Monday, May 23, 2011

Aesthetics in Routesetting: a Design Primer

Our job as routesetters is to set the stage for a relationship between a climber and the wall. That relationship is the foundation of the rock climbing experience, whether it's indoors or outdoors, boulder or route. Every sensory element in the equation has potential to affect the climber's experience: the fingertips feeling texture, the ears hearing belayer calls or the cheering crowd, and, maybe most powerful of all, the eyes seeking a path upwards.

The main goal of setting a route could be many things: to create enjoyable movement, to give climbers a puzzle to solve, to challenge a climber physically, to separate a field of competitors. Any of these goals can benefit from an element that many new routesetters overlook: the aesthetic. The field of design in general asserts that there are certain inalienable patterns that are pleasing to the eye. Routesetting is no exception.

It's not just holds on the wall - it's part of the experience. Embracing that and adding aesthetics into your setting is not an easy task, and takes practice. Here's a quick primer on some elements to consider incorporating into your setting. Warning: Nerdy and/or subjective design opinions follow.


The figure-ground relationship is fundamental to graphic design, and refers to the use of space as a design element. You know when a wall starts to get cluttered, because the figure-ground relationship dissipates and the wall just looks like a cluster of junk. Nice, open spaces keep the general look of the route balanced and clean. In addition, they make routefinding easier for the climber, and make it easier for a crowd to tell what's going on.

Some of the main elements of good figure-ground relationship in routesetting include:

  • Managing hold sizes - using lots of similar-sized holds, or changing up the hold size proportionally through the route.
  • Movement size and spacing - with an open, clean wall, a large dynamic move will be obvious from the ground to both the climber and the crowd. Cluttered walls make it harder to build drama for a big move. In a dihedral, a massive blank space where the climber has to palm the wall or perform hand-foot matches to get through the sequence can be intimidating from the ground.
  • Clustering holds - the right-left-right-left ladder tends to create a homogenous zig-zag of holds. Break up the movement with sets of holds. Don't let the route wander, but allow spaces in the route to keep it looking organic.


Color is obviously a huge factor in routesetting, and maybe the first design element most setters become aware of. Colors can be used to create similarity or contrast to enhance the route's image. Some experiments with route colors could include:

  • Using color to signify route changes. Use several holds from one set, then several holds from a different set to subconsciously let the climber know that a change in style or difficulty is coming up. Or break up the sets with a feature hold.
  • Tape color is a bigger factor than most setters allow. Black, dark blue and purple tape underneath fluorescent lights become the same shiny dark hue, especially for looking down at feet.
  • Colorblindness is becoming a factor for professional routesetting, and should be noted. Consider not using similar tints of color tape, such as green and orange, next together. Alternatively, using an additional indicator can be useful, such as wider or thinner tape, a sharpie stripe/pattern, or patterned tape (who doesn't love zebra-print tape?)
  • Just using the same color hold for an entire route can be boring, and isn't always possible. Consider using a complimentary or contrasting color, rather than mixing up the few extra holds. I often set a route with a main color, and also one monochromatic grouping of holds - green and black, purple and white, blue and gray, etc. It opens up the creativity, and still keeps the route thematic.


Patterns in graphic design can be the orientation of objects, clustering of objects, textures, angles, almost anything. In routesetting this goes for the movement as well. Setting a route where the climber has to overcome multiple undercling sequences in a row? Adding some basic design principles into that already strong pattern can make a good climbing experience into a great one. Some common patterns include:

  • Hold clustering, as mentioned above, is a good way to create patterns. Make a few big moves, then a complex sequence of small moves on a pair, triplet or even foursome of small holds. Or, cluster together a couple big holds and force the climber to make multiple hand and hand-foot matches in the same small space.
  • Hold type. This is one of the most obvious examples, but if you were to use a full set of similar big holds for an entire route, the design benefits are huge. On the flipside, just grabbing every huge hold you can and using all of them in a row regardless of style, color or grip type tends to look like crap - even if it climbs well.
  • Hold angle. Many routes outside feature left- or right-leaning weaknesses, where the climber moves up primarily with a series of sidepulls and gastons. This can get monotonous and frustrating indoors, but used sparingly it does create a strong design pattern from the ground.
  • Tape angle. This is much-debated, and personally I find that using one tape angle tends to look better only if the route density is very low. Usually I prefer taping for visibility. However, taping for visibility can also wind up looking chintzy and unprofessional. A good rule of thumb tends to be taping at a downward 45 to one direction, and then breaking that system a) only if the original angle can't be seen for a crucial move; and b) only to switch to the opposite downward 45. Many gyms also forego tape completely, but I find that to be a big enough limiter to creativity (unless your hold selection is extraordinarily well-funded) that it isn't worthwhile. Except maybe in the case of CATS-style gyms, where the demographical emphasis is on people training for climbing, not the inexperienced public.


Symmetry can be a more advanced design element in setting, but I have seen it used (consciously or otherwise) with success. It can refer to the physical design symmetry looking at the route from the ground, or the movement on the route.

  • Reflective symmetry. This is commonly found on dihedral or arete/compression routes, where the holds are placed even with each other.
  • Rotational symmetry. A route that traverses slowly can easily have symmetry along the 45 degree line. This can require quite a bit of forethought, but when pulled off, looks great.
  • Movement symmetry. This is a bit harder to do, but setting up moves coming into and out of a large feature can have great symmetry. For instance, make a big move off a sidepull to a flat edge, then power up to a big feature. Match on the feature, move up to a flat edge, then out to a sidepull of the opposite direction. Sort of a movement palindrome.


This is mostly covered under patterns, but changing the scale of a route quickly or slowly can be an interesting design element. For instance, starting the route on big slopers, then slowly reducing the hold size to slopey pinches, down to tiny slimpers for the very top. But laziness isn't a design element. Many routesetters make two big mistakes with scale:
  1. Grabbing all the huge holds, and expecting movement to spontaneously occur.
  2. Grabbing all the tiny holds, because they had a few too many PBRs last night and don't want to haul up a heavy bucket.

Neither of these are criminal offenses, but they both can make for dull movement and route design. If you climb in a gym regularly, you can probably name a setter who overuses one of these two techniques. To use scale well, try some of these ideas:

  • Know how to be consistent. Don't just use all medium-size holds - yes, it gets just as monotonous for the climber to climb on it as it does for you to haul them all up. Use big holds, then a few small holds, then big holds. Brief consistency is still good.
  • Know how to be inconsistent. Intersperse holds that are otherwise similar (such as in texture, rock type, or grip type) but are different sizes. Try a compression route where the left hand is slapping up an arete or large sloper feature, but the right hand is making bumps on smaller slopers. When that sequence ends, do something completely different, then set the mirror of that movement on crimps and a big edge feature.
  • Try changing the scale slowly and consistently, starting with tiny bubbles, then knobs, then normal-size slopers and finally Boss-style features.
  • One great tool for hold scale is screw-ins. Especially when used mounted on volumes or large features, a screw-in can completely change the character of a sequence. Best of all, it can be hard to read screw-in moves from the ground, especially if the routesetter is especially devious with the placement.


The shape of things is another obvious element that can be used. Here are some basic ideas:

  • Most hold companies have at least one set of blocky, geometric holds. Using them together looks great. Using them mixed in with blobby holds looks so-so. Using them in alternating sets or groups, broken up by features and tertiary sets looks fantastic. These block holds are a great way to learn how to mingle hold types.
  • Choose features that compliment (or contrast) your route's structural theme. Setting with pinches? Consider big tufa features. Slopers get big slopers. Crimps get crimp rails or big edges. Pockets get huecos.
  • Keep in mind, most rules exist to be broken. Whether you're striving to make the route completely intuitive or utterly puzzling, it should always be entertaining. It's not as much which holds you choose to use - it's the order you use them in. Set an intro boulder problem on pinches, into a few moves on feature slopers. Then a middle section of mid-size sloper movement. Use a big tufa feature to transition back into a final problem on pinches again. The theme changes, but the climber is comfortably transitioned from section to section.


Design can be a powerful tool for adding to the experience of a route. Learn and experiment with different techniques for intimidating, assisting, or inspiring climbers, both from the ground viewing the route, and while climbing it. "Art people" are all about breaking rules, so don't take anything in this post too seriously.

One rule that probably shouldn't be broken is never sacrifice movement for aesthetics. I'd hazard a guess that most gym climbers aren't going to compliment you on how pretty your latest route is. However, you are likely to get commentary if the movement sucks. So learn and implement as many of these techniques as possible, but don't overdo it. Try one at a time - similar texture, color, type, OR style. Then start mixing and matching. If the "perfect" hold happens to break the theme of your route, don't chuck it aside - try to find a way to incorporate it into your route and make the theme fit the movement.

Happy setting.


  1. Thanks for the insightful post! A good start for me in demystifying why I'm drawn to some routes and not to others, and how to make my routes more compelling. Looking back on some of the ones that had very memorable movement but weren't very visually appealing, I can think of a few things that I could have changed to help them out. I'll definitely be more aware of aesthetics in the future!

    Wahrer of the Worlds