My Puzzle Story, Part 1: Pulling The Trigger
I’ve been working toward becoming an “artist” for the better part of my life. Even though I have a BFA and have never stopped drawing, it has always been a struggle trying to convince my thick head that I could make drawing for a living work—It’s such a tough life. It took a twenty-year diversion into web design to finally win over my logical brain. And make no mistake, modern technology has made the whole process infinitely easier in many ways.
One of the biggest hurdles to “getting a product out there” for every artist is money. Unless you are lucky enough to have won the lottery or have a trust fund to bankroll your ideas, production and manufacturing is prohibitively expensive. It can take years to save up enough money to invest in a limited print run of a book, apparel, or even a poster collection. Products that require huge, insanely expensive machinery to produce are often times well out of reach of the average artist. And platforms like Kickstarter, well, don’t get me started.
I began a mid-life career transition back in 2014 when I saw inevitable changes in the web design market that would have huge impacts on my ability to find work. By the end of 2015, I was churning out the first pages of E is for Endangered. And in late 2019 and early 2020, I finally had gotten my ducks walking in a straight enough line to being working on my new online web store, OddGoods (there’s a much longer backstory to this too). Early in 2020, I had been researching potential products that would fit my artwork and interests because my efforts to find a publisher for my coloring book, E is for Endangered, were proving fruitless and I simply didn’t have the minimum $15,000 I needed to self-publish. I was looking for alternative ways to get E is for Endangered out into the world when the puzzle box on my shelf caught my eye and I said to myself, “well shit, I wonder if I can create a puzzle from this art?” Manufacturing a single puzzle would prove no more or less expensive or challenging.
I eventually found a small manufacturer in the PNW that specifically worked with artists who wanted to have novelty puzzles created for marketing purposes. Better yet, they printed in very small batches and were willing to split the order up into multiple designs for a minimal extra charge. The expense was manageable, but not cheap by any means. The company was the only one I could find in North America that printed small batches. I would later learn, after spending countless hours researching manufacturers, that manufacturing options for custom puzzles are extremely limited.
I dove in, created the artwork for my first set of puzzles using the artwork I had drawn over the previous three years for my coloring book and worked with a very patient manufacturer to get the puzzles created. This was in March, just as the pandemic took hold. Little did I know that I was already very late to the party. Many many many other people had the same idea. Production was already backed up by months.
I was super excited to receive delivery of that first batch of puzzles and started to gingerly market them in August, nervous as hell how they would be received by the puzzle community.
I learned quickly that the quality of my puzzles weren’t up to par with what puzzlers expected and pulled my puzzles offline within a couple months and got back to work. I had a lot to learn about puzzle manufacturing, but it was in that moment that I was glad that I hadn’t run a larger batch. The downside to this education was not that I had lost my initial investment, it was that by the time the new puzzles would be available, I had lost a year. I dove back into Google mode and started researching manufacturers again and pouring over my finances to figure out a way to pay for a bulk order. My nest egg hasn’t exactly hatched. Nearly two months later, I had only found a few manufacturers. Turns out that there are only three puzzle manufacturers in the U.S. and they all cater primarily to large companies that print designs in massive quantities. Only two companies in the entire country offer custom puzzle manufacturing to supplement downtime in their factories, and trust me when I tell you, Made in the USA isn’t even remotely affordable for quality that is no better than anywhere else in the world. Not to mention, they procure all their raw materials and machinery from overseas anyway. "Made in America" is a farce.
What was more surprising to me is that I found that there exists only a handful of companies around the world that manufacture puzzles. I was at a loss, so I decided to reach out to other boutique puzzle companies and ask if they would be willing to share who they manufactured with. I sent out a dozen inquiries over the course of a couple months and discovered a curious trait of the puzzle-making community: Peeps keep their "secrets" close to their chests. Twenty-five years in design, working with other creatives and suppliers, and I’ve never found such an unwillingness to help other creatives. As if manufacturers don’t work with dozens and dozens of clients. In the end, I did find a few incredible people who were willing to point me in a helpful direction. I’m grateful for the fine people @puzzledly, @cake, and @berkmire for their suggestions (worth noting that this small group has grown over the past year ... ya'll are awesome).
I spent another six weeks researching suppliers and eventually requested samples and pricing from five potential manufacturers. Only four responded. I received samples from three. And only one of the three went above and beyond with their customer service. I was pretty sure I had found my supplier.
I spent nearly two months tweaking my artwork after paying close attention to puzzle critiques on social media to create the puzzle designs and packaging. I resubmitted so many corrections to the design staff who set up each die line that I am certain they absolutely hated me. Having been in their shoes more times than I can count, I’m fairly certain I know precisely what they said when another one of my changes was submitted.
What made my designs so much more difficult to prepare is that without fields of color to help segment the art, the placement of the line work became very important. What do I mean by this? Well, in most instances, I suspect that when an art piece is selected to be used in a puzzle, all that is required to adapt typically colorful art to a puzzle die line is to fit in within the dimensions of the die line and BLAMMO!, you’re done. Because my art is black line on white, I had to consider where every single line bisected a cut in the puzzle die. In other words, I had to pay attention to where every line crossed a puzzle piece cut in the die so that lines weren’t getting lost in the grooves of the cut. In addition, because I wasn’t using color, I also made the decision to make sure that every single piece had a mark on it and that lines didn’t end IN a cut line. I spent countless hours plotting each in line in each one of four 1000 piece puzzles. While there was simply no possible way I could avoid all potential problem areas, I am confident that this art is more nearly perfectly created for a puzzle die than any you’ve ever experienced before.
While I was working on the puzzle designs, I was also working with the manufacturer to dial in the materials and specs for my puzzles. This was a fun and thoroughly educational process and, as with any supplier, the key takeaway is that the final product will only be as good as your ability to communicate with the supplier. If you don’t mesh with the sales and design staff, your end product probably won’t measure up to your expectations.
Weeks passed and I finally approved my designs and ordered a sample.
I was jumping out of my skin when the package arrived. There are few things I enjoy more than seeing my work in print, but even I wasn’t expecting how pretty this looked. My third tangible OddGoods product and it was gorgeous ... And it wasn't even printed at production resolution!