With more than 700 creations, Adrian Fisher is the world's most prolific maze designer. He explains what goes into those twists and turns – and why we love feeling so confused.

In the 36 years that Adrian Fisher has been in business, he has created every kind of maze imaginable – from simple, head-high fields of maize to bewildering, hi-tech caverns with flashing lights and revolving mirrors. They’ve been based on everything from chess to Alice in Wonderland, from alien planets to the ancient pyramids of Egypt. In all, Fisher has built some 700 different mazes all over the world.

Maze-making requires a particularly peculiar kind of design. At its heart, after all, it means designing something confounding and discombobulating, rather than smooth and foolproof. How does Fisher do it? How did he get into this highly particular field? And why does he – and do we – find mazes so entrancing?

A puzzling purpose

Mazes date back to the ancient times, although the earliest form of maze – the labyrinth – had an important difference from most of those found today. Made famous by the tale of the Minotaur and the Minoan palace in Crete, a labyrinth has only one path leading to the centre. Its purpose wasn’t to confuse. It was to lead a walker along a meandering path that encouraged contemplation and serenity.

Although their purpose remains mysterious, labyrinths probably had a spiritual dimension. Later, with the rise of the Church, some scholars think labyrinths became associated with the idea of walking the difficult path of a Christian.

The oldest maze in Great Britain, the trapezoidal hedge maze at Hampton Court, was commissioned in 1700

By the Renaissance, nobles were building labyrinths at their palace gardens out of hedges – a way to amuse their visitors and to provide a particular path through their estate. And then mazes began to branch off with various pathway options and dead ends, designed to deliberately confound. Given its landscape tradition, it’s no surprise that England became the home to many of those puzzles. The longest surviving in Great Britain, the trapezoidal hedge maze at Hampton Court, was commissioned in 1700; visitors can still get lost in it today.

Britain’s most famous and prolific maze designer, Fisher carries on that tradition from his base in rural Dorset, where, of course, he has built his own maze – complete with an octagonal tower.

Surprisingly, Fisher doesn’t typically spend months coming up with ideas: his mirror maze at Arizona's Butterfly Wonderland attraction took him only a week to design. Like mazemakers of centuries past, however, Fisher often starts with a hand-drawn sketch. “Somehow, it is more vivid, more dramatic than a computer simulation – which can re-create the motion, but not so much the feel and the excitement,” he says. He then turns to computer software to prepare drawings and three-dimensional models.

While technology has made maze-making easier, it has made expectations much higher, too. Maze owners now want an installation that looks good not just from the ground, but from the air – whether it's in the shape of a skull and crossbones or the head of a wild animal. The latest addition to Fisher’s kitbag? A miniature drone that he can fly overhead to show the client what the maze looks like from the sky.

Royal beginnings

Fisher’s maze-making career was auspicious from the start. When the Right Reverend Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke at his enthronement ceremony in 1980, saying the path to heaven is like a circuitous maze, the speech struck a chord with the then-30-year-old Fisher. He wrote a letter to The Times reflecting on the magical and mystical appeal of labyrinths throughout history.

We all love being a bit lost. A maze should be a joyful thing

In response, a former lady-in-waiting to the Queen Mother, Lady Brunner, invited Fisher to come speak with her about mazes – and about one she wanted to build at her home at Greys Court, near Henley-on-Thames, in particular. “I had never received any formal training in maze-making, but I had a huge number of thoughts and ideas on the subject,” Fisher says. “She must have seen something in me that inspired her to employ me.” The Archbishop himself came to bless the maze when it opened the next year.

“We all love being a bit lost,” Adrian says. “A maze, to my mind, should be a joyful thing. Ideally, you need to get properly lost, but find your way out at the point just before you've had enough – during the period in which fun and disorientation are still operating hand in hand.”

The disorientating, cognitively challenging experience of navigating a maze is one that has inspired scientists, particularly social scientists, for decades. In 1937, celebrated American psychologist Edward Chace Tolman said in a speech that “everything important in psychology” could be investigated by analysing how rats behave in mazes. This wasn’t a new idea; at the turn of the previous century, the first animal maze study had been developed at Clark University, with a maze based on the pattern of the Hampton Court maze, to study association and home-finding behaviours.

Everything important in psychology can be investigated with mazes – Edward Chace Tolman, 1937

While mazes are still used in experiments today, they’ve gotten far less complicated – not so much designed to trick a rodent as to time how long it takes it to complete a simple task if, say, it’s on a particular drug being tested.

At the same time, mazes for humans have only gotten more complex and fanciful, thanks to designers like Fisher.

Witness the installation in the grounds of an estate owned by an Italian count near Verona. Not only has Fisher built a mysterious tower in the middle of a hedge maze, but once there, visitors descend a spiral staircase into an underground chamber – where the count's much-prized fossil collection is stored. At the end? The only way out is via a mirror maze built into the side of a cliff.

It does us all good, from time to time, to find ourselves being challenged. To discover that we don't know the answer

At the very least, Fisher plans his mazes to always have more than one configuration. On different days, staff shut some gates and open others – as return visitors discover at a variety of Fisher mazes in the UK, including Merseyside’s Speke Hall and Aigburth, Hampshire’s Staunton Country Park, and Devon’s Escot Park. “That way, someone who's already visited the maze will find they no longer know the solution to the puzzle when they come back,” Fisher says.

Fisher is even brainstorming features whereby choice of direction is allocated at random – as in a maze that visitors have to navigate by moving vehicle. “Let's say there's four of you in a boat, and each of you has a steering wheel,” he says. “Imagine what happens when the power switches between different wheels. One minute, you think you're in control; the next minute, it's someone else. Then, of course, you can throw in different tasks that have to be completed. Perhaps you have to visit four towers in the course of your journey, or answer 12 quiz questions at 12 different points.”

No matter what the particular configuration, what’s important is that the maze, at least for a time, confuses us.

“It does us all good, from time to time, to find ourselves being challenged. To discover that we don't know the answer,” Fisher says. “When you step inside a maze, it has an effect on you that cannot be measured in a conventional way. It simply cannot be expressed in sentences, in numbers or in digits. It is, I really do believe, a sort of magic.”

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