Illustrator Soon Cho on Using Puzzles to Build a Global Creative Community

Posted inIllustration Design

When quarantine started in early 2020, Canadian artist Soon Cho found herself with a lot of time on her hands. Like many others, she resorted to puzzles for peace of mind, but while plenty of once-avid COVID hobbyists have ditched knitting and sourdough starters, Cho’s new passion is still going strong. In fact, Cho loves the practice so much that she started the online shop SOONNESS, her own mecca for attractive puzzles.

Cho found her way to puzzles after the chaos of 2020 interfered with her ability to work. Like many creatives, she struggled to hold onto long-term work before the pandemic, and her changing circumstances forced her to be innovative. “At my last full-time job, when my contract ended, they didn’t give me a permanent position,” Cho told me. “And after that, COVID hit, so I decided to gather my ideas and try new things.”

She went on to self-publish the charming children’s book Finding Niña, a Where’s Waldo-style book starring Cho’s cartoon alter-ego Niña. After a friend told her the book would make a fun puzzle, Cho took the idea and ran with it. “I started looking for manufacturers, and all things business,” she said. Once she had her own design in front of her, she fell in love. “While I was putting together my samples, and started puzzling, I was actually hooked.”

After Cho developed a solid understanding of how to build her own puzzles, she expanded into selling work by other artists in her online shop. However, she couldn’t help but notice some flaws in the manufacturing system, and she wanted to figure out how to improve on them.

“After I saw the aspects of running this business, I wanted to make it better,” she said. “[For] one, there was too much plastic in the packaging. Everyone’s starting to put in efforts to create less waste, and that was very important for me. So I wanted to make less, and make quality products, and get rid of all the plastic in the packaging…and to be able to do that, I needed to create like a platform or system where I know exactly what people buy, so I don’t create waste.”

Big Restaurant by Itoi Yuki (Japan)

SOONNESS has launched exactly such a system with PNP (Pick & Preorder), a seasonal Kickstarter-esque shopping event that invites artists to submit designs for limited-edition, made-to-order puzzles. Once Cho announces the releases, puzzlers can vote for their favorite designs by pre-ordering them from her website, and each design that meets the minimum amount of orders will go into production.

Cho hopes to support her fellow artists by helping them earn extra income and provide passionate puzzlers with a welcome break from the noise of modern life. Cho sees the omnipresence of screens as one good explanation for the appeal they continue to hold for hobbyists. “I am on screen all the time,” she said. “When I’m feeling that exhaustion, I go to the puzzle table and then just puzzle, and [my] brain is more clear. And it’s so analog, right?”

Girl’s Room by Rowon (Korea)

Cho has also noticed her audience tends to skew more feminine. “A lot of my puzzlers are busy, career-oriented, mostly women in their late 20s to late 30s,” Cho continued. “Most of them are young moms too, and they need their off-screen time to meditate.”

A desire for joy and softness is palpable in the design of the puzzles Cho tends to feature, which are often vibrant, youthful illustrations inspired by fairy tales, fantasy, or manga. And since Cho is such an avid puzzler, she knows what kind of design elements make a genuinely fun puzzle. “Vibrant color is the priority, and attention to detail,” she said. “A lot of texture makes it more fun.”

The designs featured in this fall’s PNP are cheerful, imaginative, and offer plenty of opportunities to get lost in detail. For a week, SOONNESS will showcase artists from all over the world: British graphic novelist Andrew Rae, Japanese designer Itoi Yuki, and Korean illustrator Rowon. Each vivid, intricate piece promises to take puzzlers on a journey, whether it’s to a location as comforting and nostalgic as a teenage bedroom, or as fantastical as an alien landscape, or giant breakfast buffet.

Heath Beasts by Andrew Rae (UK)

Cho has been pleased by the response the event has gotten thus far, both from puzzlers and artists. “Artists were so thrilled to see the puzzlers and their fans interacting with their work,” she said. “As expected, artists’ fans were super happy about the opportunity to own their artwork in a puzzle form.”

This round of PNP will launch at 12 PM ET on September 15th and will run until the 21st. Learn more about the event and its featured artists on SOONNESS.