"Future President" puzzle from Shades of Joy product line. Photo courtesy of Shades of Joy

As a child, Brittny Horne pieced together puzzles as a way to bond with her grandmother. As an adult, she completes them as a form of self-care.  

The Maryland native noticed that when the puzzles featured people, rarely were they people of color. Horne, 31, created a solution with the January launch of her Charlotte-based puzzle company, Shades of Joy, which spotlights Black and brown people. She handmakes and packages the puzzles in her spare time with support from her husband, Gaston. 

“I can just remember as a kid feeling like I didn’t belong and that there wasn’t really space for me in this world,” she said. 

That feeling of belonging and remembering the struggle to find Black women and girls represented in toys remains the motivation behind Shades of Joy. She decided on puzzles because they were easy to produce and held fond childhood memories with her grandmother.  

“I couldn’t really think of any puzzle that had women who looked like us,” she said. “Representation is super important, and I feel like it’s great for kids and adults to be able to see themselves in a positive light.” 

Photo courtesy of Brittny Horne

Horne started watching YouTube videos to find the best way to make the puzzles and found a process called sublimation – the transfer of images onto materials using heat. After doing research, she ordered a special printer, transfer paper, heat press and puzzle boards created specifically for sublimation. It takes about 25 minutes to produce a puzzle, from printing to packaging.  

She created an Etsy shop and began advertising her puzzles on the site. By day, Horne works full-time as a product manager for Lowe’s; she says this taught her how to run a business and push a new product to market.  

She took to Instagram, growing her network in the puzzle community. The small-business owner formed relationships with other local Black-owned businesses and tabling at their pop-up events.  

Her first puzzle, “Future President,” was inspired by the 2020 presidential election and Vice President Kamala Harris. The puzzle features a Black girl standing in front of the White House wearing a cape and a shirt that reads, “I am your future president.” Horne has created nearly 10 additional collections since launching the first puzzle, including a presidential collection complete with images of Barack and Michelle Obama and Vice President Harris. 

Customers can shop for puzzles in three quantities — 48, 120 or 300 pieces – and priced from $13 to $25. Shades of Joy also offers customized photo puzzles, where customers upload their pictures to produce the finished puzzle.  

Horne has received overwhelmingly positive reviews from customers. They are most excited about seeing themselves reflected in the puzzles, she says, as well as noting the quality of the puzzles. However, sales have slowed down recently. Horne suspects people’s return to in-person activities could be a factor, but she’s optimistic that sales will bounce back in the winter as people gear up for Christmas.

Shades of Joy puzzles (l to r): “Easter Sunday,” “Nandi” and “The Obamas.” Photo courtesy of Shades of Joy

Creating the puzzles also allows Horne to promote mental health and wellness. The pandemic sparked conversations about mental health as people spent more time at home and, sometimes, isolated. By sharing her self-care routine on social media, Horne advocates for mental health to remove the stigma around therapy in the Black community. 

She’s transparent about her personal experience with therapy. Her “self-care Thursdays” Instagram series in May — Mental Health Awareness Month — featured weekly live discussions with mental health professionals on topics such as motherhood, fitness and journaling. She offered tools and tips for people working through everyday mental health issues.

“I consider myself a mental health advocate, so I’m just trying to get people to understand that puzzles can be used as a tool of self-care,” she said. “It can be used as something to break away from your everyday life or maybe the craziness that you may be going through and just have some time for yourself.” 

Horne collaborates with domestic and international artists to create images specifically for her products, in addition to those who sell image licenses. In April, Jamaican artist Asia Drummond designed a puzzle called “Story Time,” highlighting the special bond between a mother and daughter. 

Beyond serving as artwork, Shades of Joy creations can be used as room decor. Horne has a few puzzles hanging in her house now and feels a strong connection to them.

“Being able to say that I accomplished something is great for your mental health and just for your overall well-being,” she said.

Horne is focusing on building brand awareness by growing her social media presence and selling at pop-up shops in Charlotte. She participated in a June pop-up with The Brown Sugar Collab, a Black-owned boutique in South End. 

In the future, she plans to partner with a manufacturing company to scale her business and hire an artist to create a curated collection for her brand. She hopes to accomplish these goals before Christmas, which she anticipates will be her peak season. 

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