Aside from evidently having the most mind-boggling name for any predictive text setting, Jan van Haasteren has a number of methods of signalling to his fans that they are in the presence of his work.
His signature shark fin, an image of Saint Nicholas, The Hands, The Dentures or an altogether more blatant self-portrait; all the above, van Haasteren has adopted as his in-art monikers.
If you’re piecing together a puzzle without at least one of these images in it, you are not piecing together a van Haasteren puzzle at all.
Alongside Graham Thompson, James Alexander, Bill Houston and a handful of others, van Haasteren helps make up an elite of artists to have been creating detailed, punchy and humorous illustrations exclusively for the Dutch puzzle specialist, Jumbo Games for - in the case of he and Thompson - the past number of decades.
So well-known is van Haasteren’s work now, that he boasts a mountain of Facebook and Twitter followers in its thousands. He, along with Thompson et al, are also arguably behind the continued retail success of Jumbo’s Wasgij puzzle collection both overseas and here in the UK, and partially responsible for the uplift in the adult puzzles market in general. Now. that's quite some work.
According to the NPD Group’s most recent results, the adult puzzle sector has grown again by over per cent on last year. Within that space, Jumbo has posted a seven per cent growth, while its competitor, Gibsons Games has cited growth of around 15 per cent.
It’s in line with the current popularity of the board gaming market, part of what has been called by Gibson Games’ sales and marketing assistant, Rebecca Hersee, as a “digital detox,” that puzzles have seen greater pick-up as youths and young adults move towards more analogue past times.
And crucial to fuelling this, of course, are the tones and themes that puzzle artists are striking with their fans today.
“Working closely with the artists we have in the UK and around Europe is key to our success at retail,” says Steve Washbourne, sales director at Jumbo Games on the topic of the firm’s portfolio of creatives.
“We will set them projects, or they will present to us, so that, as we bring out 60 to 50 new images each year, we are able to keep it fresh.”
Of that typical raft of new titles from Jumbo each year, van Haasteren himself is responsible for around three. In the current portfolio, the Dutch artist has around 30, and in the entire Jumbo Games portfolio he boasts more than 100.
Artwork like his seems to be pulling in a new crowd and today, sales in the puzzles market is predominantly coming through the adult category. According to Jumbo’s Washbourne, Wasgij has been tapping a more youthful crowd to the typical older consumer base most often associated with puzzling, for the last couple of years.
“There has been a huge rise in board gaming and board game cafes, and puzzling is a de nite part of that trend,” he tells ToyNews.
“With our Wasgij concept we do attract a far younger user as well as traditional and we are trying to span that market where we are seeing a youth coming in.
“We are looking at images that appeal to a younger, trendier and more fashionable market, or may- be even next year, a teen market.”
For others, like Gibson Games’ Hersee, it has been celebrity appeal and power of social media that has helped with the puzzles revival, with pop stars helping to drive younger fans towards the hobby through likes and follows.
“The singer George Ezra posted a picture of one of our puzzles on social media, which drove a huge fan following our way,” Hersee tells ToyNews.
“I think puzzles have carried this label of belonging to the older generation, so it is good to see that the younger generation is taking part in it as well. There is a definite youth engagement out there for the pastime and at the moment we are looking to develop a contemporary range of puzzles for the youth trend.”
This boom couldn’t come at a better time for the likes of both Gibsons and Jumbo. It’s no secret that the first half of the year has been a difficult one at retail, yet both companies remain strong - up, even - over the course of some difficult trading.
For Gibsons, a company trading in the puzzles sector for the last 100 years, dealing with the rising costs or the collapse of Toys R Us has been simply an extension of its journey. Has it had to up numbers in the digital retailing stakes in line with the surge in online shopping? Yes, Heresee confirms, but all the while supporting the high street retailers in the “absolute best way it can do.”
Meanwhile at Jumbo, the firm took decisive action to better place itself within the moving landscape of retail well ahead of time, and it did so by shifting its focus from the kids’ puzzles space - one driven by licenses - and into the more successful adult space.
And what you’ll find is that it is all related. Not only has it been tough for retail, it’s been tough for children’s IP, too.
“The children’s market is very license driven and like most of our competitors over the years, we have taken on a number of licenses,” says Washbourne.
“But a lot of licenses don’t often succeed and we had a lot that weren’t working for us. We took the decision to strip right back on the number of licenses we brought in.
“It’s much better than taking on every single IP and then going out and trying to convince the retailers that they should take all of them. Because clearly that’s not the case. We will still take on licenses, of course, but gone are the years of the scatter gun approach, where you’d take any license and pay extremely large MGs but never see any return on it. There’s too much risk now and retailers are feeling the same, they are playing to the strength of the proven, performing licenses.”
It’s not an uncommon approach. Jumbo will continue to work in the children’s sector but only with the licenses it can back fully. Take Moon & Me for example, the firm has plans to launch a new range of puzzles under its license in A/W 2019.
“We are not walking away from children’s puzzles. Moon & Me, we will get right behind. But we feel that if we have just a couple to focus on and really get behind, it’s a far better proposition for the retailer. They can back the licenses that have the support behind them.”
And this is where the market seems to be sitting at the moment. Yes, Gibsons will continue to deliver to the children’s market just as Jumbo has outlined its own intention. It will even look to bring out new lines for the children's educational puzzle market by the start of next year.
But it is in the adult sector that the pair are seeing the greatest sales uptake. And key to success within that, is the relationship each maintains between the puzzle fanbase and the puzzle artists.
“With a puzzle, the image is what sells it,” says Gibson’s Hersee.
“So it is really important to get that right. From where we sit, it is all about the artwork and the artist, we have to commission the right artist for the right job, or source the right piece of artwork and really drive the sector’s variety.”
Unsurprisingly her sentiments are echoed by Washbourne, the leading figurehead at Jumbo’s UK operation.
“We analyse the market constantly and we are the complete experts in the field,” he says.
“It’s all about getting those right images, the right themes at the right time and keeping it topical.
“Jumbo has been in this market for 160 years, so it really knows what it is doing, and the team here is just obsessed with puzzling, we can only see it becoming more and more successful,” he concludes.
Now then, ToyNews is itching to get started on that 5,000 piecer.