The Art of the Puzzle: Thoughts on Design Creation

the art of the puzzle

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Chloé is one of our main creative designers at Invite Japan. She creates the covers and booklet designs for our outdoor scavenger hunt games, comes up with the overall aesthetics in combination with the story, and designs puzzles as well (not to mention all the work she does for marketing and social media). So we wanted to get her perspective about doing design work and what the process of creating an outdoor scavenger hunt was like. In this blog post she shares her personal thoughts on designing our latest puzzle booklet,  Nazotabi: Yokohama. 

Location and puzzle scouting

When we start new scavenger hunt projects like Nazotabi, we usually have a meeting first to decide on where we want our new game to be located and what the general “mood” and concept for the story will be. 

After creating Nazotabi booklets for Asakusa and Nihonbashi, we wanted to go somewhere outside of Tokyo. Of course Yokohama was our first choice, as it is the second biggest and most populous city in Japan, and it has its own unique culture and history. Plus, it was also a convenient choice because we just happened to have created a lot of puzzles in this area for another project. 

If we already happen to have puzzles for the decided location, we review and select ones that we can use, then decide if we need to create more. If we need to create more puzzles I usually am part of the “puzzle scout” team. Going to the location actually helps a lot for my design work as I can immerse myself in the area and get some inspiration. 

Puzzle scouting probably deserves its own blog post, as it is a very important part of our work as puzzle makers, but let me explain it quickly. When we know we have to make puzzles for a decided location, then our small puzzle scout team goes to the site to do a thorough exploration. Everything interesting or peculiar can become a nice puzzle location. 

I really love that our job can help people discover places that they didn’t know about. That’s why we have to really explore every corner, so that we don’t rely on the obviously interesting locations (e.g. Hachiko statue in Shibuya, Kaminarimon in Asakusa). Instead, we try to look elsewhere–an interesting looking statue, a cool panel, an unusual piece of architecture, a strange building facade, and so on. There are so many possibilities for what we can use as puzzle bases. 

Creating an ambience–mood boards and story

Along with puzzle creation, story and ambiance needs to be set. This is also an important step for me, where I need to be involved as early on as possible. When we came up with our new Nazotabi concept back in late April, we wanted to try out a different aesthetic and “look”. Usually we use traditional Japanese aesthetics as part of the design concept. And as much as I like to include the 和 (wa/ “traditional Japanese”) in design concepts, it also comes with some limitations too. This time we wanted to do a more general “fantasy” theme (magic, spellbooks, runes, etc.)

After the story concept has been decided, I build a mood board on Pinterest to inspire me and construct a first draft of what I would like to do for the cover work. The cover is the first thing I work on when we build a puzzle booklet. 

When I have my general idea for the cover, then comes the actual creation process. For Nazotabi Yokohama, I had a bit of a blank slate to work with. The concept we had first come up with for the cover was not meshing with my own skills and what I could do. It took me a little while to accept that it was okay to not be able to do something and that the best way to move forward was to try something else. 

After going back to my mood board and pinterest page, I finally found a new inspiration to work with. Since the story was based in a heroic-fantasy-type universe, I took my inspiration from medieval architecture. The pastel facades of the Netherlands especially made everything click in my head and allowed me to start my first draft. 

Colors and fonts–a tumultuous relationship 

I’m a very chaotic color-chooser. I love pastel colors and satisfying color schemes, and I sometimes get lost in color palettes. 

When we started working from home, I got more into design creation for our projects, so I started to learn more about color harmony, rules of creating good graphic design compositions and font choice. More than one year later, I am still excited to research new techniques and learn more about design. As I tend to be messy when choosing colors, I usually check the color wheel and use different resources from color-chart websites.

For Nazotabi Yokohama, I wanted to use “happy colors”. Our past Nazotabi booklets had darker color schemes to go along with the traditional Japanese themes. The fantasy theme for our Yokohama puzzle booklet was the perfect occasion to utilize a fairy-tale-like color scheme: Pastel colors with a pinch of holographic inspiration. I was so happy to finally be able to use my favorite colors for a work project.

Choosing a font is also a big part of design-making and this might be one of my biggest weaknesses. Especially when it comes to making a product that will be sold, you really have to be careful of copyrights. Since we use Adobe Illustrator and Creative Cloud, Adobe fonts are our primary choice. I tend to choose fonts that are not easy to read or not very homogenous so sometimes I get called on my choices and back off to more classic, generic fonts. The line between practical/readable versus pretty/aesthetic is often difficult for me to draw, and I still tend to choose more aesthetically pleasing fonts. 

This is also where I love working with Dennis, our creative director. He helps me learn and get better at choosing the right things. He has more experience working with Illustrator and making puzzles. I am often reminded of the fact that “pretty” can be good, but for our case (puzzle making), readability is a very important point and has to supersede everything else. While I do have some freedom in certain parts and sections, the font for most of the booklet has to be clear and relatively simple.

For Nazotabi Yokohama, I kept the inspiration of fairy tales and medieval folklore aesthetics. I wanted a nice font for the instruction texts that could work for both English and Japanese, which was a very difficult task. Weighing the good and bad points between a classical or generic sans serif font and a font that has a bit more character (pun intended) is tricky. And until the book is printed I always have slight doubts about whether I was right or not about my choices. 

A font can have such a huge impact on the final product’s quality, which I think is something that gets overlooked a lot. We all laugh about how fonts like Papyrus or Comic-sans are tacky and unstylish. But lots of people also complain that the Futura font is used everywhere, and even if it is stylish and clear, it can become “flat” and make your design boring or too mainstream. It’s always a matter of finding the right balance. 

Always try to be better than yesterday

As I mentioned before, over the past year I really got to learn a lot about design making, and puzzle making too. I still have lots of things to learn, like about “cutting lines” (another one of my nemeses). But I am excited to become more and more capable of creating beautiful designs that can help our products get the attention they deserve. 

Before the pandemic started, I would create designs or do Photoshop montages mostly for my own satisfaction. This year I learned how to think creatively to solve new design challenges, and to become more aware that I am making illustrations and graphics for an audience. This has led me to be more careful and conscious about my design choices. 

In lots of different ways, Nazotabi Yokohama helped me to work harder than ever on my design abilities. I got to improve my illustration skills, helped the project move forward in different ways, and became more rigorous about text alignments, fonts and placements. I learned a lot of “small” lessons that, when combined together, can heavily impact the overall quality of my design work.

Projects like Nazotabi Yokohama can be very challenging, even more so when communicating over online communication apps like Zoom or Slack. But I often find myself getting a bit depressed and sad after we finish a creative project like this. Because as much as the work is tiring and exhausting, it’s also exhilarating and a bit intoxicating to build something completely new using just the sweat of our combined creativity and teamwork. 

I am already looking forward to what’s next. 

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

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