How the Design-y Puzzle Came to Rule Quarantine

Illustration by Tala Safié

The connection element of puzzling goes beyond the physical pieces; there’s something to be said about what’s shared between puzzle participants and the artists themselves. Nat Thomas, whose work for Puzz features a pre-pandemic tableau of a taco party, appreciates the communal aspect of designing puzzles. “Knowing the puzzler will be building your work alongside you is rare yet so exciting to see in practice,” she says. 
Welcome to Spotted, Eye on Design’s column that turns an eye on the styles and graphic trends you’re seeing everywhere.
Why do designers love making them?
Gone are the days of laboring over 1,000 pieces of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night;” in their place is a new breed of  the jigsaw puzzle, which has undergone a major rebrand thanks to direct-to-consumer companies promising a trendy, frame-able take on the old pastime. These puzzles are the antithesis of The Social Dilemma; highlighting, as Whiled’s founder Alisha Ramos says, “the importance of analog over digital.” 

A lifestyle shot from Piecework. Credit: Carl Ostberg

For Omri Livne, whose most recent illustration “Jokes Gone Too Far was transformed into a  jigsaw for Ravensburger, designing puzzles encapsulates both his childhood memories and his time studying art. Plus, it taps into a new audience. “We are taught [in] art school quite a lot about what it means to be part of an art market, how to brand yourself and how to make a distinctive piece,” Livne says. Taking a leap into the puzzle industry is, Livne admits, a first step (albeit a scary one) into a new, more commercial, artistic endeavor. 
The companies that peddle these puzzles view them as a part of a lifestyle, with websites that feature images of in-progress puzzles paired with a glass of wine or a jar of flowers. For some brands, the puzzle artwork evokes a Vogue cover with sparkling objects culled from a fashionably retro dinner party; others embrace bold, geometric illustrations. Among the variants is a common theme: storybook packaging that serves as standalone decor; color palettes that replace the familiar beige minimalism of D2C with warm yellows, reds, and greens; and imagery that positions sedentary play at the center of a cozy new and improved at-home routine.  Who’s designing them?
Emerging puzzle brands like Jiggy. Whiled, Piecework, Ordinary Habit, and Puzz have pulled something off that one can only achieve during a time of strict quarantine: They made the puzzle cool. Jiggy has upwards of 20 artists as collaborators; with special pieces from a COVID relief auction featuring Demi Lovato (yes, even Demi is a puzzle artist now). Whiled—the name rooted in the 19th century phrase “whiling away”—stemmed from Alisha Ramos of media brand Girls Night In. And for Ramos, “finding and collaborating with artists has been one of the most rewarding parts.” Their first iteration of downtime products is four puzzles created by international artists: Mexican illustrator Ana Leovy, the London-based Tess Smith Roberts, Portland’s Lan Truong, and German artist B.D. Graft. Many brands are even looking to  Instagram for illustration recruitment with works by Bodil Jane and Reyna Noriega. Then, of course, there’s the OG artful puzzle puppeteer, graphic designer Bryce Wilner, whose ubiquitous gradient puzzles launched in 2015 and have since filled the shelves at every museum gift shop.
And of course a puzzle’s formulaic mindfulness—what artist Taylor Lee deems “recreational problem solving”— fits in seamlessly during this time of transience. If you can’t have museum visits, why not bring Mike Perry into your home? “The irony in all of this?” says Ordinary Habit’s co-founder Echo Hopkins, “We thought we were going to have to convince the wider population that puzzles were something they wanted to do.”  

Whiled branding. Credit: Whiled

What are you seeing?
When conceptualizing Piecework’s direction, co-founder Rachel Hochhauser starts with a theme or mood. “It’s really important to design images that are more than aesthetically appealing,” she explains. “They have to [physically] work for a puzzle, and be filled with odds and ends that are fun to compose.” This desire to oscillate between structure and expression, between learned practice and nostalgia, is at the heart of modern puzzle design.