Scott Kim has an odd talent—he’s a brilliant problem maker. Mr. Kim belongs to an elite cadre of “puzzle masters” who spend their days building logical mazes and brain teasers. In more than 20 years as a professional puzzle designer, Mr. Kim has worked on everything from word, number and logic puzzles to toys such as Railroad Rush Hour and computer games such as “Obsidian” and “Escher Interactive,” which features interactive puzzles based on M.C. Escher’s optical illusions. Lately, he has been developing smartphone game apps and contributing a bimonthly puzzle column to Psychology Today.
Mr. Kim defines puzzles as “problems that are fun to solve and have a right answer,” as opposed to everyday problems like traffic, which, he noted, “are not very well-designed puzzles.” “My goal as a puzzle designer is to create a meaningful experience for the player, not just ‘I solved it,’ ” he said. Mr. Kim, who is youthful looking at 55, with a round, unlined face and sheepish smile, has mostly shunned popular forms like Sudoku or crosswords, which he dismissed as “filling out someone else’s matrix.” Instead, he aims to invent new forms, specializing in computer and print puzzles that pose logical problems or test mathematical or visual skills. He often begins by choosing a cognitive area or skill he wants the puzzle to test. One puzzle challenged players’ ability to visualize negative space, the white space that surrounds and defines shapes and letters. A smartphone game he’s designing requires players to think three-dimensionally by reassembling, in the fewest possible steps, a car or building that has been cut into pieces.
Andrea Bartz, news editor for Psychology Today, said his puzzles are always harder than they look. “They’re deceptively and elegantly simple,” Ms. Bartz said. “It looks like it should be very easy, but it takes a long time.” Mr. Kim studied music during college and received a self-designed Ph.D. in computers and graphic design at Stanford. As a college student, he wrote letters to Martin Gardner, the author and mathematical-games columnist for Scientific American. The two began corresponding, and Mr. Kim sent him a new take on a classic logic puzzle. Scientific American published the puzzle, and Mr. Kim realized he could make a living from something most people view as a form of procrastination.