A world away from keyboard and screen

Repetitive strain injury is a real hindrance, but Jenny Theolin argues that it also can be an opportunity to rediscover the essence of design

I’m not typing this. I’ve got repetitive strain injury pain in my hands, arms, chest, shoulders and neck. Yes, it’s a bummer.

But this isn’t a sob story or one designed to scare you. I just want to share the two questions I’ve had to ask myself: what could our problem-solving industry do to solve this particular problem, and what does the prevalence of RSI tell us about the way we’re doing our jobs as designers?

I’ve got an old Virgin Trains ad in my mind as I write (and someone else types). It seems to sum up the second, bigger question well. ’Man who go on big train have big idea…’ was the pay-off, and it was all about how our best creative moments come in ’downtime’. Except that these days, man who go on train will be working, and perhaps too busy tapping and clicking away to have a big idea.

Of course, we’d all love more downtime. But can we afford to see it as a luxury? Jon Steel – who revels in a story about running his Blackberry over with his car (twice) – put it more starkly, asking the pertinent question: Did anyone ever tell you about a brilliant idea that came to them… while they were in the office? ’Lateral thinking’, ’diagonal thinking’, ’obliquity’ – call it what you like, our industry is all about solving problems sideways.

Coming at things sideways probably means not getting stuck in too many mental or physical ruts. Are there good ways to force us away from our work (it’s no longer enough to get away from your desk, you have to get away from your handheld, multitasking device too), to change our scene or get us out ’into the field’ (that’s the place, after all, where our work is supposed to make a difference)?

And it’s not just about the space to have the ’big ideas’, either. It’s about all the tools we use for thinking, communicating and working together, every day.

Some technologies can seduce us into keeping our audiences, our end-users, and our clients at arm’s length. Picking up the phone instead of e-mailing; a spot of secret shopping instead of another Google search; some time spent staring at the wall – all these things will cut our keyboard time, and could well be a shortcut to better work and better working relationships.

Writers will wax lyrical over longhand, versus computer, versus antique typewriter – the point for us to take away might be that different ways of writing yield different results, and to maybe try all of them at different times – availability of antique typewriters on Ebay notwithstanding. I’ll leave it to others to discuss the evils of Power Point as a way of communicating, except to note in passing how our ’default setting’ when we present ideas is often a 2D, on-screen talking point – rather than using objects, locations, real people or stories.

Then there’s drawing. Will we soon see our first generation of designers who can’t draw? Inclusive design guru Julia Cassim certainly thinks we’re headed that way. ’We have to a great degree deskilled ourselves in the rush to produce everything digitally at every stage of the design process. We have forgotten that there are certain key skills that we should possess as designers, the first of which is the ability to draw,’ she says.

And what about teamwork? Can we introduce variety (repetitive strain injury – the clue’s in the name) in creative teams by mixing up the tasks we share, and swapping roles occasionally? One positive side effect has been the need for new kinds of collaboration, like having to write this together with someone else.

Ultimately, the RSI is just a pain. But it also presents an opportunity to do a sense check. Are we using all the tools we’ve got, for example? Do we know when to concentrate and when to multitask, or are we already too used to swimming in a permanent soup of stimuli and information (there’s a whole other tale to tell about our diminishing powers of concentration)?

And the RSI could also be an opportunity, in some ways, to get back to the essence of design: seeing and experiencing, getting to the heart of the problem, thinking laterally, drawing more.

But what can we all do to make things better, for sufferers and businesses alike?

Me and some 499 999 or so other people in the UK who are affected by the problem need your help, and our businesses need to recover the roughly three million days lost to the problem every year (based on figures published by the Health & Safety Executive for musculoskeletal disorders in 2008/09).

Check out the Vimeo link cited in the box (left) to get involved. If nothing else, it will get you away from your work for a bit.

Useful RSI links


Jenny Theolin is a graphic designer and was part of the Clinic team that won this year’s Inclusive Design Challenge organised by the Helen Hamlyn Centre and the Design Business Association with the Sage & Onions initiative

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