Maybe it’s their old school charm or the fond memories I have of solving them at Cracker Barrel, but I am a fan of wooden block puzzles. And after learning how to make them, from my wizard-like teacher at North Bennet Street School, I have come to appreciate the true elegance of these puzzles, and the lessons they have for designers.
These puzzles teach how different shapes fit together in three-dimensional space. M. C. Escher would have no advantage: there is no cheating the puzzle, and all the rules of physics and gravity apply. In order to solve the puzzle, you have to understand how the shapes fit together. This is important for designers, especially when so much is being designed on a computer. If a product is being designed for the physical world, it needs to play nice with the rules of physics.
Once you understand how the pieces are supposed to fit together, you actually have to make it happen. Often this involves both forward and backward problem solving. The internal monologue might go something like this: “So I am going to start with this piece because it is the biggest and is easiest to deal with, if I work around it. This smaller piece is probably the second half of the left side. And this piece has to be the last piece."
Sometimes you know the last step first. Sometimes you know step 1, 2, and 5 but then have to solve for steps 3 and 4. That can be scary in a linear world, but as designers that is sometimes the reality we face. It’s helpful to have the confidence that steps 3 and 4 will become clear, even if initially they are hard to see.
There is something very rich about holding a problem in your hand as you work with it. By holding the puzzle, you have a deeper understanding of the spatial relationships that must be solved. While it is possible to understand these things on a computer or on paper, being able to physically handle an object allows you to reach conclusions and iterate solutions in different ways. Fluency across mediums can only help us arrive at these solutions faster.
Others lessons might include balancing the details with the big picture, and reading context clues. But I found that I had an even deeper appreciation for these puzzles when I learned how to make some. I would encourage any interested designer with access to materials and tools to try making one for themselves.
For most of the puzzles, the pieces seem very simple. The simplicity is deceptive, however. Take the star puzzle: a configuration of six roughly rectangular identical pieces with two “triangular” notches cut out of each that slide together nicely (when you know how to do it.) But the pieces aren’t exactly rectangular. The notches are not simple triangles. In fact there are 12 faces, and only a handful of right angles. Plus, most commonly these pieces are only a few inches long—not safe to cut on most power tools without jigs—but which jigs? And to add to all that, they have to be precisely made in order to actually work, especially if you want them to look good. Again, there are simple solutions to all of these problems, but it takes some figuring to make it work. But that’s the point of a puzzle, right?