It's easy to think of route setting as art. It's creative, after all. We start the morning with a bag of bolts, a blank canvas, and a pile of colourful plastic blobs, and we create. By the end of the day, hopefully, there's a beautiful looking, climbable sculpture on the wall in front of us. So why isn't it art?
It's not art because it exists for a purpose that goes beyond the goal of art. We don't need to spend a long time defining art, because that's super boring, but we do need something to work with. Google, what've you got...
When we're setting a route, are we 'producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power?' Not really.
What we're doing, is we're designing a route. Design is different from creative art, because design takes as it's starting point, some sort of function. Some goal. If we're designing a table, we're designing an object that needs to function in certain ways It needs to be stable so it doesn't topple over, it needs to be flat so it supports your double espresso before you start route setting. Function is paramount - it needs to do stuff. Aesthetics are important, too - the better design is one that functions and one that looks good, but function is where we begin.
Acknowledging this helps us tremendously as setters, because we can begin by asking, "What is this route for?" Even: What are routes for, period?", instead of using some nebulous and subjective notion of art. Once we know what our goal is in setting a route, or in designing the general style of a gyms route setting program, then we can set about discovering ways to meet that goal.
Another benefit to approaching route setting in this way, is that in helps us do away with the new route setters biggest vice: the ego. A little (true) story to remind us of this all-too-familiar problem:
Setter A finishes route, Setter B walks around the corner and looks at the route.
A: "What do you think!?" he says excitedly.
B: "I think there's a pretty good chance you could hit your head on the beam when you do that rock-over..." he says somewhat too forwardly.
C: "Jesus man, you're really killing my fun here." he says disappointedly.
"My fun"? Is that why we're setting routes? For the setters to have fun? Of course not (although hopefully we all enjoy our jobs). But hey, we've all been there, sometimes we still go there. We become invested in our routes and take criticism personally. Thinking of routes as art makes this worse. Who wants someone to come and shit on their newly created art work? Instead, if it's just something we've designed, then criticism is simply somebody suggesting that the route is not functioning as it should. You can then discuss ways to tweak the route so that is does function correctly. That is to say, so that it meets the purpose for which it was designed - whether that's a specific grade, style, movement, or even aesthetic appeal.
If all this is true, and I'm pretty sure it is, then we route setters have a lot to learn form the design industry. Let's not re-invent the wheel. There are concepts and lessons to be gained by looking at the design world. We just need to do a bit of jiggery pokery and adaptation to fit these ideas into a climbing context.
So, what is the purpose of route setting? That's a whole other discussion that needs to be had. This one, in fact.