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.

“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’sMost 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.


About the author

Ken Carbone is a designer, artist, musician, author and teacher. He is the Co-Founder and Chief Creative Director of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design and branding company in New York City