Blue Collar Designers: 5 Lessons From the Lunch Pail

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Blue Collar Designer: 5 Lessons From the Lunch Pail

Title Photograph by Ted Prapas

The callused hands, the dirty brows, and the sweat-drenched boots. I’m talking about the blue-collar worker. The men and women who wake up every morning with a day full of manual labor in front of them. From coal mining to telephone pole repair to high-rise construction workers, the working class makes the world go with their hard work, dedication and sweat equity. Many people choose to look down from their suits and cubicles at this working class with disdain and belittlement. As designers, we may sometimes feel like we’re somewhat above the hammers and nails and lunch pails of our blue-collar brethren.

Now to be sure you’re on track, this isn’t an article on social class or the choice of profession. Rather, I want you to focus in on some lessons every designer (and possibly any other white-collar worker) can learn from those who pack a lunch pail and put in a hard hat’s day. Just because we’re in a service industry, doesn’t mean their aren’t elements of our profession that resemble the situations faced by the working class. And with the Internet becoming more and more essential to our society, those who’s jobs it is to build and layout the web (you and me) can, in a way, be considered the blue-collar class of the information age.

So put down your Wacom tablet and pick up your hard hat as we look at 5 lessons every designer can learn from the Blue-collar worker.

It’s Hard Work

It's Hard Work

Chopping down trees or putting on a roof in 100 degree weather is no easy task. There’s not much glamor or relaxation when it comes to many blue-collar jobs. Workers are asked to work and work hard. In many circumstances the environment is not pleasant and the job at hand can be strenuous, both physically and mentally. It takes dedication and sometimes a lot of sweat to get the job done right. And you don’t usually find too many complaints from those who’ve made it their careers to put in the hours in such conditions.

As a designer, a lot of what we do is hard. Now we’ve all probably been in that state of flow from time to time where inspiration comes easily and the hours fly by, but often we find ourselves battling the grind of deadlines and client demands. A lot of effort can go unnoticed as we sweat out the last few pixels before we ship off a design. And sometimes even finding the right inspiration can be hard enough.

Expecting ideas to just come to you is the wrong approach. Take time every day to work out some ideas and build up a reservoir of designs. You’ve got to put in the hours even when it’s not the most pleasant of circumstances or even when the dollar signs aren’t stacking up.  It’s these consistent work habits that will turn you into a design machine. Having the ability to crank out work even when you’re not feeling your best will pay off. So pack your lunch pail, put down that Starbucks and get to work.

Focus on Your Craft

Focus on Your Craft

Many, if not all manual trade jobs, begin with apprenticeships. The reason being is most of what you learn in a blue-collar workplace happens on the job. There aren’t too many textbooks or blog articles on how to mix cement or chop wood. Understanding the ins and outs of a workplace happens by spending time with those who’ve mastered their craft. Knowing the right way to hold a jackhammer happens while you’re operating a jackhammer for the first time; you don’t get a degree from jackhammer school.

Taking a similar approach with design, you should be spending more time doing and less time reading. While I believe education in design theory is great, most of what you’ll pick up happens when you’re creating or watching others create. Find a mentor. Take on an internship. Develop your specific craft through work and more work. The more time you spend using your tools and practicing your specific crafts, the more of an expert you’ll become. Ask questions from those who’ve come before you. Answer questions for those who are just now learning. And be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Just as with many blue-collar workers, designers can sit back at the end of the day and actually see something they’ve accomplished.

Take Care of Your Tools

Take Care of Your Tools

Almost every blue-collar worker has his or her hands on a tool for most of the day. That tool could be tiny screwdriver or a massive diesel front-loader. Regardless of size or function, a good worker knows his tools, and more importantly, knows how to take care of his tools. Painters wash off their brushes at the end of a job. Auto mechanics have a home for each one of their hundreds of tools. Every tool should be treated with care.

So what are our tools as a designer? First, we have our physical tools. Pens, paper, computer software, etc. help us get designs out of our mind and into function. Ensure that whatever system you use is well maintained and in proper-working condition. Updates to your computer or keeping your drawing tools in pristine condition will ensure that when an idea comes, you’re ready to jump into action.

An organized work bench will make finding the right tool fast and easy. If you’re a web designer, having a file structure of common elements and templates at hand will make sure your designs start off quickly and consistently. Carrying a notebook with you at all times, means you’re ready for any and all forms of inspiration.

Finally our biggest tool, our mind, should be taken care of the most. Getting enough sleep and staying healthy will keep your mind sharp and ready for the mental strain that many designers face.

Don’t Be Outsourced

Don't Be Outsourced

With more and more service-based industries popping up in the Western World, many blue-collar jobs have been outsourced to developing countries. This is also, in large part, due to the lower wages offered in many of these developing countries. If you’ve lived your life working in a blue-collar profession, only to find out that your job is being shipped overseas, it can be devastating and sometimes impossible to find similar work.

The same can hold true for many in the design industry, especially those in web design. Finding work done cheaper overseas is especially easy when the Internet is bridging the gap. So how do you avoid being outsourced?

Add value. While there are many blue-collar jobs that are being outsourced, there are still those highly skilled hard workers that will always have jobs locally, primarily because they make it worth it. So how do we add value as designers? This is where we step away from the manufacturing class and into the service class. Offer clients interaction and services that are impossible to get from overseas interactions. Expand your skill set to include complimentary services. Whatever your specific method, make sure your not easily replaceable.

When the Whistle Blows, Call it a Day

When the Whistle Blows, Call it a Day

Finally, a simple lesson that is sometimes easy to miss is, when the day is over, leave the work alone. There’s a growing trend in the information age to blur the lines between work life and home life. Having a healthy work-life balance should be somewhere high up on everyone’s priority list. There are always going to be more opportunities to get ahead and more work to be done. If you don’t learn anything else from the blue-collar worker, take away the will to put your work aside and spend time with your family and friends. Many times the work can wait until tomorrow. So listen for the whistle and call it a day.

About the Author

Chris Thurman is a front-end web designer/developer based in Louisville, KY. He’s also the creative brains behind Visual Swirl, a design blog focused on providing articles, tutorials and resources for creative professionals.

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  • Graphic Design

    Perfect tips & guidelines speak it all, Good lesson, fair enough to choose the profession…!

  • Nathan McInturf

    Well written, and so very true. There are many times I do feel like a blue-collared worker. I am so often just cranking out “widgets” (graphics) but am able to stay very engaged with my job by being a contributing member in meetings and planning projects. Thanks for such good insight. Good words of wisdom.

  • AJ Troxell

    Great article. All too often, do white collar workers, or “professionals” put themselves above the blue-collar bar in terms of work ethic and practices. Yet, they are the foundation for so many basic work principals.

  • Michael Acevedo

    Great article. We really do need to ‘Focus On Our Craft’ and work towards mastering one skill. Blue collar workers who are a ‘Jack of all trades’ are usually not considered good in any one skill, but okay in a few skills.

    I believe if we want to succeed in design, we need to focus on design and build that skill up.

    Thanks for the article.

  • Project Center

    For many entrepreneurs we find it difficult to “call it a day” when the whistle blows. With the advent of cell / smart phones, iPads, and a slew of other technology it is becoming harder and harder to draw that line in the sand.

    However, in order to keep our tools (especially the mind) sharp and open to new ideas and inspiration it is essential to “detox” from technology.

  • Keychains

    5 lessons every designer can learn from the Blue-collar worker.

    Fun and profound articles!

  • Regim Hotelier

    Great article. Indeed most people put themselves above the blue-collar bar. An the 5th should be put in front of the other as most important.

  • D. Morgan Henley

    A perfect set of analogies. I am constantly amazed, and irritated, by those who view “brain” work less arduous, tedious, and tiring than manual labor intensive counterparts.

    I took good points away from the section on assuming creativity will just naturally flow. Instead of forcing something to come in one great big rush, I collect the occasional inspiration in a notebook, and review them on a regular basis. This really helps during designing dry-spells.