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MIT Technology Review

How Instagram is making jigsaw puzzles cool again

Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube are suddenly full of people earnestly completing jigsaw puzzles. What’s going on?

February 4, 2020
image of hand placing gradient puzzle piece instagram colorsimage of hand placing gradient puzzle piece instagram colors
image of hand placing gradient puzzle piece instagram colorsMs Tech / Twenty20

Karen Kavett lives in Los Angeles. She makes DIY videos at the home decor channel HGTV, but she also has a side hustle, a part-time gig with YouTube working on design. After work, she's itching for something soothing and simple to do.

So she does jigsaw puzzles, and vlogs about her passion on YouTube. As her digital persona Karen Puzzles, the 29-year-old reviews puzzles and provides puzzling tips for her 11,500 YouTube subscribers. Many say they like to have her videos on while they work. Her audience is tiny compared with that of bona fide YouTube stars—but it is growing, and she’s not alone. 

Jigsaw puzzles are having a renaissance, thanks in part to two dueling phenomena: social media and, simultaneously, the urge to disconnect from it. Pop culture reflects the trend too: Miranda on the smash Netflix series The Circle spends her free time working through a jigsaw puzzle. Tobey Maguire is into competitive puzzling.

@magicpuzzles

#jigsawpuzzle #jigsawpuzzles #jigsawchallenge #jigsawpuzzlechallenge

♬ Post Malone (feat. RANI) - VIZE Remix - Sam Feldt
@figure_skating_queen

#aesthetic #satisfying #jigsawpuzzle amberthyweirdest

♬ original sound - figure_skating_queen

On Instagram, hashtags such as #puzzlelover #puzzlesofinstagram, and #puzzletime are amassing hundreds of thousands of views. On TikTok, videos tagged with #jigsawpuzzle have been watched more than 1.3 million times. Puzzlers boast about finishing puzzles that have thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of pieces. TikTok even has a series of videos where people triumphantly place the last puzzle piece in its place (often tagged #satisfying). 

@michmcgr

#cats #jigsawpuzzle #jenniferhudson

♬ original sound - michmcgr
@xjeiselx

I just wanted to put it back in the box #jigsawpuzzle

♬ Swing - Savage

Puzzlers are getting younger, too. The average age of participants at competitive puzzling tournaments around the world now stands at 36 but is falling every year, according to Alfonso Alvarez-Ossorio, the president of the World Jigsaw Puzzle Federation.

So why are young people now falling for puzzles?

“I think that puzzles provide an antidote to burnout,” says Emily Singer, a marketing manager whose newsletter, Chips + Dips, tracks digitally native brands and social trends. “They ask you to slow down, stop looking at a screen, and complete a concrete task.” Puzzles are replacing adult coloring books in this respect, she suggests.

One convert is Kaylin Marcotte. Like many, she was coming home exhausted from a demanding job, looking to unwind without having to stare at yet another screen. 

“I tried meditating, but it didn’t land with me,” she says. “But jigsaw puzzles—that’s my form of meditation. It was super relaxing. It clicked. It felt like I was in pursuit of some structured creation.” Soon, Marcotte was configuring thousand-piece puzzles on deconstructed Amazon boxes she’d slide under the couch of her studio apartment when she wasn’t poring over the pieces. 

In many ways Marcotte’s conversion to puzzles seems typical: people are feeling the strain of modern life and need something analog and quiet to help them de-stress from work and the news. Puzzles also fit perfectly into the burgeoning "homebody economy" as young people under financial and social pressure choose to stay home.

@codyjackson766

Turning up on this Saturday night. #jaws #imsingle #heyladies #whiteclaw #foryou #fyp #jigsawpuzzle

♬ Jaws Theme - Jaws
@jigsaw_jane

Part one Dumbo Puzzle #puzzle #jigsawpuzzle #jigsaw

♬ Lobby Music (Original Soundtrack) - Kahoot!
@lizzymarie_123

Today was a cozy low key day for me. ☺️ #ChronicPainWarrior #marfansyndrome #jigsawpuzzle #audiobook #alwaystheforbiddencoffee

♬ She Share Story (for Vlog) - 山口夕依

“It’s about simple joys and reconnecting with being creative,” she says. “It’s structured creation, less stressful than drawing on a blank piece of paper. Coloring books helped with that, and puzzles are the next path to follow.”

But Marcotte soon tired of the fusty designs she would stare at for hours: cheesy cats, bland landscapes, or stock art prints. She hit art shows and scoured Instagram for female artists, and in November 2019, she launched her new puzzle firm Jiggy. Each puzzle kit includes special glue to hold finished puzzles together and to a mat and frame—“a 20-inch print,” she says, for people who are “too sentimental to tear it apart.”

Jiggy is just one of a number of startups capitalizing on the trend. For example, Piecework Puzzles makes jigsaws that are highly filtered, cheeky, and purposefully shot to look good when they appear on Instagram. They come in silky boxes that could easily be mistaken for a coffee-table book. One of the startup’s founders, Rachel Hochhauser, discovered puzzling after she decided to seclude herself in a rented cabin to ease her own burnout. 

The Instagram aesthetic is also helping to push the boundaries of what a puzzle can be, with firms introducing gradient puzzles and landscapes that pop off the board. The past holiday season brought three-dimensional puzzles, color-changing elements, even dual-sided puzzles, perfect for showing off on the app. 

Meanwhile, social media is helping to create a community feel around what is still essentially a solitary pursuit.

That’s something that Michael Giragosian has noticed. Giragosian, 34, runs the JigsawPuzzles subreddit on Reddit, which boasts 14,000 users and has seen its subscribers double over the past couple of years. He started it eight years ago and has seen it grow into one of the site’s most feel-good corners. While about 90% of posts show puzzlers on their own, Giragosian credits the hobby’s growth to the way the internet, whether on his own site or elsewhere, helps solo puzzlers link up with others to share their quiet passion.

“Technology is how we find new puzzles,” Giragosian says. “It's what brings us all together as a community. At the same time, it also keeps us apart. We all love jigsaw puzzles, but we are all pretty comfortable doing them from our own spaces.”