Aesthetics: Why it matters, and some tips to set beautifully

Some people will tell you that the way a climb looks is irrelevant. 

'It's all about the movement'

That's just not true. A more sensible approach is to try to set routes that look great, and climb even better. Things that look good draw the eye. They create interest, and attraction. These are all reactions we want to illicit in climbers who see what we've created.

Aesthetics isn't just a question of beautiful colours or eye-catching contrast; it's also a question of useability. By putting some thought into the look and layout of your routes, you can create a far more user friendly product that will enhance the climbers overall experience in the gym. 

Here are a few ways to improve the aesthetics of your routes, and the experience of the climbers you're setting for.

Use Of Space

When you're standing beneath a freshly stripped wall, take some time to plan out the where each problem or route will run. The 'line' it will take. Be creative, and try to utilise as much of the assigned space you have to work with. Wherever possible, create space between the lines, and avoid running them along the same path for more than a few moves. A clear line of holds will attract the eye, and is easier to read and follow once the climber is on the wall.

Obviously, the less routes/problems that you set in any given space, the more visually distinct they will be. As a general rule:

Set as few routes as possible, without compromising the overall experience of customers in your gym. 

Urban Climb, Brisbane

Urban Climb, Brisbane


Rocksports, Brisbane

Rocksports, Brisbane

In a commercial setting, we will always have to compromise between pure aesthetics and route density. Inevitably, you will often have to set routes that take similar lines in order to ensure your customers have enough routes to climb. In this case, set the routes that are close to one another with holds that contrast strongly against each other. 

Similar shades will blend into one another, and look like hold soup. Even worse, once the routes have seen substantial traffic, the chalk and rubber build up will make the routes almost indistinguishable. This will seriously compromise the experience of the climber. Everyone is familiar with the experience of clinging on for dear life, peering down at your feet trying to work out whether that black footer is yours, or whether it's a rubber-stained gray. It sucks. Avoid it.

If you're the head setter at your gym: plan ahead. If you have a series of ropes next to one another, pre-plan the colour distributions so that not only do the individual routes contrast with one another, but the routes on adjacent ropes also contrast with each other wherever possible.

Big Small

If you're a big advocate of high route density (which is totally fine) you can still create distinct lines on your walls by utilising the concept of 'Big Small'. On a dense wall, create contrast by using big, feature holds on a single line, and smaller holds on all the others. From afar, the bigger holds will still create a clear impression of a distinct and visually appealing route, and allow the wall to look good, without compromising route density. Having multiple routes that occupy similar space using big feature holds of different colours rarely looks good. It's simply too busy and, as a setter, it blocks many body positions and movements that you might want to create.


Of their many benefits, one of the great things about modular volumes is that they allow you to create complex movement without spraying the wall with a huge amount of holds. Here's 2 different approaches to use volumes effectively as it relates to aesthetics:

First, and more simply: Use volumes to create interesting and varied terrain, with minimal thought on movement, but with a focus on designing an interesting space, then set through the space you've created. This process generally doesn't utilise volumes to their fullest extent, but it's far quicker, and still looks great.

Momentum Indoor Climbing, Utah

Momentum Indoor Climbing, Utah

Or, secondly, create your first and most difficult boulder using the volumes as essential holds in the problem or route, adding only minimal holds to set with. Once finished, you will be able to add subsequent problems with a minimum of holds. Creating easier variations of the initial problem, or running it across a different line. It's important that your first set is the most difficult. If it's not, all subsequent attempts to force a harder sequence will be compromised by the fact that the climber can just revert to using the initial, volume sequence you intended. The result will be a clean, minimalist looking wall, but will still provide a variety of problems and relatively high density that still looks great.

Stuntwerk, Cologne.

Stuntwerk, Cologne.

Don't Overdo It

Aesthetics are certainly not everything when it comes to setting. There are even times when it makes sense to give away good-looks to pure route density all together. It's all about context, and about the purpose of the set. For example, there's no particular reason to try to make a 45' system board look like a work of art. It's purely functional. A tool for climbers who understand what they need, and who place very little value on the aesthetics of the product.

Understand who you're designing for, and what you're trying to achieve, so that you can utilise aesthethics effectively in your setting.