Ergonomic Tips and Tricks for Graphic Designers, Web Designers, Artists, and Office Workers
How I’ve Tricked Out My Work Station to Make Sure I Never Go on Disability Again
I know what it’s like to wear a wrist brace for three years, to be in so much pain that I had to ice my hand after brushing my teeth, and to have my partner pay all the bills because filling out a check was just too painful. This was my life after I walked off my job painting custom designs on ceramic sinks and tiles for eight years. I had tried to delay the inevitable with Cho-pats, wrist braces and ibuprofen. I switched to half days and tried modifying my work area to accommodate my ever decreasing abilities. Then one day my hand seized up, the brush dropped and I told my boss that I’d reached my end.
Looking back, I should had quit sooner. The last year caused so much damage that I have no doubt that it had a detrimental effect on my chances for recovery. So in 1998, after I had run through two years if disability payments and exhausted every physical therapy program available, my case was settled. The verdict – permanent disability. As part of the settlement I received $20,000 which was supposed to help me transition to some new mythical life.
Now I had always been working professionally in the arts since high school. While I was at my sink painting job I was also working my butt off in my freelance career. When not at my day job painting intricate works of art, I was designing a line of edgy t-shirts that were distributed nationally through Miller’s Outpost and Pacific Sunwear, I was staff cartoonist for three local papers and was self syndicating my alternative political comic strip, and even doing cartoons for Playboy Magazine. So when I went on disability it wasn’t just about my job and loss of income, it was my entire life.
This is when I got my fist computer. My dad bought it for me for Christmas after I told him that I think my future is digital and working at home under my own conditions. Turned out to be an excellent investment on both our parts.
So unlike most people, I was already disabled before I started working on a computer and at first I could only work on it a couple of hours a day, every other day. My condition was that serious and I was required to think ergonomically from the first day I powered up my workstation.
But here I am, twelve years later and working 12 to 14 hours per day with no issues. Time, acupuncture and some really smart ergonomic choices about how to modify my work station did the trick.
Now I’m passing on some of my favorite tips and tricks for working hard and efficiently on the computer AND keeping yourself off disability.
Get Rid of The Mouse and Buy A Pen Tablet
I don’t think anyone should be using a mouse. It was an ergonomic nightmare when it was invented and it still is today. Do this little test. Hold your arm out in the mouse position – forearm parallel to the floor, elbow cocked at a 45 degree angle, your palm facing down- and extend your index finger like you are using an invisible mouse. Hold it for 30 seconds and notice how awkward it is and how your arm doesn’t feel stable and strong. Now, without changing anything else, rotate you hand into a pencil holding position. If you are right-handed you’ll rotated your hand 45 degrees to the right. Feel the difference? Notice how your shoulder relaxes and how stable your arm feels now? That’s why you need to switch from a mouse to a pen tablet. Professional designers or serious hobbyists should spend the big bucks on the Wacom Intuos but regular folk will do just fine with the very affordable Wacom Bamboo.
Get a Gaming Keyboard with Programmable Macros Hotkeys
Like a lot of people I copy and paste all day, and like many I use the Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V keyboard shortcuts. Now, I never learned to type so I use my two middle fingers and look at the keys. I’ve tried to learn to type the real way, but it hurts my tendons to use all those fingers rather than just powering through using my two longest fingers. This means I also use two hands to do my keyboard shortcuts. I tried doing the finger spread with my left hand but it irritated my tendons very quickly. If you cut and paste perhaps several hundred times per day, using two hands or even two fingers on one hand, it’s going to take its toll.
Now what if I told you could have a keyboard that could do anything – be it a keyboard shortcut, inserting a line of text or even launching an application – with just one keystroke. Well if you get a gaming keyboard with programmable hotkeys you can do just that. I’m using the Logitech G110 and it’s changed my life. I can have instant access to 12 shortcuts of my design and another 24 on reserve. But I really want just copy and paste shortcuts so I programmed all the left hotkeys for copy and all the right hotkeys for paste. Now it’s nearly impossible to miss!
Wrap Your Pens and Pencils with Foam for a Wider Grip
Pens, pencils and brushes are just too slim for sustained use. The thinner the instrument the tighter your tendons must contract. Additionally, the last 50% of your finger’s contraction takes more energy than the first 50% of the contraction. Try it yourself by picking up raisin or other small object. Notice how easy it is to start the contraction but the last 50% of the movement requires more concentration, more strength, and more tension. Wide grips on your instruments negates the need for a full contraction. It also creates a grip with some give so it’s softer and more comfortable to use. The bounce back from the foam also provides a subconscious reminder to relax your grip even when you are stressed and rushing through to deadline. The same effect is experienced by teeth grinders who use a pliable mouth guard to stop their jaw from clamping down. I use 1/8 inch black foam rubber that I get at Orchard Supply and some high quality duct tape. Electrical tape also works.
Divide Up Your Chores to Spread the Wear and Tear on Your Body
I have a pen tablet but I also use a mouse. This was at first a necessity because I covered up the right-click button on my pen with a layer of foam rubber to create a wider more economical grip. So I placed my mouse on the left side of the keyboard to handle right clicks and scrolling. Turns out it was a blessing in disguise because now I’m spreading the wear and tear on my body over both hands and not putting all the responsibilities on my right.
Set Your Computer for Single Click Action
By default you probably double-click to launch a program or view a hyperlink but what if you could do that with one click? By setting your mouse and pen clicks to single action you instantly reduce your daily clicks by 50%.
Buy some Wide Grip, Light Weight Writing Pens
I’ll make this one super easy. Just go to Staples and by their store brand Classic Grip gel ballpoint pens and a couple of packs of Classic Grip refills. I’ve used a lot of pens and these are the most economically friendly I’ve ever found. They also have a supremely smooth tip feel that just glides across the page. I’d give you a link but apparently Staples’ doesn’t have enough sense put this pen on their website so you’ll have to buy it in store.
Now a Word About Laptops
For the last two years laptops have outsold desktops. This is great for manufactures but bad for our bodies. Everything about a laptop is ergonomically wrong. The keyboard and the screen are connected causing you to hold your arms too high while simultaneous tilting your head to low. When you work on laptop you round your shoulders and bring your forearms up. Not a pretty sight.
To make matters worse more people are ditching the mouse in favor of the little touch pad, so now their posture is even more cramped. If you absolutely must use a laptop then buy a keyboard, pen tablet, monitor, and decent computer desk. Just leave the keyboard, mouse, pen tablet, and monitor set up on the desk 24/7. The pen tablet you can take with you when you travel if you choose. When you’re at home and it’s time to work on the laptop, just hook it up and use it the way you would a desktop computer. Your body will thank you.
Ergonomics…By Any Means Necessary
Ergonomics is not about looks or style – it’s about function. Don’t be shy about doing what you need to do to make it work for you. Who cares if you bought a giant mouse so you could use it with your toes or that you bought a children’s keyboard because you like the jumbo sized keys? If it works, it works. Below is my computer workstation (my giant oak drafting board is off the frame to the left) and it’s not a pretty site.
This is the “by any means” mantra in action. My Wacom tablet was just a little too low and the angle a little too flat so I propped up the back with my first computer magazine “The Winter 1998 Computing Dictionary”. It’s the same one I’ve been using with all my Wacom tablets for the last twelve years. My new Logitech Gaming keyboard was too slim and the angle too low so I set it on top of my “9th Edition Graphic Designers Guild Handbook – Pricing and Ethical Guidelines” and then put one of my package designs for Do-Goodie brownies on the back to create the proper angle. I knew the Graphic Designers Guild Handbook would be useful someday and I’m glad I didn’t eat all the brownie samples!
File Under: Ergonomic Tips for the Workplace – Computer Ergonomics – How to Upgrade Your Workstation for Better Ergonomics – Workplace Ergonomic Tips – Setting Up an Ergonomic Home Office