tiistai 8. huhtikuuta 2014

An Interview With Vesa Timonen

Vesa Timonen has almost got a double-identity working daytime as a geeky embedded software engineer and a puzzle-designer by night. Though the latter is not going to take no-one by surprise in these circles anymore: Timonen is one of the most prominent puzzle designer in Finland - and one of the very few.
      With multiple puzzles under his belt, and many of them published in the famous Hanayama Cast series, Timonen has already made himself known among puzzle enthusiasts.

Vesa Timonen at work. With a view.

The road that lead him here started in childhood as many things in life does. He might not have been much taller than a courtyard fence but already he was interested in puzzles - and especially in magic tricks his father used to show him. They bothered him so much that he spent lots of time figuring them out. As a result the magic might've vanished but the knowledge grew.
      –Those were probably the first puzzles I solved, says Timonen.
      But if there's one person Timonen considers contributed the most to a blooming designer, it's his uncle. With him Timonen used to solve Tangram puzzles one after another. They didn't know it then but the version they got had a fault in it which made one of the puzzles unsolvable.
      –We kept on trying and trying. Twenty years after that I got the game in my hands. Revisiting the challenge I noticed that that particular problem was impossible. I told my uncle about it, but naturally he didn't believe me.
      Timonen sees the time well spent: solving Tangram teached him concentration and persistence both which are essential not only for a puzzle solver but also for a designer.
      –The more you solve, the more you start to see behind the fabric of the puzzles. Get a glimpse into the puzzle universe.

There's something familiar in this...
There was something in puzzles in general that captured Timonen's attention and he used to buy any he could get his hand on. Then, while studying to be the computer geek he is today, he ran into a draught of new puzzles. That's when the idea presented itself to him for the first time.
      –Because I couldn't find any on the store shelves, I thought maybe I should try to invent one myself.
      It took him three months to ready a prototype of his first ever puzzle. It was a wooden burr with a diagonal setup. An invention of which he was immensely proud of - that is, until he traveled to Amsterdam and saw the exact same puzzle there, on a supermarket shelf.
      The Diagonal Burr puzzle had been patented already as far back as in 1905. He hadn't been so unique after all.
      After the crushing start it took him two years to get back into it. Then came a time in his life when boredom set in with nothing to do. Out of nowhere came a puzzle idea which Timonen considered so good that he decided to look into it. He contacted Sloyd's Tomas Lindén who made the first prototype of the idea - that idea was to become his first puzzle, Timonen Burr Simple in 1999.
      That was the beginning of a partnership which has carried on for nearly twenty years.
      –Tomas and I have the same beauty ideals, both of us like puzzles which have as few pieces as possible. Tomas is very good at giving feedback, he doesn't hide his opinion just to be polite. He also usually has many ideas how to develop the idea further.
      Timonen considers Lindén crucial in his career and says that without Lindén's contribution many of his designs wouldn't have ever seen the light of day. Puzzles like Timonen Burr, Lox In a Box 1 & Lox In a Box 2, Double Squared and Symmetrick would've never been.
      –The process is as follows: I send a prototype to Tomas who takes a go with it. If he can solve it under five minutes, the puzzle is a typical failure.

Breakthrough came with Cast Loop in 2007 for which Timonen won the Nob Yoshigara Puzzle Design Competition. The seeds for the puzzle can be found in the year 1999. In the year Timonen met his wife.
      –After I met her I had a dream to design wedding rings for us. And of course they would have to be puzzle rings.
      Timonen had many ideas going around in his head but while they would've probably made wonderful puzzles, he just couldn't make them work as rings. One of those ideas, originally as a ring, was Cast Loop.
      Around that time Timonen was lucky enough to meet George Miller who introduced him to Hanayama. Miller - who also printed the first 3D prototype of Cast Loop - saw the potential of the puzzle he called Cast Love. Timonen himself still thought the only appeal of Cast Loop was the looks and not the puzzle, since he thought solving Cast Loop was as evident as just putting the pieces together.
      The puzzle went to production on Hanayama puzzle line and the rest is history. Timonen says working with Hanayama has always been a breeze.
      –I just send an idea to them and they will do the iteration part of the development. They really want to put their fingerprint in every puzzle they publish. It's really great, the puzzles become more alive after their touch.

Something completely incomprehensible is happening on the pages of Timonen's notebooks.
 But some of these alchemistic signs may lead to a puzzle you and I are familiar with.

Especially from Cast Loop onwards Timonen has followed the same philosophy of design: making things as simple as possible. Big part of it all is to make the puzzles beautiful, almost jewelry-like. Timonen optimizes his designs until he gets it right.
      –I just can't tolerate complexity. For example all the different kinds of Rubik's Cube variants are not for me, I can only keep up to four pieces in my mind.
      As a designer Timonen works on only one idea at a time, waiting for ideas to present themselves. He admits that he has tried multiple times to force the process but to no avail.
      –I've had a couple of hours and decided to invent something right now. Well, it has never happened. All my ideas have just popped in my head when least expected. Of course there's a part in the process where conscious thinking is required but it seems that the creative part of my brains needs quiet time to be heard.
      That quiet time might come at work during boring office meetings, at night when he happens to wake up, at the movies or during taking a stroll. Whenever. That is probably the reason why Timonen has all those notebooks - in total eight of them.
A bin of failures. Of what could've been...
      After the idea is there, the analytical phase begins with research to find the best way to implement what he has thought out. When that is locked he makes a prototype which he handles to his many testers, including Tomas Lindén. And if the puzzle passes that, he presents it to a potential manufacturer. Sound straight-forward? It's not.
      Getting from an idea to a product can take a period of time between minutes and years. Timonen estimates that generally there's three months between an idea and a prototype. Sometimes it's less like with Capital H which took only 30 minutes - but for every Capital H there's a Solitaire Chess with development time of 1,5 years; designing Solitaire Chess required Timonen to not only come up with an idea but also to develop a software to generate the problems.
      –When starting the process, I don't think at all of the difficulty level of the puzzle. My goal is just to come up with something simple and beautiful. Only when that goal is reached I will check the difficulty. The majority of my puzzle ideas are too easy and I will throw them away.
      Some of the ideas deemed too easy can be saved without sacrificing the beauty by adding something into them. That is what happened with Cast Donuts as it could originally be solved just by shaking it. It wasn't until the fifth version that was difficult enough for Timonen to send it to Hanayama. Helping to pin down the difficulty are the testers from whom Timonen also gets new ideas when watching them trying something creative with the puzzle.
      All in all, only about twenty per cents of the ideas die in the prototype phase. Timonen also estimates only five per cent of his original ideas leads to a finished product. Meaning 95 per cent of them are failures.
      –At the beginning it was difficult to find motivation after the failures. I was really lucky when one of my very first inventions went to production. It gave a lot of confidence.

Wait... How many is there?

While he bought every new puzzle in town when he was younger, nowadays it's quite contrary with Timonen fighting to keep his apartment clean of puzzles.
      –I rarely buy new puzzles anymore. If I see a puzzle it fixates my mind to that particular idea.
      And that is not good for a designer in search of new and original ideas. But that doesn't mean he don't solve any puzzles. He does. The latest was Iwahiro's Square In a Bag. And what a thrill that was!
      –It was one of the greatest puzzles I've ever seen!

The main puzzles of Vesa Timonen:

Timonen Burr Simple (1996)
Timonen Burr (1998)
Vesa burr (2000)
Lox in Box 1 (2000)
Lox in Box 2 (2002)
Capital H (2004)
Solitaire Chess (2006)
Globe Ball (2007)
Cast Loop (2007)
Cast Square (2008)
Cast Hook (2008)
Tilt (2009)
Cast Donuts (2010)
Symmetrick (2011)
Lock Puzzle (2011)
Cast Cylinder (2012)

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