Rebranding the License Plate: 4 Designers Clean Up Graphic Road Kill

"Back to the future" best describes the new license plate issued by New York State in April. The "Empire Gold" design which is now appearing on streets, has been deemed "quite unappealing" by more than 80 percent of New Yorkers polled by WCBSTV.

New Yorkers: Consider yourselves lucky.

Compared to some states, New York's design is a prize winner. Plate designs have become graphically congested and legibility is often compromised. From a design standpoint I think license plates fall into three categories:

The Acceptable

This plate is so harmless it says nothing in the right way.

The Unfortunate

This is a "more is more" design where everything is as important as it can be.

...and the So Bad It's Good

With TWO state mottos, snowy peaks, a skier and Native American petroglyphs, the only things missing are images of the Utah Jazz, Sundance Film Festival and the Great Salt Lake.

In many states, license plates can be a form of personal branding. The State of Washington offers no less than 45 designs from which to choose. If you want fellow motorists to know you're a Mason, a firefighter or a square dancer, there's a plate for you. Custom plates are revenue generators for budget strapped states so I applaud the strategy—but the designs could be better.

When it comes to the standard issue, I asked a few talented designers from around the country to imagine their state license plate anew and to experiment with the possibilities for these three designs, Texas, Illinois and California. And here they are.

Craig Minor in Houston took the big, bad, "Don't Mess with Texas" approach but with a bilingual accent. It's a roughneck solution that makes their current plate look terribly silly.

Bart Crosby from Chicago strikes a contemporary note with speed and style. Left to right across the top of the plate are color coded city, state, and emission stickers that are read with a hand held scanner. The result is a "Formula 1" alternative to the muddled "Land of Lincoln" clunker.

Stefan Bucher from Los Angeles offers a 10-digit design that expands the pool of available license plates. He loads it with personal information about the driver that is ideal for our networking culture. The frame is color-coded to distinguish political leaning, a regional mark allows for "faster stereotyping," and he adds a QR code for a touch of edgy technology. Try it.

As for New York, I can imagine a stripped down design with minimal graphics exposing the raw plate. Numbers are punched through a recycled alloy imbedded with registration information. This will complement the metallic trim on all automobile makes and models.

These forward-looking plates aren't too far away from reality. Although New York's plates—like many other states—are still stamped by inmates at the Auburn Correctional Center, there are technological advances in plate production that are changing the face of plate design. 3M's Digital License Plate (DLP) System integrates vehicle registration and logistical data with automated, on demand plate production. And license plates are also entering the social media landscape. is a free social networking site that is, according to founder Sharanne Pearson, "revolutionizing the way singles meet." QCF uses license plates to help drivers connect with people they spot in traffic jams and parking lots. Looks suspicious to me and has a slight air of predation about it.

Current license plate design is a sadly low-tech solution for our high-tech cars and not even a Tesla escapes having one slapped on to the bumper. Although not the highest priority for the advancement of car culture, I think some creative and innovative opportunities are just around the bend.

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Ken Carbone is among America's Most respected graphic designers, whose work is renowned for its clarity and intelligence. He has built an international reputation creating outstanding programs for world-class clients, including Tiffany & Co., W.L Gore, Herman Miller, PBS, Christie's, Nonesuch Records, the W Hotel Group, and The Taubman Company. His clients also include celebrated cultural institutions such as the Museé du Louvre, The Museum of Modern Art, The Pierpont Morgan Library, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the High Museum of Art.

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  • Andy Shelton

    This reminds me of an article for the May/June 2004 issue of "Step Inside Design" called "When Bad Plates Happen to Good States." They also asked graphic designers to design license plates. Marc English designed a black-and-white Texas plate similar to the one Craig Minor designed. Steven McCarthy designed a Minnesota plate with a barcode similar to the California plate Stefan Bucher designed. Of course, McCarthy's design wasn't as tongue-in-cheek.

    I have to agree with Chris Burd's comments. None of these plates are practical. I don't have big art or graphic design background, but rather a law enforcement and criminal justice background. For me, ease of identification and legibility are key. I think that the simplest plates are the best, and that there's no need to reinvent the wheel.

    You mentioned 3M's Digital License Plate System which has facilitated poor design and “license plate bloat.” It seems to me that now that 3M has allow states to print plates with every color of the rainbow, states feel obligated to do so. In addition, states seem to think that license plates are a “rolling billboard” instead of a means to identify a vehicle. As a result, states feel the need to fill the plate with landscapes and illustrations of state symbols.

  • david wayne osedach

    I moved out of Connecticut because of their license plate! Now I'm in California. Not so very much better...

  • Chris Burd

    Hold on, Number 2 does have the state name. Did the designer consider that people often use license plates to identify moving vehicles? How utterly inadequate.

  • Chris Burd

    I'm sorry, none of the proposed designs are remotely competent, in the sense that they address the user requirements. Graphically, some of them are creative, but so what?

    1. Uses the license plate as a pulpit for the designer's political views. Arrogant and sanctimonious.

    2. Nice typography, but, dude, you've left out the state name. I don't know if scannable barcodes make any sense on license plates, but if they do, why not make the code human-readable as well? Overall, looks cool, but not useful.

    3. OK, this one's a joke. If it were serious, I'd point out that the plate number is way too small.

    4. Illegible under most lighting conditions.

    We hear so much about how graphic artist don't just prettify things, they implement a total strategy. That's great if you can get Paul Rand, but the fact is most designers are only competent with surface visuals. These examples are a case in point.

  • I Already Don't Like You

    That seems like a gross generalization and condescending attitude towards an entire profession of people who are constantly taken for granted. I will give you this, these designs are for the most part entirely ineffective and don't solve or improve up the problems that are already in place. But to use these examples as example in itself on minimizing what I and thousands of other professionals do on a daily basis seems a little rude. Design isn't just making things aesthetically pleasing, but how things work. Effective communication. The clear presentation and organization of information. I'm hoping this was a misspoken statement, but that kinda thinking always make my job that much harder. I don't just make pretty pictures.

  • Chris Burd

    I may have put it a bit harshly. Increasing numbers of designers excel at both information design and visual design.

    Still, I have to say that with over 20 years of working with print and web designers I am still surprised how weak some of them are in more abstract areas like information design. I think some people are basically visual, just as others are verbal or abstract.

    This is not all bad. Aesthetics are important, and good designers usually do a good job of matching the visual aesthetic to client's need, even if they are weak in non-visual areas. There's room for people who just "get" the visual side.

    What I see in this article are (presumably) talented guys working outside their area of competence and not knowing it. Nor did the author know it. They and... God, uncounted millions... think that this kind of half-worked-out experimentation and attention getting constitutes a rethinking of the relevant problems. The background assumption is that they are supposed to this. My point is if they can't do it, they shouldn't try.