The term graphic arts (also called graphic design, commercial art, visual design or visual communication) refers to the organization of ideas and concepts in a visual form that conveys a particular message to a target audience. Graphic designers work in a wide array of venues, including magazines, books, posters, packaging, film, video, exhibition design and, most recently, in digital forms such as computer screen design, multimedia presentations and pages on the World Wide Web. There are two types of visual communicators: graphic designers, who work with typography and page layout as well as photography and illustration; and illustrators, who work exclusively with visual images. Frequently the two roles overlap, but most commonly graphic designers hire illustrators to create visualizations of the ideas that will be used within a typographic context.
The hazards of graphic design were very different in the late 1990s compared to only a few years earlier when some designers were still producing traditional mechanicals for offset printing (figure 1). Now, virtually all page layout and graphic design is produced in a digital format before it is printed on paper. Much graphic design is even created exclusively for a final digital form: a floppy disk, CD-ROM or a page on the Internet. Graphic designers use computers to create and store both text and images. These digitally created artworks are stored on floppy disks, removable storage cartridges or CD-ROMs, and then given to the client for the final presentation (package design, magazine, film titles, poster, business stationery or many other applications).
Figure 1. Hand lettering for graphic arts.
Graphic designers must now be concerned with the potential hazards of prolonged work at a computer. Unfortunately, this technology is too new to know all the associated hazards. At present the hazards identified from working for extended periods at a visual display unit (VDU) (also called a video display terminal, or VDT) include eyestrain, headaches, backaches, stiff necks, sore hands and wrists, dizziness, nausea, irritability and stress. There have also been reports of skin rashes and dermatitis associated with VDU use. While the health effects of VDU use have been studied for a couple of decades, there are no proven links between long-term use of VDUs and long-term health problems. VDUs do emit comparatively low-level radiation, but there are no hard data to support any permanent adverse health effects from VDU use.
Ergonomic computer workstations, elimination of glare and frequent work breaks enable graphic designers to work more safely than most other artistic professions. Generally the digital revolution has greatly reduced the health hazards previously associated with the graphic design profession.
Illustrators create images in a wide variety of media and techniques for use in various commercial venues. For example, an illustrator may create work for magazines, book jackets, packaging, movie posters, advertising and many other forms of promotion and publicity. Generally illustrators are freelancers who are hired by art directors for a particular project, though some illustrators work for publishing houses and greeting card companies. Since illustrators generally create their own workspaces, the burden for creating a safe working environment usually falls upon the individual.
The materials used by professional illustrators are as varied as the techniques and styles exhibited in contemporary illustration. Therefore, it is imperative that each individual artist be aware of any hazards associated with his or her particular medium. Among the materials commonly used by illustrators are drawing and painting materials such as markers, water colours, oil paints, coloured inks, coloured pencils, dry pastels, oil pastels, dyes, acrylic paints and gouache.
Many commonly used colours contain hazardous ingredients such as xylene and petroleum distillates; pigments may contain such dangerous ingredients as mercury, cadmium, cobalt and lead. Precautions include working in a well-ventilated studio, wearing gloves and a respirator when using oil-based materials (particularly from aerosols) and substituting safer materials (water- and alcohol-based colours) when possible. Materials such as pastels can be hazardous when they become airborne dust; good ventilation is particularly important when using any material that can be breathed into the lungs. A final general precaution is to avoid eating, drinking or smoking while working with any toxic artists’ materials.
The wide assortment of materials used by illustrators requires an individual approach to safe working conditions, since each artist has a personal technique and selection of materials. Manufacturers in some countries are required by law to provide information about product ingredients and hazards. Each individual artist should carefully scrutinize every material used, working in the safest possible manner with the available media.
Adhesives used include rubber cement, spray mount, contact cement, electric waxers, dry-mount tissues, glue sticks, hot-melt glue guns, adhesive transfer materials, double-coated tape and water-soluble glues. Associated hazards include: dangerous chemicals such as n-hexane (a neurotoxin) in some rubber cements and contact cement; cyanoacrylate instant-action glues; airborne toxic chemicals and fire hazards associated with spray adhesives; and possible burns from hot-melt glue gun use. Many of the commonly used adhesives (rubber cement in particular) can also cause skin irritation.
Proper ventilation and use of gloves can prevent many of the hazards associated with common adhesives. Substitution of non-toxic adhesives whenever possible, such as electric waxers, adhesive transfer materials, dry-mount tissues, double-coated tapes, and water-soluble glues is recommended. Heptane-containing rubber cements and spray adhesives are less toxic than hexane types, although they are still flammable.
Solvents include rubber cement thinner, turpentine, acetone, correction fluid and mineral spirits.
Hazards include skin irritation, headaches, damage to respiratory and nervous systems, kidney and liver damage, and flammability. Primary precautions include substituting safer solvents whenever possible (for example, mineral spirits are less toxic than turpentine) or switching to water-based pigments that do not require solvents for cleanup. Excellent ventilation or respiratory protection, careful storage, use of gloves and chemical splash goggles are also important when using any solvents.
Aerosol sprays include fixative spray, spray markers, varnish, texture sprays and airbrush colours.
Hazards include respiratory problems, skin irritation, headaches, dizziness and nausea from toxic chemicals such as toluene and xylene; long-term adverse effects include damage to kidneys, liver and central nervous system. Sprays are also frequently flammable; care must be exercised to use them away from heat or flames. Precautions include using a respirator or adequate studio ventilation (such as a spray booth), and working with non-toxic pigments when using an airbrush.
The various types of cutting tools can include paper cutters, razor knives and mat cutters. The hazards can range from cuts and, in the case of large paper cutters, the severing of fingers. Precautions include careful use of knives and cutters, keeping hands away from blades, and maintaining blades in sharp condition.