BY Michele Debczak – Mental Floss+
Next time you find yourself hopelessly lost in a corn maze, take some time to appreciate the designer who got you there. Corn maze designing is a relatively new profession, with seasonal corn mazes as we know them only gaining traction in the past couple decades or so—but it’s already evolved into an art form. We spoke to designers with backgrounds in art, farming, and theater about what it takes to make a memorable maze.
1. A BACKGROUND IN ART—OR THEATER—CAN BE HELPFUL.
Jimmy Golub, who runs Our Farm just outside Syracuse, New York, with his wife Janine, won’t call himself an artist. But he can’t resist comparing what he’s been doing in his cornfield each year since 1999 to composing a painting. “The field is my canvas, the planter is my paintbrush, and the seeds are my paint,” he tells Mental Floss.
Whether corn maze designers plant their corn in the shape of the maze like Jimmy does, or follow the standard practice of carving out their paths once the crop has had a chance grow a few inches high, the task benefits from an artistic eye. Megan Hurd-Dean is the creative one in her family, and she’s been in charge of designing the maze on Hurd Family Farm in New York’s Hudson Valley—which is run by her parents—since high school. She helps with many aspects of the farm, but as she tells Mental Floss, “The corn maze has always been my baby.”
Amazing Maize Maze founder Don Frantz isn’t a farmer—he came into corn maze designing from a creative background. After musicals on Broadway and at Disneyland, he decided a corn maze would be his next project. He’s since designed mazes around the world, from China to Pennsylvania. Head designer for MazePlay Chayce Whitworth also came into the business with a background in art, not agriculture. When he was an art student at college, a friend put him in touch with a farmer looking for drawings. “I didn’t even know what he was using them for,” he tells Mental Floss. “Then when I graduated from college he called me up and asked if I would like to go a little bit further and turn these drawings into corn maze designs […] I have been a corn maze designer ever since.”
2. IT CAN GET TECHNICAL.
A knack for art isn’t the only thing required of corn maze designers. After sketching out their design on graph paper, the designers need to calculate how many rows of corn each block comes out to and then recreate the shape in the field—either with a tractor or by hand. In some cases the designers use GPS tools (like a GPS-guided mower) to ensure each element of the maze is in the correct place. Jimmy Golub gets creative with his regular maps app by taping a paper with his sketched-out design over his phone. “Then I walk around so the blue dot traces the outline,” he says. This method is especially useful with more intricate designs, like Golub’s maze in the shape of the United States.
3. THEY PLAN EARLY.
Most people don’t start thinking about corn mazes until autumn, but corn maze designers have to begin work much earlier. According to Frantz, he starts brainstorming ideas before Christmas. “The farmers will plow down the field in November and harvest it and they like to start talking about what’s the theme next year,” he says. Past maze designs he’s produced through the Amazing Maize Maze have included the solar system, “the largest living sundial,” and a re-creation of Washington Crossing the Delaware.
Actually cutting the maze isn’t the time-consuming part: It’s agreeing on a final design. “There is a lot of back and forth with the farmer on preliminary sketches and getting the correct field dimensions,” Whitworth says. “So really the design process can be several steps stretching over a few months to get it just right.”
4. THEY TRY TO ADD INTERACTIVE ELEMENTS.
Frantz approaches every maze he designs the same way he does a theme park show or musical. “What I love to have is a captive audience,” he says. “That means all I have to do is entertain them when they’re in there.” He turned the first maze he designed into a show by adding interactive elements along the path, like colored flags, boxes with messages, and tubes guests could use to talk to people in different parts of the maze. As they progressed, they would collect pieces that added up to make a map. “The theory is that every three minutes, the player will get something they can respond to,” Frantz says.
Frantz also knows from producing musicals that music is a great way to build atmosphere. “It was clear to me from the very beginning that I wanted the music to flow over the cornfield, and to me the best song you can ever play in a cornfield is the Jurassic Park theme.” The shape of his first maze was a dinosaur (specifically the “Cobosaurus,” as in corn cob), so the song choice was appropriate.
Today, making corn mazes interactive for guests is the norm: It’s a way to keep guests engaged, whether they’re struggling with the maze or zipping through it. “I know families like to have a game,” Dean-Hurd says. “To have something else to do besides getting lost.”
5. THEY USE TRICKS TO THROW YOU OFF THE RIGHT PATH …
If you want to make it through a corn maze without getting lost, keep an eye out for this trick some designers use to send people in the wrong direction. “Right when there’s a turn that it’s obvious that everyone’s going to make, you put something fun down the path opposite,” Frantz says. “So if there’s a mailbox or a speaking tube or something like that, you can coax people away from the right path, and that doesn’t feel like cheating to them because they get rewarded for it.”
6. … BUT THEY TRY NOT TO BE TOO MEAN.
Corn maze designers want their mazes to be challenging—but not so challenging that it cuts into a family’s pumpkin-picking time. Frantz says that one way to turn guests off a maze is to make them feel dumb. “You don’t want to make the player feel like a fool, like he was taken advantage of.” One way a designer might do this is by making a dead end too long. “If you walk too far to realize it’s a dead end, that’s just mean,” Frantz says.
At Golub’s farm, where mazes cater to a lot of younger school kids, fairness is also important. “People who come to our place don’t want to spend two hours in a corn maze,” Golub says. “We want the [school field trips] that come here to go straight through. We don’t want them to make any wrong turns because we have time constraints.”
At the Hurd Family Farm, guests have the choice of the larger, more difficult maze or a simpler mini maze within the maze. “We have such a mixed bag of people who come to the farm,” Hurd-Dean said. “We wanted to make it easier for people.” And if for some reason guests still get lost, there are employees stationed around the maze they can call to for help.
7. THE CORN DOESN’T ALWAYS COOPERATE.
Few artists are forced to adapt to nature as much as corn maze designers. After months spent finalizing a design, they have to be prepared to make last-minute changes based on how the corn crop turned out that year. “One thing that I never thought of in art is how much weather would affect my designs,” Whitworth says. “If there is a drought some of the corn grows sporadically in areas and I have to adjust the design to still look good, but to dodge that area of bad corn.” In many cases he has to make these tweaks the same day the corn is ready to be chopped down. “It is a challenge to design something amazing and then in a couple of hours you have to destroy it and make is something different, and hopefully it is still amazing.”
8. SOME MAZES TAKE ALL DAY TO SOLVE.
The average maze might take 20 minutes to navigate, but some take much longer. Frantz says that it takes most people somewhere between 90 minutes and two hours to make it through of one his larger mazes. In a maze he designed in Ventura, California, it took one group six and a half hours to reach the end—an all-time record for a maze of his. “They had pizzas delivered,” he says.
9. BIGGER ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER.
Corn mazes weren’t much of a thing in the U.S. when Frantz first got involved in agrotourism in the early 1990s, and the first maze he designed broke the record for world’s largest at three acres. Today, a three-acre maze is considered small, with a typical maze averaging around five to eight acres. In a race to break new records, designers have become increasingly ambitious with their corn maze designs, peaking in 2014 with a 63-acre maze near Sacramento that spurred numerous 9-11 calls from people stuck inside. (No farm has attempted to beat the record since, perhaps out of respect for local police departments.)
On top of creating a safety hazard, Frantz says that trying to hit a certain acreage can lead to sloppy design. “You want guests to play the most maze while walking the least distance—to make it as compact as possible,” he says. To him, five acres is the perfect number: “I’ve found there’s no difference in the audience enjoyment between six acres and five acres. And that’s just another acre to take care of and maintain for the farmer.”
10. MAZES ARE A BRANDING OPPORTUNITY.
Even though guests can’t see a maze’s overall design from the ground, that doesn’t mean it never gets seen. Farms like to feature photos of their mazes taken from above in postcards and promotional materials. Most corn maze designers base their mazes around an image that will look good in an aerial photo. This may be something recognizable to everyone—like a character from pop culture—but often it’s a message that’s specific to the farm. Frantz says, “It’s something that people want to say to the community, either in marketing, direct advertising, or community spirit.” And if the design contains the farm’s name, that means free advertising for them every time an image of the maze is shared.
11. COMPLICATED DESIGNS ARE THEIR UNDOING.
Farmers may ask designers to go all-out with their mazes, but a seasoned designer knows better than to agree to this. “The number one [challenge] is getting people to simplify their design idea,” Whitworth says. “Most people want as many objects and things in the design as possible.” Not only are intricate designs difficult to execute, they also don’t pop as much from the air as a simpler picture. “If you can’t recognize what the design is at first glance, you kind of have failed at the design.”
12. THEY’RE MINDFUL OF COPYRIGHTS.
Copyright law doesn’t make any specific mention of reproducing images in the form of corn mazes, but Golub doesn’t take any chances. The year he designed a maze in the shape of a Stratocaster guitar, he got in touch with Fender to ask permission. “They had to have meetings about it,” he recalled. Eventually he got the go-ahead to make the maze—as long as it included the registered trademark—but he doesn’t always hear from the copyright holders. In those cases he takes extra precautions. “When we did Bugs Bunny, we wrote Warner Bros. and we never heard back from them. We do a postcard every year and I wrote ‘a famous rabbit.’”