Want to be a better designer? Go climbing!

How taking up a beloved leisure activity gave my professional life an unexpected but welcome boost

Looks as intimidating as a design challenge sometimes is, right?

In the past, I had always dreaded the question, “what are your hobbies?”.

I never felt I had any, and I was embarrassed. On the positive side, my work as a designer was incredibly fulfilling, and when I wasn’t designing, I mainly wanted to do fun things with friends — try new restaurants, go to live shows, see an art exhibit, etc. None of these seemed to be “hobbies” as most people would use the word. But on one occasion, after working myself to the point of exhaustion, I began to feel I was becoming too work focused and not engaging all parts of myself.

That’s why, two summers ago, I decided to take up rock climbing in a more serious way. I had enjoyed the activity off and on over the last fifteen years but had never committed more fully to it. This time, it quickly became one of the most important ways I explore and engage a completely different side of me from design. Rock climbing is a tantalizing combination of adventure in nature, physical challenge and mental concentration, so it’s easy to see the appeal. But what I had not predicted was how much my “new” hobby would also benefit my work life. As I improved steadily as a climber, took a few big trips to climb outdoors, and learned how to sport lead, I began to see that climbing is not only an incredibly fun and rewarding hobby but one that truly enhances my work as a designer. Here are a few ways my approach to climbing does just that.

Embrace differences

It’s difficult as a designer, especially when in an agency, to find opportunities to connect with non-designers or even non-developers. A majority of my waking hours are spent working, and those I work with tend to be more like me than different. In a work setting where collaboration is important, this can be great. Yet we’re often asked to step into another person’s shoes quickly in order to design for their needs.

Climbing may not be considered the most racially or economically diverse community, but I have met doctors, medical students, teenagers, finance guys, public school teachers, private school teachers, IT professionals, Filipinos, Brits, Germans, South Africans, and many others. It is a community that necessitates tolerance and open-mindedness. I cannot assume my fellow climbers will have certain political beliefs or cultural interests or goals in life.

This is sometimes frustrating. Sometimes people get on my nerves, but more often I am surprised at how we can come together around a common goal — to solve a particular climbing problem. Climbing has helped me to not make assumptions and to find commonalities with people who are not like me, so that we can connect better and help each other find solutions. It also reminds me how important it is to actively seek out people who are different from you, rather than only sticking with those that support your beliefs and think like you, in order to keep an open mind as you consider solutions.

Communication is key

You learn each person’s role in the climbing relationship right from the start, and also what each individual needs to do to maintain trust and provide an environment for success. Communication is of critical importance for safe and secure climbing. Communicating often and clearly helps the other person understand what conditions are occurring that may affect the climb and to know what action is needed at any given moment. Using supportive and encouraging language when belaying can be the difference between a fall and making it to the top for your fellow climber. Work together so both can find a good solution.

And since each person you work with will likely use a somewhat slightly different language than your own, decide on a good system of signals before you start!

Rock climbing is a tantalizing combination of adventure in nature, physical challenge and mental concentration. But what I had not predicted was how much my “new” hobby would also benefit my work life.

There is always a solution

Both indoors and outside, if a route has been set and graded, then there is most certainly a way to get up to the top. Knowing this opens you to possibilities when you’re are attempting the climb. No matter your strength, ability or size; you can always find a way. If you don’t succeed the first time, you try something different the next time. Move your body in a different way. Take a different path. Use a different technique. Know that there are many viable options and many ways to solve the problem. Having this mind-set increases the chances that you will persist and be creative in finding a good solution. It can also lead to truly innovative ideas. Just like in design.

Another takeaway: there’s no shame in resting when climbing; it’s often necessary to just sit back on the wall to take a fresh look before trying again. Try this approach when you feel stuck in finding a design solution. Consider just taking a break and then come back to it with clear eyes and give it another shot.

A little planning goes a long way

Think before you make your first move. As you start a climb, it’s tempting to jump right on the wall and get moving. Similarly, as designers we sometimes find it difficult to not dive in quickly and start designing or coming up with solutions. But as with climbing, it can make a huge difference to take some time to look at where you think you’re going and creating a hypothesis about what you think is the best way to get there.

Don’t be afraid to fall

Falling in rock climbing tends to invoke feelings of failure (aside from the more obvious scariness factor). But getting used to knowing when to let go and take a fall rather than injuring yourself actually helps you get over the overall scariness. The key is to know the difference between falling and failing. Failing is giving up, while falling is just a necessary part of the process for you on that climb — an essential step on the way to learning how you will solve it. This happens when designing too, one solution or concept that doesn’t work out isn’t a failure, it’s a way that doesn’t work out as well as the final version. And often that first idea that didn’t work out is absolutely necessary in getting to the better solution.

Remember to take in and enjoy the whole experience

Sometimes we get so excited to reach the end of a project; when we have a complete design solution, when we launch an awesome product, when we frankly are just done. In climbing, this happens too. When you reach the top, you may feel so accomplished and so thrilled that you made it, that often you jump to getting lowered immediately.

When we climb, we often have to remind each other to enjoy the journey all along the way — even when it’s tough, and more importantly to take a moment to really enjoy the amazing view from the top.

I finally found a hobby in rock climbing, and it’s one that I love and derive great satisfaction and happiness from. Besides that, it’s a fantastic way to get fit. Who knew that it would give me such excellent perspective on my work as a designer too?