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How To Design A GMK Keycap Set: An Introduction

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One of the most exciting aspects of the mechanical keyboard hobby is how anyone can become more than just a consumer – anyone can give designing a keycap set a shot and become a contributor as well!   I’ve been involved with designing keycap sets long before I worked for GMK – in fact my set Jukebox SA was the very first SA set to run on Massdrop years ago. Since then I’ve designed a few other kits (GMK Honeywell, GMK Mint Dolch) but have concentrated my efforts on helping other designers find good homes for their sets, and I’ve had the absolute pleasure of working directly with many of the designers in the community.    If you want to learn how to design a GMK keycap set (or any other profile – much of what I will go over will be universally helpful for any profile) I’ll be providing multiple articles here to walk you through every step of the process and best practices to use when designing a set.  The steps I will go over in detail are as follows:   ▪️ Basic overview / considerations when beginning to design a keycap set and where to start ▪️ Creating an Interest Check thread ▪️ Designing novelties ▪️ Creating keycap kitting ▪️ Selecting colors ▪️ Creating packaging artwork  
Basic Overview: Designing a keycap set from start to finish  Creating a keycap set may sem deceptively simple, but there is actually quite a bit of nuance that goes into creating a successful set. To kick things off I want to provide a basic overview of the entire process, and I’ll be going further into detail on each aspect in subsequent posts. In these subsequent posts I will be concentrating exclusively on the requirements for creating a GMK keycap set, but in this introductory post I will speak in broader terms. I think it is important to understand all the choices you have when designing a keycap set.  
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The first step is simply coming up with a basic idea of what kind of set you want to create. Do you want to create a set that pays homage to favorite movie or TV show? Perhaps you want to make a set where you have a very specific colorway in mind, or want to use colors that clearly represent a very specific concept (synthwave, 80’s/90’s, etc).   The next step is to start drafting out how you want your set to look. Personally, I recommend using Keyboard Layout Editor (KLE), an online tool that allows you to easily experiment with colorways and kitting. During this stage I spend a lot of time experimenting with different color layouts – trying different colors for modifiers, alphas, legends, and even possible accent keys. There is a “standard” way to arrange colors on a keycap set, but there are no rules – you can arrange the colors as you see fit!  Finally, during this initial stage you want to figure out what kind of keycaps you want to use. Do you want to create a set for GMK’s Cherry profile, or perhaps Signature Plastics SA profile, or even Drops MT3 profile. Each different manufacturer and profile have very specific limitations and requirements, so you want to know what profile you will be designing for as soon as possible in the process. In some cases, like with MT3, it will also be important to decide if you want to use doubleshot legends, or dye sub legends. Alternatively if you want to design a GMK Cherry, or SP SA set, there is no choice – these profiles only use the doubleshot process.   Interest Check After you have a very basic concept of your keycap set, I’d recommend starting an Interest Check to get feedback on your set. The community aspect of this hobby is still incredibly important to the success of just about any keycap set, and getting feedback is an equally important step. I personally use geekhack as the forum style posting is excellent for keeping up with a post over time. During the interest check stage it’s important to keep an open mind and really listen to feedback from the community. Personally, when I was designing my first set Jukebox, the community feedback was invaluable. They really helped make the set what it became, a set that was far better than anything I ever could have done on my own.  The community feedback is also very useful for kitting, because it’s almost impossible to keep track of all the new layouts and keyboards that the community is working on.  Keycap Kitting Speaking of creating kits, kit selection is a really delicate part of the process. Personally I find this stage to be the most difficult part of the entire process. Kitting is where you decide what keycaps you want your set to include, and how/if you want to split the caps up into different kits. For some sets you may want to have multiple kits, and for others you may want a single base set to be the only set you offer. There are many things to consider when selecting how you want to split up kits – and I’ll go over these in detail in a later post.  
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Novelty Keys  At the same time the IC ins happening, you should also be working on any novelty keys, new fonts, or special keys you want to add to the set. Not every set will need special keys (my old set GMK Honeywell was awarded the Deskthority “Set of the Year” for example, and it included no special keys or novelties). When designing novelties, be aware of any protected materials, especially if you are designing a set based off of an existing work (like a movie, book, show, etc). When designing new legends you need to keep in mind a few important details – most important what the specific manufacturing tolerances are for the caps you are using. For example, if you are creating a doubleshot keycap set, you can’t have novelties with more than 2 colors, or shading.     Colors The final consideration for this stage is selecting the colors that will be used. This is often a deceptively hard part of the process. When selecting colors it is best practice to use either RAL or Pantone, with RAL being preferred as it is intended to be used for plastic manufacturing. When working with colors there are a few things you should be aware of. First – make sure you calibrate your monitor, and always check your work on as many different screens as possible. If you are using a “gaming mode” or some high contrast mode, turn it off. Colors on the screen never translate perfectly to how colors will look in real life, which is why I always suggest getting sample plastic chips if possible. Anytime I use pantone colors I always get the samples. These allow me to look at the colors and contrast between the colors in a variety of lighting. Buyers will always want to know the specific colors used in any set – so having this information readily available is quite important.  
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Packaging Now that the design process is wrapping up all that is left to do is design the packaging and get the required files to the vendor so that they can place the order. Different manufacturers each have their own packaging, but templates should be readily available.   Mod Edit: Formatting
(Edited by moderator HoffmanMyster)
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Lexxed
16
Dec 29, 2022
Nice article. Another part on font selection would be good. I still want a decent set with comic sans
@GMK_Andy I’ve own 3 sets of Jukebox keycaps lol (and it’s the only color scheme I have multiples of). Not sure how ownership of the color schemes work or if you had involvement is Tao-Hao and Mt3 jukebox, just wanted to say I’m a fan!
GMK_Andy
103
Dec 17, 2022
sietaiHey!! Yeah, I've been involved in all of them :) thanks so much!!
Fantastic article, I'm already looking forward to the remaining pieces of the series. I'd say if there was one element to the hobby that I'd want to wear my Contributor Hat on, it'd be making a keycap set. This is highly informative. Thanks.
(Edited)
GMK_Andy
103
Dec 17, 2022
Ryan_VPlease let me know if you have any stuff you want to specifically hear about!
M0les
7
Dec 15, 2022
This is very interesting. I can see a new time-sink in my future.
It would be interesting to know the implications of making a set such as the header image wob katakana where every alpha key was, I'm assuming, a custom mold. Do you need to run a group buy with 2x, 10x, 100x more sales than a conventional set?
Are there colors that are known to be more problematic or even impossible to achieve?
bcusynot
0
Jan 17, 2023
Specifically, what is a hyper-neon color you are unable to produce? And, is a not fully mixed plastic effect achievable on a GMK set?
GMK_Andy
103
Jan 17, 2023
bcusynotWhat do you mean? If you're selecting RAl or Pantone generally we can do it all, the neons being the exception due to materials in them. No, we get our raw materials from a supplier in Germany that specializes in making and color matching the material. It comes mixed.
KLage
0
Dec 14, 2022
Hi @GMK_Andy, great article. I look forward to reading the subsequent ones! I'd like to know if there are any productions in queue that will include the Mac modifiers.
lfchawkeye
35
Dec 14, 2022
What is the expected production lead time on a GMK keyset these days? Is there a list of sets currently in production queue, by chance?
TyPo.mk
1
Dec 17, 2022
So all 143 sets in queue will be done in the next 9 months? (Barring color matching issues)
GMK_Andy
103
Dec 18, 2022
TyPo.mkYup! I will have actual numbers in a post after the holidays but we are producing ~2x the number of caps per month, as compared to last year at this time (~4-5 million caps compared to ~2.5 million) along with just adding a new sorting machine that will greatly improve the accuracy and speed at which sets can be sorted (this was a bottleneck). As I mentioned, I will provide real data here in a large post I'll share across communities after the holidays when the team has time to pull the real numbers for me.
rfmarves
1
Dec 14, 2022
What is that disk-like thing shown in the main picture, right above the keyboard?
GMK_Andy
103
Dec 17, 2022
rfmarvesProbably a metal tin that an artisan shipped in? Honestly, not sure though!
GMK_Andy
103
Dec 14, 2022
If anyone has any specific questions please leave them here in the comments! I'll be sure to address them here or in future posts.
GMK_Andy
103
Dec 17, 2022
Hey! Excellent question, thank you for asking! So I'll definitely go over this more in an article just about creating new legends, but I'll go ahead and give a general overview. With doubleshot legends you essentially need to make a new mold for any new legend, including novelties, that you want to make. This used to be quite expensive as we had to send out these files to have them made by a third party. We did get our own machine in the last few years so we make all new legends in house, making it far cheaper and more viable to make new novelties and even new fonts entirely! So, consider new languages. These require all new molds anytime we add a new language, but in cases like this, if the langauge will be available for community use, we often cover quite a bit of the costs ourselves even. So these days I would say that it is absolutely viable to make an entirely new font - as long as the set is moderately popular and reaches decent order numbers it won't even be all that much more expensive than a set without a custom font! Here is a great article on Deskthority about doubleshot caps and the manufacturing process! https://deskthority.net/wiki/Double-shot_moulding
GMK_Andy
103
Dec 17, 2022
We do a lot of entirely new fonts - a few years ago this was a lot more expensive, but now that we can mill new molds in house this isn't really that difficult or expensive. We've made quite a few new full langauge fonts in the past few years, along with hundreds of novelties and new icons! But the general point you make is correct. There is certainly an element of needing more time to make the molds, and having more specifications and restrictions on what can/can't be produced because of the process. So things like gradients for example, are not possible as doubleshot, where dye sub or pad printing could totally do that. Same with caps with 3 or 4 different colors - that would mean triple or quad shot caps, and we don't do that either.
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