Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Napa Wayfinding

I’ve talked about Napa in several recent posts. I’ll move on shortly, but not before looking at wayfinding in downtown Napa.

I offered a quick introduction to wayfinding in a recent post. In summary, wayfinding isn’t solely about posting directional signs. It’s about having a coherent vision of what visitors should see in a community, particularly the experiences which would encourage them to spend money and to return. Then, it’s about ensuring that the visitors find those experiences. Signs should certainly be a part of wayfinding, but they can be complemented by architecture, placemaking, and other factors.

Measured against that standard, Napa lacks a coherent vision. Perhaps because of that absence, the directional signs, although well-intentioned, don’t tell an articulate story.

Starting with the signs which are directed at the cars traveling the downtown streets, note the inconsistency between the framing and the message. The logo at the top describes the downtown as historic. It’s a nice thought, but the directions then describe where to park, where to conduct municipal business, where to shop, and how to leave town. There isn’t a single direction to a place of historic interest. Obviously, as visitors drive around town, they’ll see signs that point to other destinations, such as Riverfront or the Oxbow Public Market, but I didn’t see a single sign that pointed to a historic site.

Once visitors park, they encounter a different type of signage, street maps mounted in cases. It’s an acceptable solution, but uninspired. It’s too much information to retain once one walks away. Plus, in an era when most people are carrying phones with map functions, a wall-mounted map is redundant.

And then once the visitors are strolling about town, they encounter a third type of signage for businesses only. They’re nicely made, but give directions to a seemingly random assortment of businesses that a visitor may or may not be interested in patronizing.

Nowhere in this system of wayfinding is historic mentioned again. Combined with largely dated and uninspiring architecture, it’s not surprising that pedestrians aren’t thronging downtown.

If I’m going to be critical of the current wayfinding system, I should have suggestions. And I do. Napa is a nice little town. It even has a historic past. But not much evidence of that history remains. Architecturally, much of the downtown is fundamentally uninteresting.

But what Napa does have is a place solidly within one of the premier gastronomical regions of the world. Napa wayfinding should drop any pretense of historic and focus on what the town truly has to impress visitors. Also, Napa has architecturally interesting neighborhoods both north and south of downtown. It’s been awhile since I’ve toured the neighborhoods around downtown, but I remember enjoying them.

If I were to schedule a perfect Napa outing, it would start with a light lunch featuring California cuisine, followed by a stroll through a nearby neighborhood with directions and viewing notes downloaded to my phone, followed by an extended wine sampling at a downtown establishment, and then concluded with a fine dining experience that last over two hours.

That is what Napa has to offer. The challenge is to define a wayfinding system that helps make it happen.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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