Sanford Underground Research Facility

Screenshot of Sanford Underground Research Facility website
Sanford Underground Research Facility logo

Telling the Story of Underground Science

Located within the former Homestake Gold Mine in Lead, SD, the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) houses physics, biology, geology, and engineering research that helps people understand the universe. Sprawling across more than 360 miles of underground tunnels, entrenched up to one mile deep, the subterranean environment shields experiments from cosmic radiation, creating the perfect location for some of the world’s most sensitive research.

The primary challenge with SURF’s new Drupal site was it needed to advocate for the value of this complex, cutting-edge research to communities near and far — including local teachers, community members, tourists, policy makers and the global scientific community — encouraging everybody to get involved.

Photos of inside and outside of the Sanford Underground Research Facility


Our user and stakeholder engagements directed a narrative-driven approach that helped convey what research SURF hosts, why it’s valuable to fund this work, and how the community can engage with SURF’s programs. Featuring a “show-don’t-tell” approach, the site paired SURF’s stunning photography with a bold design system catered to its identity, including a rich color palette, tall typography, and hand-crafted science-inspired illustrations.

Two people interacting with a light waves exhibit at SURF

Broad Audiences & Expansive Offerings

SURF’s existing website lacked a clear navigational structure and connected storytelling, which hindered its ability to explain the significance of its ongoing research and to prompt visitor engagement across the site. Additionally, SURF hoped to:

  • Convince public policy makers and funders to support expanding SURF’s facilities and capabilities.
  • Create awareness for the visitor center, the organization’s main public-facing experience.
  • Generate visibility and support for education and outreach events, including curriculum development opportunities, public events like Neutrino Day, community programming, and more.
  • Educate visitors about the SURF Foundation and prompt donations, which help fund SURF’s educational and outreach activities.

Developing a User-centric Approach

To really understand the needs of their audiences, our team got a chance to visit SURF in person. We were able to understand how various groups would experience SURF’s facilities, and gain a deeper understanding of the in-person education processes the website would be supporting.

We also engaged with users and stakeholders ranging from educators, scientists, development directors, program supervisors, and more. Through a series of surveys and workshops, we established a clear vision for how all users should navigate the website, support their in-person experience, and understand the impact of SURF’s leadership in underground science. The results of this user-centric approach to our research directly informed the way we structured menus and content across the new site.

Aten staff members visiting SURF wearing in hard hats
Video file
Design ideas for the new website

A Detailed, In-Depth Design System

The design process kicked off with a design workshop, aligning Aten and SURF on a clear, ambitious vision for the new website. We wanted to highlight SURF’s physical presence by conveying a sense of being above and below ground. In doing so we used gradients, strong contrasts between light and dark, powerful photography, and custom illustrations based on scientific concepts.

A design system followed, led by bold, vertical typography and deep, earthy colors. Aten created more than 30 page mockups to fully develop and test the design system. The system was then adapted to responsive layouts and thorough documentation.

Science diagram illustrations

Elevating Education & Outreach Initiatives

SURF’s educational and outreach efforts run the gamut from visitor center tours to curriculum modules that staff hand-deliver to schools. SURF wanted the new site to highlight this offering, and support the internal team charged with managing processes as well as teachers using the resources in their classrooms.

We first ensured that SURF’s outreach initiatives were a core component of the site navigation and content. Second, it provided a functional tool that offered the following benefits to SURF’s community:

  • Educators can create their own profiles and dashboards, from which they can schedule and manage field trips, request physical curriculum kits that SURF provides to teachers across South Dakota, sign up for virtual curriculum and online field trips, and more.
  • SURF’s Education and Outreach team is able to balance manually managing these Educators’ requests, based on considerations such as their team’s capacity to host field trips, with automated Drupal tasks, such as reminders to access the curriculum return checklist in their dashboard. 
Teacher profile and curriculum dashboard

Laptop with SURF news page showing

Content editing ease & peak site performance

The new Drupal 10 site, hosted on Pantheon, is set up with Aten’s bespoke drag-and-drop content publishing system, Mercury Editor, enabling an accessible and fluid workflow for their non-technical content editors. We also enabled permissions for different roles at SURF to allow for editing specific page layouts and components.

And in order to optimize the site’s accessibility, SEO, and page speed, our Drupal developers instituted responsive image optimizations.

Accessible & approachable content

In addition to ensuring the new website meets and exceeds a Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standards, we ensured that the language used on the site appropriately conveyed technical information scientists expect but in a way that everyone can understand. Additionally SURF employed virtual visitor center tours and online curriculum modules so teachers and students throughout the region could interact with content even when a site visit was physically or financially impossible.

Video file

A Suite of Digital Experiences for SURF

Aten’s partnership with SURF has resulted in not only a beautiful redesigned website that tells the important work of their research, but also produced new brands and websites for The Institute for Underground Science at SURF and their annual festival, Neutrino Day. We also worked together to design and build digital kiosks to provide accessible and interactive content at their visitor center.

Screenshots of SURF main website, SURF Institute website, Neutrino Day website, and visitor center kiosks

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