Nachusa Grasslands Visitor Center Merges Nature, Science and Experience

Updated: Mar 24

A large welcome sign in front of a view of the Nachusa Grasslands Welcome Center.

It started with, of all things, babies. Adorable, irresistible fluffy babies. Suddenly, people from all over the Chicago area were piling into their cars, heading out to Nachusa, and pulling over on the side of the highway to ooh and aah over the next generation of that prairie superstar, the bison. Considering the safety issues of hundreds of site-seers hanging out on the side of a rural highway, The Nature Conservancy, who manages the Nachusa Grasslands, decided it was time for a proper hub to welcome and orient visitors. That’s where Therese Huffman and Signature Design came in.

Along with her team, Huffman developed and executed the Nachusa Grasslands Visitor Center, a site that merges high-level scientific study with an engaging, educational visitor experience. TNC had goals to create advocacy and support the work they are doing in the grasslands, and so it was a balancing act for Huffman.

“It meant layering. We weren’t working at 4th grade or 6th grade, but we had to accommodate that,” Huffman says. “We were challenged to present advanced level environmental scientific discoveries in a voice understandable and evocative to the general public.”

To do this, Huffman saw the need to create an experience with multiple layers. Exhibits feature capture boxes, wildlife sound buttons, artifacts and interpretive signage. The aesthetic is as natural as possible, featuring real metals, stone and a natural color palette. It’s a low-tech site, and that’s by design. TNC wanted a to create a grounded experience, so GoPros and drone stations were taken off the drawing board early on.

“I agree with them ultimately, because they really did want to be more of a tactile, sensual experience than a media blast,” Huffman says. “I did like the idea of kids with GoPros, but [TNC] is more in tune with taking them on hikes. You want to sit there and look out at the prairie or take a walk.”

One of the most successful elements is an old standby, the white board. Boxes with markers are attached nearby, and visitors can record their observations after exploring the site.

A white board covered in messages and notes from Nachusa guests

“Funny enough, the client thought that was going to be a disaster, and everyone was going to draw naughty things, that didn’t happen,” comments Huffman. “It is one of the more successful ways for them to hear from the people out there. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be digital, it can be soft and interactive.”

Huffman has been in the field of experiential graphic design since 1993, when she co-founded Signature Designs, a woman-owned firm focused on creating exhibits and visitor experiences. The passion she developed for graphic design, exhibits and signage stem from her studies at RISD, and she’s carried that passion with her as the field continues to evolve by staying active with organizations like the National Association of Interpretation. She is also an active member of the SEGD’s Atlanta Chapter. Huffman joined when she moved to Atlanta from St. Louis 8 years ago.

“It’s a great community. All the national and international exposure, everything they keep you abreast of, all the online things, it’s an uninterrupted experience,” she says. “I’m tuned in to getting those messages and doing webinars. They really operate at a high level. It’s a fantastic source of inspiration and education.”

As Huffman grow as a designer through training and collaboration, her process evolves. Her methodology, whether she is working on a city street, a trail, or historic site, or a visitor center, is about creating engaged visitor experiences in public places. Huffman and the Signature Design team are specialists in wayfinding, interpretive planning and experiential design, using mixed media to create authentic visitor experiences, working on projects for museums, cities, parks, trails and heritage sites.

ALTO™ aluminum panels feauring images of bison and other information.

Though she now lives and works in Atlanta, Huffman has done a lot of work in the Midwest. She has worked on TNC projects for the past ten years, making her a great candidate to create a public hub for the Nachusa Grasslands. This significant TNC project just west of Chicago is the site of a tall grass prairie restoration project that began in 1986. Over the years, TNC purchased more than 3,500 acres of land to create a preserve dedicated to maintaining the Midwest’s iconic grasslands. It’s also home to an international contingent of environmental scientists affiliated with nearby Northern Illinois University. There are 25 research projects going on at any given time, with students and researchers living around the park in existing buildings.

Besides its scientific attraction, the area draws in tourists from all over the Chicago Metro area, especially since the introduction of the bison. In 2014, the NC brought in bison from South Dakota, and the population exploded- and so did the tourists. Hikers, birdwatchers, school groups, families and nature lovers in general needed a designated place to base their visits, one large enough to accommodate big groups with the proper facilities (all with low carbon footprints), classrooms and parking.

When TNC contacted Huffman about the project, she and her team began with an exhaustive interview process of stakeholder and experts and analyzed visitor groups in order to establish the interpretive mission and vision statements. As the research progressed, Signature Design understood that at the heart of the project was a mandate to celebrate the surrounding landscape. While forming the site’s key themes and storyline, the team proposed unique aesthetic and structural elements that would meet this important goal.

“Beauty is really important out there. We were challenged to express the beauty, so we chose to frame it,” Huffman explains.

Interpretive signage with information and decorative silhouette of fox and plants

This led to the idea of open mesh walls, allowing for a visitor center that breathes and creates unobstructed views of the prairie. The openness of the mesh walls contrasts with the solidity of interpretive panels and detailed sculptural elements of prairie heroes like bison, snakes, gophers, birds and the grasses themselves. The balance achieved speaks to the freedom of the airy grasslands and the grounded, earthy elements that inhabit it. The color palette honors the tones and textures of the prairie, contributing to an aesthetic that engages visitors, but does not detract from the natural surroundings.

It was time to turn the ideas into a reality. Huffman and her time fight for construction administration, so they can deal directly with the problems or modification requests that are bound to arise during construction. Working with trusted fabricator partners, Signature Design sourced materials that could stand up the harsh environment typical of the prairies- hot summers, brutal winters and the famous Chicago-area winds. Working with a client who wanted the best materials possible, Signature Design sourced durable, high-end materials like brass, Corten steel, local limestone and aluminum for the site’s structural and interpretive elements.

The Corten steel and brass were left to weather naturally, developing the natural-looking textures and patinas that are ideal for the site’s aesthetic. The sculptural elements were designed and made by Iowa artists, who added exceptional detail and experimented with the materials to great effect.

ALTO™ panels showing text and graphics to explain the fire cycle at Nachusa.

As for the interpretive panels, which have to remain vibrant and legible, Signature Design went with ALTO™ Aluminum, a custom powder coated graphic product.

“We felt like we were comfortable saying to the client- yes, this will live outside, this will survive Chicago winters,” Huffman explains. “There was a peace of mind that we all have working with ALTO™.

“We always want to be the stars in the room and make our clients proud, so working with the right products like ALTO™ is critical to that,” she adds.

Throughout the site, Signature Design added artifacts and as many 3D elements as possible, like the interactive white boards, capture boxes, sound buttons and life-size panels featuring the bison (visitors love the photo op).

The bison, incidentally, seemed to be quite invested in the whole process- workers reported that the bison hung out by the protective fencing throughout construction! Students living in the grasslands often mention that the bison look into their windows, but who knew they were so interested in construction; it must mean the Nachusa Grasslands Visitor Center has the bison ‘stampede’ of approval.

We would like to thank Therese Huffman of Signature Design for speaking to us about the Nachusa Grasslands Visitor Center Project.