19 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of IKEA Employees

Stephen Chernin/Getty Images
Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

Chances are good you have a piece of IKEA furniture in your home. Perhaps you’re even sitting on an IKEA couch, reading at an IKEA desk, or lying in an IKEA bed right now. The Swedish company is the world’s largest furniture retailer, selling billions of dollars worth of goods each year, from BILLY bookcases to GLIMMA tealights. Its massive blue-and-yellow stores are kept well-stocked and running smoothly thanks to the efforts of more than 194,000 employees (or as IKEA calls them, “coworkers”) across the globe. We spoke with a few of them about what it’s like to work for one of the world’s most recognizable retail stores.

1. THE IKEA PATHWAY HAS A CODE NAME.

It’s no secret IKEA’s maze-like showrooms are designed to take shoppers through every department, from the kitchen to the textiles, making sure they lay eyes on as many goods as possible. "One could describe it as if IKEA grabs you by the hand and consciously guides you through the store in order to make you buy as much as possible," Johan Stenebo, an IKEA veteran, wrote in his book, The Truth About IKEA.

The winding walkway is known lovingly among employees as the “Long Natural Path” or the “Long Natural Way.” According to a 2011 New Yorker article by Lauren Collins, the pathway is supposed to curve every 50 feet to prevent shoppers from getting bored.

2. THERE ARE SECRET SHORTCUTS ...

Need to get to bedding but don’t want to walk through textiles, bathroom, and living room first? Stuck on the top floor but need a quick way to ground level? Take a shortcut.

There are multiple quick routes through the store, both for safety reasons and stocking reasons, and they’re open to the public. But they’re not advertised, so you’ll need a keen eye for secret passageways. Often they take the form of unmarked service doors.

“If you know where to look, you’ll find them,” says Paula, who worked at an IKEA store in Houston for a year. At her store, there was a shortcut route that started with an unmarked door near the escalators. “Nobody’s going to stop you unless it explicitly says ‘employees only,’ but other than that you can open doors and you’d be amazed,” she says.

“I love IKEA, but sometimes you just need to get in and out in like 20 minutes,” says Marie, who worked at IKEA for 11 years. If that’s the case, just ask an employee to give you the quickest route to your destination and they’ll point you to the nearest shortcut.

3. ... BUT DON’T GET TOO USED TO THEM.

“They’re always changing,” says Paul Robertson, who worked for 10 years at IKEA Canada. “They used to change them fairly frequently because we had a lot of repeat business, so customers would get familiar with the shortcuts and know how to zip through. After a while they would change the shortcuts to force people to go around the long way again.”

4. THE WALLS MOVE.

Shoppers look at merchandise at a Ikea store in Paramus, New Jersey
Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

According to Paula, the partitions that enclose IKEA’s various showrooms are on rollers and can be moved. “They have a lock on them so people can’t randomly move them,” Paula says. “At the end of the night we move all the walls out of the way so we have a straight shot to where the trash is.” This also makes it easier to remodel the display rooms.

5. CUSTOMERS SOMETIMES BUY ENTIRE ROOMS.

Speaking of the display rooms, occasionally customers will decide they like an entire room so much, they’ll order it as-is. “There have been people that come in and see a room and like everything there and they take it,” Paula says.

6. THERE'S AN “OPEN THE WALLET” SECTION.

Customers at a check-out line in IKEA
NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images

IKEA stores are littered with piles of small, practical items that are so cheap they’re hard to pass up. These areas are called the “Open The Wallet” sections. “There, an abundance of cheap goods—flowerpots, slippers, lint rollers—encourages the customer to make a purchase, any purchase, the thinking being that IKEA shoppers buy either nothing or a lot,” Collins writes.

According to Rob, a two-year IKEA veteran, this area was located at the bottom of the stairs on the second floor at his store. “It’s basically impulse buys,” he says. “It’s a lot of very cheap items, things that look practical, useful, something you didn’t realize you wanted.” The next thing you know you’re shoving five packs of tea candles and a bunch of plastic hangers into your yellow shopping bag, when all you really came in for was a desk lamp.

7. THERE'S A REASON THEY PILE THOSE BINS SO HIGH.

Another method for getting people to add things to their bags is known internally as the “bulla bulla” technique. Big bins are stuffed to the point of overflowing with hundreds of items “to create the impression of volume and, therefore, inexpensiveness,” according to Collins.

“One of the big things is the sort of jumbo bin, they love that,” says Robertson. “If stock starts running low there, fill it back up. Pile it high. Customers think they’re getting a deal.”

8. YES, YOU CAN NAP ON THE FURNITURE ...

People nap at an IKEA store in China
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The displays are meant to be touched, tested, and experienced. If you want to curl up on an IKEA couch or sprawl out on the bed, go for it. “You are allowed to sit on the beds,” says Paula, “but if you’ve been there for two or three hours, we have to wake you up.”

This is a particularly well-documented phenomenon in China, where shoppers have been photographed snoozing all over the showroom. “We don’t see it as a problem,” IKEA spokesman Josefin Thorell told the Wall Street Journal. “We’re happy people feel at home in our stores. Certainly, it entails a little extra work for the staff, purely practically. But on the other hand, if customers try out our furniture and like it, we can sell an extra mattress or two.”

9. ... BUT YOU PROBABLY DON’T WANT TO.

According to Jana, an IKEA employee in Texas, the pillows on the display beds get swapped out once a month at her store, and the pillowcases only get changed when they are visibly dirty. The same goes for blankets and duvet covers. “I changed a bunch of duvet covers yesterday because from people touching the same corner every day, it looked dingy,” she says. “If we see something and think it looks gross, it needs to be changed.”

10. THEY WISH YOU’D STOP OPENING THINGS.

Customers inspect goods at an IKEA
NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images

“Customers will open anything and everything,” says Jana. “Everything in that store, we have on display. You can touch it, feel it, lay your face on it, but for some reason they’ll open the package and then leave it there. What they don’t understand is when they open certain things, we can’t resell them, so we have to scan them out.”

11. THEY’RE TRAINED NOT TO OFFER HELP.

If you’re the passive-aggressive type of shopper, you’re bound to be disappointed at IKEA. Employees are given specific instructions to let the customers come to them if they need assistance. “You were supposed to only help customers if they asked you for it,” says Rob. “We were told that’s a very Scandinavian way of how stores work.” The same rule applies in the warehouse, where customers are expected to find and lift their own items unless it’s obvious they need assistance.

12. THE BOOKS IN THE SHOWROOM OFTEN COME FROM EMPLOYEES’ OWN LIBRARIES.

IKEA’s sample rooms often feature towering bookshelves, but empty shelves aren’t particularly inviting. So, employees are asked to bring books from their own collection to fill the blank space. “All of that was stuff we owned,” Rob says. Usually they were asked to bring books that matched a certain color scheme. And you couldn’t bring in anything racy. “You had to use your common sense,” Rob says. “Nothing pornographic or anything.”

13. THE MOST POPULAR ITEMS ARE …

The BILLY bookcase and the LACK table. The POÄNG chair, MALM bed, KALLAX shelving units, RENS sheepskin rug, and EKTORP sofa are some of the other top picks.

14. THE SERIAL NUMBERS CAN TELL YOU A LOT.

According to Robertson, there’s some rhyme and reason to the eight-digit code linked to each IKEA item. “While I was there, it was that the last two numbers would tell you what color the item was. So let’s say it ended in 40, it was blue. That would mean the 4 range was blue, so 41 might be light blue and 42 would be dark blue.”

Many of the names have meaning, too. According to Collins, “traditionally, the names of IKEA’s bookcases derive from different occupations; curtains are given names from mathematics; and bathroom products are named for lakes and rivers.”

15. THEY WITNESS A LOT OF ARGUMENTS.

“If you really wanna test your relationship, go through IKEA and buy something,” says Jana. “I guess they just get stressed and overwhelmed that the store’s so big. I had a couple trying to make a decision on a rug and he was mad and she was on verge of tears. Then we were out of the rug they wanted, which made it even worse.”

Lovers' quarrels are so common in the store that at least one psychologist told the Wall Street Journal she has her bickering clients construct the NORNÄS coffee table as a relationship-building exercise. Janice Simonsen, design spokeswoman for IKEA U.S., also told the paper she spent five years as a furnishings consultant and created a list of guidelines specifically for couples planning a trip to the store.

16. THEY SPEAK IN CODE.

People look at chairs in a South Korean IKEA
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

When “Code 22” comes over the intercom, it’s a distress call from the cash lanes. “We usually hear it around rush hour or on weekends,” says Jana. “It means the cash lanes are backed up into the warehouse. Anyone in the store who is register-trained has to go to the front and help.”

If a lost kid is wandering the store (which happens a lot), Jana says managers use “Code 99” to put all employees on alert. “There are so many wardrobes to hide in or bed skirts to hide under,” says Marie. “If a kid really wanted to be hidden it would not be too hard.”

17. THINGS GET WILD AFTER HOURS.

“At the end of night, they’d open all the walls and we’d have a big empty space and there would be pallet jack races,” Paula recalls.

And there’s perhaps no better place to play hide-and-seek than in a massive, multiple-story maze stuffed with nooks and crannies. “On closing shifts, one guy I worked with would always manage to have me distracted, then he’d go hide in the store,” says Robertson. “So I would have to finish up tasks, walk through the store knowing somewhere along the way he would jump out at me, and he got me all the time.”

18. THEY GET GREAT CHRISTMAS GIFTS.

IKEA is known for having good employee perks, including its end-of-year gifts, which range from electronics to plane tickets. “The first year I worked there they gave out bikes,” says Rob. “This year they gave out Rokus.” Paula says her store gave employees who had been specially recognized by their coworkers the chance to win plane tickets to anywhere in the world.

19. PINTEREST DRIVES SALES.

Employees can tell when an item has been featured in a viral Pinterest project because it sells out quickly. “There was one specific spice rack we were constantly sold out of,” says Paula. “Someone had gone on Pinterest and said you can paint it and make it a bookshelf for picture books for toddlers. We had to tell people, ‘If you’re here for the spice rack, we don’t have it.’” (For reference, it’s called the BEKVÄM spice rack.)

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

15 Secrets of Courtroom Sketch Artists

Kim Ludbrook, AFP/Getty Images
Kim Ludbrook, AFP/Getty Images

After aviator Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was kidnapped and found dead in 1932, perpetrator Bruno Hauptmann was brought to justice—and cameras followed. So many lit up the courtroom during Hauptmann's trial and eventual conviction that the American Bar Association successfully lobbied to ban photographers from proceedings due to the distraction. Some 30 years later, during the trial of Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer, Jack Ruby, CBS found a solution. They hired illustrator Howard Brodie to capture Ruby’s expressions.

The rest is history, most of it rendered in charcoal and watercolor. Courtroom sketch artists go where cameras cannot, recording the often-tense atmospheres of high-profile judicial cases featuring the likes of Charles Manson, Bernie Madoff, and Michael Jackson. On tight deadlines, these artists use their craft to communicate the emotions of a courtroom.

But being talented isn’t enough. Speed is essential, and so is finding just the right scene to encapsulate an entire day or trial. “It’s difficult to do,” says Mona Shafer Edwards, a courtroom illustrator in California. “It’s not a cartoon, it’s not caricature, it’s not a portrait. It’s capturing a moment in time.”

To get a better sense of what goes into their work, Mental Floss spoke with three of the most celebrated artists working today. Here’s what they had to say about drawing conclusions to some of history’s biggest stories.

1. THEY HAVE TO DRAW AROUND OBSTACLES.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams featuring Teresa Giudice
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Imagine sitting down to sketch a friend and finding that someone has placed a column, screen, or body directly in your field of vision. Now imagine that if you can’t capture this person’s likeness, you don’t get paid. That’s the most common problem faced by courtroom sketch artists, who frequently have to navigate around obstacles in order to get a glimpse of their subject—often the defendant, attorney, or judge. “You generally have to wait for someone to lean over,” says Elizabeth Williams, an artist based in New York who works for CNBC and the Associated Press, among others. (Most artists are hired by the larger news outlets.) “Fortunately, people aren’t potted plants, and they do move.” If they don’t, Williams will move around the courtroom herself, trying to secure a better vantage point. During pleas and sentencing—and depending on the judge—she might be allowed to sit with other reporters in the jury box.

If visual obstacles remain a problem, some artists might turn to family members. Vicki Ellen Behringer, who works out of California for clients including CBS and Fox, says she once used the father of a defendant as a reference when she couldn’t see his son. “I had studied his son’s face and the father reminded me of what he looks like,” she says. “They looked so much alike.”

2. YOUNGER PEOPLE ARE HARDER TO DRAW.

A courtroom sketch by Vicki Ellen Behringer featuring Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and his attorney
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

For Behringer, faces with plenty of distinguishing features are a gift. “I love glasses, I love facial hair, lots of wrinkles, anything that shows character,” she says. “The most difficult thing is doing someone fairly young and good-looking. They don’t have lines on their face.” Behringer cites the sketch of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski (above), seated with his attorney. While Kaczynski's weathered look was easy to render, his lawyer—younger and relatively unlined—was much harder to capture.

3. MORNINGS ARE BETTER FOR THEM.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams features Bernie Madoff accomplice Frank DiPascali being led away in handcuffs
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Sketch artists work in a pressure cooker environment. They’re often called to court by news agencies on a day’s notice or less and need to render their drawings quickly. If a crucial moment in a trial happens in the late afternoon, artists may have as little as an hour to finish coloring their piece before scanning and sending it to the news outlets that have contracted the work. “There’s a lot of pressure to turn it around quickly” in time for the evening newscasts, Williams says. If something transpires in the morning, she has more time to refine the work. “Nobody’s really breathing down your back then.”

4. THEY CATCH HEAT FOR CELEBRITY RENDERINGS.

A courtoom sketch by artist Mona Shafer Edwards depicts Gwyneth Paltrow testifying during a trial
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

Because celebrities are familiar to people, seeing a court sketch that doesn’t seem to line up can be disconcerting. But according to Edwards, that’s because celebrities aren’t necessarily putting their best face forward. “I was pilloried for making Gwyneth Paltrow look unattractive,” she says, referring to the actress’s appearance (above) during a 2016 trial to testify against Dante Michael Soiu, a man accused of stalking her. (He was acquitted.) “She had no make-up on, wore a beige turtleneck, and her nose was red from crying.” Paltrow’s fans criticized Edwards for the unflattering likeness.

5. THEY SOMETIMES REARRANGE THE COURTROOM ON PAPER.

A courtroom sketch by Vicki Ellen Behringer depicts players in the 2012 Apple v. Samsung trial
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

According to Williams, some news outlets have strict guidelines about how sketch artists interpret a court scene. The Associated Press, for example, doesn’t allow artists to mess with the proximity of one person to another. If a defendant is four feet from his or her attorney, Williams can’t have their shoulders touching. But other outlets allow for artistic license. “Sometimes you can’t get everything you want and be accurate, so you squish it together,” Behringer says. “You sometimes want the defendant in the same sketch as a judge, or to move the defense and prosecution tables closer together.”

6. THEY SELL THEIR WORK TO ATTORNEYS.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams depicts attorney Robert Hillard in a 2016 trial examining the possible fault of General Motors in a motor vehicle accident
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Like big game hunters, lawyers enjoy a trophy. Some attorneys in high-profile case will approach Williams asking to purchase a sketch that she rendered. “I’ve sold my work to a number of attorneys,” she says. “Generally speaking, they only want it when they win.” Behringer says that some attorneys fresh out of law school will specifically request she come into court to sketch them. “I guess it might be to show parents you’ve finished law school.”

The Library of Congress even has a collection of 96 courtroom drawings from famous trials, with illustrations by Williams among them. They were purchased with funds from the noted L.A. laywer Thomas V. Girardi, best known for working on the California environmental contamination case involving Erin Brockovich.

7. SOMETIMES SUBJECTS ASK FOR A MAKEOVER.

Courtroom sketch artist Mona Shafer Edwards depicts the trial of the Menendez Brothers
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

Edwards is sometimes approached by defense attorneys or other jurists and asked if her work could be a little more flattering. “Men will come up to me and ask me to give them more hair or make them look thinner or better-looking,” she says. “It’s never women asking for me to take weight off or whatever. It’s always men.”

8. POLKA DOTS AND BARS ARE BAD NEWS.

A courtroom sketch by Vickie Ellen Behringer depicts accused Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo in 2018
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

Sketch artists need to spend their time capturing and refining emotions and moods. If defendants are wearing prints, it can be exasperating. “White polka dots on dark clothing can be hard to do in watercolor,” Behringer says. “Stripes, too. You don’t want to waste energy into making the clothing accurate. I’d rather put that time into the face. It can be frustrating.” Another Behringer pet peeve: bars. In California, some defendants are arraigned in a mini-jail cell in court, leaving artists to try and sketch them while they’re behind the railing. Behringer illustrated suspected Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo while DeAngelo was in his mini-prison (above), carefully drawing each bar separating him from civilized society. “That was very time-consuming.”

9. THEY SOMETIMES PRACTICE BEFOREHAND.

An artist sketches using a pencil
iStock.com/cherrybeans

When artists book a trial, they know they might only have a millisecond to glimpse a defendant’s face before he or she is either ushered out of the courtroom or takes a seat out of view. To help get a better look, artists will sometimes do some drafts at home using existing photographs as reference before heading to trial. “Occasionally I’ll do that [practice] with someone famous because everyone knows what they look like,” Behringer says. “Even if they’re not a celebrity, looking for certain features in photos helps because you might not be able to see it in court.”

10. THEIR SUBJECTS RARELY COOPERATE.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams depicts Michael Cohen seated next to his attorney during a 2018 hearing
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Unlike normal portrait subjects, defendants and other court personalities don’t usually have a big incentive to cooperate with a sketch artist. They’ll express a variety of emotions, changing expressions so quickly that it can be difficult to nail one down. Covering former Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen (seen above) and his federal hearing for tax evasion in August 2018, Williams was taken aback by his elastic face. “If someone is just sitting there, it’s like, ‘OK, got it,’” she says. “But during his allocution, he was so overwrought, his range of emotions went from fear to depression to practically being in tears. When people are making a lot of expressions, it’s challenging to make it look like them.” She drew 17 Cohen heads before settling on one she liked.

Other times, defendants can be chillingly emotionless. Chronicling the 2016 case of “Grim Sleeper” Lonnie David Franklin Jr., who killed between 10 and 25 people, Edwards was struck by the fact that he seemed unmoved by the trial. “I kept staring at this guy waiting for him to have some reaction,” she says. “He didn’t even lift his head.” Sketching James “Whitey” Bulger in 2013, the notorious Boston mobster who had finally been brought to justice after years on the run, Bulger looked directly at her and shook his finger “no" before trying to cover his face.

11. THEY BOND WITH JUDGES OVER ART.

A courtroom sketch by Mona Shafer Edwards depicts judge Elden Fox and Courtney Love during a hearing
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

Most artists have good relationships with judges, who appreciate their work in chronicling important civil and criminal cases. Sometimes, a judge may even decide to talk shop. “I’ve had judges buy my drawings and take me into their chambers to show me what they’ve done themselves or show their collection of art,” Edwards says. “A lot of them have good taste and a good eye.”

12. DEFENDANTS CAN CHANGE THEIR APPEARANCE.

A courtroom sketch by Vicki Ellen Behringer depicts Jay Leno's testimony while Michael Jackson looks on during Jackson's child molestation trial in 2005
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

Some trials can mean day after day of sketching the same faces. Other times, defendants will experience some fairly radical physical transformations that keep sketch artists on their toes. “Barry Bonds, from the day he was indicted [in 2007, for perjury] to the day the trial was over, lost a significant amount of weight,” Behringer says. “There was another trial in Stockton where the defendant gained a significant amount of weight. People said it was the carbs in the jail food.”

The most dramatic alterations in appearance are usually attributed to the late singer Michael Jackson (above, seen with Jay Leno), who was frequently sketched during his participation in a 2005 trial to refute charges of child molestation. (A jury found him not guilty.) “Every day, he wore a completely different outfit, different armbands, and his hair would change from Monday to Friday. One time, it was longer on a Monday. It’s like, how did you do that?”

13. THEY TRY TO DRAW QUIETLY.

A courtroom sketch by Mona Shafer edwards depicts Clint Eastwood sitting next to his attorney during Eastwood's 1996 palimony trial
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

When cameras are in a courtroom, everyone knows it. When Edwards is around, subjects might not even know they’re being rendered. The artist carries a small 9-inch by 12-inch pad with her along with a small number of tools. “Defendants never know I’m drawing them,” she says. “You might act differently if you’re aware someone is staring. I try to blend in.”

14. O.J. SIMPSON MAY HAVE KEPT THEM IN BUSINESS.

A courtroom sketch by Mona Shafer Edwards depicts O.J. Simpson testifying during his 1995 trial for murder
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

The decision in 1995 to allow television cameras to depict the O.J. Simpson trial—Simpson was accused of killing ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman—seemed to signal a new and relaxed policy about media coverage in courtrooms. “I thought that was it, the swan song of sketching,” Edwards says. “Then it turned out to be a joke.” Judges, fearing they’d be criticized as much as Simpson’s presiding judge Lance Ito, shied away from that kind of scrutiny. “Judges realized they didn’t want to be on camera. So every time I think it’s over, it keeps going.”

15. THEY DO WEDDINGS.

Artist Elizabeth Williams depicts a newlywed couple
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

The nature of the court sketch business has changed over the years as some federal courts are becoming more lenient with the presence of cameras. (While cameras are typically not allowed in federal trial courts, there have been certain exceptions, experiments, and pilot projects to allow cameras; state rules vary.) Experienced artists still find work, but it’s a good idea to have some alternative methods of income. Williams books her services as a sketch artist for weddings on weekends, when court isn’t in session. “People are always getting married, but you can’t always count on ‘El Chapo’ getting arrested,” she says. “You have to do other things.” Williams approaches nuptials in much the same way as a trial. “I’ll meet with a client and go over the key moments.” Instead of closing arguments, it might be the first dance as a married couple.

The biggest difference? “It’s so nice to be around people who are so happy and just beginning their lives, as opposed to people going to, you know, prison.”

All sketches are copyright their respective artists and used with permission.

12 Secrets of Corn Maze Designers

Kevin Moloney/Getty Images
Kevin Moloney/Getty Images

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.’”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER