In a sport where the routes and climbs are arranged by colour, users are being left behind because they are unable to see or safely identify a route to climb. Clear Climb is a signage system focused on aiding colour visual impairment for indoor rock climbing environments. It is a system designed to be used with each rock and hold in a route, using high contrast icons, in place of the existing colour coded system.
IDENTIFYING THE PROBLEM
For indoor rock climbing, routes are separated by the colour of the rocks and holds. In bouldering, or free climbing, these routes often weave and overlap on the wall.
If a climber is unable to see which holds are intended for use, and where it is safe to climb, they are unable to participate.
While colour blindness or colour vision deficiency affects approximately 5% of the population, I found that colour confusion is still a common issue within many climbing gyms and environments.
To fully understand the specific problems caused by the existing colour coded system, I collected primary data from a variety of facilities and climbers to effectively portray the user base.
I interviewed over 100 users from varying ages and climbing experiences to find that only 4 users were affected by any form of colour blindness. However, the same interviews identified that 46% of users often had trouble discerning between routes and climbs. Many went on to explain that this was the result of obscured colours, defining three primary problems.
Of these same climbers, 49% climb two or more times a week and identify as advanced rock climbers. Clearly this is a situation effecting a huge percentage of climbers at all stages of experience.
I found that many climbing gyms are trying to decrease colour confusion, but many have had to resort to using disposable systems that do not assist those affected by colour blindness.
The most common of these systems is coloured wall tape. It provides a temporary fix but can still be obscured by the three primary problems of low light, colour proximity, and chalk. Taking into consideration that the average climbing gym will reset routes continuously every 2-3 weeks, and with some larger gyms containing over 175 different routes, huge amounts of disposable coloured climbing tape, and the time used to set it all up is wasted.
Another existing system, one using differently textured rocks and holds, would require the replacement of entire equipment inventories for any existing facilities.
The cost to replace the current hold systems would be valued in tens of thousands for most gyms, meaning complete replacement is not a real financial possibility.
FINDING A SOLUTION
Using what I found from my interviews and research, I designed a concept that uses a set of icons in place of the existing colour coded standard. I identified that any system would need to be durable, accessible, and easy to change, without altering the existing climbing experience.
The safety of any climber is always the priority, and I designed Clear Climb to remain flush with the wall for that reason. This ensures climbers are unable to use it to climb or support weight and that it will not catch on clothes or ropes.
The system is mounted between the wall and the rock holds by the existing bolt and t-nut system used to secure the rocks, resulting in less hardware required for set up.
With the difference between rock hold sizes and shapes, I developed two sizes of base plates to anchor the icon signage. The bases, B1 and B2, incorporate rounded edges and a middle tongue that is locked into place when attached by the rock hold. B1 is designed to fit an icon band anchored with normal sized holds, while B2 is designed accommodate an icon band and larger holds, or multiple bands with smaller holds.
Combined with durable stitched canvas bands that are displayed using the tongue system on the bases, they have the 5 route icons screen printed directly onto the fabric, ensuring high visibility through constant use.
Replacing the colour tape system means replacing what the tape would be indicating on a route. For example, route starts are commonly indicated using two lines of tape coming from one or two rock holds. This means a climber uses both hands on that single hold, or one hand on each, to start this route.
In some environments, the route may not allow a climber to 'top out' by climbing onto a ledge or platform above. In these cases, a single line of tape on last hold signifies that the route does not top out and the climber may either climb back down or safely drop below. Designing the B2 base with room for the icon and line bands is essential to replace the current system.
For a route setter, I envisioned a streamlined use cycle. First, the setter identifies which icon will represent the new route. Next they simply slide the corresponding sign bands over the base mounts while still on the ground. Generally using a combination of the two base sizes according to the route they are setting. Finally, they climb and set routes as usual, adding the combined bases and bands before adding the climbing hold. Using the icon and line bands in combination with the two base sizes, they are able to indicate where the route starts, ends, and the guiding route icon.
I am currently reaching out to rock climbing gyms in an effort to start a small scale pilot project for Clear Climb. The idea is to implement a simplified version of the system on routes to collect user feedback and conduct further field testing. If you are interested in the project, or would simply like to learn more, please do not hesitate to contact me!
In an effort to encourage more climbing gyms to address this common problem, simplified versions of the system can be downloaded, printed, and laminated to outfit any gym or climbing environment.