Discord Conversation: Thoughts about Puzzle Box Design

This is an excerpt from the excellent Mechanical Puzzles Discord channel related to my general thoughts on puzzle box design. If you're interested in joining the chat and seeing more insights from me and other designers, you can sign up here!

Original Question: "@CubicdissectionEric Have u ever done a bigger project? Something priced over $1k. Or close to it?"

Reply: My pricing is set by design time + prototype time + materials + production cost. A big part of how much a box ends up costing is related to how well I do my job in the design/prototype phase.

Good design is more than just “does it work”. For me, it’s “does it work efficiently”.

When I have an idea for a mechanism, I’ll make the first pass at how it can be done mechanically. Then I’ll look at ways to simplify. Can I make the joinery less complicated and still achieve the result? Can I combine mechanical elements so they serve more than one function? Can I reinterpret the mechanism entirely with fewer moving parts? Can I make dissimilar parts more similar to streamline production?

A good design uses the fewest possible components made in the simplistic possible manner. Great design does these things and achieves a complexity far over and above the simplicity of the constituent components.

I’d like to think most of my designs are good; some of them turn out great.

It's not ideal to come up with an idea and then move forward with production once it's working on the first pass. This will result in a box that's overly complicated or requires difficult machining processes which could be done more simply another way.

For every box I make there are multiple discarded ideas pretty far along the design process that I don’t make. Not because I couldn’t make them, but because I couldn’t figure out how to make them efficiently.

I suppose the difference between a rookie and a pro in this biz is knowing when an idea should be pursued vs when it should be abandoned because the end result would be more costly to produce than the box would be worth.

You see this in mass-market design where customers are very price-conscious and have more alternatives. The design has to be clean, and most of all efficient to produce or it won’t sell. 

The way I see it, in the end, someone has to pay for these things. In my opinion, it’s almost disrespectful to put forward work that could have been done functionally identical for a lower price with better design.

This is all very subjective and I don’t mean to call anyone out by it. It’s just my design philosophy and the standard I hold myself to.

So, to circle back to your question...I tend to make simpler boxes when I can. Sometimes I have an idea that just can’t be realized without a lot of complexity. I’m VERY careful about which of those I bring to fruition because of the above factors. If I’m going to charge big money there has to be a damn good reason. And I won’t hesitate to delay or discard an idea if I can’t make it meet those standards.

I have a few more complicated boxes coming up:
Secret Agent box is roughly the same size as penultimate box, with the same apparent joinery and build. However, it has five compartments that are sequentially discovered and use completely different mechanisms for each discovery. Likely around $400-$450

Reminder Box (formerly Death Box) takes me in completely different design directions and the way it’s envisioned will be striking in appearance and much more “artsy” than I normally do (because it’s more expensive to make). This will be around $600.

Coin Box (has been renamed to "Screw Denmark!") will be another sequential discovery box that I’m very excited for...lots of misdirection and a couple of very novel mechanisms. Probably $300-$400.