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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

December 7, 2013 at 9:25 PM

To view the Space Needle’s new website, look up…and up…and up

(From spaceneedle.com)

(From spaceneedle.com)

Maybe you’ve been to the Space Needle. But have you been to spaceneedle.com?

Seattle’s most famous icon just launched a new website, and it’s not what you expect. Like the Needle itself, it’s worth at least one actual visit.

(From spaceneedle.com)

(From spaceneedle.com)

And it’s going to take you … up.

“This is my favorite,” said Brandon Waterman. We were sitting in the conference room at Creature, the agency that built the site. He slid two fingers down the touch pad on his Mac to send us off the Needle’s saucer and on into space.

Spaceneedle.com has all the required info. Hours, tickets, blah blah blah. But first and foremost, it’s a trip. You begin at the base of the structure with an assertion that “Seattle starts here” and an unheard-of invitation to scroll not down the website, but up.

As you do, different pieces start to move in different ways. The outdoor elevator climbs, clouds roll past, a seaplane crosses a panning view of the city at dusk and factoid callouts await your click. They’re not about the icon, but the city, which makes sense.

The Space Needle has always been more about Seattle than itself.

But even it can’t take its place at the door of the city for granted. We locals are a fickle bunch, and in a city obsessed with innovation, making sure a 50-year-old tribute to the future never ages is a hell of a job.

Business is great, staff assured me, with more than 1 million visits a year. But the Needle, like any business, has ambitions. Survey the Yelp reviews or your own friends: The Space Needle is beautiful, but “overpriced.” Worth a visit, but just to say you’ve done it. Columbia Tower is taller (and cheaper); Pike Place Market is more colorful.

The Needle thrives because it’s on the bucket list, but it wants to be off it, too. It wants to be talkworthy. It wants you to come back.

But it’s weird, isn’t it, to talk about the Needle as a company with a staff and owners and goals? Creature co-founder Jim Haven put it well — it’s “one of those buildings that feels like a piece of nature.”

You see it rising behind buildings from Queen Anne and Capitol Hill, fronting the cityscape as you come down Interstate 5, unique as anything, anywhere, ever. Yes, you’re in Seattle. Hi.

In my seven years here, the Space Needle has been my beacon for how much I love this place. It doesn’t matter how many pictures I take of that circle in the sky. When I walk underneath it and look up, I almost always take another.

“Everyone feels like they own the Needle,” said Karen Olson, the Space Needle’s vice president of marketing. She joined weeks after Creature — which was behind the rebranding of Seattle’s Best Coffee — began work on the new website in June. The site took six months to develop, but most of the work was not technical development. It was conversation.

The website had to be more than a website. It would represent the Space Needle, which represents Seattle, and everyone in Seattle has his or her own idea of what the landmark means to them. So what in the world should it look like?

Creature is known for its changing window displays facing Twelfth Avenue on Capitol Hill. This month, it's a "Window Shop" to raise money for charity. (welcometocreature.com)

Creature is known for its changing window displays facing Twelfth Avenue on Capitol Hill. Last year, the company put up this “Window Shop” to raise money for charity. (creature.com)

After weeks of meetings and research, Waterman and Creature colleague Clara Mulligan proposed the concept they thought would capture what the Space Needle stands for in Seattle — curiosity, possibility, optimism, “looking up” — and an audacious mission to make the Needle’s website as monumental as the structure itself.

When Olson shared the scroll-up idea to the Space Needle board, some were skeptical. “You doing usability testing on that?” she remembers one board member saying.

Creature creatives pin project inspirations on large boards in the basement. (Photo: Mónica Guzmán)

Creature creatives pin project inspirations on large boards in the basement. (Photo: Mónica Guzmán)

Making the site usable was one of the bigger challenges.

“You start with a website that will scroll up, and already you’re like, [expletive],” Waterman said. He worked hours with a company called Royale to get details right, adding tweaks to meet the crazy goal of making a vertical website feel 605 feet tall.

At one point, Waterman and Mulligan thought something was missing. The climb concept worked, the Seattle callouts tied the Needle to the city, but something important was being left out. So they decided to let you keep on scrolling, into the stars, past a satellite, until you bump into an interstellar neighbor.

It is the “Space” Needle, after all.

And, of course, social sharing plays a starring role. “Instagram” is used as a verb more than once, and a social prompt near the top is the tweetable, Facebookable centerpiece that manages to memorialize a visit to a website: “I scrolled 605 feet to the top of the Space Needle!”

Creature’s set to do more with the Needle. Maybe a mobile app, maybe some interactive exhibits. Everything’s a brainstorm, but Olson mentioned sending pictures to space, recording browsable 360-degree footage of Seattle round the clock and the “ultimate selfie” — a camera trained on the observation deck from far away that could take your photo with the whole saucer.

Our Needle may yet surprise us.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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