Form and Function - A View on Aesthetics

I had a fascinating discussion with a fellow head routesetter recently after a stint of travel. The discussion was wide and wandering, fodder for a number of blogs I hope. One of the topics we covered at length was the question of aesthetics in routesetting.

What place does it hold?

How important is it?

What even is aesthetics?

A quick google search for the meaning of aesthetic returns the following:

  • Adjective - concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty

  • Noun - a set of principles underlying the work of a particular artist or artistic movement.

I feel as though both meanings are useful to us, but in my opinion the second gives structure and understanding when applying this word to routesetting. I mean, beauty is in the eye of the beholder right? Which is all well and good, but when trying to understand the usefulness and the impact of aesthetics in our work, this kind of ‘artistic expression’ feel’s counterproductive, even an opt out for those that don’t want to actually think about it.

Wood and building materials used to make a cimbl
‘Breaking the beta’ on the usual climbing gym aesthetic experience

However, the idea that a set of principles can underlie the aesthetic qualities of an artistic movement, this idea I think provides us with an interesting lens in which to view our discipline. I have spoken before on how I dislike the notion that routesetting is ‘art’ and prefer the definition provided by Tonde Katiyo that routesetting is design. Which means that in all truthfulness this definition (artistic movement, or particular artist) is somewhat irksome to me. Still, there is plenty of documentation that outlines the aesthetic qualities of design, so I suppose the phrase ‘artistic movment’ could be substituted for ‘design movement’. This would please me greatly, however, I digress.

So let us take the idea of aesthetics as a set of principles underlying our work (as routesetters).

The next question, moving in sequence backwards, how important is it? It would be great at this point to provide some data that supports the notion that aesthetic qualities that drive customer interaction, and I have heard all number of arguments, in so many directions. Or definitions of what highly aesthetic routesetting is (and isn’t). Some of the ideas passed around are that people are drawn to ‘king lines’, Boulder colours, asking to be climbed, but in the same breath, so many of us loathe gyms with too low a density. Plus, some of the best climbing and most beautiful climbing spots in the world are tucked away, secluded and hidden. Not at all the proud, bold, instagram-able picture of modern climbing. I mean, one of the most popular training walls at the moment is the moon board, I am yet to hear a convincing argument of it’s aesthetic value.

Still, one of the most widely used aesthetic qualities, that many of us take for granted now, is the simple use of singular coloured holds to denote what what is in and out (the boulder problem if you will). Or, one step further, a single colour used for a grade circuit within a gym. These principles underlie our modern climbing experience, but were at one point invented by routesetters as an aesthetic quality, improving the visual interaction of the user (and selling more holds!). Still, gyms rebel against this, primarily in the colour circuit, with gym icons like B-Pump Ogikubo sticking with coloured tape.

An indoor climbing wall with closely packed climbing holds
How lost we would be without colours today! - 9D Waterloo, a very pretty set?

I have also worked in spaces where hold sets should be kept together, volume colours could only go on certain wall panel colours and boulders were assessed on their aesthetic quality and improved to fulfil a variety of aesthetic requirements. Take World Cup finals for example, there are very clear aesthetic requirements, not only for the boulders, but also for the movements. These qualities are bestowed upon us by live streaming pressure and TV requirements.

So…..why? Why might you, or your team decide to pursue aesthetic values, or NOT pursue an aesthetic value. The place I have come to with this, is that aesthetics and function play a balancing act in our routesetting. When I talk about ‘function’ too, I am discussing only the movement and pursuit of movement. Not how it ‘functions as a product’, which I would argue contains your aesthetic values. The more you pursue aesthetics, the more you have to relinquish functional control. To illustrate this, the next time you look at a bouldering wall, imagine the freedom you would have if you could set with anything, anywhere. Mixing colours, stacking holds and volumes. Your functional control would be very high. Many gyms try to address this by including a ‘joker’ or ungraded circuit or space. It’s also why world cups tend to mix hold colours, why competitions in general desire to have only the one boulder or route on the wall to allow for this freedom. It allows for functional control, which is paramount in designing highly specific climbing.

Competition boulder with mixed coloured holds
Competition Boulder - where the only rule is function? Sometimes anyway.

The same question can be asked of course the other way around. Why include aesthetics if it impacts functional control? Well, we have already answered part of it, with coloured holds and circuits, improving usability of a climbing space to the uninitiated. Colour coding things makes it easier for the beginner, reduces the barrier to entry. I suppose the next step would be to ask why you might go further? Why would you determine more aesthetic principles for your setting, or for a gym space? Again, we have some of the answer in world cups. Finals are streamed, which means they need to be visually striking, the movement exciting. We have seen the effect of social media on the way we set, further pushing this same notion. Fast, exciting, risky, instagram-able. However, there are also other elements to consider that don’t feel quite so fast fashion (at least to me). Is more functional control better? For me there are so many questions that arise from this point. Assuming you could have absolute control, does that mean that the setting team knows exactly what movements or ideas need to go up? Or that they always have ideas on setting days? Or even that they have the ability to execute their ideas perfectly, to measure up to the level of control they have??

Most of the time, the answers to those questions, in my experience, is ‘not really……’

So adding in boundaries and limitations help routesetters (designers), by reducing the possible outcomes they have to consider. It’s one of the great things about design, that ultimately it seeks to answer a question, within a variety of constraints, real, imagined or pre-defined by the owner or user group. These limitations and constraints also improve our chances of developing a cohesive product over a longer period of time. Take apple for example, the iPhone, Apple Watch, iPad, they all herald from similar design constraints that provide an aesthetically cohesive family. The other exciting thing about having these parameters, is that is gives the setting team another dial to play with. Aesthetic rules or guidelines (and when to break them), allows for setters to respond to the dynamic and ever changing world of indoor climbing. Create a set of principles for 2 or 3 months, just to create an opposing set for the following 3.

3 vey different aesthetic qualities for 3 very different scenarios.

So for me, it feels as though control over aesthetics is the ultimate goal. The understanding of why they are the way they are, and when, or if, it’s time to change that. Otherwise it feels as though you’re missing an opportunity.

Now we’re routesetting…..

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