Jigsaw Puzzles Designed Using Snowflake Math: No Two Are Alike

Two years ago, Nervous System set out to bring the jigsaw puzzle into the 21st century. Today, they’ve launched a series of puzzles designed with biomimicry software.

Nervous System is a young Boston design office famous for using computer-generated simulations of natural phenomenon to “grow” objects like jewelry and lamps: They make earrings based on 600 million year old protozoa, and cups covered in ridges formed by reaction-diffusion, the process that gives zebras their stripes. Last year, the office set out to transform another ubiquitous household item using generative design: jigsaw puzzles.

The oldest jigsaw puzzles were created by map makers in the 17th century, who found that map puzzles were an effective memorization tool. The puzzles we buy today are mass produced by machines, which create thousands of puzzles using the same pattern. But on a recent trip to Paris, Nervous System partners Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg visited a toy shop where puzzles are still made the “old” way–by a woodworker sawing shapes and patterns into planks of wood. They were fascinated by the diverse patterns designed at random by the puzzle makers, and saw an obvious similarity between the one-off, handmade puzzles and their past work, which generates similarly unique objects.

They set out to create what they call “a puzzle for the 21st century.”

Jonathan McCabe’s reaction-diffusion landscapes.

Nervous System began by researching growth patterns found in the natural world, knowing that they wanted each puzzle to have a unique pattern based on a biological process. They tested a number of different scripts based on patterns found in the natural world: One was inspired by the patterns found on Ammonite fossils, while another was a simulation of viscous Hele-shaw cells. That experiment led them to another type of natural phenomenon called Laplacian growth. In shorthand, Laplacian growth is responsible for what a ton of our world looks like: crystal, lightning, and coral all share Laplacian patterns. They finally settled on a specific type of Laplacian growth, called, Dendritic solidification, which is created when freezing temperatures create fingers of crystals. In other words, it’s the pattern from which snowflakes are cut.

After perfecting a script based on the phenomenon, Rosenkrantz and Louis-Rosenberg moved on to the images that would grace the puzzle boards. They decided to commission a number of different artists to create the images, beginning with Jonathan McCabe, a generative artist who makes vivid images based on reaction diffusion, a common mathematical model that occurs in everything from the stripes on tropical fish to the pattern of wind on sand dunes.

With the design of their puzzles in place, Nervous System bought a 3-D printer and a laserjet, and production began. Now available in the pair’s shop, no two Radial Puzzles are alike–each puzzle is a unique series of fractal patterns generated and cut in the studio. According to the team, they’re already looking to expand the project, so listen up, all you math-minded artists out there: “if any generative artists have ideas they would like to see as a jigsaw puzzles,” write the duo, “we’d love to talk.”

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.