Ergonomics for Graphic & Web Designers

2006 marked my 11th year in the business of graphic and web design and
also the first year I started having trouble with repetitive strain
injuries. Luckily, I've been able to avoid the dreaded carpal tunnel
syndrome, a condition in which the median nerve is compressed as it
passes through the carpal tunnel in the wrist. I was always
particularly aware of ergonomic issues, which could cause such
injuries, so I made sure to always have proper arm and wrist support.
However, simply spending too much time in front of the computer,
something designers like myself freely admit to, can cause CTS and many
other injuries.

Of Mice and Repetitive Strain Injuries

I
had purchased a Logitech thumb trackball mouse
(http://www.logitech.com) about 5 years ago. Although a little weird at
first, I soon got very used to this mouse and it is probably one of the
reasons why I've been able to avoid CTS. However, earlier in the year I
started to experience pain in my thumb, which worsened over the course
of 2 months. I continued to use the mouse even though the pain kept
getting worse. Eventually, my thumb swelled up to two times its regular
size and became so excruciatingly painful that I could not use it at
all. Nothing seemed to help with the pain – anti-inflammatory drugs,
topical creams, ice, etc. I switched to using my left hand with a
regular mouse, which made working on design projects twice as hard. I
ended up getting acupuncture and a special liniment to reduce the
swelling in my thumb, but the trackball was officially retired. I do
think the trackball has a place in ergonomics, but not for the
intensive use of a designer. Perhaps their new NuLOOQ Navigator might
be something to try out in the future, although it's main purpose is to
work in conjunction with a regular mouse.

The next mouse I tried
was the Evoluent VerticalMouse (http://www.evoluent.com). I had done a
lot of research after the "thumb tragedy" on alternatives to the
standard, clunky mouse and had read positive reviews on the Evoluent.
The price did seem a bit high ($75, and $105 for the left-handed
version), but I took a chance anyway. I used the mouse for about 2
weeks but began to experience more hand and thumb pain. I realized that
while I was concentrating on a design project, I would be gripping the
mouse fairly hard. Also, the mouse is quite large and I have small
hands, so it didn't end up being the best fit for me.

For me,
the winner in the mouse category was Apple's Mighty Mouse
(http://www.apple.com/mightymouse/). Thankfully, the company finally
realized the importance of a 3 button mouse and its slim design was a
perfect fit for my hand. Within a week of using it, I no longer
experienced any hand pain.

I also must note the value of a
Wacom graphics tablet. These tablets do come with a regular mouse, but
the real advantage is of course with the pen. With a little bit of
practice, you can learn to use the pen for all the functions you would
use a mouse for and many designers claim that the tablets are about as
ergonomic as you can get.

My own personal choice is to use a
combination of the Might Mouse and the Wacom tablet. Even research
proves that ergonomic variety in work tasks usually makes for more
comfort.

Musical Chairs

I feel like an expert
now in chairs only because I've been through about 10 of them in the
last 3 years. I won't even go in to which ones didn't work and why.
I'll save you the trouble and cut to the chase. If you want ergonomics
in a chair, and you're a designer, and you work 8 (or more) hours a day
in front of a computer, do yourself a favor and invest in a Neutral
Posture chair (http://www.neutralposture.com/).

This is by far
the best chair I've ever owned and well worth the close to $800 I paid
for it (I actually purchased my through http://www.bluehen.com as there
wasn't a distributor close by to me). Like everything else in the
ergonomic world, consider it an investment in your health and well
being. And please do donate your old office equipment and furniture and keep it out of the landfill!

One of the best things about the Neutral Posture chairs
is the variety and options. I ended up with one of their 6000 Series
chairs, with gel arm rests, extra seat padding, and a foot rest. They
also have a wide variety of fabric colors to match any décor.

I'd
highly recommend checking out their website and downloading chair
specs, then trying to find a dealer near you to try them out. For long
hours designing, you really can't beat them.

Desk Do's and Don'ts

There
are really only a handful of things you need to remember when you're
considering a desk for your computer workstation, and it's my opinion
that you should buy your chair first, then get a desk.

First
is the height of the desk. Adjustable height will be the most ergonomic
you can get – that way, no matter whether you're short or tall, or if
other people will also be using the same workstation, the desk can
adjust to accommodate. When seated, your chair arm rests and the level
of the keyboard surface should be in line. This is key to ergonomic
body alignment. Having the arm rests be below or above the surface of
the keyboard area will cause strain in the body (usually in the neck,
upper back, and shoulders). If you can't find (or afford) a completely
adjustable desk, there are a number of desks out there that have a pull
out keyboard surface or "drawer". You could also purchase an adjustable
keyboard tray separately. Just make sure if you do, it has an are to
rest the mouse, and that it will still align properly with your chair
arm rest.

Another aspect of height is the top surface of the
desk, where you set your computer monitor. Most good monitors have
adjustable height, but you should look for a desk where the top surface
is not unreasonably high or way too low for you. Your monitor should be
between 18" – 30" from you and your eye level should be at the top or
just below the top of your screen.

Additionally, you should
think about the placement of your desk in your work area. Be careful of
windows or very bright lights, which may add glare to your computer
screen.

Ergonomics Is Your Friend

There is an
excellent workstation ergonomics checklist available online here:
http://www.me.berkeley.edu/ergo/services/tips/checklist.html This is a
great starting point to learn more about ergonomics and how your
current area might be improved.

Once you do have an ergonomic
workstation, it's important to achieve maximum benefit by taking
regular rest breaks and performing a few simple exercises to avoid any
long-term injuries. You can find some of these exercises here:
http://safecomputingtips.com/ergonomic-exercises.html

I've
covered only the minimum of ergonomic tips in this article (and they're
all geared towards designers). To learn more, I highly recommend
conducting more of your own research or consulting with an ergonomics
specialist. However, I hope that the information presented is enough to
get you moving in the right direction towards a comfortable work space
and might help other graphic and web designers to avoid repetitive
strain injuries and other computer work related problems.

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