Downtown Replaces Decades-Old Signs

In downtown Napa, CA, wayfinding signs are fading and more than two decades old. “They have patched-over fonts, different colors, and incorrect information,” says Economic Development Manager Neal Harrison. “A good example of that is the visitor center moved from Main Street to First Street and the signage hasn’t moved with it.”

Napa’s experience with aging wayfinding signs is a common one. For downtown leaders the challenges often go beyond just replacing faded or outdated signs. The very nature of wayfinding has changed in recent years, says Joe Lawniczak of Wisconsin Main Street. He notes a number of shifts that have redefined wayfinding:

First, motorists and pedestrians rarely read maps. Instead, they rely on GPS to tell them where to go. In some ways, the rise of smartphones makes wayfinding more important than ever. “GPS navigation systems send you on the fastest route to a destination, and might skip downtown altogether,” Lawniczak says.

Second, wayfinding signs were designed for visitors’ traditional arrival method of driving to, and parking near, their final destinations. But now, amid shifts in both how people get around and where they live, visitors are traveling to downtowns by foot, by bike, and by Uber and Lyft.

The basic function of wayfinding signs hasn’t changed, Lawniczak says. Signs still help define a downtown district and let people know they’ve arrived someplace special.

More on the updating wayfinding systems plus articles on turning a white elephant into a downtown anchor, and re-shaping shopping with Downtown Dollars appear in the May issue of Downtown Idea Exchange. Click to learn more about Downtown Idea Exchange and other resources for revitalizing downtowns and commercial corridors.

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