I've designed a few keycap sets (Jukebox SA and Jukebox Cubic, GMK Honeywell: The Deskthority Set of the Year in 2017, and GMK Mint Dolch). I've collaborated on countless others, and I've picked up a few good tips and tricks for creating a successful keycap set along the way.
Massdrop has been heavily involved in the mechanical keyboard community for a few years now, and has really become one of the go-to places for custom keycap set drops. Before Massdrop most group buys for keycap sets were run on the forums, which had its ups and downs.
Almost two years ago I created the Jukebox keycap set, which ran on Massdrop as their first SA profile drop, with my second run of the set happening earlier this year. Though the overall design (color, profile) stayed the same, many aspects of the kit changes as a result of the ever changing community and popularity of custom sets since my first drop. A lot of thought and consideration went into the second drop, and I thought it may be good to share some of those things with the community here so that everyone can get a better idea of what does actually go into making a set.
To get things started I'm just going to the aspects of a set the designer has to decide on, and try to list out the available choices where possible. Remember, there is no one place to start when designing a set, but in most cases one set decision will determine others down the line:
The first real step when designing a set is to create a color scheme for the set. This generally doesn't include picking any possible Pantone colors you want. Most manufacturers have a limited number of colors available (though some have started doing custom colors recently).
Signature Plastics, one of the major manufacturers of custom sets, has a fairly large number of choices available for both ABS and PBT. For a full list of colors check out their website: http://pimpmykeyboard.com/colors/
GMK has slightly few colors available, but has fewer redundant colors than SP and really has very solid colors despite the smaller selection.
The color differences make it hard to translate some sets from one material to another, or from one manufacturer to another. Hyperfuse stands out as a good example of how different the colors actually look when using SP or GMK, despite it being "the same set."
PROFILE AND MANUFACTURER
Choosing a profile for the set essentially chooses the profile as well. Signature Plastics owns the SA, DSA, and DCS profiles and GMK only does Cherry profile. In my case, the taller vintage inspired SA profile by Signature Plastics was the perfect fit for my 50's inspired theme. TABS SA profile was as much a part of the overall theme of the set as the color scheme itself. Other sets, such as Hyperfuse and Carbon, have seen great success being run as different profiles.
Speaking of profiles, there are quite a few of them. Here is a picture that really showcases what I'm talking about:
Obviously not all of these profiles can even be made today. SA DSA, SA DCS, SP SA, and Cherry are the main profiles that the community designers use, as Signature Plastics and GMK (Cherry Profile) are the major manufactures willing to make custom sets. Beyond just personal preference and aesthetics, some profiles have benefits others don't have. DSA and sets that use only Row 3 SA are uniform profiles (where others are sculpted), meaning each row is exactly the same height. This means that users of alternate layouts can easily swap around the alpha keys in any way they like without the need for additional keys or kits. This makes profiles like DSA perfect for kits that are designed to fit as many keyboards and layouts as possible (Granite is a prime example of a set that does this almost perfectly!)
MATERIAL AND LEGENDS
There are two major types of plastic that keycaps are made from: ABS and PBT. People will argue that one is better than the other endlessly, but at the end of the day both Signature Plastics and GMK make very high quality keycaps that pretty much blow away any stock keycaps. Possible combinations of legends and materials include:
Cherry Profile ABS Double shots
DSA ABS Double shots
DSA PBT Dye Sublimated
SA ABS Double shots
DCS ABS Double Shots
DCS PBT Dye Sublimated
There are three major process types for legends: pad printing, dye sublimation, and double shot molds.
Pad printing is not really used on any mass produced custom sets, and is the worst of the three in terms of longevity and durability. The benefit to pad printing is that is is very cost effective to make a one of a kind custom set (WASD Keyboards will do a full custom set for around $50).
Double Shot keycaps have legends that will never fade. The downside to double shots is that custom legends get pricy fast, because a new master mold must be created for each new legend.
Dye Sublimation is an excellent middle ground of being extremely durable yet also cost effective for making custom legends because there is no additional cost have a new legend, font, or novelty.
With just those logistical options out of the way, the hard part begins. Creating the base kits and child deals.
CREATING THE BASE KIT AND CHILD DEALS
Clearly there are a lot of options open for designers to choose from, with each decision coming with it's own constraints and limitations. Having a good "set philosophy" in the early stages of creating a set helps a lot. With just those logistical options out of the way and decisions made in all of those departments, the hard part begins. Creating the base kit and child deals.
This is where having a strong philosophy behind the set really comes in handy, as this is the determining stage where the keyboards and layouts covered are decided, as well as how much it will cost.
Obviously the more keys in a kit, the more expensive it gets. The more larger keys (modifiers, spacebars) in a kit, the exponentially more expensive it gets. For double shot sets, any novelty keys or custom legends are going to add a hefty cost as well.
I'm going to talk about my decisions with Jukebox and how they differed from Round 1 and Round 2 a year later to help me more clearly give insight into this stage of the process.
Jukebox is an ABS SA Sculpted Double Shot keycap set produced by Signature Plastics. During the first run of Jukebox I really only had kits that covered the most popular keyboard types (60%, TKL, Full Size, Winkeyless) along with an international kit and Dvorak/Colemak kit. My kits were split up and looked something like this:
The base kit (top left) covered a full TKL, and included a few extra keys catered to 60% users. So buyers with full size keyboards had to buy the base kit+number pad kit, winkeyless (tsangan) users would need the adapter kit and base kit, etc.
In the year after the drop the Planck and Ergodox Infinity both has hugely successful drops on Massdrop, and were popular enough that I needed to really consider and cater to those users for the next drop. With the first run those kits just wouldn't have sold, as there wasn't the userbase or interest. This made my original Base Kit really clunky, as those users would have to buy the expensive base kit with all of the standard modifiers they didn't need, along with the dedicated Planck or Ergodox kits.
This image is quite crappy and small, but it shows how I split up the kits for Round 2:
The big difference is that the base kit was just the alphas (top left) for Round 2. This allowed everyone to buy the set just for the keyboard they wanted to cover, and have the option to cover others easily if they desired. I tried to make sure that people weren't buying too many keys they didn't need though, and this seemed like the best approach.
Now, another huge aspect of Round 2 was that I wanted people to be able to cover almost any keyboard for under $100. This was possible for TKLs, Plancks, and Ergodox's. The drawback to this was having smaller kits than I could have had. The Ergodox kit, for example, was one of the first for the dox with legends. I ended up sticking with the stock layout that the Ergodox Infinity shipped with along with a few extra keys, instead of trying to be a completionist and cover as many possible layouts as possible.
Decisions like that are very hard to make. Obviously I'd love for everyone to have correct legends for their desired layout, but in many cases that would mean everyone would pay more for the kit because of extra keys they wouldn't end up using. Round 2 sold nearly 10x more than Round 1, which means something was going right, but even still it can always be improved and tweaked for future releases.
This was just my strategy for my specific set, surely not the only way to approach set creation. There is also a huge difference in running a Signature Plastics set and a GMK set.
GMK is a much tougher market to crack. The sets are significantly more expensive, meaning they normally have fewer overall sales. GMK also has higher MOQ's than SP. Many times, designers will make a "universal" kit for a custom GMK set. This means a single kit with no child deals that already covers as many keyboard possibilities as possible (generally 60%, TKL, TK, Winkeyless + Novelties/Extras if any). This approach almost guarantees that all buyers will end up paying for a significant chunk of keys they will never use, BUT it ensures that all kits reach MOQ if the set is popular enough.
Moral of the story: designers really do their best to please as many people as possible, but pleasing everyone just isn't realistic. Many designers even do open Interest Checks where they welcome any and all feedback about their kits, and try to determine what ideas and kits are popular enough to reach MOQ. These sets often take months to arrive after ordering, because they are all made to order as well! So if instant gratification is something you need, stay away from custom sets! Something that Massdrop has really done well is spacing out custom sets appropriately. Obviously you can't just run a custom set every week. This would make lead times for the sets insanely long, and also would decrease the buyers for every drop.
Hopefully this has helped some people realize what all goes into making these keycap sets that pop up on Massdrop and forums from time to time! If you ever want to try to create a set and need help you can always check out my sub /r/keycapdesigners on reddit, or Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, I'm always more than helpful to help or answer questions.
This was slightly rushed, so I'll probably edit/fix any correction needed over time! if you see anything to change let me know! Also, feel free to ask any questions you may have!