‘Tangram’ Design Journal Invites You Into a World of Wonder and Play

Posted inDesigner Interviews


I was reading an interview with designer and paper magician Kelli Anderson in the first issue of Tangram, and she talked about how valuable analog experiences remain, even in the face of digital, well, everything.

“We’re physical creatures that have evolved to interact with the world and think about the world in a physical way,” she says. “You hear car mechanics or engineers or artists say that they’re tinkering with something. Well, what does that mean? They have a physical thing they’re fooling with, and they’re doing all these little cause-and-effect calculations by taking their fingers and poking at it in different ways. It’s a very primal way that human beings explore the world.”

And that quote genuinely gets at the heart of what design journal Tangram is trying to do— they’re tinkering. But they’re tinkering with play and wonder. Which I suppose you could say is the essence of all tinkering. There’s joy in the act of doing. 

I would share more from that interview— or the interviews with Oscar Ukoni and his hyperreal portraits made using only a blue ballpoint pen or Kensuke Koike and his surreal cut-up found photography or Polly Morgan and her immensely nontraditional but eerily enchanting taxidermy—but you’re really just going to have to buy your own copy. Because this is not only something you want to have on a bookshelf, it’s something you genuinely want to hold, flip through, and play with.

Founded by brothers Dan and Dave Buck of Art of Play, writer Adam Rubin, puzzle-maker Matthew Stein, and writer and magician Alexander Hansford, Tangram is a testament to discovery and digging deeper into our innate curiosities. But it’s also a journal for people who love puzzles but don’t yet realize it. Instead of finding a word jumble or a crossword in the final pages of a magazine, puzzles are weaved into the entire journal, creating a playfully immersive experience for readers that celebrates a philosophy of play as art.

Across four stunningly designed issues, Tangram pushes the limit of your imagination and will frustrate you— in a genuinely good way— with brain teasers that I am still trying to solve. But all the while, you will in fact be tinkering, and it beats living in your phone or scrolling through Netflix for something to watch. Essentially, it’s a digest for anyone that is curious or looking for joy or discovery. If you believe epiphanies are lurking around every corner or clues that tease out the connection between seemingly unrelated ideas or things, then you might want to get on board before they publish their fifth issue.

I spoke with Tangram’s founders about the magazine’s origins, “going into wonder,” and allowing their readers to feel like a “genius treasure hunter.”

So what kickstarted the idea for Tangram?

Tangram: The initial inspiration grew out of a desire to share our passion for wonder. The more practical approach would have been to start a blog, but that wouldn’t have been as much fun. Plus, we all have fond nostalgia for beautifully crafted analog objects, so a printed journal seemed like a more exciting option to explore. 

It also gives us an excuse to learn more about a wide variety of esoteric subjects like taxidermy, origami, physics toys, architecture, and fine art. Those fields might seem unrelated at first, but each has the ability to tickle your brain. We wanted to show how wonder can weave its way into almost anything, that includes the physical act of reading a magazine. Since the beginning, we’ve incorporated optical illusions, paper engineering, puzzles, and even toys into the pages. 

The goal was for the reader’s experience with the journal to be as playful and surprising as the content in the articles.

Who is this for? What audience are you really going after here? 

Tangram: We took an “if you build it, they will come” approach, which is probably the exact opposite of how most periodicals get published. 

But the thing is, there’s nothing like Tangram out there, and yet, from our earliest conversations, we could all picture it so clearly in our minds. The fact that the vision was so easily shared by our closest collaborators and friends made us realize we were onto something. Basically, we wanted this dream to exist, so we had to bring it to life ourselves.

What kind of stories do you want to tell? And who is the ideal designer you want to profile in any given issue? 

Tangram: We want to tell stories of people who add magic to the world. Not only artists, but scientists, tinkerers, designers, and anyone who does things that spark wonder. Maybe what they create is awe-inspiring in and of itself, or maybe what they create provides a framework through which the things we normally take for granted suddenly seem amazing.

“Epiphanies await the curious mind. There is always more mystery.” That’s what greets readers with the first issue, and you pepper them with a lot of talk about wonder, curiosity, and magic. What is that for all of you, and how do you bring that to Tangram? 

Tangram: Anyone who has had a hallucinogenic experience can relate to the idea that perspective is the only thing that separates the mundane from the miraculous. But you don’t need drugs to find a flower wonderful, only curiosity. When you pay close enough attention to nearly anything, it can become amazing. That is how children experience the world. Some artists or experiences help us to wave away the cynicism of adulthood and reconnect with that pure childlike wonder. The goal for Tangram is to share that feeling. Maybe it’s discovering an obscure subject you didn’t know existed or solving a beautifully constructed puzzle that makes you feel like a genius treasure hunter. 

There are many different ways to achieve a moment of astonishment, and eventually, we hope to represent them all within the pages of our journal.

Puzzles are obviously pretty integral to the magazinetypically, you’ll find all of the puzzles gathered at the back of a mag or newspaper, but you’ve weaved them throughout the pages and into some of the content. Why did you guys decide to do that? 

Tangram: When most people think of puzzles, they think of crosswords, sudoku, or maybe jigsaws. But those puzzles all fit within the constraints of a two-dimensional box. There is a vast universe of artistic and brilliant puzzles out there. The variety is mind-boggling. Some are mechanical objects, and some are immersive and theatrical, but one thing they all have in common is that they offer an invitation to epiphany. That “aha” feeling might be the height of human consciousness. There is such primal satisfaction in the discovery of a solution to a problem. 

The puzzles in Tangram offer a richness and depth to that “solving” experience that will be new to most people. They are all conceived by Matthew Stein, one of the most clever young puzzle designers in the world.

How would you define a good puzzle? And what’s your process for creating them in every issue?

Matthew Stein: A good puzzle guides the solver through meaningful shifts in perception that lead them to see the world with heightened wonder, curiosity, and attention to detail. A puzzle— in the style presented in Tangram— is a highly dynamic experience contained within a static artifact. What may appear to be a series of words, numbers, or images can prompt the solver to venture down deep research rabbit holes, to transcend and physically transform the printed page, or even to find hidden treasure. The best puzzles have more layers than first meet the eye, with intricately constrained internal architectures that provide intermediate confirmation to assure the solver that, yes, they’re still on the right track. And when they reach the final answer, that endpoint should—like in many a magic routine—feel elegant and inevitable.

When designing the puzzles in Tangram, I always start from the end: how can the meta structure augment each volume’s core themes, how do I take solvers on an exhilarating journey that starts in their homes and then continues out into the real world in unexpected ways, and, most importantly, how do I want the solver to feel by the time the final pieces click together? From there, the metapuzzle establishes some constraints for any number of “feeder puzzles,” which contribute their answers (and sometimes more) to the meta. In creating each puzzle, I pull inspiration from the mediums and methods of the featured artists in each volume, sometimes even creating new puzzle artwork directly in their styles. I present a wide variety of puzzle mechanics and techniques that establish a shared language with solvers, bolstering their puzzling abilities across volumes while subverting their expectations at every turn.

A look inside the puzzle hunt


Who did the editorial design for the magazine? How did you envision it, and what did you want it to say? 

Tangram: The editorial design was done by Alex Hansford, with the intention of being bold but immediately friendly and engaging. Alex also suggested the exposed spine binding so the journals could lay completely flat. This way, the pages could be designed as individual pages or as entire spreads. Since the pages open fully, no details get lost in the spine, and titles often spread across both pages inviting a new way of interacting with the journal, an experience not common to publications of this type and price point. The physical and editorial design was created to push people to interact with the journal as an object, not just as another book.

What’s the creative process when you’re getting an issue together? 

Tangram: Each issue starts with a pitch meeting where we discuss artists, subjects, or experiences we are interested in covering. Often, a theme will emerge as we investigate and develop the stories. That loose theme will help us to generate further ideas for what we might want to explore for that issue. The concept that unites the articles will also inform the graphic design for that issue as well as the design of the puzzles and visual ephemera that weave throughout the journal.

The challenge with any literary or design magazine is just getting it into people’s hands. I’ll always argue that folks want something physical they can hold and connect with—and selling them on wonder and play and puzzles is certainly attractive bait for any audience. But how are you courting a readership? 

Tangram: Our new idea is to make a sort of Tangram discus machine that flings the journals through the air. If we place a few of these machines on top of buildings in crowded downtown areas, it could help us reach people in a whole new way. But really, our readers are our best evangelists, and they have introduced the journal to many of their friends. We’re trying to figure out novel ways to help them share the love. The nice thing is that none of the issues are topical, so the content won’t seem stale if you discover volume 1 after reading volume 4.

Now that you’re four issues deep, what’s next?

Tangram: Volume 5, of course. We have a big buildup that will take us through to volume 9, but along the way, we will be experimenting with format and playing with new approaches for how Tangram can bring wonder and beauty to as many people as possible.

Learn More about Tangram on their website.