Learning to See


Second Story, part of SapientNitro

Practice Area


Denver Botanic Gardens

Project Vision

Learning to See, the permanent exhibit in the new Science Pyramid space at the Denver Botanic Gardens, brings to life the stories hidden within Colorado’s landscape. By helping visitors of all ages and backgrounds to recognize the complexity of the scenes that surround them and understand their interconnectedness with the environment, the exhibit provokes exploration and inspires wonder. It also highlights, for the first time, the important research work conducted at the Gardens and the ways in which citizens can become involved in plant conservation research themselves.

Second Story, part of SapientNitro, crafted a holistic vision for the Pyramid’s interior, executing every facet of the project from exhibit design to content strategy, interactive media creation to systems development. A departure from traditional science exhibitry, Learning to See is at once informative and playful, educational and evocative. 

The Second Story team encountered a variety of design challenges in the creation of Learning to See. First, the Denver Botanic Gardens’ audience is exceptionally age- and expertise-diverse, so the exhibit needed to have broad appeal. All content also needed to be presented in both English and Spanish. Second, one of the ext the team wanted to create an installation that felt like a natural extension of a visit to the Gardens rather than a distraction.

By engaging the visitor’s body in diverse and memorable ways, the interactive installations enhance the immersive quality of the Science Pyramid experience. A stunning topographic table made from layers of laser-etched acrylic draws the eye and the hand; integrated touchscreens let visitors explore images and information about Colorado’s major ecosystems and activate LEDs in the table that indicate where those ecosystems exist. Interactive pylons throughout the space provide unique sensory experiences. Visitors peer into peepholes to watch short videos about citizen science and wildlife in Colorado. Mimicking scientists at a microscope, they turn a bronze dial to zoom in on stories of the hidden biodiversity in the steppe’s rolling grasslands. They use their bodies as amplifiers to listen to the sounds of the steppe environment, from rolling thunder to prairie chicken songs. The exhibit’s digital components are supported by a custom content management system that allows the Gardens to update them as their research evolves.

Learning to See is also a responsive environment that reflects the cycles of nature. LED lighting and software interface elements change in response to temperature and wind speed at the Gardens, creating a dynamic interior space connected to the ever-changing environment outside through seamlessly integrated technology. 

The Second Story team found inspiration for the exhibit design in the geography, landscapes, and plants of Colorado. Contrast of scale is used to mimic the state’s vast elevation differences. Interactive tables resemble the boulders prevalent in the region. The many tall, narrow pylons evoke the feeling of an aspen glade. The exhibit’s color palette also reflects the state’s natural landscape, from granite peaks to lush alpine meadows to the golden hues of the steppe.

When selecting materials, the Second Story team considered their significance, the way they feel to the touch, and their ability to act as a carrier or substrate for content. The laser-etched acrylic on the topographic table is used as a vehicle for storytelling. The bronze on the dials of the haptic pylons showcases patterns of use. The steel finishes used on the boulder-shaped interactives were chosen for the beautiful patina they will develop over time.

Project Details
Considering so many multi-layered projects, designers have to consider architectural form, typography, interactive effectiveness, and technological functionality. This project was one of few that was able to satisfy all of these considerations. The popular totem form was appropriately developed in this context and the typographic execution was consistently excellent in both static and dynamic channels.
Juror 1
An intimate focus on how the senses can shape story, the delicately crafted experiences create a personal relationship to the flora of the Colorado landscape.
Juror 2
Design Team

Second Story, part of SapientNitro

Design Firm

Second Story, part of SapientNitro

Project Area

5,000 sq. ft.

Project Budget

Not provided


Ghilarducci Studios, David Bertman Designs