The art (and science) of great puzzle design.

The art (and science) of great puzzle design.

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More and more companies are adding puzzles into their marketing, especially into their newsletters. We take a look at what goes on behind the scenes of puzzle creation.

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We play puzzles every day. Crossword, jigsaws, sudoku, spot the difference, Candy Crush, Wordle…the list goes on and on. And on some more. We cannot get enough of them and we simply take it for granted that there will always be a hundred more puzzles around the corner for us to try to solve.

But, have you ever stopped to wonder what makes a good puzzle design? Is it a science? Or an art, perhaps? Or both.
It has been said that, one difference between scientists and artists is that scientists like to solve puzzles by putting the pieces together, while artists get their kicks by creating the pieces. So, perhaps puzzle designers are a mix between the two.
Puzzles should be fun, exciting, exhilarating. But, most of all they need to have a challenge that can be overcome. Players should want to beat the puzzle as if it were their opponent.

It takes a creative & strategic mind to be able to devise, shape and style out the puzzle. And, fortunately, at Design Inc, we have those creative & strategic minds in house – and puzzle creation is a service we happily provide our clients. Whether that is a single puzzle for an internal newsletter, branded puzzle books for giveaways at events or digital puzzles that help attract customers through an online challenge.

Frank Norman is Design Inc’s own resident puzzle maker – or rather ‘enigmatologist’ – and creates the majority of puzzles as and when our client projects require them. We sat down with him to discuss the art of puzzle making.

Q. So, Frank, is puzzle making an art or a science?
A. To me, it’s definitely both. You need a creative mindset to be able to come up with an idea that can work. And, much the same as devising a new company brand, the creative process needs to flow until it all takes shape before your eyes. But, you also need to have an analytical mindset to be able to able to work out how all the pieces will fit together.

Q. When did you start creating puzzles?
A.  Like most of us, I started setting little quizzes and riddles for my family when I was a small kid. I remember my brother and I being fascinated by anagrams and setting little word puzzles for each other when we were in junior school. I still love a good anagram now, especially when the anagram is relevant to the actual answer. For example: ‘Apple Macintosh’ = ‘laptop machines’ or ‘eleven plus two’ = ‘twelve plus one’.

Q. How do you come up with your ideas?
Firstly, I try to keep it simple. All of the puzzles we create for our clients need to be easy to understand, fun to do and not too difficult to solve. Moreover, my puzzles all work for 2D usage – as they need to appear on printed literature, digital documents or web pages.
Sometimes I build a puzzle based around a theme and there is certainly no lack of inspiration around us. It could be anything – music, TV or film, hobbies, current affairs or even seasonal events. For example I recently created a xmas Word Search puzzle for a client, with the word grid simply designed in the shape of a xmas tree and all the words related to xmas.

Q. Why did that client require a puzzle? 
A. For this client, we publish their internal newsletter six times each year. They require a puzzle on the back page of each edition and it is used as a staff competition to win a day off work which, as you can imagine, is a very desirable prize! For that client, we create all their puzzles and I tend rotate between number puzzles, text puzzles and picture puzzles. 

Q. Can you tell us your process for creating that puzzle?
A. Well, as with all puzzles we create, we always want to ensure:
       a) the puzzle is engaging – both in the way it looks and in the way it works.
       b) it is simple enough for all to do but difficult enough for it to take some time / thought to complete.
Of course, the concept of a Word Search is a simple one. The player simply has to find a list of words hidden within a word grid. But, in order to create the puzzle, you need to work backwards. In this case, the theme was about xmas so, first I needed to compile a list of xmas words – I wrote out 75 different words or phrases relating to xmas – and that’s a job in itself – with the goal being to strategically shoehorn as many of these words into the grid.

75 is a very large number of words for a Word Search and, as such, it was important that the grid could be designed big enough to fit in as many as I could but small enough to leave just a handful of unused letters – as I had plans for them later!
Once I had compiled all the words, I then needed to work out what size grid would work best for my needs. So I drew up a few different-sized grids, each in a simple xmas tree shape and, word by word, started filling up each grid, placing the longest words/phrases first. Once I got a feeling of which sized grid would work best, I continued with that one, adding in the remainder of the words – forwards, backwards, up, down and diagonally.

It takes a lot of time and strategy to find the right positions for the words and, for sure, this was not something that could be completed in the first take. Were I to come to a standstill, I would retrace my steps and remove the latest words until I felt happier to replace with a better positioned one. In some ways, a trial and error approach is the right one here.

In the end, I managed to place 72 of the 75 words into the grid and this resulted in 24 empty spaces randomly positioned within the grid. But, those unused spaces would go on to form the key element of the puzzle…
Knowing that I had 24 spare spaces, I then devised a 24-letter, xmas-related phrase. And, the specific letters of that phrase were then inserted, in order, into those remaining spaces in the grid.

The challenge therefore, of this puzzle was as follows:
– the player could see the list of words/phrases and was asked to look for those words within the grid.
– when they found a word, they would cross out its letters within the grid.
– once all the words were found, any unused letters would spell out a festive message.
– so, in order to enter the competition, they simply needed to eliminate all the letters associated with the words and then work out what that festive message was from the unused letters.

Q. Can we see that puzzle?
A. Yes, of course. Click here and you will see that puzzle. Feel free to print off and try to solve it yourself.

Q. That’s great. Can we see any more you have created for that client?
A. No problem. Here’s another word puzzle I particularly like. It appears very simple on the outside but took a lot of strategy behind the scenes to make it all come together.
This puzzle was named Film Fifteen and was based on film names. The player simply needed to work out the film title based on a very basic & fun description of the movie and then write the name in its position on a grid.
There were fifteen films to name and each had fifteen letters in its title.
The twist in this puzzle design was that, hidden within the letters were two sets of shaded boxes; fifteen green boxes and fifteen yellow boxes. And, when all the letters of the correct film titles were added to the grid, the letters within the colours boxes would spell out the name of two famous actors. And, these too, had fifteen letters in their names.
It all looks simple at the front end, but trying to find fifteen well-known 15-letter movie names which also include the letters of two 15-letter named actors is no easy task. But, once I had solved that problem, it all came together perfectly. Feel free to print it out and see if you can work out the names of the actors.

Q. So, you devise the puzzle but what about the creative work?
A. It takes an analytical mind to come up with the puzzle design but I have a great creative team behind me who provide the creative work to turn my working files into reality. Sometimes they may be designing a simple-looking grid but, other times, they may be pulling out all the stops. For example, a few years ago, we devised a corporate puzzle calendar for a client and, on each monthly page, we designed a puzzle based around their brand ambassadors – four cartoon-like characters.
The main image on this page is one such page from that calendar. one of the brand ambassadors (named Flo) was a scuba diver. So, we created a visual puzzle of Flo surrounded by tropical fish. But only two of the fishes had identical markings. Can you work out which two?
Another puzzle was simply a word ladder using stepping stones for the stages. Click here to see how we designed that.

Q. And, finally, what would you say is the key ingredient to great puzzle design?
A. There’s not just one key ingredient but rather five golden rules:

1. The goal of the puzzle needs to be clear.
The player shouldn’t be working out what it is they need to do but rather how to do it. For example, in Escape Room situations, the goal is clear – you need to get out of the room. In terms of jigsaws, the goal is simply to create the image. With regards to Spot the Difference puzzles, the goal is to…well, spot the differences.

2. The rules should be clearly defined.
Of course, for well-known puzzles like jigsaws, the rules appear to be second nature but at some point someone would have explained that each piece is designed to perfectly fit together with a set number of other pieces.
However, with puzzles that are not immediately understood, clearly explained rules (and parameters) is crucial to its success.

3. Good puzzles appear simple.
A good puzzle needs to be well-presented with little ‘clutter’ so as to appear inviting. Including additional, unhelpful parts such as extra jigsaw pieces that don’t fit or even too many rules, can create unwelcomed confusion and frustration.
And from the player’s perspective, a good looking puzzle that is easy on the eyes will establish instant engagement.

4. A good puzzle has the right amount of difficulty.
A good puzzle needs to be sufficiently hard enough to create a feeling of achievement & jubilation once completed. Of course, it is important to understand the intended audience: word puzzles created for children, for example would be too simple for an adult.

5. Good puzzles include a ‘eureka’ moment.
It’s all well and good working your way through a puzzle through to completion but good puzzles tend to have that ‘a-ha!’ moment when the player has realised the key to completion.

So, the next time you settle down to attempt a crossword, a word search,  sudoku or any other puzzle, take a minute to think about what it must have taken to devise and design that puzzle. And, say a private thank you to the puzzle makers behind the scenes.

Design Inc is a full-service agency and provide puzzle design as a service. Should you wish to incorporate puzzles into your own marketing activity, please get in touch for an initial discussion.