Is a jigsaw really the last piece of the puzzle?

Jigsaw collaboration illustration by Cognitive Media

For anyone in the creative business, from advertising to the sort of visual storytelling we do at Cognitive, the jigsaw piece is a familiar ‘go to’. Need an image to show joined up thinking? Jigsaw! Collaboration? Jigsaw! The missing piece of a process? Jigsaw! Everything falling into place? Jigsaw! It’s versatile, gets the idea across instantly and allows us more time to work on other concepts in our animations.

Most afternoons you’ll find our animators and illustrators wrestling to visualize tricky concepts – it ain’t a pretty sight. A jigsaw piece showing collaboration is an easy win.

Tricky concepts - illustration by Cognitive Media

You can bet that somewhere in all the RSA Animates we’ve created there’s a jigsaw piece or two. But, as with the light bulb, is the jigsaw piece now a cliché?

Lightbulb cliche - illustration by Cognitive Media

Well, yes. But using a jigsaw piece is like having a big slice of your favourite cake. You know it’s a bit naughty, that it’s easy and that you ought (conceptually speaking) to be going for that healthy carrot or apple – but the cake is oh-so-satisfying!

Image concepts illustration by Cognitive Media

The jigsaw piece works so well. It shows the fitting together not only of shape, but also of pattern. It’s a twofer. And in a whiteboard animation where you need to maximize every image, that’s a godsend. Having a single shape to represent, say, two groups collaborating on something and being able to use it to complete the overall picture of what they’re collaborating on… Wow. How handy is that!

Jigsaw collaboration illustration by Cognitive Media

In fact, the jigsaw piece is even a threefer. Not even sure if that’s an actual word, but if not, we’re coining it here, because the jigsaw piece needs it. Why is it a threefer? Because putting the final piece of a jigsaw into place has a higher level of meaning. It represents Epiphany. That moment of invention where all the little steps you’ve taken on a long journey, all those little pieces of the puzzle finally bring you to a new realization. It’s the step forward, the moment of satisfaction, the image of collaboration and the sight of the overall picture rolled into one. Blimey – it looks like we’ve got a fourfer on our hands. No wonder we all love those jigsaw pieces.

Epiphany illustration by Cognitive Media

We should all be very grateful to John Spilsbury, a cartographer who invented the jigsaw puzzle around 1760 (thank you, Wikepedia). The early jigsaws were called dissections, were made of wood and usually depicted maps, using the borders of the countries as the edges of the pieces. This was how George III’s children were taught geography. By the 1880’s the puzzles had been given the name ‘jigsaw’, even though fretsaws were used to make them. Little could John Spilsbury have known how popular his invention would become, or that it would become a major part of the visual lexicon – a piece in our visual communication jigsaw, if you will. And that’s where the real problem lies. We all love the jigsaw piece and all use it… like, a lot. But if, as graphic designers or (in our case) animation makers, we want to use something other than a jigsaw piece, what should we do? 

John Spilsbury, cartographer - illustration by Cognitive Media

We should raid history, of course! Mosaics have been found as far back as the 3rd millennium B.C. The process of creating mosaics is very much akin to doing a jigsaw. The artist has to have an overall picture in their head and then convert that onto a floor or wall using tiny tiles. Perhaps before the invention of the jigsaw, people used the creation of mosaics as their visual shorthand for putting the last piece into place and making it fit? The fact is, that mosaic can be used just as well now in digital storytelling as it was in ancient Mesopotamia.

Mosaic illustration by Cognitive Media

But before we all run off to brush up on our mosaic skills, are there other ways of completing the big picture? In animation we have the luxury of the pull back to reveal the ‘helicopter’ shot. It gives the viewer a nice ‘Aha’ moment akin to that final jigsaw piece. Creating a map, charting a course or a topographical view are satisfying alternatives to the jigsaw piece and give a nod to the jigsaw’s origin. Creating a GPS graphic to show how your subject matter fits into the wider landscape would also be a modern take. 

Those are our thoughts, but what do you think? Do you have a brilliant alternative to the jigsaw piece? If you do, why not share? Just post your thoughts and comments to our Facebook page. Not simply so we can use them, but so that any artist or video scribe in our community has that extra graphic bazooka in their arsenal.

Miko Coffey

I'm a web problem-solver who helps people make the most of digital tools, techniques and practices. I've been working with websites for the last 17 years and I absolutely love it.