A rambling look at what plumbers & plumbing can teach us about designers & designing..

It’s the weekend of March Break and a slow news day, so it might be time to publish a ramble that I’ve been working on for a few weeks now. This post probably falls under the “too long to read” category for many (if so, you can always rummage through our Snippets for bite sized morsels). On the other hand, if you’ve got a while, and a cup of joe, the following might be of interest. It chronicles a recent personal lesson, and delves into a somewhat odd parable of what designers and design clients can learn from plumbing and plumbers.

Interested? Read on…

Wonky pipes and a stubborn designer.

A couple of weeks ago, our kitchen sink started to back up. This was on top of the persistent leak that had started a few years ago under the counter. Not a deluge or anything, but a consistent drip, drip, drip that every couple of weeks, filled up the plastic bowl that the Mrs. had to put under the pipes to catch it. Anyhoo, now the damn pipes were backing up too. When we ran the dishwasher, a sudsy gelatinous goo burbled up through the drain. As it was, and even though we have two sinks, we were already down to one, the result of the aforementioned leak. Now, we were down to none.

“Why didn’t you fix the leak?”

you might ask.

“But I did.”

would be my answer.

On numerous occasions since it first started, I had journeyed to our local Home Depot store, picking up wrenches, plumber’s tape and some really messy glue that insisted on ruining shirts every time I used it. Not being terribly handy, my do-it-yourself solutions hadn’t been terribly effective is all. Embarrassingly, my wife is much more of a handyman than I’ll ever be, and after getting tired of my “yeah, yeah, I’ll get to it in a bit” answers when she pointed out the leak, for the umpteenth time, she’d had a few goes herself. Will similar results. Despite my meager efforts, and her herculean ones, the sink continued to leak. And now, the bloody thing was starting to back up too, the result of some blockage deep in the pipes, and a blockage that was no doubt evolving into a new life form. What’s this got to do with do-it-yourself design, logos or designing?

Bear with me for a bit and it should become apparent.

The joy of the do-it-yourself solution?

It’s not that I don’t understand the basics of plumbing.

I do.

Water goes in, travels down some PVC tubes and ends up somewhere out ‘there’. The pipes need to be watertight, or they’ll leak. And if something blocks the pipes, the water can’t travel out ‘there’ and will back up to whence it came, in this case, our aluminum sink. I even had a moderate understanding of the tools involved. A pipe wrench, plumber’s tape, plunger, PVC glue and this spinny, snakey thing I had picked up at Home Depot for sixty bucks. Trouble is, I couldn’t make them do what they’re, well, supposed to do. And despite being a professional services provider for almost thirty years as a graphic designer, I didn’t want to hire a professional service provider when it came to fixing my wonky plumbing.

You know, a plumber.

My reasoning was typical. They’re too expensive. Too much of a hassle. Don’t know who to ask. “I’m quite capable of fixing this myself, thank you very much“, even though after numerous attempts, spending a few hundred dollars of do-it-yourself tools and wrecking my knees on the tiled floor of our kitchen every time I tried, the pipe continued to taunt me by dribbling water down its side.

I also never seemed to have the time to attempt to fix the problem, as I was always busy doing other things.

Things that I am good at.

The “that’s good enough” attitude.

Granted, I had toned the dribbles down a bit, and the amount of errant water had been lessened a little after each subsequent attempt. Overall, I had taken a “that’s good enough” attitude towards the entire thing while Sue – my wife – wasn’t so thrilled with my do-it-yourself plumbing efforts though thankfully, she didn’t grumble too much (not wanting to crush my he-man super-plumber aspirations I suppose.) But now that our one functioning sink had now begun to back up, it was time to roll up the sleeves because our entire kitchen had been rendered unusable. Here’s the funny thing – while I hadn’t managed to fix the original leak, I didn’t “need” the professional services of a plumber for this task either. It was simply a matter of running some snakey thing down the drain, spinning the handle a few times and all would be well. As a professional services provider, you’d think I’d know better, but I didn’t. And as with most things that ‘should be’, this one wasn’t either. After getting the snake stuck, not before dragging up bits and pieces of the most horrible pipe blocking matter you can imagine, the backed up water began to rise up the sides of our sink, treacherously close to the lip.

“Can we just get someone in?”

Sue finally suggested, a little perplexed at my refusal to bring in a professional. Finally giving in, I told her “oh, all right“, accepting the notion that this problem was far beyond whatever do-it-yourself plumbing skills I had managed to absorb over the years. Turns out this absorption hadn’t actually amounted to much in the way of plumbing ‘skills’ at all.

Bringing in a professional.

I found a plumber in about ten seconds flat on Google. They served our area, and offered a same-day service call. I gave them a shout on the phone, explaining our situation and a plumber’s van was at my doorstep four or five hours later. The plumber, we’ll call him Roger, took a look under the sink and assessed our problem instantly. The leaking sink was faulty, always had been (that got me off the hook a little.) The blockage in the pipes was hardcore, having nestled itself into a ‘U’ bend somewhere under the floor boards. Roger laughed at my sixty dollar snakey-thing, comparing it to the one he brought in that was almost 5 times larger in diameter, and hooked up to a motor that looked like it could power a small city. The cost to fix everything? Just under $300. Yikes. Despite the nagging “you can do this yourself and save the $300” voice in my head, I agreed. I had spent almost as much as that on my do-it-yourself supplies, hours upon hours of my time, and I hadn’t really gotten anywhere. If Roger could fix all my problems for three hundred bones, it would be money well spent. And besides, if I didn’t get this sink fixed el pronto, there was a real risk that I’d be walking the streets that night as Sue’s patience finally evaporated.

Hiring a pro vs. doing it yourself.

When I gave him the green light, Roger went to work and after about two hours of banging and bashing about, he had fixed the original leak, cleared the blockage and given the remaining pipes a once over. Any stuff that was starting to clog the drains wouldn’t grow into a new water-jamming lump. And while we often joke about plumber’s ass cracks and what have you, Roger was professional, pleasant and remarkably well-dressed for a person who’s often dealing with other people’s sewage. Sue was delighted, “my hero” (thankfully me, not Roger) and finally, after a few years of relentless dripping, we had two sinks, clean pipes and the infernal leak had ceased. And despite having to pony up on the better part of $300 bucks, my only real regret was “why didn’t I call these guys two years ago?” And as Roger drove away, I realized that there was quite a lot we can learn from my experience. So, as promised earlier, and four paragraphs later (told you it was “too long to read“) here’s what plumbing and plumbers can teach us about do-it-yourself design, designing logos and designers. The analogy goes something like this:

Roger is the designer, I am the client, my kitchen is my company, and the pipes are my marketing.

All set? Let’s go.

It’s not about the stupid. It’s about the level of experience.

Whenever a designer suggests that a business owner shouldn’t try to create their own branding material, particularly their logo, or advise they hire a professional, they run the risk of coming across as, or being labeled as, a snooty designer. Worse, it might even appear that they’re calling the client stupid. They’re guilty of neither. See, I’m not a stupid guy (though some might disagree) and I’m capable of all sorts of things on varying degrees of hobbyist levels. I’m a relative expert in several things, mostly related to graphic design. When it comes to plumbing (and several other household and mechanical chores that we’ll leave for another day) I am a complete,and utter bonehead. I can have the same tools as a plumber, just as a design buyer can have the same tools as a designer. But as I discovered, some of my tools aren’t up to professional snuff, analogous to clients having some rudimentary design software that’s not quite up to the snuff of real design gear. And even if my plumbing tools are the same, in my hands they’re not capable of producing the potential magic as they are in the hands of someone that actually knows what they’re doing.

“I now realize that a professional plumber has better tools, more experience, and more ‘tricks of the trade’ that I could ever imagine. He’s better at plumbing than I am, not because he’s smarter, but because he’s better at plumbing.”

See, I now realize that a professional plumber has better tools, more experience, and more ‘tricks of the trade’ that I could ever imagine. He’s better at plumbing than I am, not because he’s smarter, but because he’s better at plumbing. This, by the way, does not make him a snobby plumber. It makes him a professional plumber. Alas, only in the graphic design industry does one risk being labeled as an elitist snooty twerp by pointing out our skill sets, our experience and our talents.

But I know how to plumb!

Aha!” you might tell me, “I know how to fix plumbing, so your analogy is stupid!” Granted, my analogy may be stupid, but the fact that you know everything about plumbing helps make my point, not destroy it. See, if a potential design client is good at designing stuff, logos let’s say, then by all means they should design it themselves. Do it yourself logos can be pretty cool. If you know what you’re doing. But don’t think that a little knowledge, or access to design software, is going to make anyone a designer. Or someone that can produce professional level design work. See, I thought I had all the tools to be a plumber. Turns out I didn’t, but even the ones that I did possess, didn’t do plumbing stuff very well when I tried to use them. Because I know very little about pipes and I’m not much of a plumber. Just as most business owners aren’t designers either. That doesn’t mean that I’m a talentless dope. It just means that my skill set lies outside the realm of plumbing, as most business owners expertise lies outside the realm of graphic design. This isn’t snobbery or elitism. Just one of those “truthisms” that just are. And just like my “that’s good enough” attitude to my pedestrian plumbing repair efforts, someone designing their own stuff because it’s cheaper, or less hassle than dealing with a professional, runs the risk of having a “that’s good enough” logo. And just like my dripping pipes, it sometimes isn’t good enough at all. Took me almost two years to learn that lesson. Hopefully, this ramble with save somebody some time.

Bottom line, if you’re good at something, do it. If you’re not good at something, let a professional take care of it.

Voodoo economics. Do-it-yourself saves money?

Naturally, using a professional designer (or a plumber) is going to set you back a few shekels. That’s the professional bit. But does doing it yourself really save money? Sometimes, sure. But let’s take my little analogy. Since the dripping had first started, I had spent hours and hours of my life trying to fix it. I had bought all sorts of tools and plumbing supplies (some multiple times as the original versions disappeared into the recesses of my garage). I had also put up with the relentless dripping, my wife’s grumbles and hadn’t used one of our sinks in almost two years. All to save what, $300? That makes me a gold medal winner in the “penny wise, pound foolish” Olympics. In fact, it was extraordinarily stupid for someone who doesn’t like to think of themselves as extraordinarily stupid. Similarly, while hiring a professional designer does cost, and a logo can run you anything from several hundred dollars to a couple of grand, isn’t it worth doling out a few bucks to insure that your company has an effective brand from the hop? I’m not suggesting that a small business has to break the bank either. They don’t, relatively speaking, especially when viewed through the value vs. cost prism. I’m not even suggesting that our shop is the only game in town. We aren’t. In the graphic design community, there’s lots of Rogers, all more than capable of hooking you up.

What designers can learn from Roger?

As this was my first dealing with a professional plumber, I have to admit to harboring a preconceived notion of what plumbers were, how they acted and even how they looked. I was wrong. Roger was professional, polite and listened patiently as I blathered on about my drainage grief, using terms and phrases that probably didn’t have anything to do with plumbing. He showed up on time, itemized the invoice nicely and didn’t leave a mess after he left. We can all learn from Roger. Graphic designers complain about being labeled as ‘flaky’ or ‘unreliable’. I get it. Pisses me off too, but perhaps we shoulder some of the blame, just as a few plumbers shoulder the blame for their ‘hairy ass crack’ image. As designers, we’ve probably let our customer service slip a little once in a while. You know, being late on a project deadline and letting the phone go to voice mail when the client called, wondering what’s up.

I know I have.

If you’re guilty too, we should probably work on changing that. If we want to be treated like professionals, then we certainly need to act like professionals. All the time. Cause that’s good for business. If ever my pipes start to leak again, I know who to call. Roger. And if designers act like professionals, our clients will know who to call when they run into their particular design hurdles. In this ever increasingly crowded marketplace we all inhabit, we need to understand that competition isn’t just about doing things cheaper than the next guy. It’s about doing it better. And being nicer when we do it.


A crowdsourcing & design contest Devil’s advocate footnote.

devil-head-looking-leftAs this is supposed to be a logo design blog, we run a logo design studio and crowdsourcing is supposed to be the issue de jour in the industry (though some might argue it isn’t), I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t at least try to crowbar it into our little analogy.

So let’s.

Say I wanted to get my pipes fixed, but didn’t want to hire a snooty professional plumber. They’re too expensive. I want more choices. To democratize plumbing. Whatever raison d’être people use to explain why they host logo contests. In this “fix my bloody pipes” instance, I could always pin a notice to my front door. Something along the lines of

“Help us fix our plumbing. $100 to anyone. Come on in!”

Seems rather obvious, break and enter risks notwithstanding, that this would be a very risky proposition. Firstly, it’s safe to assume that our sign would attract all sorts of people who despite being very eager for the $100 prize, wouldn’t know very much about plumbing. Probably even less than I do. Most professional plumbers that did see our sign, but knowing that the gig is worth $300, would probably ignore our pitch completely (no doubt grimacing at the potential calamity that I was begging for.) And while it’s true that our sign might, repeat might, attract a plumber with professional level skills, the chances that he (or she) would take us up on our offer, before someone mucked up everything, are long at best. And besides, rather than anonymous would-be plumbers from God knows where, I kinda like the idea of having an expert who knows me and my house personally, on speed dial.

Someone who’s quite intimate with my pipes.