By Rebecca Edwards ’21

Adrian Johnson ’21 (Laramie, Wyoming) can’t really explain why he loves crossword puzzles so much.

He could speculate: as an international studies major, Johnson says he’s used to creative problem-solving, and has always loved giving himself a challenge.

But the truth is, the draw to crosswords surprised even him. “Honestly, I couldn’t tell you,” he says. “I’m a really passionate and driven individual. I’ve tried all sorts of sports and clubs, and I learned a few magic tricks a while back. I just get really intensely focused on something, eventually not knowing exactly how I got there.”

What Johnson can pinpoint, though, is when he started to turn fleeting curiosity into action.

In 2019, he resolved to solve The New York Times Saturday crossword, generally considered the week’s most difficult. But when that came easier to him than anticipated, he was unsatisfied. “I told my friend, ‘I’m gonna learn how to make one of these,’” he says.

Less than two years later, Johnson has sold crosswords to the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Universal Crossword. He has puzzles awaiting approval with publications and more in the works, including custom puzzles for individuals. Making crosswords, Johnson says, has become more than his latest passion du jour. He’s found a real home in the puzzle-making community, and sincerely loves the craft. “I get a lot of joy out of just sitting down and coming up with ideas,” Johnson says. “It’s meditative in a way.”

Johnson breaks down the process of building a crossword: “Very broadly, there are two basic kinds of puzzles, the themed and the unthemed. The theme can be pretty much anything—it could refer to the direction of letters on the grid, or the grid art, or the words,” he says.

“The unthemed is all about just layering innovative and colorful answers—cool pieces of vocabulary that will make the people doing the puzzle feel good when they figure it out.”

After determining the puzzle’s direction, Johnson brainstorms words and phrases relevant to his idea. Then, he sits down with his crossword-developing software and begins to hash out the final grid.

But crosswording isn’t always a solitary task. He’s worked on a number of collaborations, and has made connections with industry veterans. His Feb. 13 Los Angeles Times publication is a collaboration with sci-fi novelist Jeff Chen, who has published more than 100 puzzles for The New York Times.

Johnson dreams of publishing a crossword for every weekday in The New York Times, and maybe even using the money he hopes to continue earning to pay off his student debt.

“At the end of the day, there’s a lot of uncertainty in life,” Johnson says. “But there’s only one right answer to a crossword puzzle. And however trivial that seems, I think it’s a really nice thing. I like giving that to people.”

When Adrian Johnson ’21 met President Rivera last fall, they got to talking about his crossword projects. Out of that conversation, this Mac-specific puzzle took shape for Macalester Today readers. (President Rivera even helped write some clues!)


April 23 2021

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