Imagine a place where buffalo, bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope roam freely, sometimes just a few feet from your wide eyes. Where in the course of a single day, you can hike through towering granite spires, dive off sun-baked rocks into a crisp mountain lake, and take in the highest view east of the Rocky Mountains. Now imagine thousands of people every year driving straight through this paradise, on their way someplace else.
Custer State Park lies in the heart of the Black Hills of South Dakota. Many people cross in and out of the Park on their way to more well-known sites like Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Wind Cave, the Badlands, or Rapid City, unaware that they’re passing through one of the best places to view wildlife in the entire world.
Custer’s staff wanted to change this. As they prepared to break ground on a new visitor center, they approached us with two key challenges. The first centered on the Park’s most famous residents. Custer is home to one of the largest bison herds in the US. There, coming face-to-face with wild bison isn’t a stroke of good luck, it’s a frequent occurrence. But no matter how “normal” these close encounters seem, Rangers needed a new way to educate visitors about the dangers of getting too close.
The second challenge was to inspire people to experience more of the Park and not just pass through. Rangers told us the most frequently asked question was, “So what can I do here?” As thousands of tourists and families hit the road to tour the Black Hills, how could we encourage them to get out of their vehicles and experience the profound beauty of this place more deeply and directly?
Our team got to work developing concepts for a large interactive map table that would orient visitors and reveal opportunities for adventure, and a bison safety interactive that would combine live-action footage with depth sensing and proximity-triggered content to answer the question: “How close is too close?”
We spoke with Rangers, researched, sketched, collected images, created 3D models of the space, and built full-scale prototypes of both experiences in our Lab.
But the work just wasn’t clicking with the Park and no one could put their finger on why. Our initial visual design was illustrative, translating the landscapes and wildlife of the Park into polygonal faux-3d worlds. While beautiful, the aesthetic abstracted the places we were trying to celebrate.
The content too felt oddly inert. We had facts, hero images of points of interest and some basic context—everything you would expect to introduce the Park to first-time visitors. But it all felt flat.
Our team had unintentionally fallen into the same behavior we were trying to help change in many of the Park’s visitors. Like the motorists who zoom through and only experience the Park through their windshields, we were trying to know this place through browsers and screens. We were inviting people to have a richer experience with this land without ever having stepped foot on it ourselves.
So Matt Arnold, our Lead Integration Engineer, and I hit the road. Driving out of the airport in Rapid City, we passed horses galloping over hillsides on both sides of the highway. An hour later, we were diving off rocks into the brisk waters of Sylvan Lake.
We spent the next twelve hours hiking the Park’s trails, summiting its highest point, driving the Needles Highway, and marveling at mountain goats, bison, pronghorn and their young.
We drove the Wildlife Loop and the Iron Mountain Road, then headed east to the Badlands where we hiked until midnight and had to hitchhike back to our car, sharing the back of a pick-up with a husky named Shadow.
The next morning, driving in to meet our clients for the first time face-to-face, we rounded a corner and landed smack in the middle of a herd of bison. Best excuse for being late to a meeting ever.
When we got back home to Portland, the visual design, content, and experiences all changed. But the greater change was in us, the makers. We had fallen in love with the Park and had our own stories to tell. Everything from the copy we wrote to the images we chose was informed by what we had seen and experienced first-hand. A critical insight was that the interactions should be quick. Our job was to give people just enough context to get them out the door, off the pavement and into something more raw and fantastic. If we could get you to walk farther than the edge of the parking lot, we knew we could trust the Park to do the rest.
In hindsight, the disconnect our team got stuck in seems painfully clear, but at the time it wasn’t. Part of what made it hard to see is the ubiquity of ways to virtually explore and access places we’ve never been. I can pick up Google’s Pegman and drop him all over the planet and be instantly transported to a Street View. I’ve done it dozens if not hundreds of times, and that moment of arrival when the blur resolves into a 360-image feels like a magic trick to me every time. Social media is bursting with candid images of the places we go, recognizable and remote, curated and shared to engender awe, envy, and an appetite to capture places of our own. Wherever I am, TripAdvisor can tell me what its bests are. Billions of dollars are being pumped into VR as a new consumer medium that will immerse us in places real and imagined we could never experience otherwise. Second-hand is trying harder and harder to feel like the first-person.
As human exploration and connection become more virtual, it’s worth asking what it means to experience and know a place. What does it mean to actually be there? In Plato’s cave, people believe they’re seeing reality, when in fact they’re only seeing the shadows of what’s really there. I wonder if Google Maps presents us with a contemporary equivalent, a means to go anywhere but only through wide-angle slices of frozen time, as seen from roads, chased by the shadow of a car with a weird contraption on its roof. Our team could know a lot about Custer State Park from our offices in Portland. But it was just a shadow of what it was like to swim, hike, and wander through it. And what we designed were just shadows too—ones that hopefully point us back in the direction of what’s really there.
— David Waingarten, Story Director
P.S. That cute, shaggy bison you want to take a selfie with is 1,400 pounds of muscle that can charge at speeds of up to 40 mph. I’d back up at least 75 feet.