a leg.

Moral of the story

So what can we, as designers, learn from this? Again, I like the idea of designing for disassembly. Design something that can be taken apart in some fashion without destroying the functionality or meaning. If we’re attempting to empower our user-makers to make personally identifiable appropriations, and making designs that our user-makers can use, interpret, alter, adapt, and explore, somehow we need to bring down the cost, as well.

Constraints are good, right? We need to embrace constraints? So let’s embrace cost and disassembly. It might be a step in the right direction, it might not. We won’t know until we try.

Artifact Analysis: Wooden Keyboard

Now this is an interesting keyboard modification… it’s entirely made of wood, with handmade brass keys! The creator stated briefly on the Instructable page that he was “tired of the ever present brass frame.” What other material was prevalent in Victorian designs, and subsequently Steampunk? Wood, of course.



I haven’t been able to find a lot about this creator, username Phirzcol on Instructables. Phirzcol’s profile on Instructables states this is his only instructable since he joined the website in 2007. He doesn’t have a personal website, but plans on having one soon. Phirzcol’s interests include “electronics, internet, hardware hacking, diy, science and fantasy fiction, steampunk, and anything you can make at home with few tools.”

This is my assumption (a fairly safe one, at that) based on the fact that Phirzcol has been a member of Instructables since 2007 and lists DIY and hacking as interests: Phirzcol belongs to the DIY, user-creator arm of Steampunk that I find so intriguing. Let’s analyze the keyboard with this bit of information about the creator, shall we?


This is a superficial modification of a computer keyboard, that is, the modification changes the look and feel of the keyboard, but not the function. The style of modification is declared to be Steampunk by the creator, though, to me, it simply seems more organic, perhaps because of the wooden frame, and lack of any indications that it could, potentially, be steam-powered.

The keyboard is made from an old-styled mechanical keyboard; one of the commenters suggested a keyboard from 1995 or earlier. The 1/16th inch thick hardwood was steamed for softening, and then glued to the original plastic frame with a quick dry glue. The steaming was done in order to mold the wood to the plastic. The keys were handmade from brass tubes, metal tube cutter, printed numbers and letters, cyanoacrylate for the glue, and a polymer resin.


This guy knows what he is doing, and is able to give instructions for people to replicate his work. Phirzcol not only made an entire set of keys by hand by cutting brass tubes to the correct height, printing out numbers and letters, capping off one end of the brass tube with a wooden circle and then filling the tube with a resin. He also bent wood by steaming it, applying a glue, and fitting it to the original keyboard frame. He then drilled the key holes from the back, using the plastic frame as a guide. This is not, perhaps, the most beautiful Steampunk modified keyboard, but it is obvious that a lot of time and ingenuity went into its inception.

Phirzcol knew what others were doing for their modifications, and decided to do things differently. Is this because he knew a different way to get the same effect? Is it because he didn’t have the same materials or resources as other modders? Is it because he likes to be different, and do things in a unique way? I feel it’s probably a combination of all three.

Cultural Analysis

Though this was posted in 2007, it seems those who commented on this instructable were familiar enough with Steampunk keyboard modifications that they asked why Phirzcol didn’t use existing keys from a typewriter, rather than making his own. While commenters expressed their admiration for his dedication, they seemed confused.

Why create an entirely new key, if typewriters exist and can be put to use? Why put so much time into that particular part of the project? None of the commenters seem to dispute the wooden facade of the keyboard, but they question why Phirzcol didn’t follow-through with an entirely mechanical aesthetic as seen with other Steampunk modifications by adding wooden detailing, or little mechanical flags that pop up and down depending on the different special function keys chosen (caps lock, num lock, etc). Phirzcol’s answer to many of these questions is simply, “just personal artistic preference.” I interpret this as, “That’s a pretty good idea. You do that for your project. I like mine as it is.”

This dialogue showcases the tensions within the Steampunk community, that being a differing interpretation of  Steampunk and Steampunk modifications. The mere existence of Steampunk modifications defy the constructs of what computer keyboards should look like, and how people should interact with them. Yet this modification somehow also defies the social constructs within the Steampunk keyboard modifications by only going so far.

Not painting the “clearly industrial” white power cord, for instance, upset some commenters because it detracted from the gestalt of the piece. The point of these modifications is to pretend as if the keyboard was created in that aesthetic from the start. It is meant to seem as though the keyboard belongs to the “future that never was” and is not, in fact, an old keyboard that has been made over. This is why, I feel, commenters dispute the choice of the bright blue LED light, the lack of mechanical gauges or flags, and the untouched power cable.

I am unable to tell the sex of the persons commenting, but it seems to me as though the commenters are more male than female in number. The modder, Phirzcol, is male. So again, we have a male modifying a piece of technology that for all intensive purposes represents a male-dominated profession, computing.

I’m curious about the decision to use a wooden facade rather than placing the keyboard in a wooden frame, as shown in one of my subsequent analyses. Perhaps this was the material at hand, or the material Phirzcol was familiar with. In any case, it is an approximation of  “looking period,” as stated by one of the commenters. It is not a representation of looking period. The difference, I feel, is that the wooden facade is an approximation because it is a veneer, an industrialized abstraction. Using real wood and treating it to seem old, or buying old wood in the first place, however, seems more of a representation of a period look due to the materials. One, when touching it, will feel fake. The other will delight the senses because it is an unexpected juxtaposition; organic materials performing digital functions.


Once again the ability to pull the original artifact apart without destroying its function is the first step to the personalized appropriation. If we are to empower our user-makers with our designs, therefore, I feel we need to design for dis-assembly in some form or fashion. One part of appropriation, at least in the manner I’m studying, requires a feeling of “I can try this, and I won’t break it,” or, “I can try this, and maybe I’ll break it, but I probably won’t. Let’s find out…”

Having now looked at three appropriations of keyboards, all of them different but with similarities in the act of appropriation, I feel like I’m on to something. I feel like this particular example shows how someone can be inspired by others in the Steampunk community, try their hand, share their process, and make something unique to them which also has a story to go with it.