5 Design Lessons from Bouldering

Daniele Bulgaro
Aug 20, 2019 · 5 min read
A child climbing a wall because baby steps, got it?

I recently picked up Indoor Climbing. Prior to that I only looked at it with interest without actually trying it out.

My subscription led to wreaking havoc on my fingers and palms — not the brightest idea for somebody relying on fine motor skills for a living.

Besides having all sorts of nasty side effects on your money makers, bouldering is pretty damn fun. Between each route, it requires some rest if you don’t want to be overcooked after 15 minutes.

One day I was catching my breath after a long session and an idea popped up in my brain: “This is not that different from design, isn’t it?”

I originally brushed that off as an after effect of profuse sweating, but it kind of stuck with me and I had to give it some more thought.

There are some things that live at the intersection of visual design and wall climbing, and here are some of them.


1. Watch your path.

This applies both for the short and long term: do your best to visualize your goal before diving into it.

“Measure twice, cut once.”

2. Don’t sweat it.

I usually find that, when creating an illustration, spending some time developing a 3D maquette of your creation goes a long way towards results I would have to really carve out of myself for hours on end.

Make a mental note (or write it down, it’s worth it) on the insight you got from taking a shortcut, then keep climbing.

Next time you’ll do better.

3. Actually, sweat it.

I managed to climb my first White Whale (the name I give to any apparently unachievable goal) after a little more than one month of constant practice at the gym. I wouldn’t if I didn’t simply get a stronger grip and a half-decent technique.

Now I have a new challenge, and it’s good to have something to work towards.

Sometimes it’s just hard to do, so chalk up and get ready to put the hours in.

4. Monkey See, Monkey Do.

Always look at the more experienced and better performers and ask yourself “what are they doing better than me?”

Actually, disregard it: go ask them that.

Despite what you may have heard in the news, most people are friendly and willing to help you out if you ask nicely enough.

Next up a personal anecdote, skip to the next point if you’re in a rush)

Last year I was mostly working as a concept designer and felt like stepping up my game, so I went and sent a personal message to my 50 favourite artists on Artstation asking for a single suggestion on how to improve my portfolio.

Out of those, about 15 replied with very valuable feedback that I treasured in my endeavours.

The other 35? Who cares!

There are years of potential improvements to make out of a single suggestion; work with what you have.

Also, references are your friends and no serious artist would ever tell you otherwise. Your brain might be a powerful computer but pictures are better at capturing the infinite facets of a complex reality, sorry to break it to you.

5. Chase your White Whale.

You would probably be even unable to get into the starting position because of how absurdly difficult it is.

That said, it is not bad at all to measure yourself against the biggest challenge you can find.

Actually I would encourage it as a way to properly probe the depths (or heights) of what you are getting into.

Although progress is to be found in small incremental steps and the occasional jump when you feel your hand is strong enough, you can gain loads of motivation from trying the hardest path first.

Disclaimer: don’t bet on your skills when something big is at stake (never “try something new” when working for a client on a tight deadline and you cannot afford it to backfire). Also don’t risk breaking your neck just because you’re too stubborn to stay healthy.

In the gym, there are always some awesome routes I want to climb but I cannot even wrap my head (or should I say fingers?) around their first hold.

Trying them out is a great way to make myself humble and work even harder on all the other points of this list.


I spent the entirety of August 2018 working with a good friend of mine on a 3D animation project. Back then I had an amateur knowledge of the software I was getting into (Maya, which I generally despise) and very big dreams of gritty cyberpunk action sequences.

It took us lots of time to shoot, track the camera movement, design our protagonist (of course a big walking robot), properly texture and rig it to make it move convincingly.

During that time, I had to force-feed myself endless hours of tutorials on an array of new softwares and scripts which I never heard of beforehands.

Eventually no exciting short movie really came out of it, I don’t have any suggestive result to show off from that experience and most of that month was spent on trying to understand stuff I didn’t have the technical background to grasp.

It was frustrating for sure.

What have I learned from the experience, then? An appreciation for how much effort it takes to get a good-looking result, lots of new shortcuts and skills readily available for my projects.

One year later, I recovered from that burn and I am now able to produce motion graphics and 3D animations with ease.

Now I routinely take 3D gigs and constantly change myself to improve a little bit every day, inching closer and closer to my goal.

I didn’t know it back then, but chasing a White Whale actually made me a decent sailor.

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Daniele Bulgaro

Written by

Digital Designer

The Startup

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