You want to design a custom keyset! Everyone has different motivations behind designing a custom keyset, and having motivation is the best first step! However, between being inspired and having a keyset delivered, there are so many steps and hopefully some of what I share about my own experience can help demystify some of those steps!
This may be the hardest part, but I'm assuming if you're on the warpath to create a keyset, then you've already found your inspiration. Whether it's because you want to design the cutest novelties, want to bless your keyboard with your anime waifu colorscheme, or because you just have a few favorite colors that you want to put into a keyset, being inspired with a goal will help drive your project forward. Maybe the goal is just to challenge yourself to see if this a project you can accomplish! Find your inspiration, set your goal, and always re-evaluate where you are from accomplishing your goal. You may even end up readjusting your goal as you work through the keyset design process, and that's ok! It's also good to start thinking about what profile you'd like to run your keyset in as that will affect a few decisions down the line about which color system to use, what kits you'll be able to offer, what material your keyset will be made from, etc.
My inspiration and driving force for creating my keysets mostly revolve around a strong desire for creative outlet and wanting pretty colors on my keyboards!
I truly believe that picking colors is the most difficult part of running a keyset. You want to choose colors that present a coherent theme, and are compatible with manufacturer specifications for production.
I've worked directly with Signature Plastics and Keyreative, and I also have some knowledge of GMK requirements based off of discussions I've had. I'm going to make a general blanket statement and say that I believe most factories either work with the RAL color system and/or the Pantone color system. GMK almost exclusively prefers RAL, I believe, while Signature Plastics and Keyreative are both open to matching Pantone swatches.
With Bliss, I requested color matching to a color available in Pantone's plastic chip, which is only available for a specific Pantone system.
With Eternal, I first tried to find a gradient across different systems, but quickly got frustrated trying to get my colors in line. I ended up picking colors from the Pantone CMYK Guide system and Pantone Formula Guide system. I purchased these Pantone guides, which are big swatch books printed on paper, so that I would have a consistent medium to compare colors across.
This process is also expensive so if you can, I would try to see if your designer friends have swatches for these color systems on hand. I've probably purchased over $700 in swatches and color guides to date. This is partially due to having to send a CMYK guide to Keyreative as they didn't already have one on hand. Pantone also releases new books once a year so your books will go out of date quickly! It's pretty frustrating...
Having a properly color calibrated monitor will definitely help ease some of the pain of this process. Nothing is worse than setting up expectations for a certain color palette only to have the delivered product look completely different! That being said, there will be differences between everyones' monitors and perceptions of colors, but the goal here is to be as accurate as possible while staying true to your vision of your product.
Design Legends, Icons, and Novelties
The process of designing icons, at least for me, is the most time consuming of the entire process. I'm sure this is due to the fact that I'm not really a designer by nature, I've just always been interested in art and creative expression. I spent every night after work, weeks on end, struggling to come up with a coherent set of legends for modifiers. With Bliss, it took me another month after launching my interest check to come up with novelty designs! I use Adobe Illustrator to design the icons as well as organize the flatlays for kits. Of course, you do not have to design anything custom at all. I do believe that it will make your set stand out from others, as well as adding a personal touch to your set. With double-shot keycaps, there is less freedom due to the cost of new molds needed for each custom design, but with dye-sub, you are only limited by your imagination.
Another option, if you are not a designer in the technical sense, but still have ideas for custom designs, is to commission a designer to make your ideas into reality. There are people in the community, and I'm sure many artists, who know their way around designing software and would be willing to work with you, for a fee, to help flesh out your ideas!
You have your inspiration! You've painstakingly chosen colors and diligently designed your custom icons. What now? Unless you're very, very well off, you'll most likely need community support to back your project in order to meet the MOQ requirements to get your keyset produced. This means it's time to interest check your project and this is equivalent to marketing your product to the community and receiving feedback on how to make your keyset as appealing as possible to enough people, while still being yours. This is also around the time I contact manufacturers in order to give them a heads up that a new project is coming their way, as well as ask for quotes for kits.
Depending on the manufacturer, they may or may not be okay with you reaching out to them directly. GMK does not like to work with designers, so your vendor will help you get in touch with them and ask for quotes. I am lucky that Signature Plastics and Keyreative, which proxies communication through zFrontier, were open to working with me directly. You'll need to contact your desired manufacturer in order to arrange pricing for your kits and see what's possible come production time.
Signature Plastics: offers SA, DSA, DCS, DSS profiles and works with both ABS and PBT plastic. They do not offer light legend on dark base for their PBT caps so keep that in mind if you're looking to do something like Bliss with them - it has to be ABS.
Keyreative: offers KAT, KAM, DSA profiles and are known for their PBT plastic. I'm not sure if they work with ABS plastic. Keyreative also offers reverse dye-sub on their PBT so I will be able to run KAT Bliss in PBT!
These manufacturers offer cherry profile: GMK, JTK, Infinikey, and ePBT.
This is not a comprehensive list of manufacturers and profiles there are so many more that I don't really know enough about so I'll just list a few more sculpts here: XDA, MDA, MT3.
Planning out kits for your keyset heavily depends on the manufacturer. Some manufacturers do not offer lower or affordable MOQs for smaller kits, such as GMK, which is why many GMK sets have a Base and Novelties, and side kits that struggle in the community or need help from vendors. SA offers lower MOQs which is nice for smaller kits. Keyreative has one of the best pricing systems where there is a total per unit MOQ so you could sell one Armaic kit and not only will they will make it for you, but it will be relatively affordable!
Kitting also comes down to personal preference, since it depends on how many layouts you'd like your keyset to support. I think there's a fine line between supporting everything and making sure your keyset is affordable for the majority of people who will be buying it. The "standard" is to support between 60 - TKL, with 65/75 support and sometimes 1800 support. There are some funny layouts such as the 2u shift layout and the FC660 layout which requires two 2.25u shifts that are in the grey territory of if they should be supported or not. I err on the side of offer as much support as possible but keep it affordable. For Bliss I did not offer as many unique keys because each key requires a custom mold which means it increases the cost of the kit by $2 - $3! That's pretty pricey since it translates to almost $5 to the customer after fees. However for Eternal, due to Keyreative's pricing and kitting system, I offered many alternate kits which allowed people to buy the alternate layouts they wanted without affecting the few hundred others who have more standard keyboards.
While renders are not strictly necessary, they are highly recommended because they are basically the product shot of your keyset. It gives others something tangible to see, appreciate, and remember as a real product instead of a 2D flatlay. Rendering can definitely be done on your own as there are a bunch of resources out there! Blender is one program highly recommended as it's free, extremely powerful, and has many free tutorials on YouTUbe. Fusion 360 is another program which works great out of the box, and while you do have to pay for it, you can obtain it for free with a student license if you're still a student! There are also many community members such as my friend Abec13 who will take render orders and do really professional renders!
Putting It All Together
Once you've gotten your keyset project to this point, which I believe can now be considered a product, I would post! hype! share! about your keyset. Reddit forums r/MechanicalKeyboards and r/mechmarket, geekhack, Discord channels, any social media platforms you are on, are all platforms for you to share, promote, and receive feedback on your project. Many people will prepare an interest check form on Google forms to collect statistics on which kits people would be interested in and take suggestions on things they would want changed or added.
Sparkles on Top
If you want to go the extra mile, everyone appreciate color coordinated goodness with their keyset. A custom deskmat is pretty standard add-on now-a-days, with other custom color matched items such as custom cables, custom keyboard sleeves, custom wrist-rests, and artisan collaborations offered. This is another area where the sky is the limit! I like to incorporate a deskmat, cable, and artisan collaborations with my keysets.
Group buy logistics are covered by your vendor. Once you've gotten to this point, you deserve a HUGE pat on your back for all the work you've done to get to this point! Don't slow down on the marketing during this time. Get the word out that your keyset is in group buy and could use support! A huge note is to be considerate with your marketing. This is definitely a personal opinion but nothing is worse than someone who is really in your face and aggressively markets their project on posts/channels for other projects and really turns me off from wanting to support them. Work with your vendor and your friends to rally for the sales you need for your keyset!
Fulfillment is also covered by your vendor. I wanted to include this step just to share some information on the behind the scenes. Typically, the manufacturer will ship out separate shipments to each vendor. So if you have an NA, CA, EU, Asia vendor, then the manufacturer will ship each vendors' orders to them directly. This is why MKEU always gets GMK orders out before those of us in NA! It's also why most NA SA Bliss orders have shipped before MKEU or Daily Clack have even received their shipments... although the good ole 'rona might have something to do with that as well. After the vendor receives their order, they then pack each of their customers' orders and then ship them out to you!
Receive the Set
This is the best part! Enjoy the wonderful fruits of your labors.
I hope your keyset will be everything you dream of ✨