What is Good Routesetting?

One of the questions that I think about a lot in my job is ‘what is good routesetting?’ This question is important because as the indoor climbing industry develops and grows, the demands placed on industry professionals (like routesetters) will also shift. Subsequently, having an idea of what a ‘good job’ is, will become an ever more important question to answer, as we strive to legitimise the work that we do and the hours that we put in, and the pay we expect.

The trouble is, I think the answer to I this questions is not only elusive, not unlike ‘what is good art?’, but is also something impacted by trends, traditions and culture shifts. It changes over time, what used to be considered good work, would lack lustre in the modern gyms of today. Not only that, but the repertoire of the modern setter has grown enormously over the past decade, in particular with co-ordination, dynamic movement and volume use.

Still, this statement suggests that one of the criteria for good routesetting is the access to a large library of movements or ‘engrams’ as we sometimes call them in coaching. And while this may be useful to create climbing that is diverse and interesting, I am not convinced that it is necessary to create good routesetting, and more over, a good routesetter. Why value something that is more complex over something that is simpler?

Climbing holds on a climbing wall panorama
The re-open set at Collingwood Urban Climb after the lockdown.

Take for example a World Cup circuit, likely set by some of the most esteemed routesetters in our community, who we would assume have a very large reportoir of moves. It would also (likely) be a set of very complex climbing questions, bad feet, small holds, accurate body position. Now, let’s put first time climbers on the boulders. Their experience would be a pretty terrible one and it is likely that they would conclude that climbing is ‘not for them’, probably the worst outcome of routesetting possible (in my opinion!). Does this suddenly mean that the routesetting is not good? Put these first time climbers in the crowd during a World Cup though, create context for the product put on the wall, and it would probably be a very different story.

So, if we continue this line of thinking, maybe it’s all about the end user? The climbers decide what is good and what is not. How suitable something is for a group of people dictate the quality of the setting. The problem with this conclusion is that it only works if you look at a single snapshot of time. What was once suitable and current, becomes outdated and empty (for reasons outlined earlier), in particular for climbers who want to progress. Also, as anyone who has been in the routesetting industry for any time at all can attest, one persons trash is another persons treasure. To add to this confusion, we have all experienced or (hopefully) read about ‘herd mentality’. There is some great research on how a ‘confident 5% can influence the direction of the other 95%.’ (Check out the Wikipedia article here….)

climbing holds on a wall for the tokyo olympics
The Tokyo Olympics finals boulders mens round

So if ‘people’ can’t be trusted, and it changes all the time, and context is important, what tools do we have left to guide us to ‘good routesetting?’

As I develop in this industry, I liken routesetting more and more to product design. Still, the idea that setting teams rapidly develop a product that customers consume on a weekly and even daily basis, would probably be the thing of nightmares for many a design team, who take months to develop products like shoes and bags. Yet there is something familiar in the language and ideas of design. Words like ‘end user’, ‘testing and developing’, ‘aesthetics’, are all common ideas in the design world. So what can we learn from the design space that would be useful in our climbing world?

help tag on a climbing hold at the tokyo olympics
Training boulders on the Tokyo Olympic wall with some humour

Dieter Rams (a very famous designer, see the Wikipedia link here) suggests good design is:

1. Innovative - Innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology

2. Makes a product useful - Good design satisfies criteria, physical, psychological and aesthetic

3. Is aesthetic - Only well executed objects can be aesthetic

4. Makes a product understandable - The best products are the ones that are self explanatory

5. Is unobtrusive - Good design emphasises the usefulness of a product and disregards everything else

6. Is honest - Good design avoids fooling or manipulating the end user

7. Is long-lasting - Physical or historical

8. Is thorough down to the last detail - Nothing is arbitrary, it shows respect to the customer

9. Is environmentally friendly - Minimisation of physical and visual pollution is good design

10. Involves as little design as possible - Less but better

So, as routesetters, how does this help us, what can we apply and how can we apply it?

Innovation -

"Innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology"

There are more fiberglass holds in climbing gyms today, the use of wooden volumes have exploded and gone are the days of tiny holds on steep walls (mostly). What is interesting to think about though is what are we as routesetters doing now that we weren't doing before? With all this new 'technology' sitting on our walls, how as ‘designers’ are we operating differently? The answer to this question is innovation. What is important to consider is that whilst innovative ideas are part of good design (aka routesetting), innovation doesn't replace the ideas of what or where climbing has come from, if anything it should build on it.

Product Usefulness -

"Good design satisfies criteria, physical, psychological and aesthetic"

This idea is where the world cup example from earlier comes in. Good design serves a specific purpose. Our purpose as routesetters is to create climbing for ('insert your audience here'). A boulder problem that has no audience is just installation art (if that), and a boulder problem that does not serve it's audience is a waste of space. Make it for someone, make it work and make it pretty, in that order.

Is aesthetic -

"Only well executed objects can be aesthetic"

Aesthetics are tricky, I think in part due to the effect of social media and the insta-famous or insta-worthy requirements that everyone feels pushed to. There can be a lot of pressure to use big flashy pieces, splashes of colour and empty space. Aesthetics almost deserves it's very own post, but what I think is interesting is the idea that only well executed objects can be aesthetic. There are some fabulous examples of ‘design’ that is useless here. It really stops being one thing, and becomes something else entirely. What I think is really interesting as a climber, is that I feel like we have some sense of a unified aesthetic build in. It's the way that we look at bits of rock, crack lines meandering their way through an otherwise blank face, or even the sharp structural lines of a building. We see 'lines', our eyes are drawn to them, climbing first with our eyes. There is something about the clarity of a line that draws people in, some aesthetic quality that communicates clearly and visually of the challenge laid out, the question of empty space, the anticipation of adventure.

Makes a product understandable -

“The best products are the ones that are self explanatory”

I really love this point when it comes to climbing, because I think that is the magic of our sport. The product of climbing is a self explanatory one, use your body to get from here to here. What is interesting however about this point, is how important I think this makes something like colour circuits. The benefit of climbing outside is that what you see is what you use. The best replication of this feeling for me so far is coloured circuits, with uniform colour holds.

Is unobtrusive -

“Good design emphasises the usefulness of a product and disregards everything else”

This one was really tricky for me to identify in routesetting. A few general ideas is how you ensure one line doesn’t impact another (if you are setting multiple lines in one place), how you use the ‘right’ material for something (less stacking and blocking), and how you pick and decide on your ‘line’ or the path you take in climbing.

Is honest -

“Good design avoids fooling or manipulating the end user”

I feel like this one is really important for us as routesetters. I feel like this idea supports the move away from ‘forced sequences’. It is language I have encouraged others to move away from over the past few years. Once we stop trying to manipulate our end user, we remember that we are creating puzzles, and puzzles with more than one solution, or even a solution just for you, are usually the most engaging and exciting. More honesty, is more fun.

Is long lasting -

“Physical or mental”

This idea is one of the most challenging for us in a world that has become so addicted to instant gratification. The constant and regular dopamine hits of new and endless content. But, I think if we try, we can use routesetting as a method to engage people in a deeper way. Structuring your rotation speed so your product doesn’t feel like fast food, but a more flavourful experience will ultimately have a more profound and longer lasting impact on your community. Some of our favourite stories are of our climbing hero’s conquering long term projects and realising dreams that were once thought impossible.

Is thorough down to the last detail -

“Nothing is arbitrary, it shows respect to the customer”

Another excellent point and one of the main reasons why testing, tweaking and adjusting is so important in the routesetting process. Great routesetting is usually defined by millimetres.

Is environmentally friendly -

“Minimisation of physical and visual pollution is good design”

As an industry I think we have a long way to go here. Pushing for better plastic, less wrapping and more environmentally responsible solutions in our facilities (deep dive on this coming up). In regards to our design, it’s one more reason to remove that unnecessary volume or jib that ‘looks good’.

Involves as little design as possible -

“Less but better”

This one is probably the most interesting idea and is such a fascinating space to explore in routesetting. I also feel as a climber it is the question that I love asking, how much do I really need? How blank is that face? This is really the embodiment of the pro climber pursuit outdoors, the reason we found dynos, campusing…… we found something that asked the same question, can you climb me, but with less. Our challenge as routesetters is to offer that experience to everyone at every stage of difficulty.

An aesthetic boulder?

So, there you have it. A very long and convoluted journey into ‘good routesetting’, but I suppose as our sport becomes more complex, the ideas we hold must grow to meet its demands.

I’d love to hear what you think good routesetting is? Feel free to leave a comment here or on the social media posts.

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