Custer State Park Visitor Center Upgrades to Interactive Experiences


Every year, thousands drive straight through Custer State Park on their way somewhere else. But they’re missing out on towering granite spires, crisp mountain lakes and roaming bison. We created two interactive experiences that inspire visitors to stop and explore this overlooked American treasure.

Nominating Company: Second Story, part of SapientNitro, Portland, Oregon
Venue: Custer State Park, Custer, South Dakota
Project: Custer State Park Visitor Center
Category: Arts, Entertainment & Recreation

Imagine a place where buffalo, bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope roam freely. 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.

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 and the Badlands, unaware that they’re passing through one of the best places to view wildlife in the entire world.

The staff of Custer State Park set out to change that. For their new visitor center, they wanted to find ways to get people out of their cars and into the wild.

We began the project researching, sketching, creating 3D models of the visitor center space and building full-scale prototypes of two interactive experiences in our studio lab. But the work just wasn’t clicking with the park, and no one could put their finger on why. After all, our initial visual design was beautiful and illustrative, and we had all the facts you would need to introduce the park to first-time visitors.

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 see the park only through their windshields, we were trying to know Custer through browsers and screens. We were inviting people to have a richer experience with the land without ever having stepped foot on it ourselves.

So we changed our approach. We traveled to the park and immersed ourselves in its magic.

For the park’s new visitor center, we created a pair of installations that empower visitors to safely choose their own adventure

A large topographic map table with integrated touchscreens greets guests when they arrive, serving as an interactive introduction to Custer’s treasures. Accommodating both self-directed and ranger-assisted explorations, the experience identifies the park’s primary journeys and destinations, and guests can personalize their path based on their interests, from history to hiking. Rangers can regularly reposition physical bison figurines on the map to identify where they’ve been most recently spotted, helping to point wildlife watchers in the right direction.

Elsewhere in the space, we take an unconventional approach to safety. Combining live-action footage with depth sensing and proximity-triggered content, the installation educates visitors on how to recognize the warning signs of an agitated bison and how to keep a safe distance from the park’s most popular and potentially dangerous residents.

Our goal was to give visitors the tools to blaze their own trail through Custer State Park, to get them out the door and into the wild feeling excited, informed and empowered. The resulting experiences are playful, informative, and perhaps most crucially, those experiences are quick. Visitors don’t have to spend much time Indoors to recognize the opportunities awaiting them just outside.

“Both are a huge hit,” said Lydia Austin, “the park’s Interpretive Programs Manager., ‘We’ve gotten a lot of compliments from our staff that [the topographical map]is a great tool.”

Exhibit Design & Fabrication: Split Rock Studios
A/V Integration: Haggerty’s Audio Visual

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