Patrick Paul and Adam Leeb were frequenting the same co-working space in Michigan in early 2014 when they first began discussing the pros and cons of various distraction-free writing software. Paul, a software developer, was telling Leeb all about programs that don't allow the user to backspace, or that begin to delete what's been written if the user pauses for more than 30 seconds. From these discussions came the idea for the Hemingwrite.
"If someone's going to that extreme to help them write, I figured, okay, maybe there's something to this," says Leeb, a mechanical designer. "So we came up with this idea to make a writing-dedicated hardware device and take that distraction-free software one step further." Together, Paul and Leeb designed and built the Hemingwrite, essentially an update of the standalone word-processor machines of yesterday, with an e-paper screen and cloud storage for documents. As of this writing, the device has surpassed its Kickstarter goal of $250,000 by almost a hundred grand.
Despite diverse backgrounds that span everything from investment banking to political science, Paul and Leeb's respective focuses on software development and mechanical engineering were the driving force behind the creation of the Hemingwrite. With Paul handling the on-board software as well as Postbox, Hemingwrite's unique web application for saving and syncing documents across platforms, Leeb tackled the physical product side of things, from initial rough sketches to final 3D models and production.Research began by looking at word processors of the 1980's and '90s, which were mostly tailored to the educational market. For the few that were designed for professionals, such as the TRS-80, there were around 40 to 50 different models that Paul and Leeb looked at, alongside typewriters, for inspiration. For the developer and the designer, it was crucial that the Hemingwrite be a genuinely useful tool. "Both Patrick and I are really strongly against working on things that are a flash in the pan," Leeb says. "Even though to the lay perspective the Hemingwrite might seem like a toy, it's really not."
The design process was a quick and short loop—Leeb handled everything from design to manufacturing on a very short timeline. Starting with what Leeb refers to as "the wedge," the mechanical designer began by slowly introducing the most basic, necessary features and incorporating them into this rudimentary form. In the upper left corner, a straightforward red button turns the device on and off. Two screens—one for writing and a smaller one for displaying statistics and usage info—sit just above the mechanical keyboard. Two large switches control, on the left, a folder system for organizing documents and, on the right, Wi-Fi connection options.
"The philosophy behind the switches is that we wanted to have no menus or setup screens at all," Leeb explains. "So that anything that you needed to do outside of the actual writing, we wanted it to have a physical hardware switch." Although Leeb and Paul experimented with scroll wheels and other types of buttons, ultimately they agreed that they wanted something entirely different for the Hemingwrite. They also sought to avoid control-key combinations, firmly believing that the mechanical keyboard interface should only have one purpose—writing. So they settled on the two large radio switches on either side of the device, within easy reach of the keyboard.
For the exterior casing, Leeb wanted the product to be durable and portable without needing a separate case. He opted for raising the surface of the device around elements on the face, like the two switches and the screen, allowing it to be thrown into a bag and carried around with minimal damage. "People call it hipster, which I actually take slight offense to, but it's fine," Leeb says. "The design is actually more of a military, industrial style." The device also has a built-in handle that tucks away for easy carrying.
Two of the many TRS-80 models the designers looked at during the research phase
Modeling "the wedge" in SolidWorks
Modeling the handle
Leeb gave the Hemingwrite a wider base for squatness, along with decorative cuts along the sides to streamline the design and echo its predecessors. He took particular inspiration from the Olivetti Valentine, admiring its skeletonized keyboard and total lack of skeumorphism. While a skeletonized keyboard was out of the question for production's sake, Leeb did borrow details like the added rim around the keyboard area and corner radiuses. "There's only really a hint of that left in the design, but it was something that I really liked," he says. "Other aspects I tried to keep fairly simple. I wanted the metal part of the housing to go above the key caps, so that's why it's raised where the switches are, that's why that's raised to protects the keys."
The width of the machine was dictated by the use of a full-size mechanical keyboard, one of Leeb and Paul's favorite features. "When you start showing a mechanical keyboard to a regular person, they just have this incredible reaction to it," Leeb says. "The new ones are really cheap and they're fine, but people get this immediate reaction to typing on our keyboard—it's as though we invented this keyboard, when in reality this is something that we are just bringing into the mainstream again." The height for the entire design was based on what was necessary for the angle of the keyboard in combination with the screen, allowing some room for the switches and other necessary hardware and electronics beneath the hood. The angle of the keyboard was based on ergonomics best practices, and placed as close to the work surface as possible.
An aluminum blank in the Haas CNC mill
Left: Leeb making the handle cup. Right: final machining of the case
The version-one prototype
As for the screen size and placement: "That's the best that we can do, really," Leeb says. "We tell people that it's a similar experience to writing on a laptop. You know, it's no better and no worse. I'd love to have the screen at eye level, but to have a continuous device that you can carry around is pretty tough if you want to have, like, a detachable screen or some humongous screen attachment." Leeb wanted to avoid hinges of any kind, which also affected decisions around the screen's aspect ratio. "As soon as you actually start using it, you really don't need a big screen," Leeb says. "It's better because your eyes don't have to travel that far."
The final design was modeled in SolidWorks, beginning with that initial wedge form and building out the design. "I started with the wedge, but it was all virtual," Leeb says. "I literally didn't fabricate anything, so the first product I showed was about 99 percent of what it looks like right now."
Today, with the Kickstarter clock ticking, Paul and Leeb's main focus is getting the Hemingwrite manufactured and in the hands of backers. Any funds raised beyond their goal, the two promise, will go toward further developing the software to support third-party applications like Final Draft and Scrivener. "Are there things that we could potentially add on to it?" Leeb asks. "Yes. But honestly, we're not thinking about that right now. We just need to get this product out. The timer is on."
Carly Ayres is a writer using language and interaction to engage people in new and interesting ways. She previously penned "In the Details," Core77's weekly deep-dive into the making of a new product or project. Along the way, she covered rugs with dinosaurs, shrink-wrapped buildings, kinetic military boots, and a myriad of other topics. She attended the Rhode Island School of Design and lives in New York.